New Strings Attached

Yesterday I realized that the strings on my beloved acoustic guitar, the Alvarez cutaway (serial number 132930) I bought for $611 in 2000—-it’s my most valuable possession, if the place caught on fire, I’d scoop up the guitar, the Freud notebooks, and run-—I realized that they were ragged, frayed, decayed, they were cutting up my fingertips. I hadn’t changed them in too long.

I knew why. I’m not a musician, so the simple, infrastructural acts of caring for the instrument-—the tool that sustains your identity and your income—-don’t come naturally. In fact, they’re difficult, they’re daunting.

My old guitar teacher, Neil Nemetz of Lou Rose Music on Route 27 in Edison, New Jersey, he’s the guy who sold me his Ibanez Roadstar II, built in 1979, for a hundred bucks in 1999—-it’s worth a fortune—-would gleefully restring the Alvarez every month or so, and make a spectacle of himself as he did it in the showroom. He’s a professional musician and he has perfect pitch, as they say, so it took him five minutes to replace the strings, tune the guitar, and make the gathered crowd applaud his virtuosity.

When I moved to New York to escape everything about New Jersey, including my marriage, I was on my own, but with strings still attached. It took me an hour at least to do what Neil did in five minutes, what with the pliers and the pitchfork, and the proper winding technique. So I let the strings stay longer than they could sustain the sound I wanted.

Yesterday I was frustrated with other compositional barriers, so I said, to myself, “Who cares except you that it takes you an hour or more to change the strings on your guitar? Do this for your own sake. See what happens to the sound of the thing.”

I rummaged around and found some Gibson Brite Wires my brother had sent me as part of a birthday gift a year ago, I put the Alvarez across my lap, and I changed those strings, tuned it up, and I cried when I heard the new sound the instrument made. It took me an hour—-why not, it’s taken me a lifetime to learn to hear what’s worthwhile—-but the sound of that guitar when I was done was heartbreaking, all I had to do was play a chord and every memory of everything I had ever wanted came rushing into my throat, choking off my voice, forcing me back in time.

But then I said, to myself, “Oh for Chrissakes, get over it.” I started singing along with the Alvarez, and we sounded good. At any rate we were in tune–good enough.

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Jury Duty

I’m so desperate to get out of the Jurors Assembly Room (1121 at 111 Centre Street) that I use Yelp to find the nearest bar, to which I will flee as soon as the clerk announces we’re free to go to lunch at 12:30. The Whiskey Tavern, two short blocks away.

I order an IPA and a bowl of chili, and start reading David Palumbo-Liu’s screed at Salon on the Laura Kipnis Melodrama. I begin composing a response when a guy comes in, sits down next to me, asks the bartender for a shot and a beer. I have to look over because who does that anymore? He’s 20-something for God’s sake. Where did he learn that?

Then he puts his reading on the bar. Celine. I can’t help myself, I say, “Jury duty sucks.”

He says, “How did you know?”

“That’s serious reading, you need that if you’re sitting all day in the courthouse.”

“Yeah, I’m on a jury already.”

“You didn’t postpone?”

“No,” he says, “I’m gonna spend my 40 dollars a day here.”

“Well, you only get that if you’re not employed.” I’m being diplomatic.

“Oh. Oh, well.” He orders another Rolling Rock.

“What’s the job?”

“Software engineer,” he says. “I work for Fact Set, I write code for financial planning, like if you’re a mutual fund manager or something.”

“Why Celine?’

He looks at me quizzically; he wants to know why I ask.

“The violence, and the whoring,” he says.

“There is that.”

“Yeah,” he says, “and there’s the fact that they come for you when they need you. I mean, only when they need you. He was a doctor. He got seriously fucked around.”

“Well, yeah, because he was a fascist, among other things.”

“Yeah, but not much of one,“ he says. “Pretty lame. Anyway, he’s visceral, like Bukowski. I like that.”

“Yeah, visceral. No doubt about that. He wrote like shit. Both of them, I mean.”

I turn back to my reading and composition.

“My father was a plumber,” he says. I realize he wants to tell his life story. I acknowledge, to myself, that somehow I’m good at eliciting this kind of utterance, the cryptically autobiographical kind that demands my response as verification.

I want to say, “I don’t care,” but I don’t, I just wait.

“They only called him when they needed him,” he says, “and they fucked him around, like he was a servant or something. I went to Columbia. Nobody’s gonna do that to me.”

I relax, I say, “We all do our time. Not much of a choice, you know? It’s when we’re not bound by the past that we say ‘anything is possible’ and do stupid shit. So be careful out there.”

I finish my chili and escape the Whiskey Tavern.

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Like Paranoia, Piety Strikes Deep

David Palumbo-Liu is in high dudgeon (thank you, I’ve always wanted to say that about someone). He wants us to know that, unlike Laura Kipnis, David Brooks, and other backward types on campus and off, he takes the side of victims of sexual assault and harassment. He congratulates himself for this virtue several times in his Salon piece, and accordingly accuses Kipnis of lacking it: she is clearly indifferent to their plight, he says, even makes light of of it.

No? He doesn’t actually say that? Here’s the third paragraph:

“Since its publication in February of this year, Laura Kipnis’s essay, ‘Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,’ has not ceased to create controversy. Kipnis, a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University, asserts that new rules against faculty-student dating are playing to students’ exaggerated and self-destructive feelings of vulnerability, and attempting to legislate the sexual lives of adults. If students get hurt or harmed as a result of their liaisons with their teachers, Kipnis tells them to consider it a ‘life lesson.’ Thanks, Prof.”

To which there are only two rational responses: learn to read, or go fuck yourself. As Professor Palumbo-Liu himself notes, Kipnis recommends severe punishments (“chemical castration”) for sexual predators and oppressors on campus and off. She never suggests that student-professor sexual relations are normal, or normative. Why, then, this egregious misreading of her argument?

You’ll have to ask him.

It gets worse. Professor Palumbo-Liu stops making sense when he gets to what he treats as the literary or rhetorical part of the argument (for the record, he actually asked somebody on my Facebook page to define melodrama for him, I guess so he could muster this silly response).

“Kipnis seeds her essay with plenty of accusations [against whom, in particular?], ranging far and wide across a lot of terrain. But it would appear that, according to Kipnis, the most egregious thing those deeply concerned about sexual harassment and assault on campus are guilty of is the sin of being melodramatic. . . . If melodrama is a sin, or a symptom of something not psychically right, then Kipnis is just as prone to using melodramatic rhetoric as anyone. And that is a huge problem when we venture into the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus-—for many of the modes of expression that people use to help draw attention to these critical issues often end up in fact drawing attention away from them.”

Professor Palumbo-Liu thinks he’s ridiculing Kipnis here, but he’s actually hoisting himself on his own petard. He starts the essay by praising mattress–bearing protestors as “effective attention-getters.” Now he announces that they’re diverting attention from the “real issues.” But what are those issues? Sexual harassment and assault, of course.

Then he plunges deeper into the rhetorical mess of his own making. He says that Kipnis’s insouciant style has actually diminished the effect of her critique of campus culture-—and this after 90 days of public, angry, litigious debate about the content of her argument, an effect most of us would like, for good reasons, to have on political discourse. (The complainants now insist they were objecting to the “factual inaccuracies” in the February essay when they filed Title IX charges, which is itself an evasion of what Palumbo-Liu insists are the “real issues.”)

“I appreciate Kipnis’ attention to the issue, and her passionate investment. And I defend her right to speak and write about these issues without being censored or pilloried. What I am deeply troubled by is the way her rhetoric, meant to provoke, ends up obscuring whatever value her critique might offer and clouds the issue.”

There’s that issue again. How exactly does it get clouded by the rhetoric? Meanwhile, I still want to know about those accusations. Where are they? Against whom are they made? The investigators hired by Northwestern have dismissed the accusations of retaliation by the Title IX complainants. So I’m not getting it.

“No one is considering for a moment if Kipnis’ accusations [again, what accusations?] actually have any validity. And that is partly her fault. While Kipnis insists that these are not phantom issues [the issues of assault and harassment], the melodramatic mode of expression she chooses to use leeches them of substance and seriousness. She wants to have her cake and eat it too. And she does it by placing an awful lot of weight on the term ‘melodrama.’”

Hello? I’m still not getting it. First you’re befuddled by melodrama, and now it’s her fault that you are? This is beginning to sound too familiar. Maybe you want a trigger warning attached to rhetoric, very Platonic of you. And then, aha, here’s the deal-—just as her accusers complained because she didn’t write enough about them, Professor Palumbo-Liu has a standard of factual sufficiency to uphold:

“Kipnis never tells us what a ‘bona fide harasser’ might look like. Without providing us with any working definition for this central term, we are left without a clue as to what constitutes ‘real’ sexual harassment in her opinion.”

But then Kipnis doesn’t have to offer her opinion, because the actually existing codes carry exact definitions of sexual harassment—-she’s assuming we’ve all consulted our faculty handbooks on this question and proceeds with her argument, as if we’re all adults with some earned understanding of our workplaces.

Professor Paumbo-Liu concludes by missing the point entirely.

“Let’s leave Title IX aside for the moment. What many feel is really most important is to prevent sexual harassment and assault in the first place. And that is my major objection to Kipnis’ writings on the subject. . . . I wonder if she has spent any time with survivors of such harassment and violence, and one in every five college students can expect to be one. And that is a fact.”

And? Perhaps that is a fact. It has nothing to do with Kipnis’s essay, because, as the Columbia case illustrating Palumbo- Liu’s own essay strongly suggests, the real issue of sexual harassment or violence on campuses is a matter of sexual relations among students, not between students and professors.

And there is more to say about the logic of Professor Palumbo-Liu’s argument. It operates under the unspoken rubric of aiding and abetting the enemy. It’s the same inane logic that permits the gleefully malevolent Amanda Marcotte to claim that Kipnis’s concerns about Title IX merely amplify right-wing criticisms of the welfare state, and to suggest further that Kipnis has disarmed feminism as such by criticizing its new incarnation on campuses.

Kipnis never proposed to dismantle Title IX, and never diverted our attention from the issue of sexual harassment or assault. Instead, she asked whether the new structure of feeling on campus could let independence, individuality, insurgent ideas, or sexuality itself grow and thrive. Her troubled answer was, probably not.

Call that structure of feeling whatever you want, it’s real and it’s formative. To question it may well validate the claims of libertarians and right-wing critics of the university as a secular city devoted to knowledge for its own sake.

But to leave that structure intact, beyond reproach, is a much worse offense. For to do so is to cede our futures as intellectuals—-students and faculty alike—-to those who make a living by policing the boundaries of thought. It is to accept the bureaucratization of our imaginations.

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An Edifying Exchange

I can report that most of the emails Laura Kipnis has received about her recent Title IX ordeal have been supportive. By far. One interesting twist, though, is the split on the right wing of the political spectrum–where some celebrate her for fighting what they call “political correctness,” and some denounce her for creating what they perceive as the strange new world of campus activism. Here’s a lovely example of the latter. Read from the bottom up, of course, where you will see why this correspondent uses a pseudonym–or whatever he calls it.

On Tue, Jun 2, 2015 at 1:39 PM, Laura Kipnis wrote:

Drop dead.

On Jun 2, 2015, at 10:21 AM, Jean-Baptiste Jourdan wrote:

> Professor –
> You were more than happy to exercise left-wing power on your and your movement’s behalf, and have now discovered reasonableness and the importance of free speech and due process only because you are now targeted. I spent too long at Cal amongst your kind to not know that.
> Nothing you speak of is any different from what has been obviously happening in universities around the country for years now.
> As a tenured professor at one of these universities, you have participated directly in these earlier oppressive tactics and knowingly and intentionally participated in them, including ensuring that grad students and new professors have the right views.
> To note that is not, as Rod Dreher warned against “taking pleasure in watching left-wing feminists devour their own.”
> It’s recognizing the difference between the true victims and the outrage of an oppressor high on the power of a victorious ideology who has found herself suddenly off-side.
> I was once very much like you, very much. Something happened that was a shock to my system that forced me to reflect. While, given the tone of your writings on this ordeal, I don’t have much hope that this will happen to you, it’s possible.
> All I can say is grab that little flickering flame and run to it. Believe me, the future you will thank you for it.
> “Jourdan”
> ps: I’d explain why I use a psuedonym, but I think you already know very well why. Well, now at least.

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Break Your Mother’s Back

The Wild Olive is a funky grocery store on 125th Street between Madison and 5th Ave. It’s pretty tiny, it specializes in organic meats and snacks (kale cookies, aack), and it smells like somebody’s smoking weed in the back room. I don’t know, maybe it’s the incense the guy next door burns on the sidewalk to alert you to the T-shirts he’s displaying on the cyclone fence, all of them featuring Che, Malcolm, or Michael Jackson.

Whatever the source, it smells better than any grocery store in the neighborhood—-better than the Whole Foods on 124th will when it opens—-and it’s a friendly place. The deli is always crowded because the sandwiches are massive, the cole slaw is wonderful, and the guys behind the counter are genuinely funny as they go about their business, making you think they must like what they do for a living.

Yesterday I walked over there to buy some wild shrimp to make ceviche, something I haven’t done in years: a different kind of dinner for my girlfriend, who hasn’t been here since I bought my Latin Percussion drum, another new departure. On my way there, I noticed a homeless guy resting on a stoop between Lenox and Marcus Garvey Park (Mount Morris Park to those of Jamaican descent, go figure).

He seemed real tired. If I didn’t know he was homeless—-I’ve seen him sleeping under the scaffolding that hovers over the S.A.D. Deli, you read that right, or on the handicapped ramp to the Seventh Day Adventist Church at 123rd and Lenox (originally a Dutch Reformed church, built in 1886, a limestone monument)-—I would’ve said he was depressed. He was bent over, sagging, banging listlessly on the Obama phone he held between his legs, holding it far enough away to read the digits or the messages, whatever he couldn’t see.

I wanted to stop and ask if I could help him with the phone, or the larger problem that clearly plagued him, but I didn’t because I felt I’d be intruding on a private moment. Maybe he was talking to his children, his wife, his brother. I passed on, crossed over the park, and started revising my shopping list, because you never know what The Wild Olive has in store.

It wasn’t crowded, I got the shrimp and tomatoes and cucumbers I needed in no time, also bought some ham and bacon without nitrates (Applegate), and visited the deli for comic relief. There I impulsively acquired a quart of cole slaw and some risotto, accompaniments for the spectacular ceviche I’d be preparing.

On the way back, I was thinking I’d get some miniature Coronas for my girlfriend—-she likes light beer heavily seasoned with lime-—at the S.A.D. deli, and I was just turning onto 123rd, headed west, when I saw the homeless guy heave himself off his rest stop, still drooping, pretty shaky. I didn’t mean to catch up to him, but he was moving slowly, of course he was, he’s homeless and he’s depressed about something other (more?) than being homeless.

Then I fall in behind him because I can see that he’s dancing, he’s adjusting his frail, shuffling gait to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk—-he’s mincing his steps, side to side, back and forth, longer stride, whatever it takes to make sure he lands inside a square, not on a boundary.

I follow him most of the block, and I do it step for step, because I know what he’s trying to prevent, some catastrophe that’s already happened, the disaster neither of us is able or willing to remember. Finally he gives up, exhausted, he steps into the street, bearing his three duffel bags and my bad faith.

Me, too, I can’t do it anymore. I duck into the S.A.D. deli to buy those Coronas.

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A Gun To My Head

During my three years wasted at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin, I survived the football team, the fraternity I joined, and the gunfight in Madison.

I went there to play football, but I knew I wanted to be a writer, somehow, so I quit the team a week before the first game. Also, I was slightly distracted by the knowledge that my high school girlfriend was pregnant. That worked out—-not in the way you’re thinking—-and meanwhile I pledged a fraternity.

The fraternity was a locker room writ large, a good way to ease myself into the life of an ex-jock. Everybody got to be exactly the asshole he wanted to be in high school. Me, too. Mainly I wanted to read and sulk and drink some more, like real writers did. I never went to class, but I took the tests, and I filled dozens of notebooks with short stories, sketches, poems, overtures to novels—-hundreds of earnest, disposable pages I left in a dumpster on my way out of Wisconsin.

After three years my grade point average was 0.75, and I had 60 hours of credit. (I hadn’t been drafted because my lottery number was 296.) I was a combination of town drunk and court jester—-an amiable ironist—-except that I kept getting in fights with both townies and fraternity brothers. I put one of the brothers in the hospital by kicking him in the face after I floored him with a lucky right cross. (He had nearly run me over with his car earlier that night, in a panicked flight from a local bar.) Another one of the brothers stopped this assault by choking me like a cop does, until I was unconscious.

Finally the dean of students, a former Air Force pilot whose office bristled with plastic models of jet fighters—-of course he barked every sentence as if it were an order—-expelled me.

But not before the gunfight in Madison.

My last year at Carthage, I was the rush chairman of the fraternity, which means you recruit pledges in the fall semester, and then shepherd the little bastards through their ordeal—-their hazing and initiation-—in the spring. It was the last time I took any responsibility in an administrative position until, thirty years later, I became vice-chair of graduate education in the department of History at Rutgers University.

One of the outworn traditions my fraternity nurtured was the walk-out, a weekend excursion when the pledges “kidnap” a brother and head out of town, to be followed, maybe, by active members in a pantomime of a medieval carnival, when the peasants turned the world upside down. The kidnapped brother was John Phillips, who would be my best man the first time I got married-—to that high school girlfriend—-and who, after a career at Johnson Wax which placed him in London for three years as the director of Human Resources, would end his life in an advanced state of dementia, bagging groceries in Racine, Wisconsin.

I went along for the ride as the rush chairman, but, unlike a chaperone at a bachelor party, I was a participant-observer, an anthropologist avant la lettre. There is nothing to focus the mind so well as a ritualized binge.

I was in the lead car with Phillips and three pledges (there were four cars and seventeen guys altogether). We pulled into a parking deck in downtown Madison, our destination, and just as we swung into a space, a car full of drunken townies cut us off. A promising start!

We pile out of the car and start mixing it up with these shitheads, but it’s an even match, more like a scrum than a brawl, and nothing like what you’ve seen on screen. In these situations, you tend to square off, back off, and let the really angry guys draw blood. And so it devolved that night. Nobody was much interested in getting bloody, one way or the other.

But then one of them opens the trunk, straps on a holster, pulls out a gun, a real revolver, an old-time six-shooter, and fires a shot in the air.

“Now what, motherfuckers?” he says as the concrete replies with thunderous approval.

We quickly agree that the parking space is theirs. By this time our flotilla of cars has filled out, but not even seventeen drunken frat boys—-we had a cooler of beer in each car for the trip from Kenosha—-are stupid enough to charge a man with a loaded gun. So we find another parking deck and choose a bar. An hour later we’re laughing about this uncanny event.

A couple of the pledges are from Madison, and they recommend we head for a roadhouse east of town. “They got music, dancing, women, or we could start a fight,” one of them explains.

So we head out on a four-lane highway, Phillips is driving and I’m riding shotgun. We’re still laughing when the shitheads whiz past us. The guy with the gun is waving it out the passenger window as if he’s a cowboy shooting up a cattle town in a bad Western. For some reason, Phillips accelerates and pulls up alongside the other car—-he doesn’t yell anything, he just looks over at the guy with the gun, then slows down.

Their driver slows down, too, so we’re neck and neck, and the guy with the gun raises it, points it at us, and smiles. This time Phillips flips him the bird and speeds off. Now it’s a car chase right out of “Bullitt” or “The French Connection,” but we’re by far the faster vehicle and there’s no other traffic.

“Why the fuck did you do that, John, are you fucking crazy?” I scream this over the impossible sound of the engine, a 1965 Chevy Malibu, a four-barrel V8 with 220 horsepower.

He doesn’t respond, he’s concentrating too hard on driving. One of the pledges in the back seat yells “Your turn is coming up on the right, you’ll see the sign, it’s like a dirt road!” Phillips cuts the lights.

I look back, no headlights coming over the hill, so as Phillips makes the turn, I’m hoping we’ve lost the shitheads. We careen into the parking lot and scramble out of the car, but here they come, spitting dirt and gravel as they spin past the tall grass that surrounds the place.

I say “Run!” and the pledges take off. Phillips and I watch as the guy with the gun gets out of the car and walks toward us, no smile now. We back toward the exterior wall of the bar, our hands instinctively raised, I look over at John and think, “Don’t do anything stupid,” and I realize I’m addressing myself.

The guy says, “I got a gun, don’t you get that? What, you gonna outsmart me, college boys? Gonna outrun the bullet? You think this is a movie?”

Now he’s close. I notice that nobody except him has left the car, and it’s still running. I also notice that he’s pointing the revolver at my forehead, and that the distance between the barrel and my face is approximately 18 inches. That puts him roughly five feet away from me. These are the mundane calculations you make when there’s a gun to your head.

And I notice that Phillips, four feet to my left, is inching away from me. The guy moves the barrel of the gun to John’s forehead and says, “Stand still motherfucker, I swear I’ll fucking kill you.”

I take a baby step to my right and the barrel swings back, the guy says, “I’m a kill you too,” and now I’m wondering if he really means it. I think, “Am I going to die here in Madison, Wisconsin, on a field trip with my fraternity brothers? What’s the matter with me? Why am I here?” These are the questions you ask yourself when there’s a gun to your head.

Phillips moves again, and I slump a little as the barrel moves back toward him because now I know we’re both dead, but then John grabs the guy’s wrist and points the gun up, just like in the movies, and, just like at the movies, I watch the scene unfold as if I’m not in it, as if slow motion is real time, then finally I reach out and grab the guy’s other wrist, step backward, start pulling him to his left, swinging him in a close arc, hammer-throw style, just one circuit until his face hits the driver’s side door of the car he came in.

He falls backward, more or less unconscious, into my arms, so I heave him onto the hood of the car face down. I turn around, I’m about to faint, and there’s Phillips twirling the six-shooter like he’s a gunfighter. Nobody in the car has moved.

“What the fuck, John, what the fuck was that? You almost got me killed, man, Jesus fucking Christ, what, are you crazy? This is not the wild fucking West, this is fucking Wisconsin, you understand me?”

“You can have the holster,” Phillips says, “I’m taking the gun.”

The guy on the hood of the car stirs, he turns over, he moans, he says, “Can I have my gun, man, it’s like an heirloom, you know, it’s been in my family a long time, it’s kind of important to me, you know what I mean?”

I laugh hysterically, I’m still about to faint. I look over at Phillips, and then back at the heir apparent, and I decide to beat the shit out of the guy without the gun. I start, but I stop because John says, “Enough, leave him alone, we got the gun.”

I left Wisconsin for good two months later. I didn’t see Phillips again until I got married, but we corresponded meanwhile—-I still have his letters from Camp Lejeune, where he completed basic infantry training for the Marine Corps, calling it “a teenagers’ race war” organized by the officers in their midst.

After the wedding, though, I never saw him again. I tracked his wife down 30 years later, when I heard from an old fraternity brother that John was dead, of dementia. I asked her how it was toward the end.

She said, “It was pretty bad. He didn’t know me. The kids, either. Everybody was a stranger. Even the brothers who visited, David, Tommy. . . . Nothing.”

I asked about the gun. She said, “Yeah, he kept it all these years. Must’ve told that story a million times . . . Always said he was glad it was you there alongside him, because you were the crazy one.”

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The Rat Man’s Crisis of Faith

The super for the building right across the street from mine is Greg the Rat Man, a dedicated killer but also a diligent student of the rodents from Norway who share our streets and subways. He hunts them, I guess you’d say, so he’s become an expert on their habits. He told me one morning that hundreds of deadly bacteria live on the tongue of every rat.

“Imagine that motherfucker bite you,” he said.

Last time I saw him in action it was midnight on 124th between Lenox and 7th Ave, when he rolled up the wrong way (westbound) in his grey Impala as if to arrest me, popped the trunk, and started baiting his traps with Kosher hotdogs.

“I’m a kill these motherfuckers, every last one of ‘em,” he announced. In the outer dark, on the other side of the street where the rehab center sits and the junkies gather every morning, I could see a dozen rats scampering, and I wondered if this hero could conquer that horde.

I said, “I dunno, Greg, there’s a lot of these motherfuckers.” I gestured toward the real thing moving at the edge of the industrial light. “These aren’t windmills.”

He said, “I got determination. I got faith.” He held up one of the traps. “I got equipment.”

Since that midnight, Greg has had a crisis of faith. Always the skeptic, and ever the athlete—-he now rides bikes in competitive events-—he’s been watching a lot of TV and ridiculing the religion he was raised in, asking everybody within range why science fiction isn’t a better answer to his ontological questions than God.

Everybody on the block says he’s different, and they always preface their remarks with something like, “He used to be wild, now he’s just crazy.”

This morning I moved my car to his side of the street and watched as he swept the sidewalk of his building. Mike the doorman of my building came over, and we passed the time, waiting for the moment when parking tickets can’t be issued.

“I watch that ‘Cosmos’ shit,” Greg says, “Man, that shit is heavy, I bought the DVD, that’s what my kids gonna watch, fuck this Sunday mornin’ bullshit, shit I was raised on, they gonna see the truth.”

I’m desperate to light a cigarette, but instead I stupidly say, “Yeah, the truth, and that’s gonna change, too, isn’t it, as the physicists change their minds about how we got here, why not send ‘em to church?”

Greg looks angry, he says “You believe in evolution?”

“Yeah, I believe in evolution, whatever the fuck that’s worth these days,” I say, “What, you think we’re descended from Martians, interstellar visitors and shit?”

“I teach my kids humanity, not this race and that race,” he says, I can tell he’s even more angry because he jabs his finger at me. “We all one kind of people,” he says.

“Fine with me,” I say, and hope the conversation is over, I don’t need to piss anybody else off.

“You believe in religion?,” he says, and now I can see that his crisis of faith will never be private, he might as well be a politician. It’s Charles Darwin versus Pat Robertson.

Mike the doorman backs away, into the street, between the cars, he can see that Greg wants a fight, but me, I’m not worried, I can see that the man wants an intellectual skirmish of the kind that I grew up on.

“You believe in dreams?” I say, “You believe in art?”

Greg says, “What kind of art?”

“Any kind,” I say, “The worst, the best, you think it’s necessary, it’s what we do because we’re human?”

“And those dreams,” I continue, if that is the right word, because by this time I’m pretty agitated, almost apoplectic, “what about them, are they real, do we have them or don’t we?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Greg says, “OK, art and dreams—-“

“Well religion and art and dreams live by the same logic, you wanna do without one, then do without the others, stop pretending science explains every goddamn thing, it’s a reaction formation for Chrissakes, it has no better purchase on reality than art or religion because it creates fucking reality for fuck’s sake.”

Like I said, I was pretty agitated.

Greg says, “You know, that makes sense.”

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