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NEW YORK - I JOINED A CULT, EXCEPT I DIDN'T AND IT'S NOT A CULT (BUT IT STILL SORT OF IS)

June 8, 2009, 6:22pm

When getting acclimated in a new town, it's always best to search out a local cult and join it. Which is exactly what I did. Well, not really. But I did have dinner with one, and then I started working for them.

I moved to a section of Staten Island called St. George a little over a week ago and it didn't take much research to discover that my new neighborhood wasn't known for much other than being home to a bar with a clock in it that counts down to the end of the world, a Popeye's chicken, and a 75-person (and counting) "cult" called Ganas. A couple weeks ago,

the Ganas people made the news again

when Jeffery Gross, one of the community's founders, brought forth another lawsuit stemming from his exit from the group. He was shot six times outside the compound and alleges that former member Rebekah Johnson did it. He's now suing her for $20 million.

The

Ganas website

(which is where these photos come from, and they're small so they look kind of crappy) says something about their philosophy (which I skimmed over), something about owning three stores in the neighborhood (one of which I now work at), and something about hosting a weekly dinner where looky-loos are invited to eat food and ask questions about their way of living (yes!).

I was so excited when I saw this last bit—if there's one thing I love, it's seeking out potentially dangerous situations and hurtling my body straight into them, especially when it involves free food. I wrote the day and time of the dinner in my planner, highlighted it for good measure, and sent an email to the address listed on their site to confirm. When the evening of the dinner party rolled around, I was so gung-ho about it that I started walking for the Ganas house a good hour before I needed to be there. I arrived in front of the house in less than 15 minutes, and loitered at the corner until I felt like it was a normal enough time to go ring the buzzer.

As I walked up the brick steps to their front door, a tall man with a long white beard who was wearing a trash bag cape motioned for me to come inside. My heart went pitter-pat as I eyeballed their inner sanctum, which was filled with folding chairs, a kiddy table, and a buffet-style spread of sausages, vegetables, and salad fixings…. WEIRD! Nope. I wanted the night to be weird as hell--I wanted it so BADLY--but it just wasn't.

Aside from myself, there were about 12 other visitors, mostly art students from different universities, and one guy named Jack who wore army boots and talked in that sort of voice that suggested he was just entering his "I like Jack Kerouac" phase. After eating dinner, we all had to introduce ourselves and say why we were there. When Jack said his name, a Ganas kid who was about eight and once tried to sit in my lap mouthed off, "It's not JACK, it's JAKE! Jack is the wrong way to say it!" I grinned at this because as the night was still young, I thought for sure this was a hint towards some kind of "we're a cult and we make people change their names" sort of thing. But no, no such luck. Jake/Jack was just being "weird" and the kid was just being bratty.

A few of the members were curious about why I kept jotting things down in a small notebook, but I just told them I was journaling. Not like I really needed to write anything down anyway because as I look at my notes now, they say stuff like "big house with chairs," and " trash bag cape."

During the conversation we had as a group, the Ganas members explained who they are. The Ganas (which their website says is Spanish for "motivation sufficient to act") started out in 1979 as a group of six individuals who were looking to explore the idea of communal living on Staten Island. Now having grown to a population of about 75 people, there is a core group of five men and five women who comprise the management team. The core philosophy of the Ganas community is problem-solving through the invitation of mistake making, followed by intense communication. Basically they treat each problem that arises within the community, or within their own personal lives, as a brand new problem–no matter how many times it pops up. Phrased best on the Ganas website, they feel that "old considerations are rarely relevant to new problems."

Like, let's say you fuck up on mowing the lawn on June 1st. The group will address the problem of you fucking up the lawn, and then teach you how to do it the right way. Then say you fuck up on mowing the lawn again on June 5th. They act like that was the first time you fucked it up, and teach you how to do it the right way again. At least, that's how they made it sound. Like they address each problem as though it's a new problem. But to me, that is not a cult, or even a utopia-mimicking community. That is group therapy without self-awareness and learning from the past.

The Ganas folk use a range of relaxation and mind-quieting procedures to help deal with all of the communicating going on. A topic not mentioned during the conversation but found in several articles online about the Ganas community is how they also operate on the polyamourous tip. I guess that's where the relaxation and communication skills tend to really get kicked into high gear. (As a side note, since the word tends to get thrown around quite a bit in reference to the Ganas community, I Googled the definition of the word "cult." A cult is listed as being: "a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc." Seriously? That's it? I mean, couldn't that same definition apply to fitness freaks, or avid fans of American Idol?)

When the discussion hour ended, all of us visitors were given a tour of the commune. I guess that's what you'd call it: a commune. They take up about eight houses, each pretty much adjacent to the next. Our tour guide was quick to point out that one of the houses had an exercise room and a pool table. The shooting wasn't mentioned at all that night, but the tour guide did mention that they had recently sold off two houses. The way the five core members work their financials is that they pool everything together. Someone had left Ganas and they had to sell off two houses to give him his fair share of the profits. The tour guide said that this was an amicable split, but apparently not. With each turn of a corner I prayed to chance upon someone sacrificing a chicken or bathing in virgin blood, but when hour three of my experience there produced nothing horrific, I smoked a cigarette with Jack the army boot guy, and then walked home.

The fruit of all of this spoiled labor is that I had my first shift at their used bookstore/café over the weekend. I had originally expressed interest in working at their furniture store, but was told that they only hired people who also wanted to live in the community for that particular position. So I just bought a futon there instead so as not to leave empty-handed.

My first day at the cafe happened to be the day of the Staten Island Gay Pride parade, and all sorts of legitimate weirdos floated in and out. One gay guy came in and bought a whole blueberry pie, a large coffee, and a vintage Tarzan book. He was one of those shifty-eyed confrontational homosexuals, and at the end of our cash register transaction he muttered to himself, "You'd never find this sort of place in Manhattan. This is so kooky." I all but threw his 64 cents in change back at him and replied, " Yeah, Manhattan is much worse!!" I have no idea what that even meant, and it wasn't even a good comeback. Guess I drank the Kool-Aid or something.

KELLY MCCLURE