November 30, 2014: Dinner With a Sin-Eater

Thanksgiving is over and all of the Black Friday shoppers have spent all of their money and gone to bed.

I spent my holidays with Dick Manslow. New York’s very own sin-eater.

We ate a very traditional meal, but small in scale. Drank a little wine and then sat back and talked.

What we are about to do isn’t easy on a person. Definitely not easy on the soul. Absolving people comes with a price.

I could see some of the price. His eyes were bloodshot and heavy. He slurred his speech. His skin seemed grey and sagged. If you didn’t know any better he just looked like your run of the mill drunk.

I watched as he laid the map on the table. Placing a plate of bread at one end and a bowl of salt at the other.

These people…the ones in this part of the city…it looks like…what…Spanish Harlem…we are going to eat their sins tonight. They have been sated on turkey and discounts. Gluttony and greed at its commercial best, American finance. But when they wake up…they will be pure once more.

I questioned him about eating the sins of the living. Traditionally the sin-eaters eat those of the recently departed, cleansing them before burial.

Who has time for that? Over 50,000 people die in the city each year. Probably more. I can’t eat that much. No…it’s easier to just do it now, give them a little hope, you know? A little nudge into a good afterlife.

We sat across from each other at the table. He took my hands and we bowed our heads.

For thine peace, we pawn our own souls. I give thee all easement and rest. Amen

We took the bread and broke it into pieces. Placing them on parts of the map. Blocks and streets and parks. He poured drops of wine onto the bread and then sprinkled the salt.

We ate in silence.

Each bite was harder than the first. My stomach began to cramp, but he would not allow me to stop. He took it all in, with patience, a dark sadness.

My nose began to bleed black, as did his, but he would not let me clean it.

We kept eating.

The salt tore at the roof of my mouth and my tongue. The wine tasted pungent and bitter. The bread stale.

We ate until all of the bread was gone.

I felt sick. I was sweating and shivering, finally wiping my nose.

It’s not easy. Man sins constantly. I don’t know why I bother, really. Clean them one night and by the weekend they are dark as night again. That wasn’t blood coming out of your nose. Well…not just blood. Pure sin.

We drank cold beers, washing the salt and wine from our mouths.

I felt better and began to get my things together. I put on my coat and scarf and slung my bag over my shoulder when he hugged me.

What you have done…it’s no light matter, boy. You’ve taken in a lot of sin. You might not have had the purest soul before tonight…but now…well, now it’s dark as it can get. What you’ve done was brave, probably stupid and foolish…but brave. They have no idea how much they should thank you.

He clasped my hand and I stepped out of his apartment and into the cold. Feeling heavy and sad.

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