At 11:21PM I was walking south on Central Park West near its intersection with 72nd Street when I realized that the man approaching me from the opposite direction had a gun in his hand.
I had been thinking about the ardent rain of the early afternoon. A task-oriented downpour unbent in its mission to erase the perfect record of unbroken sunshine that was our September. I had walked through it slowly to get to the gym. Everyone seemed to be relearning the etiquette of crowdborne umbrellas.
I had been thinking about the popularity of the stretchy black Calvin Klein boxer briefs with white waistbands worn by several of the young Hispanic men who seemed to ritualize getting them soaked in the gym showers before sliding their hands inside them in the steam room. I thought about the incredibly handsome Cuban who stretched his smooth brown torso forward on the sweaty wooden bench of the sauna to allow a blonde fellow with a swimmer’s build easy access to his pair of those same shorts while looking up at me with dark worried eyes that asked for absolution, or if not that, for a whispered secret that he might carry home with him to ward off his daily sadness about having once again surrendered fruitlessly to his lust. I had wanted to pat him gently on the forearm he used to steady himself on that bench, and to say, “There, there. This will pass. You’ll move on. You’ll laugh about it someday. You’ll remember the sight of that damp golden head in your lap and you’ll be glad for the detour. Don’t fret it. You’ve got time.”
That made me think about the muscle bound man with the blazing blue eyes and buzzed red hair who stared at me for an hour in Starbucks earlier in the day. Such a strong jutting jaw. Almost a cartoon character. Every time I looked up from downloading photos into the Mac, I’d catch him looking at me. He’d look away fearfully. A closet case, no doubt. Why would anyone with half a brain keep himself closeted in a world, in a country, in a city like this where being gay isn’t even the new black. It’s the old black. The old boring rehashed rerun yawn of a black. God, he’s behaving like a Marine in 1955. Charming, in an odd way. Bet he’s dumb. Or married. Or both. That’s it. He’s got a learning disability plus a wife who had been his nurse. Traumatic brain injury survivor who spends his days pumping iron and drinking coffee before going home to relieve himself with my face in mind. I stopped looking away. It scared him that every time he looked in my direction, he found my eyes riveted to his. He got up and left, but as he passed by on the other side of the plate glass, he could not resist one final longingly woeful glance at me. He’ll probably be back tomorrow and be disappointed if I am not there, but I cannot be scheduling redemption for the grief-beset no matter how spectacular their virgin bodies. I have obligations, and besides, he would want romance. That much is obvious. He’d end up hating me for the lack of it. In his stupid way, he would think I had deceived him, promised him happiness and abiding love when all the while I had only wanted to use him. Then, after a few torrid afternoons, we’d fall into a pattern of just nods and smiles when we saw each other at Starbucks. He’d feel confused. Frustrated. Certain he had done something wrong. And finally, the day would come when he would see clearly what had happened to him, as clear as those ridiculous red and blue nautical tattoos frolicking on his hairy arms, probably acquired on some boardwalk in some seedy port of call. This roused a melody in my head. “Brandy, you’re a fine girl. What a good wife you would be…” I was humming it as I packed up the computer and walked out into the street.
I wondered what everyone else in the world was busy doing. Really, I did. Although my days are largely free, I can’t seem to find enough time to do everything I want to do. Is it that most people want less than I do? Are they fascinated by fewer possibilities. Having discovered macramé do they focus on just that for the rest of their days, churning out plant hangers and wall decorations without ever a thought to glass blowing or Venetian plastering or sonnet writing or Photoshop or investing or, God forbid, volunteering. I knew that C was busy running his company and that I ought to stop at Balducci’s to replace the Pico de Gallo he had left in the refrigerator last Sunday, and that I had dumped onto a salad at 3AM. He’ll want it when he gets into town tomorrow afternoon. If I could be sure of his arrival time, I might even have a full dinner prepared. A simple task. Just what I needed to ward off the big picture. A thousand simple tasks. No, a million of them, and then you die, and reviewing your days, you feel some satisfaction with the little bit you actually accomplished.
Also, on that sidewalk on Central park West at 11:21PM, I had been reviewing the ten basic premises for a new and nonsense-free American religion that I had assembled while looking for the Pico de Gallo. Like commandments or fingers, ten is a good number. I managed to recall them all:
1) Anyone can belong. I have no appetite for the judgments of exclusion when applied to people. I have a strong appetite for the judgments of exclusion when applied to anti-social actions, i.e, sins such as polluting, swindling, cheating, raping, wasting, corrupting, victimizing, degrading and the like. Keep in mind that we are each capable of and guilty of some number and degree of those sins, and that we ought to be helped out of our sins by this new religion rather than cast out of it because of them.)
2) The members of this new religion should seek ways to, and perform work to, alleviate and eliminate human suffering. Private financial support for good causes would be encouraged but not formalized. In other words, this new religion would never organize a telethon or a giving campaign. Members would be encouraged to give quietly and in secret, and for their own personal satisfaction. Volunteerism would be encouraged, but the good works of members would not be trumpeted or rewarded with plaques or honors or the silly merit badge of publicity.
3) We will, without fear, embrace “mystery” (i.e., that which cannot be known or proven). We will, without fear, explore a future that might extend beyond our last breath and far beyond this world and its dimensions. We will, without fear, seek God, or not. And, if a member of our new religion decides that God does not exist, let him remain with us, seeking some other order or other directing force for his life, even if that be as simple as the embracing of chaos as the guiding and purposeful energy behind all that is. That is how there is room for the atheist in this new religion.
4) Leadership will not be determined by genitals, age, blood or money, but by a member’s ability to inspire, guide and motivate a congregation. It should be expected that the leaders among us may be no more free of sin than any other member. Their talents, and not necessarily the success of their virtues, make them called to leadership. Anyone may proclaim himself to be a leader. Why worry about that or try to control it? An authentic leader will rise up because members will be willing to follow such a one. Where there is dispute about who is the leader, groups may split apart amicably. Some groups and their leaders will fade while others will grow. This should not be viewed as a contest in which some win and some lose. It should be viewed as a natural process, and there should be no attempt to entrap leadership within the confines of elections or terms. There shall be no crown, and hence, no coveting of it. Leaders should be willing to devote much time to this new religion. They should be men and women of much energy, zeal and conviction and who will use their talents as speakers and writers and performers of every ilk to improve the lives of those who need and trust them. They must have a sense of mission and responsibility and a willingness to travel, relying on and accepting the hospitality and support of those who receive them.
5) This new religion will not collect or handle money, nor will it own land, buildings or anything else. Any leaders and organizers and staff of this new religion will be greatly assisted in maintaining their purity by being entirely uncompensated. Members may be personally rich or poor. Generosity will be encouraged but not prescribed or defined. Events, gatherings and facilities may be paid for by members with the money to do so, but not by the religion itself. More often than not, members will gather in public places or in private homes.
6) This new religion will not be a “club” the strength or success of which is typically gauged by the swelling of membership or temporal power, but rather a family known by its excellent consolations.
7) This new religion will keep its nose out of your bedroom, i.e., it will not govern your sex life. Does this mean that any sex act is acceptable? No. Any sexual activity in which there is a victim (i.e., a child or a non-consenting adult) is unacceptable.
8) Members and leaders would be free to hold any political opinion and to speak their opinions freely. This religion would seek justice and would be loud in its efforts to rid government of its injustices. There should be ample room for political disagreement among the members of this new religion.
9) I feel strongly that the meetings, celebrations and services of this new religion must be lively, enjoyable, creative, emotional, energetic, and sometimes spectacular. Our cultural diversity allows for nothing less. It is totally acceptable that the celebrations in one town might be entirely different from those of another. Any regulation or codification of the components of gathering together will be prohibited. Members will form or find congregations in which they feel at home. When congregations meet, there should be a kinetic exchange of ideas and thoughts, and a sharing of personal reflections and stories so that each participant will leave with increased wisdom and peace.
10) Let this new religion be called the First Sensible Church of America (FISECHAM!). Let there be T shirts and refrigerator magnets that bear its name, and let it thrive on the internet.
I had been feeling rather satisfied with this list, although it begged a question: Why do we need any religion at all? I had the answer. We need a religion because we are better human beings when we wrestle together with mystery and when we celebrate it together than when we go it alone. There is wisdom to be had in doing this together. A religion does not lift from individual shoulders the responsibility we each have to be spiritually trained and skillful. It adds to that. It gives it voice and helps us know the truth behind our days.
I was in the process of recalling the list I had yesterday assembled of ten major threats to our democracy when I saw the man with the gun in his hand. I had remembered only six of them. This I know because I had been counting them on the fingers of my left hand starting with my thumb and I had returned to holding that thumb as if taking its pulse.
The man was about fifteen feet away and walking slowly toward me as if tired. The gun was in his left hand and at his side, rather than raised. He did not seem nervous or agitated. He seemed to be walking with some purpose. He was maybe 60 years old with thinning gray hair, and a wide and deeply creased forehead over alcohol thickened features. His heavy brow shadowed his eyes so that I could not tell whether he was looking exactly at me. His thin lips seemed to have been soldered into the kind of grimace that comes with a stroke. A slight pot belly tugged at a shabby yellowed shirt untucked over dark work trousers. Perhaps he was a transportation worker on his way home from the subway. Perhaps he had just come up out of the nearby subway exit having shot someone underground. Perhaps his rage was now spent. Perhaps he’ll just walk home and put the last bullet into his own head. Or, perhaps he’ll shoot everyone who crosses his path until the gun is empty. There was no one else around. It was just him and me up against the façade of some grand residential building full of condos owned by foreigners who are never home.
I knew enough to keep walking. To show no fear. One learns over the years how to deal with the crazed. I knew not to look at this man in the eye and not to speak to him or to change my pace in the slightest. I fought my urge to know his story. I wanted very much to ask him “Why?” If he was going to kill me, I wanted to know why.
For once in my life, I kept my mouth shut and tried to become invisible. When he was five feet away, I looked down at the gun about to brush my knee. His finger was on the trigger, but his grip seemed easy, almost loose, and I began to think I would be safe as long as I kept moving and did not look up. Maybe he was just a man who rode the subway and walked the streets with a gun in his hand to intimidate muggers. Maybe someone had once jumped him and he’d be damned if he’d let it happen twice. Maybe someone had jumped his wife or his daughter. Maybe he wanted vengeance. What if I looked like the man he hated? What if I was suitable for evening a score? I looked down at the gun now a foot away from me. Maybe it is not even a real gun. How would I know a real gun from a fake one? I closed my eyes as he passed me. I knew I should not do so, but after a few seconds I turned to look at him. He was not looking back. He seemed not to have noticed me at all.
The rest of the trip home became a series of wonderful milestones. I’ve made it to the corner of our street. Past the building where the toddlers learn music. Past the prep school for surly rich boys in blue blazers. Past the fortune teller’s ground floor window with its dusty pink crystals on the inside sill. At our front door. The lock works. Through the second door. The elevator slowly and methodically opening itself up to me. And finally I am inside our place and I lock the door behind me. I turn on the lights and walk into the center of the room, taking note of everything in its place. The walls, the chairs, the table, the orchid. Nothing had happened. Why should I be feeling anything at all? He hadn’t even seen me. Hadn’t turned around. Didn’t even know I had passed him.
I looked at the umbrella left open on the floor to dry. One of its spokes had broken when someone on the crowded sidewalk had jousted it with his own earlier in the afternoon. I had arrived at the gym with one shoulder wet where the limp spoke had drizzled the rain. Tomorrow, I will buy a new one. A wider stronger one. Maybe something colorful rather than black. A simple task but one I can stretch into hours. Or days.