A woman stopped me on the street last week, when I was walking home from running errands in Center City. Hot and tired from the walk downtown on that humid day, I was just a couple of blocks from my house and looking forward to gulping down my first of at least three glasses of water. I regretted not wearing my hair in a ponytail, and a thick mass of unfettered hair stuck to the back of my neck and stray wisps clung to my cheek and chin. The woman looked as if she were in her late 60s, and she was well-dressed. She looked about as fresh and unbothered by the weather as I felt unfresh and completely bothered. “Excuse me,” she said. “I’ve started a new business.” “Oh?” I said, disarmed by her friendliness, but already looking for my exit line. “Yes. It’s a praying business,” the woman replied. “Do you pray?” Preying business is more like it, I thought. She extended both hands toward mine. “No,” I said, recoiling. “I don’t want to pray, but good luck.” I started to walk away. “You don’t believe?” she asked. I was caught off guard. Strangers don’t usually ask if you believe in god or what religion you are, and her brazenness flustered me. “No I don’t, er, we’re a Jewish home,” I blurted. It was my standard line for Jehovah’s Witnesses who make the rounds every week before closing the door in their face. “Good luck with your business,” I muttered, walking away quickly.
I knew that was the wrong answer almost immediately. When a stranger asks you if you believe in god, the answer is “None of your business.” But in my ingrained need to be a good girl, a nice girl, someone who obeys the rules and does as she’s told, I attempted to answer her outrageously personal question. If she had asked me how much money I made or at what age I lost my virginity, I’m pretty confident I would have looked at her like she was crazy and kept that information to myself. I’m a grownup. I don’t have to be liked by everyone. And I certainly don’t need to be liked by the woman who has a “praying business.”
And of course now I think, what would she be up to praying for, anyway? Is everything on the table? “I need to pray for someone,” I might ask. “Sure, we can pray for anyone,” she’d say taking my hands in hers. “Great,” I would reply. “I’d like to pray that the horrible principal who got my husband fired and almost, single-handedly ruined his teaching career gets hit by a car.” “Um, no,” she’d say, visibly uncomfortable. “I’m not sure that’s what prayer is for.” “Sure it is. I’ve prayed countless times for harm to come to this woman, but it’s not working—yet. I think I just need some help.” I’d wink at her conspiratorially. “The power of prayer, right?” The woman takes a beat and meets my eyes. “That’ll be twelve dollars.”