I remember back many years ago when I was still living in New York City and working in the Wall Street district. I worked at J.P. Morgan which was right across the street from the New York Stock Exchange. In another direction, you had the steps of Federal Hall with that imposing statue of George Washington looking down on you and which served as the first capital of the United States. Washington was sworn in there and many Wall Street types would eat lunch there and admiring the passing scenery. This was long before the days of business casual and men in black or dark blue suits with white shirts and red ties seemed to dominate the landscape. Oh, you’d have a few construction workers and bike messengers thrown in here and there but they were like a fish out of water in that neighborhood.

Across the street from that, directly opposite Federal Hall was what was then known as the Bankers Trust building. I don’t know what it’s called now since the old Bankers Trust was swallowed up by Deutsche Bank in the merger mania that hit the industry in the late 90’s but I’m betting that amongst the three card monte hustlers and other assorted shills, there’s still somebody preaching fire and brimstone right outside their doors.

Soap box preacher
standing on the corner
And all the people
they would gather round
You speak of faith
with a blaze of glory
But those that fear
they wanna knock you down

To me, it looked like it was something straight out of a Fellini film. For there, amongst the most capitalistic mongrels on the planet who would probably chew their own mother's leg off in exchange for a hot tip, was a guy standing on a box and quoting scripture at the top his lungs to anybody who would listen. This was back in the go-go eighties during the Reagan years before all the scandals about insider trading and junk bonds hit the fan. At the time, I doubt too many Wall Streeters were carrying around a copy of the Bible in their brief case.

As far as I can remember, that preacher (he really did stand on top of a wooden box) never missed a day. There was no time off for vacation and while he was open for donations, I don’t think that was main gist of his pitch. In his minds eye, there were souls that needed to be saved and he was the one that was gonna be doin’ the saving.

Nobody knows
where you live
Where do you go
in the naked night
All of the prophets
that come before you
They can hear
your lonesome cry

When you're out there
in the night
All alone
When you're staring
in the light
At the end of the road

I used to hop on the subway on the way home and he’d still be out there preaching to anybody who would listen. Occasionally you’d get the guy who’d want to argue with the preacher and sometimes the exchanges became pretty heated. Usually, the preacher would win by either damning the guy straight to hell or by making him join the flock. Maybe the guy that was doing the arguing was one of those plants used by street hustlers to get other people to join in but I don’t recall ever seeing the same one more than once or twice.

I wonder where the preacher went at night when the canyons of Wall Street became empty and abandoned soon after happy hour let out? Did he take to the subways or the Staten Island Ferry where he’d have the luxury of a captive audience or did he just pack up his box and his Bible and call it a night like the rest of us hard working folks?

In those proud shoes,
coming on up the alley
In those proud shoes,
walks all over the sky
Then he tipped his hat
just like Don Quixote and said
don't let the rapture pass you by

And in the morning, there he’d be. I’d grab my coffee and donuts and he’d be setting up shop again, hoping to save some people from themselves or from whatever vice they had chosen to adopt.

These days, it seems that everybody has a soap box to stand on and to thump their chests and roar out to the passers by about just how right they are and how wrong everybody else is. From Rush Limbaugh to Al Franken, from Ann Coulter to James Carville, everybody is screaming at each about just who’s fault it is that things are the way the are.

It makes me sick.

The preacher on the corner, the one on the soap box, at least he had blind faith on his side. As for those other folks that I mentioned, I think they’re just blind.

Selected lyrics to “Soap Box Preacher” copyright Robbie Robertson and lifted from the album Storyville back in 1991.

CST Approved

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