I’d felt myself drifting for years. My mom became a Jehovah’s Witness when I was 10-ish, and for most of my kid-dom, I truly believed as much as any kid can “believe” in anything. But the older I got and the more I read and learned, the more I began to doubt the foundation of the whole thing, Witnesses’ interpretation of the Bible, and any interpretation of the Bible at all. I was starting to doubt the very idea that there’s any truth to life, a fairly common thought at age 17 but one that’s kind of scary when you’ve been raised in a religion that refers to itself, and only itself, as The Truth.
In 1999, I moved into my first post-college apartment, way out in the farthest reaches of Bensonhurst. It was a mere 15-minute walk from Coney Island, a walk I would take many late nights on my way home from the city and somehow avoid murder. Circa 1999, the neighborhood had barely changed since Saturday Night Fever days. When I jogged around the neighborhood, I was an exotic specimen, because people in Bensonhurst did not jog. Old ladies stared at me like I was a wild animal and rotten teens would joke-jog next to me or fake-lunge in my direction, hoping I would flinch.
I was the only one who saw her.
I was on Third Avenue in the 40s during the Lord of the Flies atmosphere that is the lunch rush when she appeared. She had curly blond hair and a giant pink bow and enormous matching sunglasses and a black tank top. She could’ve bought it all at Madonna’s yard sale circa 1987. She looked like she was eight feet tall because she was wearing rollerblades, scooting leisurely up the sidewalk. Her eyes were trained not toward her destination, but on a giant white iPhone with a gold trim case. I got a good look at the iPhone because her path aimed straight at me no matter how many sidesteps I took. Her ears were plugged up with headphones. She’d deliberately blunted her two most danger-alerting senses as she wheeled through streets full of cars, trucks, bikes, and eight million other people. Millions of years to give her perfect eyes and perfect ears to alert her to danger and she dismissed them all. She missed me by a centimeter or two as she scooted past.
Thursday was hot dog night. Thursday was hot dog night because we were Jehovah’s Witnesses and Thursday was also book study night. Book study night was basically a book club except you only read the books the Witnesses themselves published and discussed all the signs evident in this rotten world that showed us all the end was nigh.
There were three weekly meetings we were obliged to attend but book study night was the only one that happened on a weeknight. Me and my brothers got home from school at about 3:45 which left me a tiny window in which to finish homework and set up a tape for The Simpsons because this was the only show on TV I could not miss and make sure I had a shirt and tie and pants to wear to the meeting. If I was feeling fancy I would wear a blazer I got at the Salvation Army. The sleeves were too short so my cuffs stuck out defiantly and I could not fasten any of the buttons without fear of popping them.
I used to work for an academic publisher. I held this job for nearly two years. I worked in production editorial, helping to print dissertations and other dense technical publications. I had to subject each of the manuscripts I received to a predetermined series of steps before sending them to the printer. Sometimes a piece of art would be too lo-res or permissions wouldn’t be furnished and I’d have to contact the author. Otherwise, it was an almost mindless process. Every working day required me to sit in front of a conveyer belt and spread mayonnaise across each lightly toasted piece of white bread that passed before me.
The weekly meeting of everyone who doesn’t talk to you anymore takes place each Tuesday at 9pm in a church basement. The College Friend Who Got Tired of Your Whole Thing makes the coffee and The Kid Who Stopped Hanging Out With You in Junior High Because He Wanted to Be Cool brings the donuts.
The meetings are led by The Guy Who Wanted to Collaborate With You on Something But Stopped Answering Your Emails. He brings the proceedings to order by asking if it’s anyone’s first time here. A man stands up and introduces himself as Grad School Classmate. A chorus of Hi, Grad School Classmate echoes back to him.
The meeting leader says that all first timers must share their stories as best they can. Grad School Classmate gulps and looks out over the room while he thinks of something to say. The rows of chairs seem to stretch on forever in all directions. It’s the biggest church basement he’s ever seen.
There was a time when the playground was my daughter’s entire life. We would have to spend good chunks of our weekends there plus any slab of weekday daylight leftover when I picked her up from daycare.
Sometimes she’d rope me into being a customer in an imaginary store she set up underneath the shaky bridge or I’d have to be a passenger in the giant train she pretended the entire playground to be. Sometimes I had to be Venom to her Spiderman and chase her around while she shot make-believe webs at me. Sometimes she’d insert herself in a group of other kids and she would run around with them in that manic headless-chicken gallop that suffices for entertainment at that age.
When I was in high school I wrote music. When I was in high school I did a lot of things. I used to write stories and write sketches and draw cartoons and draw comic books and play trumpet and play bass. I was not encouraged to do any of these things. I didn’t go to an artsy school and I don’t come from artsy people. I simply wanted to do many things and didn’t understand people who said it was important to pick one thing and stick with it. Who could be satisfied doing just one thing with their life?
A mom and grandmother push an angry infant in a stroller. A two-year-old girl with dirty blonde curls flails at her restraints. She arches her back trying to snap herself loose and expels primal howls of want. If you had no visual and only heard her screams you would think the girl was either being murdered or was committing a murder. She doesn’t care that she looks and sounds crazy. Kids have to learn how to be sane.
I am a half a block away from the trio when the screams first catch my attention. I am walking the opposite direction. We will soon overtake each other. Once I spot them I feel my steps quicken. The little girl is a magnet of anger and id.
I have been where they are many times. Every parent thinks s/he can win a battle of wills with a two-year-old and every parent is proven wrong. You want to demonstrate you will not give a child what she wants just because she wants it. You want to instill some idea of patience and propriety. And then one day you’re out in public with your kid and she loses her mind over something trivial and suddenly your larger point is subsumed by the need for a few precious moments of peace.
The grandmother silently acquiesces to the little girl’s shrieking pleas. She reaches into a bag slung over the back of the stroller to produce the prize that will restore order to her universe. What the girl wants is a tiny toy gun. Assembled in garish plastic of purple and yellow and green. Shaped like a 1950s idea of a Martian weapon. It is a gun all the same.
The moment the little girl has the gun in her hands she points it at the only living thing in her line of sight. That thing is me. I am five or six feet away when she aims the gun at me and looks down the barrel and jabs it in my general direction. She doesn’t say bang bang but the motion has the same effect. After each “shot” she jerks the gun back and sets it up again as if reacting to recoil.
She adjusts her aim as I get closer and continues to “fire” at me even as I draw parallel to her stroller. The mom and grandmother are relieved the scene she caused is over and say nothing.
I pass them by and continue on my way. The little girl continues on hers being chauffeured toward new targets.
It is near-rush hour on the F train which is to say it is crowded but not packed. A pair of drag queens crack each other in a nook by a shut door. One baby wails in each half of the car. The one attacking my left ear is a little more persistent than the one attacking my right. A panhandler says “Excuse me” in a clear smooth voice so he can move past other riders before adopting a pitted groan to give his SPARE CHANGE pitch.
I’m attempting to read Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb which is a long and heavy book and not conducive to standing-up-on-the-subway reading but I’m reading it anyway. I’ve read this book before but I recently felt compelled to reread it. I’m not sure why.
We are stalled at the Queensbridge stop when a yell asserts itself above the din. I look down at the far end of the car and see a man in gray packed against a closed door. His brow is knotted as he unsheathes his shaved dome from his headphones.
IT’S CROWDED BUT IT AIN’T THAT CROWDED! he shouts. WHY YOU GOTTA BE ON TOP OF ME?! From where I stand no one appears to be on top of him. I can’t see the target of his yells. I can only see the other riders craning their necks to get a look at the noise.
MOTHERFUCKER YOU THINK THIS IS A GAME? he yells. These words are a signal that tell every pair of eyes to avert its gaze and every head to pivot away. Nothing good has ever happened after these words are spoken. No one ever says YOU THINK THIS IS A GAME?! before handing out freshly baked cookies.
YOU GIVE ME AN ATTITUDE?! YOU TRY THIS CONDESCENDING BULLSHIT WITH ME?! The man was obviously convinced that he of all people should not have to stand for whatever transgression was just visited upon him. The world should have known that he was a man not to be trifled with or a man with a reputation or a man at the end of a long bad day or a man at the end of his rope.
The doors won’t close to move on to the next station. This gives the drag queens enough time to give each other a knowing look and run out onto the platform to find another car to ride in. I contemplate doing the same until a conductor squawks over the PA. For a moment me and all the other riders in the car believe someone will do something about the man’s escalating anger.
The conductor has other fish to fry. I told you you can’t hold the train doors to panhandle, he bleats in exasperated pixilation to some other miscreant. Let go of the doors so the train can move. You do that again and I’m callin the cops. The doors stutter back and forth for a few seconds to chase away this unseen annoyance.
Then the doors shut and we continue on out way but the yelling man is still yelling. YOU DO THIS TO ME?! he spits. Everyone else’s head is cast down. The F is an express once it leaves Manhattan. A long ride lies between Queensbridge and Roosevelt Avenue. It will be an even longer ride with this man screaming and everyone silently begging the train to move faster toward its next stop.
The car takes on the feel of a hospital waiting room. No one can stand to look at anyone else. Everyone expects bad news and they prefer it come sooner than later. The bad news will be nothing compared to the torture of waiting for the bad news.
I try to distract myself with my book. The Making of the Atomic Bomb starts with the amazing discoveries of physics in the early 1900s and how these advances laid the groundwork for the weapon to come. I’ve reached the point in the book where scientists first ponder the possibility of fission: Is it possible? Can a reaction be contained? Would this unleash more power than the world can handle? It’s also the point at which the rise of Hitler in Germany sends many of the world’s best physicists to America. At least the ones perceptive enough to recognize the approaching danger. Even some of the smartest people who ever lived had trouble believing the Nazis were going to do exactly what they said they’d do. It was all too monstrous to be real until it was monstrously real.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb is about as accessible as a book mostly about physics can be. Rhodes’ prose alternates between breezy comparisons and touching profundity. But the finer details can be rough to negotiate even without a crazy person threatening to explode in your subway car. Someone who is wailing at a foe who I can’t see and who may have a weapon and may just be hunting in his overcharged brain for an excuse to produce it.
I kept my eyes on the exploits of Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard because they were all past. We all know how that story ended. The one in my car had a more doubtful outcome.
Bohr did not think his compound model of the nucleus boded well for harnessing nuclear energy….THIS AIN’T NO GAME…Einstein had compared it to shooting in the dark at scarce birds…I AIN’T PLAYIN…the efficiency of slow neutrons “might never have been discovered if Italy were not rich in marble”…YOU GONNA DO THAT TO ME?!…The truth was, uranium was a confusion, and no one yet knew…THIS WHOLE CAR MAN THIS WHOLE CAR…Szilard saw beyond “energy for industrial purposes” to the possibility of weapons of war…
The book slowly overtakes the voice. The yelling stops completely as light pierces the car and we approach Roosevelt. Whoever this man felt the need to yell at refused all that time to yell back—assuming he existed at all. Without someone to react with his anger burned up all its fuel and died off.
I dare to look in the yeller’s general direction as I depart for the local. I do not see him. He produced only fright before dispersing into the ether. If only every outburst failed to spark a chain reaction.