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Breakfast at the Judgment Bar & Grill
Latter-day Saints say that, in the next life, we’ll sort ourselves into the kingdoms where we feel the most comfortable. That happens in this life too.
This essay originally appeared in 2002.
There used to be a diner called Orloff’s on Columbus Avenue between 65th and 66th. It occupied a storefront in a grand white six-story building across from Lincoln Center. But Orloff’s isn’t there anymore, having been displaced by its landlord, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On August 7, 2002, the Church announced plans to turn two floors of the building, which already contains two Mormon chapels and a genealogical library, into a temple.
I don’t begrudge the Mormons their temple, but I will miss Orloff’s sorely. That was the place that demonstrated to me, five years after leaving Utah, that New York City was where I belonged.
It was 1995 when I moved here. I was twenty-eight years old. I came here with a girlfriend who challenged me to question the doctrines I’d been raised with. I studied all the Mormon research I could get my hands on, and I found I couldn’t reconcile the Church’s colorful and shaded history with the sanitized fables I heard from the pulpit every Sunday. I shed my faith in a leap that seemed precipitous at the time, but which in retrospect I realize I’d been working up to for years.
When my girlfriend and I parted ways in 1998, however, I wondered how much of my fervor for apostasy was my own, and how much had rubbed off on me from her. To find out, I started attending Mormon services again — at the building on Columbus.
I lasted only four weeks. Newly convinced that my reasons for leaving were sound, I turned my back on the Church and have never returned.
But around the same time, I started a job at the Children’s Television Workshop, just two blocks down the street from the chapel. I began eating lunch and even dinner at Orloff’s with some frequency, watching through the window as the Mormon missionaries came and went next door. And it became a morning ritual of mine to stop at Orloff’s for a sesame-seed bagel — with cream cheese and tomato slices — on my way to work from the subway stop at 66th Street.
Orloff’s became an indispensible part of my routine. I attended more regularly than I had ever bothered going to church.
One Sunday morning early in 2000, I had to swing by the office to finish up a little work. On the way in, I figured I’d stop at Orloff’s for my usual breakfast treat. As I crossed Columbus from the subway exit, I could clearly see Sunday school in session through the wide second-story windows in the Mormon meetinghouse above the diner. This was the Manhattan Singles Ward, the congregation where handsome, young unattached men mingled with pretty, young unattached women in hopes of creating eternal companionships.
I watched the Sunday school class for as long as I could see into the window, and for a moment I felt the pangs of an outsider, a pariah cut off from his people. The separation hurt.
Then I passed under the first-floor awning and entered the diner. The scent of fresh-brewed coffee wreathed me — a welcoming aroma you would never smell in the meetinghouse upstairs.
At the counter, a gruff, rangy old fellow with a drooping, nicotine-stained mustache waited to take my order.
“Good morning,” I said. “I’ll have a sesame bagel, please, with — “
“Wait, I know!” said the man at the counter, whom I saw most mornings of the week. “With cream cheese and tomato, right?”
A chill ran through me, and I smiled. “Right,” I said.
I was taught in my Mormon Sunday school that Jesus won’t be the one to judge us. He’ll sit in court at the Judgment Bar, yes, but we will judge ourselves. We’ll sort ourselves out into the kingdoms where we feel the most comfortable, according to what we’ve done and how we’ve lived. It won’t be a matter of punishment or reward. It will be a matter of belonging.
I understood, when that old fellow behind the counter anticipated my breakfast order, that I was in the place where I belonged.
Orloff’s, I’ll miss you. To you I raise my cup of morning coffee. ∅