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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On Meeting the Prominent Atheist Who Inspired "Save Send Delete"

Paul Henreid, Bette Davis, "Now Voyager." 
"Save Send Delete" tells the true story of my long distance, email relationship with a prominent atheist. We debated whether or not God exists, and we had a romantic relationship – all via email.

People sometimes ask me whether or not "Rand" – his pseudonym – and I actually ever met. Yes, we did. This blog post tells that story.

It was a very, very weird night.




Rand was to be in Manhattan to give a talk. 

I felt resigned. Really.

This was especially true since I had no money. I'm one of those "survives from paycheck to paycheck" people. I had no cash in the house except the quarters I save for washing machines.

Besides, the man scheduled to speak in the city tonight was not the man who had sent me promising emails about how he'd be in town eventually and we'd meet and … Pregnant ellipsis. Remember; I'm being discrete. Read that ellipsis the way you'd read a rapid cut to ocean waves in a movie made in 1944.

Vanity Fair once featured people who have sex with stuffed animals. That's the most alien sexual fetish I can imagine. It seems counterintuitive that thirty-nine-year-old Fox Wolfie Galen, who proudly admits that he has sex with stuffed animals, is more alien to me than the gay German cannibal (what a name for a band!), Armin Meiwes, who became infamous in 2002 by advertising for a sex partner who would willingly be eaten after sex. When you read about that German cannibal, you probably imagined yourself at the opposite end of the erotic spectrum from him. (I hope you did.) I did, too, but I have to carve a few more notches in my spectrum to place myself even farther from Fox Wolfie Galen.

Anyway, I had thought of people who respond to telephonic or internet words almost as distant from me as FWG. But now I am one of those people.

It was never enough for me, though. I have imagined, over a hundred times, meeting Rand for the first time, and, immediately, before any words were exchanged, touching his face. Our bodies aren't just flesh; they are also our mind's concept of that flesh. Some part of my conceptual body existed in anticipation of this act, like the athlete, in position, before executing a move. I promised my body that no matter how much Rand and I had fought, or what he said to me, or what meteorological conditions obtained, that I would acquire for my anticipating body this satisfaction. I so desperately wanted this word to become flesh. But it can't. Hunger, frustration. I did not want to go into the city for that reason alone.

I panicked because I knew I'd spiral into indecision. I drive myself crazy. I will stand, paralyzed, pondering for several moments whether the bag of barley I am considering purchasing is the best bag of barley. Big matters? I can't decide, so I just don't do anything.

My sister said once, "It's not what you do that you regret; it's what you don't do." So, I tend to do rather than not-do, because my sister told me so, and she is older than I. Palming responsibility off on her, for whatever bogus rationalization, relieves me.

I consult tarot cards. Do I believe in Tarot? Ahdunno. They are pretty, and they will take my calls long after my friends have gotten bored with my endless obsessing and waffling.

Suddenly I started thinking about Alec Baldwin. Please note: I just about NEVER think about Alec Baldwin. But in trying to decide whether to go into Manhattan or not to see Rand, I suddenly started thinking about Alec Baldwin.

One of my strategies for making decisions: go with the decision that does the least damage to all other decisions. On that basis, I decided to go to New York. Because, if I didn't go to New York, I couldn't go to New York. Phycisists would agree. At least, Newtonian physicists would. But a string theorist, who believes in alternative universes?

One of my rules is, never decide anything based on the beliefs of string theorists.

So, I decided to go with the "do the least damage" maxim, and go.

Problem: I still had no money except the laundry quarters. I decided to cross that bridge when I came to it. I took a shower. Did not shave my armpits or my legs. Very sad, as … well, women readers will know what I mean when I report that I did not shave my legs, and some men might, as well. When Rand had invited me to another lecture (and that meeting fell through), I had bought lipstick. I applied it, without the feeling of flight I thought I'd be feeling when I finally applied it. Wore a nice enough denim dress I'd bought at the Salvation Army. Wore year-old, dollar-store seconds, men's Fruit of the Looms underwear. Again, women readers will understand. So much can be said about life based on what underwear one chooses to wear on any given day, as opposed to what underwear one had hoped to wear on a given day. I mean, even the vocabulary. We're not talking "lingerie" here, "unmentionables" or "panties." We're talking durable cotton waistband and comfort fit.

It was raining cats and dogs, a very clichéd rain. I have a Gore-Tex coat. It was in no way like any coat Ava Gardner wore on any assignation with Frank Sinatra, but I had to wear it.

I walked to the bus stop and saw a bus driving down the street to NYC. Though I had not checked the schedule, I would not have to wait! Aha! A sign! Flagged it down. Asked the price of the lovely, middle-aged, African American woman bus driver, with large, bouncy, curly hair. Let's call her Wanda Sykes, though prettier. She told me: $4.75. I sat in the front seat, took out the vitamin bottle containing my laundry quarters, and began to count. I really had no idea what I would do if the bottle did not contain $4.75 worth of quarters. I had vague notions of playing Scheherazade, telling her the story, any story that might work, getting her to let me ride free. But I'd make that decision when I reached the bottom of the vitamin bottle.

I had enough for the bus fare, but only if I spent the quarters I've not been wanting to spend, lustrous Vermont quarters and pretty Colorado ones. Spent 'em. Now I had nothing, and no way to get back to Jersey, other than my wits.

I settled into my seat – that I paid for!!! And began to think. That this bus was taking off just as I arrived was obviously a sign… What's this?

Wanda stops the bus, right in the middle of Main Street, Paterson, NJ. Cars behind her beep. "You wanna beep, fool? Go ahead. Beep." She starts chatting with a white cop parked on the curb. "You wanna see four of 'em? Four of those damn dollar vans? Parked on the corner right behind you. Get back there and ticket 'em." The dollar vans are owned and operated by Hispanic immigrants, who came to largely black Paterson and created a thriving business where Blacks have been insisting for years that there is no money to be made and no work to be had.

I glance at the small digital clock over Wanda's shoulder, the clock with red numbers that glow in the gloom like a hidden dragon's eyes. I had wanted to visit St. Patrick's Cathedral before proceeding to Rand's talk. But here she is stopping the bus and chatting with this cop. No one is going to speak up to a black woman bus driver in Paterson, NJ.

We drive on. We make it as far as Main Avenue, Clifton. Urban renewal never reached its steel and glass fingers into Paterson or Clifton. The bulk of the buildings I see everyday are at least a hundred years old; I live in a former textile mill that was built in 1812. Its original purpose is obvious every time I look twenty feet up at my ceiling of heavy exposed beams. The trees that supplied those beams must have been among the last on the East Coast of that gigantic size.

Downtown Paterson is rich with Art Deco and Beaux Arts architecture. There are the Egyptian motifs that were so popular in the time of movies like "The Sheik." There is, on Ellison Street, a row of carved lions' heads that make me weep every time I pass beneath them. There are buildings that scream "1945." St. Joseph's Hospital has a wing that I call the Horace P. Bogardus Memorial Wing, after a character in the 1945 Bing Crosby-Ingrid Bergman classic, "The Bells of St. Mary's." I don't have the architectural vocabulary to tell you why this building so telegraphs that era, but it does.

Main Avenue in Clifton is a bit newer than downtown Paterson; it's not a hundred years old; it's sixty. Main Avenue's architecture shouts "mid-forties, twentieth century." It could be used for a remake of 1947's "Miracle on 34th Street," without any CGI effects.

Main Avenue in Clifton's denizens are not Maureen O'Hara, Edmund Gwenn, and John Payne, though. They are Maria and Jose, just a bit over four feet tall, whose miniature stature, broad, strong noses, deep set eyes, and relentless gloom make them different from Hispanics or anyone else; their ancestors greeted Columbus; Jose and Maria scurry, silent and glum, from one illegal position to another. Main Avenue's denizens include icy eyed Waldek, a brilliant alcoholic from Katowice, who curses his fate among the brown peoples; and Asians who, radiating stubborn superiority, refuse to mix with anyone at all; and Turks and Palestinians who open small businesses with defiant names like "Al Quds Grocery" (Al Quds is the irredentist name for Jerusalem) and "Andalus Shop" (Andalus is the irredentist name for Spain.) Taking in the contrast between Main Avenue's architecture and its habitués is always a brain shuffle.

The bus to New York has advanced but temporarily. Wanda stops the bus dead at a busy, four-lane intersection. Wanda actually turns the key off in the ignition. Wanda stares silently ahead. Cars behind her beep. "Beep, fool, beep. See if it does you any good." Now, this is a giant New Jersey Transit bus, blocking an entire lane of traffic, on a four-lane road, during a weekday rush hour. The bus is completely stopped. Not even the air conditioning is functioning. And Wanda is not saying a darn thing to us.

I grew up in NJ. I've been taking buses to NYC for as long as I can remember. This is not bus travel; this is some unpublished chapter from Kafka.

Suddenly, I understand. God did not want me to go to New York City to meet Rand. I was so wrong to love Rand! My libido is a pox on the land! It's scarlet whores like me that Leviticus has been warning decent people about for the past four thousand years! Wanda merely obeys the will of God. The hapless drivers behind her are delayed all because of me. They should count their blessings; if God had made other selections from his arsenal, hailstones could be pelting their windshields right now, frogs could be clogging their exhaust pipes. Boy, have I made the wrong decision, yet again! And I knew I shouldn't have bought that last bag of barley!!!

Minutes pass, enough for the light to change a few times. A fat and balding Hispanic woman comes out of a corner luncheonette with a large coffee. Wanda opens the door of the bus. I consider jumping, but I left my parachute at home. (Another bad decision!) The fat Latina hands the tall Styrofoam cup to Wanda, who never takes her eye off the road in front of her. "Thank you, baby," she says in that voice that some African American woman can effortlessly summon that brings to mind Pearl Bailey singing "Five Pound Box of Money."

Wanda puts the key in the ignition and starts up the bus. Phew! I was just catastrophizing. Wanda is merely a harmless eccentric. We'll get there late, but we'll get there. God thinks it's okay that I exchanged erotic emails with a rich and famous man who has already blown me off with a blowtorch, and that I am going to see him right now with the last quarters I have. Thank God we've gotten that cleared up. We drive.

We drive all of twenty feet. Wanda gets into a standoff with an Hispanic Dollar Van driver. She blocks the driver, also a woman, from exiting from the curb into traffic. Clumsy and jerky and deadly determined, the combat calls to mind a medieval joust. The jitney tries to advance; Wanda advances. The jitney tries to back up; Wanda stops. Wanda shouts imprecations at her windshield. Sample: "Don't you start with me!" Did I mention, yet, that I've been traveling into the city for as long as I can remember and I have never had a bus ride like this one?

Suddenly, during the joust with the dollar van, a horn goes off … and doesn't stop. Wanda practically bursts into tears at this point, and drives forward, while pounding on her steering wheel. Oh, it's her horn. She can't make it stop.

A small matter … a glance at the red-eyed digital clock…surely we can make it into the city – we have gotten as far as the Orthodox Jewish enclave in Clifton. It's much tidier than Black, Hispanic, or Muslim Clifton. (I don't make the news; I just report it.) In the blur of a rain-streaked landscape, I make out a jumbled scene: flashing lights, a police car, orange cones, fluorescent flares punched into macadam road surface. Our way is blocked.

Okay, God, Okay. Why didn't you just say, "I don't want you to meet Rand. I don't want you to love Rand. And, while we are having this little talk, here are some stock tips for you." God, did you really have to inconvenience half of Paterson and Clifton to get your point across?

This whole time, unbroken, the horn is blaring, and, as she jerkily navigates her vehicle, Wanda is taking the steering wheel apart (not hyperbole), partly by pounding on it with her fist, partly by taking out a tool and unscrewing things.

I've gone past "anxiety" and am getting close to "frozen in fear as if I were the cool blonde menaced in an Alfred Hitchcock thriller." I'm ready to start wearing black and reading all that French philosophical shit I've been mocking for years.

At the roadblock, Wanda takes a turn, any turn. This is a large bus. Wanda careens down a tight, side, suburban street. Like a mighty rhino being gored and tossed by an even larger bull elephant, an SUV is practically gored and tossed by Wanda's fender. Wanda makes a second, entirely unnecessary, face-off with another SUV, one driven by a blonde Soccer Mom, disgorging her blonde moppet. Already on the sidewalk and waving her mommy bye-bye, the blonde moppet takes one look at Wanda's black face, assesses the trajectory of her bus, hears the blaring horn, turns, and rushes back into her mommy's van. The van reverses, double time. I suspect that they drove back to their bunker to assess their provisions. Wanda drives forward, not really knowing where she is going. She turns down another street. Remember: the horn is blaring this whole time.

We park in front of a probably Orthodox Jewish suburban home. I peak inside the curtains of the home. I am mortified. All because of me, of my vile, and, worse, stupid love for Rand, these people have a gigantic bus with a blaring horn parked in front of their house today, the third day of Sukkot.

A beautiful, slim, young Hispanic woman in clingy, hot pink, matador pants (redundant, but it could have been a leopard-print tube top, I guess), comes to the front of the bus. Miss Colombia comforts, commiserates with, and advises Wanda. Wanda defers to her and confers with her. Their dialogue is so spontaneous and intimate I wonder, is Miss Colombia Wanda's supervisor? Is Wanda a trainee?

"I'll call my father," Miss offers. "He's a mechanic."

"Yeah," Wanda, practically in tears now, says. "But he's not transit, so I can't let him touch it."

"Yeah, but at least he can give you some pointers on what to do."

Wanda is still physically abusing her steering wheel, with the desperation of Lucille Ball trying not to get caught by Ricky.

It is pouring down rain, we are off a bus route, in the middle of nowhere, transit-wise, and I have no money. No way to get home, no way to get to NYC. No way to tell Rand, who has dumped me anyway, any of this in any way that would make any sense. I've just trumped James Joyce in the climax of "Araby," where he calls his younger, smitten self "a creature driven and derided by vanity." 

"Let us go outside and we will smoke together," Miss Colombia says. Her long, slim cigarette is already in her hand; Wanda's too. They jump off the bus and are lit up in no time: one of those surpassingly rare moments when even the most radical non-smoker might envy the nicotine fiend.

Two worried-looking Asian woman pad silently to the front of the bus. No doubt they were headed into the city to work off the extortion fees charged by their immigration coyote. And all because of me they will be late, and perhaps subjected to gruesome torture. Their kids are no doubt being fitted with electrodes right now. Oh. My. God.

Wanda and Miss Colombia keep banging on the bus. They bang on things inside; they bang on things outside. It was a screwball scene from which any Politically Correct person insisting on the complete equivalency of the genders would avert their eyes. At one point the horn did stop. But then it started up again.

A New Jersey transit bus drove past. Stopped. Wanda directed her passengers onto this bus. The driver – let's call him Hanif Kureishi – was a slim and balding Bangladeshi. Before departing, I rubbed Wanda's back and smiled at her. She smiled back, weakly. This was not her best day. I sincerely hope.

Miss Colombia gets on the bus. Hanif had been watching her and Wanda interact. "Is she your friend?" he asked, in that charming Sub-continental accent that is a blend of the Raj and the BBC and super-hot curry and, for dessert, boiled milk candy spiced with cardamom and topped with very finely beaten silver – yes, they do use real silver – and one half of one subtly green pistachio.

"No," Miss Colombia says, waving goodbye to Wanda. "We just met."

Wanda is still standing in the street. Hanif, for no reason I can make out, except for a foreigner's effort to speak English charmingly, calls out, with a big smile on his face, to Wanda, "Screw you!" It works, I guess. Wanda laughs and waves him on.

I've been thinking, what career can I adopt now that I know I'll never get an academic job? Bus driver? I don't know if I could ever master the lingo, or the attitude.

I'm thinking, was this a sign that God did not want me to meet Rand? At that moment, Hanif announces to the bus, "See?" as if someone had just asked. "It will all work out for everyone. I just turned down this street, any street, after the roadblock back there. I was thinking of turning down the next street. But I turned down this street. After a moment I thought, and I came down this street."

Okay, I realize, okay. God was just testing me. I am now on a bus. Driven by a man, a sane, professional man, who will not stop in the middle of the Lincoln Tunnel to joust with jitneys or sacrifice a chicken or recite Rabindrinath Tagore's poetry. We are on our way to New York. I glance at the red-eyed digital clock over Hanif's shoulder. Okay. So it's been over an hour since I embarked. So I could have walked this far by now. So I won't have time to visit St. Patrick's cathedral. But we are on our way, and there is no way there could be any more trouble. I mean, nothing like this has ever happened to me before on NJ Transit.

Hanif is a talker, and I am sitting up front. He continues a patter in that lovely accent; I am lulled. One of my favorite past lives was on the Indian subcontinent.

Safe and secure, freed from the anxiety of Wanda's world, I ask myself, how do I feel? I realize, I feel nothing. Don't laugh; I am capable of not having any feelings. It doesn't happen often. I went through the checklist: Excited? Nope. Afraid? Nope. Hopeful? Nope. So, I really did just do this to be true to the "decide the course which does the least damage to the other choice" maxim. Yup.

Strangely, though, I also have no vibes. I'm used to feeling, at all times, and in relation to any question, that there is an obvious capital T truth out there, and that my goal is to meditate on, and locate myself on, that Truth. And I don't feel that truth. I feel nothing.

Glancing at Hanif's red-eyed clock, I see that we are making painfully slow progress. Rain is coming down in sheets. A small Asian pedestrian stops his bus, does not offer him any money, asks if he can transport her just to the other side of a pond-sized puddle that has flooded the road and the sidewalk. He says, "No way," to her, and, then, staring straight ahead, waves her aboard.

"It's high tide," someone calls out from the back of the bus.

"High tide," Hanif scoffs. "They can't even fix their roads, and they are going around solving all the problems of the whole world!" Hanif accompanies his commentary with long, slim, dark fingers and sub-continental gestures. "I've been seeing floods like this on this road for the past ten years. Pretty soon there are going to be alligators coming out of the sewers."

There is some rumbling on the bus. Bush fans angry at Hanif? Or grumbles of ascent? I look at the watch. Have two hours passed since I left Paterson, just ten miles back? I am getting anxious, again.

The traffic is at a standstill. Why? To get into the city on a mid-week night? They can't all be rushing to hear Rand tell them that there is no God, or hope for love, either. A pedestrian, or swimmer, could make better progress. I'm doing the math I last did in Peace Corps Central African Republic, where you'd get pick-up trucks carrying forty passengers, manioc, goats, and game, that would travel maybe ten miles in maybe three hours. If Hanif can find a cleared patch of roadway; if there are not many more stops (these buses are local all the way into the city) if the rain stops…I still couldn't make it to the talk in time. Yup. King Sennacherib of Assyria was right. There is no God.

I am ready to get off the bus at the next stop and head back to Paterson. I have no money. If I make it into the city, if I make it to Rand's talk in time, if he is not a dick, he might advance me five bux to get back. I might not make it to his talk in time…stop catastrophizing!

Well, I've mentioned the flood; fire must be next.

An African American woman's voice announced from Hanif's radio, "Attention all transit drivers. Attention all transit drivers. There is a burning limousine on 495. There are no emergency vehicles at the scene. The limo is burning out of control. The situation is extremely dangerous. Use any available alternative route."

Hanif's tone is full of the wisdom of karma; it is millennia old; as old as Mohenjo Daro. "We won't get into the city until eight, maybe," he announces to his passengers. Rand's talk is scheduled to begin at seven. The Asian women look even more worried; their restraint just exacerbates the panic their faces telegraph. Observing them, I realize that my problems are peanuts in comparison.

We drive into a wall of black smoke the likes of which I haven't seen since the Berkeley Firestorm of 1991.

This smoke does not billow. Like a truculent mugger, it intimidates by holding its ground. Gawkers gather. I guess you don't see a burning limousine on 495 with no emergency vehicles present every day, even if you do live in Weehawken.

Everything was chock-a-block: smoke, rain, gawking crowds, bumper-to-bumper traffic. The road was as packed and chaotic as the escape-by-highway scene from Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds." I expected Tom Cruise to tap on Hanif's window at any moment, to commandeer the vehicle, and/or to pass out Scientology pamphlets.

Inch by inch, though, we did make it to the tunnel. I rejoiced, as I have been doing since I was a little kid, at the tile marker in the tunnel between New York and New Jersey. That tickles me so – that carefully arranged, shiny tiles on a wall in a tunnel slithering through the mud under a river could declare, "Here! New Jersey! Struggling ethnic families working crappy jobs and swallowing high fat food! Subject of cruel, mocking jokes by non-entities like Woody Allen! Here! Manhattan! World Center of Glamour and Envy! So it shall be written, so it shall be done!"

After emerging from the tunnel, a transit bus is usually just a hop, skip, and one Croatian bus-rattled church away from Port Authority. But Hanif took an alternate route. We were going down, not up, town, traveling back streets I did not know at all. This scared me. But then Hanif started navigating uptown. Street numbers grew larger. We were getting closer and closer to Port Authority. It was near seven, near the start time for Rand's talk. His talk was to take place just north of Port Authority. I'd make it. I'd make it. I'd meet Rand. Still, I felt nothing.

Hanif pulled into Port Authority something like three hours after I had left Paterson. (Twenty-one miles from Paterson to NYC; did I mention that this never happened to me before?) I said a hearty thank you to Hanif and got onto the very tight and very long escalator. A woman with a stroller was blocking the escalator. Okay, this is your new tactic, God? You are going to kill me with a thousand cuts?

My mother disdained maps. This woman who – and this is true – would not so much as teach me how to use a sanitary pad – taught me, "You don't ever have to be lost in New York City. The streets are a grid system. There is uptown; the street numbers go up. There is downtown. The street numbers go down. There is the east side and the west side. You don't need a map. Work it out in your head."

Walking anywhere, even alone, even at night, we should not be afraid; we should be mindful of the Biblical injunction, "He who fears does not love God."

I've been all around Manhattan – Harlem, Needle Park, Upper East Side, the Village – on foot, and never used a map. I hear my mother's voice, and share her confidence, her sense that the city is ours.

Began to walk, very rapidly, up Eighth Avenue, a street of souvenir shops and greasy spoons. And then my legs turned to Jell-O. I scanned myself. My heart stubbornly responded to this query with the same dispatch: "I feel nothing." I noticed the unfamiliar sensation of being unable to arrange my lips over my teeth, or house my tongue in my mouth. I've heard that anxiety gives you a dry mouth; I wonder why? Being my mother's daughter, I pushed my legs, ignored my mouth, and reminded myself that if I did faint, I'd be displaying my used men's underwear to Eighth Avenue. Uptown, uptown, uptown.

Made it to the building. Got into an elevator with three white males, one a New York Jew, the kind of guy I used to date when I lived in the city. He said, "Oh! It's a miraculous coincidence! We all got into the elevator at the same time! It must be a miracle!" He was making fun of synchronicity, the way Rand does.

I said, "As soon as I get off this elevator, I am going to the ladies' room, and if that's where you guys are headed, that will really be a miracle."

Dead silence.

These boys are NOT ready for improv.

Since I arrived late, I didn't want to take a seat, because to do so would upset others. So, I sat on the floor, and stood for some portions.

"Death pervades this place," Rand was saying, or something  like that. At the moment we were sitting in an all black room and I was questioning my folly in pursuing a dead relationship. "Guys will do anything to get their genes into the next generation," Rand was saying. I wonder if that his how he rationalizes to himself his interaction with me? "Suffering proves that there is no God … people are not improved by suffering."

I wanted to shoot spitballs at him from the emptied barrel of my Bic. I wanted to say, "I've suffered, and it has made me a better person, and you know that cause I e-mailed you about it, and you e-mailed back about a friend of yours who was made a better person by having had cancer that urged him on to achieve higher goals."

People would stop believing in God, Dr. Rand went on, quoting someone else, I think, through the gradual improvement of men's minds that follows from science. So. If you believe in God, you are divorced from science, and your mind is in need of "improvement." A very small percentage of the very best and smartest people in the country, the National Academy of Sciences (?) believe in God.

I glanced at the audience. They were eating this up.

Suddenly realized: I am not in the same room with the man I fell in love with.

Rand kept mentioning names of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. This one won a Nobel Prize; this one was a MacArthur genius grant winner. This one published slews of books.

I was sitting next to the table stacked with Dr. Rand's books. There was a sign-up sheet for people wanting further info. Under "Name," I had written, "God." Under "address," I had written, "You have my address. Contact me."

I looked at the other names. Saw – I think – "Paul Berman." THE Paul Berman? MacArthur fellow, Guggenheim fellow? Paul Berman who said racist things about Poland in an essay that has been republished at least three times, in books aimed at college students? I looked around. One attendee did look suspiciously like Paul Berman.

I wanted to beat the living shit out Paul Berman, or even just the guy who looked like him. "Hi. I'm a real, live Polak. You want to say racist things about Poles? Say them to me. I can't wait."

A young woman in spiky clothes manned (no mistake) the book table. She wore a stiff black skirt that jutted out as if she were pirouetting, and retro, rhinestone, high fin eyeglasses. Her predominantly black gear looked a bit girl geek, a bit S&M, and a bit Rodeo Queen.

Everyone in the audience looked white and middle class. There was one Asian guy. More than half male. Would The Truth have those demographics?

One of the things I love about attending Catholic Church: Blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, Italians, Poles, Young, Old, Wearers of heavy, cheap cologne, Wearers of subdued good taste, Obese, Thin, Men, Women. Catholic mass is the only place I have ever reliably had that experience. Not, by the way, the highly touted as "diverse" halls of academe, including UC Berkeley.

The lecture was over. I was relieved. I had been sitting on the floor, constrained from stretching. The question and answer period began.

I don't invent the truth; I just transcribe it. One questioner: "Religion is the opiate of the people."

Another: "There are people out there who are not like the people in this room. There are people out there who are not bright."

"They don't reason."

"There are people who say, 'I don't care what's true. I just care what I believe.'"

"If only everybody thought like you."

"Thank you for existing."

Then Rand said one of the dumbest things I've ever heard any lecturer say, and I really, really had to hold myself back from rushing the stage and grabbing the microphone and shouting, "Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!" Or, maybe not. How about, "No Pasarán!" No. This is my credo: "The true Dadaist is anti-Dada!"

Rand said, paraphrase, "We don't need religion, because we are just doing it. Look at how badly men used to treat women (He went into some detail on this point and I am too damn fucking kind to report everything he said. I want congratulations for my restraint, here.) Look at the Civil Rights Movement."

Aaaaaaaa!!!!!!!

I so badly wanted to raise my hand and say, "Read Taylor Branch. Read Rodney Stark. Read Max Weber! Read Gandhi. Read Hitler, read Lenin, read Bare Branches. Social change is not a given. It happens in a certain way because of a slew of forces, including religion. Read Rodney Stark on how Christianity took the Classical World, in which female infanticide was de rigueur, and, through peaceful means, transformed it into the first and only civilization, of its own, and sacrificing its own blood, to end slavery and liberate women. There were no atheist abolitionist movements. Compare demographics from Pakistan and the United States. Why are there so many more men, and so much more turmoil, in Pakistan than in the US? Read Taylor Branch on MLK. Were MLK not a Christian, and given the same social forces that mitigated for the activism of African Americans in the wake of WW II, had African Americans followed the lead of a Muslim like Malcolm X or a non-Christian like Stokely Carmichael, you and I would probably be living under martial law right now! Read Gandhi, who was inspired by the Christian activist Leo Tolstoy, who, in turn, was inspired by the Christian-inspired Henry David Thoreau, who was part of a Christian abolitionist movement. Talk to me about all the world changing atheist movements out there – like, oh, say, Soviet Communism…'All men are created equal.' Would Founding Fathers steeped in Hinduism ever pen such a founding sentence? No. More like, 'We hold that Brahmins are made of God's head, and Kshatriyas of his arms, and, when it comes to Untouchables, anything one cares to do is permissible.' Narrative, the concept of linear time, the individual, novels, the concept of progress: All of these, according to theorists, are rooted in the Judeo-Christian heritage…"

And, if I had said any of those things, the conversation would have been over before it began, because I left my Nobel Prize at home.

"Thank you for your questions. There are books available for purchase…" the emcee was wrapping things up.

Recently, a mouse visited my apartment. I was grateful for the company, but I did not enjoy sweeping up his turds. I pondered what to do. Victor, our Dominican handyman, offered glue traps. I couldn't imagine doing that to a mouse, so I never placed them. The mouse stayed for a month. Then, of his own volition, he left. I am that clean. I live in a government-subsidized apartment in one of the worst slums, and I am so damn clean, not only, unlike my neighbors, do I not have roaches, or even ants; I can get a mouse to leave my apartment, on the force of my sheer cleanliness alone. These clean floors are my Nobel Prize.

I felt in that room of comfortable people who look down on people like me because we believe in God, what I used to feel when I went with my mother when she was cleaning houses.

I felt that maybe Rand can't see me, and that maybe that's because he doesn't have a category in his head for me. There are not words in his dictionary to talk about me. And I felt: It's his loss.

So, Dear Reader. I was finally free. I was feet away from the man I had been in love with for a year, and I felt nothing, except for an intractable twinge in my back that my stretching could not relieve. I won. I would leave this room tonight totally out of love with him.

I got on the line of folks who had just bought his book. Finally, I was across the table from him.

I can report this: if anything, he is more handsome in real life than in his photos. Bastard. He just looked so damn good. Way out of my league. I think he had one deep blackhead, but that may have been the man who would be standing next to him a few moments later. I know that sounds retarded but that's how my brain was processing information. I know I saw one deep blackhead on one male face there.

I wondered if he would still love me if I were pretty. Why am I even going there? I can't believe myself! This relationship, if it ever existed, is deader than Dickens' coffin nail, and this is what I'm thinking? Do women ever stop believing the lie that we can improve the world by being prettier? Cherchez la femme. I'm convinced that Marie Antoinette's final thought was, "If I had just lost a few pounds they would not be chopping my head off."

He looked up at me and smiled a friendly smile.

At a loss at what else to say, I said, "I didn't buy a book."

I don't remember what he said, but it could have been something like "Okay." Not mean, perfectly civil.

And then I got it. He has no idea who I am.

At his request, I had sent him several photos. I look like me in all of them. And here he was, looking right at me, and he had no idea who I was. I don't think that that is a metaphor.

"I'm Danusha," I said, quietly.

"Danusha!" He smiled and clapped his hands.

"You didn't recognize me," I said.

"I didn't recognize you," he said. And then he got up and left the book-signing table.

I looked at the guy behind me in line, a middle aged, respectable looking, white male. "What did you say your name was?" he asked, as if that would explain everything.

"Danusha," I said, quietly.

The man looked nonplussed. He looked behind him. "He's going to get you a book," the man said.

Oh, shit, I thought. I did not want to ask for something. I just mentioned that I had not bought a book because I had no idea what else to say. "I want to touch your face" just didn't seem the thing. Had I known that he wasn't going to recognize me, I would have, maybe, pretended to be blind, and used that as an excuse to touch his face… Rand came back and began writing in the cover of the book. Oh, shit. He's giving me a signed copy of his book. I thought: what could I give him in return? Lint from my pocket? Heavily used fruit of the looms? And he kept writing. Oh, no! He's giving me a signed copy of his book with lots of stuff written in it.

He handed me the book. I took it, wordlessly. I turned to go.

I went back to my stuff on the black bleacher seats, and opened the book, and read what he wrote.

Those words had the effect on my insides that Global Warming has on brie. Those words were like his e-mails.

And I thought, "He won."

When putting the book in my pack, I remembered: I had no money. I had to ask him for five dollars to get back to Jersey. There were still persons much more important than myself gathered around him. I approached, with all due humility.

I stood next to him. He turned his eyes to me; they appeared indifferent. I said, "I have to ask you a quick but awkward question."

Okay. Now I have to violate my vow to be discreet, because I have to report something I believe I saw in his face. When I said to him, "I have to ask you a quick but awkward question," he flashed me a look of ice, and suspicion. My kidneys shivered and shrank against my spine; frostbite blackened my toes.

I rushed forward. "Can you lend me five dollars?"

The punishing expression I think I saw on his face passed. He looked genial. "Five dollars? Sure." He took out some bills, and handed me five dollars. And I left.

As I walked out in the drizzle, I was so troubled and humiliated and crushed by that last. I am not that person. I am not the person who deserves to be looked at that way.

I walked south on Eighth Avenue.

A man was walking toward me. He was walking beside another man.

I stared intently at the man walking toward me. I immediately knew who it was. He stared at me. I kept staring at him. Not rudely, but with concentration.

It was Alec Baldwin.

So strange. When debating about coming tonight, I kept thinking of Alec Baldwin, someone I never think about. And here he was walking right up to me on this Manhattan street.

At Port Authority, the man behind the glass window at the ticket booth was a handsome African American. His face looked a bit like Spike Lee's, only without the attitude.

I said to the clerk, "I hope you don't mind my saying this, but you are a very attractive man."

"Oh, ho, ho," he said, a Jazz sound, strong emotion, but controlled, musical, and cool.

"It's just that, and I've been coming to Port Authority for years, one is used to flaccid, stubbly faces on clerks, clerks whose skins are the same blue-white color as fluorescent light. You are a pleasant surprise."

"You want a free ticket, don't you? You're going to get a free ticket."

"No!" I said, adamantly. "I insist on paying. I want you to know that I am sincere. You are one handsome guy." I paid.

"You made my night, I'll tell you that," he said.

"You made mine," I said. "Good night."

I headed upstairs.

A bus was just ready to leave. I would not have to wait. A sign! This time the bus would make it to Paterson in less than an hour.


5 comments:

  1. Bravo. Just bravo.

    You must find a way to publish this. You simply must.

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    Replies
    1. Liron, you are the wind beneath my wings. You keep me going!

      Delete
  2. Wow! Great story! I love the raw quirkiness and gritty truth of the people and scenes. I laughed out loud numerous times. Yes, Publish!!!

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    Replies
    1. Kim, thank you. Alas, no one wants to publish me. But thanks.

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  3. "Liron, you are the the wind beneath my wings."

    Now I have that Bette Middler song in my head. I'll never forgive you.

    No one wants to publish you? Interesting. I remember reading, let's see here, THREE books with your name, and the names of publishers, on the covers. Oh, and did I mention the suitcase I brought back from the States? There's an anthology of short stories in there, one I cannot wait to begin reading, with your name in the table of contents.

    ReplyDelete