I was about to turn 40 and something major had to happen. With three weeks to go, I found myself getting hammered at an exclusive nightclub. I looked through the haze and saw a roly-poly man who, like me, had no business being there. He was wearing glasses and a conservative blue suit; he looked like a giant sea turtle.
I watched as he sipped red wine in the corner. Soon we stepped outside to smoke. Eric Sigward, a 62-year-old limousine driver, grew up on the Upper East Side, attended Horace Mann and Harvard University, where he was a champion oarsman and member of the exclusive Porcellian Club. He won a fellowship to Cambridge University, where he got caught up in hashish, LSD and free love, which cost him his Danish girlfriend, an au pair with a milky complexion named Mudi. Then suffering from depression (“My brain … aches with the thoughts of lost loves,” he wrote in his diary in 1970), he became involved with Satan and the occult. (“Perceiving I could not serve both God and Satan, I chose Satan.”) After he cleaned up, he coached the crew team at Stanford University, got a master’s degree in divinity but failed to set himself up long-term as a preacher.
For the past thirty years he’s worked various jobs (office manager, stockbroker); written a memoir (From Harvard to Hell and Back: An Account of My Life from 12 to 25 Years of Age, self-published in 2001); and, now, drives a limo. Perfect. Here was my spiritual mentor.
On a Sunday night, he met me on the corner of 79th Street and Broadway, where Redeemer Presbyterian holds services. He was wearing a blue blazer, a windowpane blue shirt from Brooks Brothers, Macy’s trousers and fancy running shoes. He was carrying a book bag.
On the way in, he chatted with an apple-cheeked, pigtailed gal handing out programs. She kept nodding and smiling until we took a seat in a pew. There was a Christianity-lite vibe: Jeans, sneakers, a CBGB’s T-shirt. A jazz band onstage. Pop culture allusions during the benediction. I tried to sing along during “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” but I kept getting distracted by dewy female flesh. For several minutes I stared at a yummy Asian girl’s left ear.
Mr. Sigward calls Redeemer Presbyterian “the Church of Outrageous Babes.” He leaned over and showed me a cell-phone picture of a very tall brunette he’d recently become infatuated with. After the pastor finished his sermon, I took communion and felt redeemed.
Mr. Sigward and I had dinner. We gorged on buttered rolls and veal chops. I listened to him go on for paragraphs. He speaks slowly and says “yeahhhhhh” in a seductively mellow way. He told me that he became a downtown nightclubber after meeting some hipster kids at church.
“There’s a whole underworld of Christians of the night,” he said. “These are kids who just hang out at night at all these clubs. All those places are all infested with Christians.”
He said he liked the “warmly sexual” atmosphere at the nightclub where we’d met.
“I like the touchy-feely atmosphere,” he said. “It’s something I noticed immediately. When I went there, everybody touched you, they would bump into you or dance with you or hold your arm. I really liked that. A physical warmth about the place. Over and over again, you feel lonely, you feel lost and someone will brush against you, and you sort of suddenly feel, Oh, I feel okay. That was nice for someone to touch me. … I don’t go home with anybody, I go home alone. So, what interests me at the moment is the nocturnal art of it. These are lights, faces that shine in the dark.”
Sin, he said, is more complicated than moral transgression: “There’s a lot going on at the same time as a person sins,” he said. “There’s darkness, there’s ignorance, confusion, lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, pride, a desire to live and the self-deception that sin will help you to live better.”
So what was he doing at these dens of sin?
“I want to be in some kind of world in New York, I want to meet people,” he said. “Many of the girls have been very beautiful, but there’s also evidence of intelligence. I hope I’m not a great sinner; I don’t mean to sin. My problem is, I grow to have affection for the girls. I develop deep affections for them. I remember their names.”
Mr. Sigward spoke about a waitress who had once been very nice to him.
“She gave to me,” he said. “Something went on there where she gave me a plug of some sort, a charge, some energy, something from her heart of substance flowed to me. You know that Jesus said: The kingdom of God is not with words, it’s with power. You can feel when someone gives to you. I said to myself, ‘Well, I’m not a socialite, I couldn’t afford her sandals.’ But the reverse is also true: She wasn’t asking for anything, she was giving and I have received. I wouldn’t hang out at the nightclub if I was depraved or deprived. You are giving to me, we’re giving to each other, and we met there.”
I picked up the check and we walked uptown. “Come on up to my place and see how I live,” Mr. Sigward said.
I mentioned that during the service, though I wasn’t feeling it a hundred percent, I did feel that I had the spirit in me somewhere.
“Well, there’s no use for Christ without sin,” he said. “Because the basic message of Christianity, and of Christ, is of crucifixion. Christ was crucified. He was not crucified to give you some kind of example of selflessness. He was crucified to save you from your sins. … God commands you to repent and believe because he has a point and a day when He will judge the world! When Christ returns, it will not be as meek and mild Jesus.”
Would it be wrong for me to return to Redeemer Presbyterian simply to ogle the ladies?
“Well, you’d just be like everyone else there,” he said. “It’s just like nightclubs. What’s the difference? That’s why I go, too. The notion of beautiful girls is something that I myself have to work through, because of my past.
“You and I are having a very unusual conversation,” Mr. Sigward added.
We agreed we both enjoyed Chariots of Fire.
I mentioned that during the church service, I also concluded the only real solution to life in New York is having lots of money. “Boy, would I love that,” he said, stopping to rest and light a smoke. “Oh, may God smite me with that curse! I’m getting old, I worry about a sick and poverty-stricken old age.”
He’s down to one pack a day. He’s had two heart attacks, diabetes, neuropathy in his feet, two prostate operations and a hydrocelectomy, in which water is removed from the testicles.
“I was immortal until 50,” he said.
He was about to toss something on the sidewalk; I pointed to a trash can.