While I was going to college to accumulate debt, I was working at the airport as an aircraft groomer. This basically meant that I sat around all night with my coworkers trying to find ways to pass the time, until a flight from San Diego or Halifax or Hong Kong arrived. With 5 minutes until the plane turned around and left again, a team of 20+ of us would climb aboard and scrub your filth away, so the next group of passengers could board and fuck it all up for the grooming crew in the next city. Let me tell you something: y’all are gross at an altitude of 30,000 feet. Pizza crusts between the seat? Bloody nose rags in the pockets? Gum crammed into the headphone jacks? Used condoms on the floor in coach…. coach? People. Please. Get clean. Purchase some tact. Find a big ol’ bowl of clean-up-your-own-damn-mess.
I worked overnight because I had school during the day. Sleep was simply put off until my thirties. Mostly, the job was just sitting around when you worked the night shift. This was the 90s, too, so someone always had a pouch of sticky-icky-icky as Snoop D-O-Double-Gizzle calls it. We’d all pile into the lift-truck and light a bowl while the short straw drove us to our flights. At the gate, we’d feel the lifting mechanism kick in, and up we’d go, still passing around a bong or a pipe or a squished pop can punctured by push-pins. By the time the truck shook, indicating it had been lifted to the aircraft door, we could barely see each other for all the smoke in the tiny little cube. Our supervisor would throw open the truck’s back door so we could board the plane, and plumes of smoke would billow out into the desolate night over the tarmac.
Yes. That’s how easy smuggling drugs would have been back then.
We’d smoke in the trucks. We’d smoke in the lunchroom. We’d smoke in the supply room. We’d even sometimes go smoke in the smoking room meant for passengers. We sat around, and we smoked, played crazy eights and talked and became very good friends.
One such friend, Steve, and I became quite close. It was totally platonic, but we were inseparable. Both of us writers. Both of us carrying around a journal to write in and a book to read wherever we went. Both of us obsessed with books and words and authors. We’d sit up all night talking about Hunter S. Thompson’s the Rum Diaries or the significance of Ginsberg’s Howl. We’d trade books and read them and then trade again. We’d write shit and let each other read it. We’d tell jokes, and smoke and laugh and get delirious with lack of sleep until it was time to punch out or clean a plane.
Eventually, Steve began to come over to my apartment about once or twice a week to watch movies, drink some beers and just shoot the shit. We got along better than I did with anyone else and those nights are some of the best memories of my twenties. It was always platonic – in fact, I introduced him to his wife to whom he is still married – and I think that’s why it worked so well.
At the time, my cousin was my roommate. She has a great, dry, sarcastic sense of humour that always found me crippled with laughter. We’d have running jokes that only she and I were in on and we never cared how it looked to the outside world. We knew we were strange and nerdy and didn’t really give a shit.
One such running joke was a quest between my fellow godless cousin and me, to come up with the very best “Sweet Baby Jesus” joke. A conversation would go something like this:
“For the love of Sweet Baby Jesus riding a John Deere!”
“Oh yeah? For the love of Sweet Baby Jesus playing skeeball!”
“Hah! For the love of Sweet Baby Jesus on a spit… with an apple in his mouth!”
You get the picture. If we hadn’t already secured our tickets to hell, we were certainly trying to at this point. This running joke became more and more foul and offensive as it carried on and spilled over one night when Steve was over.
Steve had never said anything about religion before. He was covered in tattoos, had many piercings and multicoloured hair. He loved the Sex Pistols and the Ramones and adored books by Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain and Isaac Asimov. He never once gave off a single whiff of belief and it being urban, West Coast Canada, if he had, it would have been out of the ordinary. So, my cousin and I never thought, not even once, that blasphemy would hurt him.
But it did.
We were watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. Steve had insisted on rearranging our living room to resemble theatre rows, as he often did, ensuring we never forgot how weird he was.
“Pause it. I need a fresh beer,” I said, from the back row. Steve leaned forward and hit the pause button on the VHS player (a video cassette player for you young’ns). I got up and padded into the kitchen. Standing in the cool air wafting from the fridge, I leaned around the corner, “Anyone else?”.
“Me, please!” Steve had lowered his voice to sound demonic. I chuckled.
“I’m good, thanks.” My cousin piped up. I grabbed two cold Molson Canadians from my fridge, closed the door and headed back to the living room.
As I was walking, I felt one of the cans begin to slip out of my grip. Before I could stop it, the beverage was sailing to the ground. It smacked the side of an end table and bounced, knocking me in the knee and tumbling to the floor, where it began to spray a golden, hoppy elixir up and over toward the coffee table.
“Fucking goddamit!” I swore, bounding back to the kitchen for a towel.
My cousin sat up from the middle row of our theatre seating and exclaimed, “For the love of Sweet Baby Jesus committing a party foul!”
I lost it. It was so beautifully perfect, I just descended into a puddle of hysterical laughter as the beer can continued to spray, emptying nearly its entire contents into our living room.
When I caught my breath, I yelled back, “For the love of Sweet Baby Jesus having a laughing fit!”
“For the love of Sweet Baby Jesus wanting to finish this fucking movie!”
“For the love of Sweet Baby Jesus feeling guilty for wasting a beer!”
“For the love of Sweet Baby Jesus going to church to confess!”
and that’s when I said it. That’s when I crossed a line I had no idea was there. That’s when I yelled, all smiles,
“For the love of Sweet Baby Jesus getting touched in the rectory!”
“What the fuck, Courtney?” Steve stood up. He looked sincerely angry, something I had never seen in him before.
I looked at him, confused. “What?”
“Why would you say shit like that?”
“Shit like what? Sweet Baby Jesus jokes?”
“Yes. Don’t you know people can be offended by them?”
“I guess, but they’re just jokes.” My face was getting hot. I couldn’t quite understand what I’d done wrong.
“No, they’re not just jokes. It’s called blasphemy. Using the Lord’s name in vain.”
“Dude… I don’t consider blasphemy a thing. I’m not religious.”
“I am!” He yelled. “I’m a fucking Catholic!”
Instant guilt swept over my body. I had never guessed. While I think that taking offence to this sort of thing is silly and juvenile, I still didn’t want to hurt my friend in any way. I would never be concerned or feel guilt about insulting an imaginary deity, but this had clearly insulted my friend. Someone who I cared deeply about. I felt like shit.
“Holy shit! I mean… I mean, wow. I didn’t know. I would never have…”
“I know you didn’t know. I never told you,” he explained.
“Jesus Christ.” My cousin mumbled. Realizing she’d just done it again, she quickly followed it up with, “Shit. That’s not what I meant.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I would never have said that had I known.” I glanced at my cousin, who piped up. “Yeah, me neither. I’m sorry.”
“I know. I know. I just… it was over the top.” He sat back down, visibly calmer.
“It was. If it makes you feel any better, you can remind us we’ll burn in hell for it.”
He laughed and forgave us and we finished the movie. All went back to normal. He did make me appreciate the sort of theist who you can be friends with for years and have no idea they’re a believer. The type of person for whom their belief is personal and no one else’s business. The type of friend who does not need to validate their own faith by trying to make you believe, too. He kept it to himself and he probably would have continued to do so if we hadn’t pushed his buttons that night. In appreciation for that, the only time I ever blasphemed around him again was by accident; when I pulled a classic GM foot-in-mouth maneuver for which he always forgave me.