Sat 31 Oct 2009
Fri 30 Oct 2009
The Roman stoic Seneca (5 BC to 65 AD) was a philosopher and statesman whose writings have made to our own day in several forms, including a Penguin Great Ideas series. The slender volume On The Shortness of Life, Life is Long if You Know How to Use It is three sections full of gems. Is the life we get in fact not short – we just make it seem so? This from the first section, which is along letter to his friend Paulinus, On the Shortness of Life:
But life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future. When they come to the end of it, the poor wretches realize too late that for all time they have been preoccupied in doing nothing. And the fact that they sometimes invoke death is no proof that their lives seem long. Their own folly afflicts them with restless emotions which hurl themselves upon the very things they fear: they often long for death because they fear it. Nor is this a proof that they are living for a long time that the days seems long to them, or that they complain that the hours pass slowly until the time fixed for dinner arrives. For as soon as their preoccupations fail them, they are restless with nothing to do, not knowing how to dispose of their leisure or make the time pass. And so they are anxious for something else to do, and all the intervening time is wearisome: really it is just as when a gladiator show has been announced, or they are looking forward to the appointed time of some other exhibition or amusement – they want to leap over the days in between. Any deferment of the longed-for event is tedious to them. Yet the time of the actual enjoyment is short and swift, and made much shorter through their own fault. For they dash from one pleasure to another and cannot stay steady in one desire. Their days are not long but odious…
Even their pleasures are uneasy and made anxious by various fears, and at the very height of their rejoicing the worrying thought steals over them: ‘How long will this last?’ This feeling has caused kings to bewail their power, and they were not much delighted by the greatness of their fortune as terrified by the thought of its inevitable end. When that most arrogant king of Persia [Xerxes, ed.] was deploying his army over vast plains, and could not number it but had to measure it, he wept because in a hundred years out of that huge army not a soul would be alive. But he who was weeping was the very man who would bring their fate upon them, and would destroy some on the sea, some on land, some in battle, some in flight, and in a very short time would wipe out all of those for whose hundredth year he was afraid.
And what of the fact that even their joys are uneasy? The reason is that they are not based on firm causes, but they are agitated as groundlessly as they arise. But what kind of times can those be, do you think, which they themselves admit are wretched, since even the joys by which they are exalted and raised above humanity are pretty corrupt? All the greatest blessings create anxiety, and Fortune is never less to be trusted than when it is fairest. To preserve prosperity we need other prosperity, and to support the prayers which have turned out well we have to make other prayers. Whatever comes our way by chance is unsteady, and the higher it rises the more liable it is to fall. Furthermore, what is doomed to fall delights no one.
Thu 29 Oct 2009
With these guys on patrol all over Afghanistan, and not a few of them coming back to Dover in the middle of the night, it’s good to remember that to many people, green has nothing to do with eco-anything or money and the parts it fools fools it parts from, except within the idea of protecting the liberty inherent to those conceits.
Their official motto, De Oppresso Liber, to liberate the oppressed, is truly something to contemplate. It gets complicated when you begin to unravel all of the absolutes necessary to project force with the tender skin and bones of actual men across the globe. Belief goes beyond believing, and into the land reserved for religion and reverence. And craven beings that we are, we can’t help but corrupt the selflessness of the display with all manner of politics and nationalism, righteousness and relativism that surely crushes most missions to liberate the oppressed. It’s almost impossible, but our war-making sanction, which we mistake for nature, animates so many elements of public policy that we put ourselves at the mercy of our warrior impulses. Oppressed by these very tendencies, how might we be liberated?
So while I can revel in the fact that our mighty militaristic capabilities may indeed build some bridges out of the energy morass, we shouldn’t forget those young guys, bearded against regulation but for their own protection, walking around villages and laying wait in poppy fields – scared, nervous, confident, well-armed, lost, found, known, unsure, fit, tired and certain in the face of but one of our every-present, shadowy enemies. Go ahead and try harder than them to do something impossible.
Wed 28 Oct 2009
A friend was telling me recently how, even as Montana enjoys a reputation as a sort of great outdoors Shangra la, in actuality it has been methodically raped for its resources without concern or recourse for the environmental damage that has followed. Significant portions of the state are highly polluted from coal and gold mining, which until ten years ago utilized cyanide in the process and of course resulted in incidents of cyanide-tainted ground water. Push back on environmental issues in Montana has traditionally come from land-owners, though often their interests are as tainted as the ground they seek to protect.
So there are all kinds of fictions about the Big Sky state floating around, plus they’ve given us the wit and wisdom of Max Baucus to add to the healthcare debate. Actually, his wisdom knows no bounds, as Baucus steps up to pontificate on how we should go about dithering on global warming, too. via Grist, it seems that the beetles eating Montana’s trees don’t care if Baucus believes the planet is warming or not. cue munching sound:
One part of the media focused on the real story that Montanans are increasingly concerned about: Climate change is already hitting their state hard now and is poised to devastate it utterly. American Public Media’s Marketplace has be done a terrific multipart series on climate change, which can be accessed here, along with a map of how different regions of the country are being affected now and how they are likely to be hit in the future.
The first piece “Climate change in our own backyards,” tells the amazing story of the warming-driven bark beetle infestation around Helena. And yes, this is the same exact story that the NYT screwed up in July (see “Signs of global warming are everywhere, but if the New York Times can’t tell the story (twice!), how will the public hear it?“).
The article is complete with pretty pictures and ’sustainability reporters’. But this is a good reminder to watch out for the dueling rationales that pop up for the millions of acres of dying trees across the mountain west. Climate change denial is one thing – some people just choose to rather not believe it. And skepticism has its privileges. But what happens when actual people begin experiencing things like this? Will it get more difficult to concoct gymnastic reasons that place the blame on immigrants, or does Occam get a seat on the city council?
Tue 27 Oct 2009
So… banks are experiencing a priapism that just won’t shrink.
Sixty per cent of the people support a cap-and-trade bill.
Everybody loves the public option.
Much larger CRE defaults than expected are predicted.
Recession for all means depression for many.
So… what’s happening with all of this? Our green compass has definitely lost its magnetic north Franklin, or the device has been broken down and sold as parts. Now what? Do we know the way to San Jose?
Like an uncle’s hand on your knee, it’s funny that we assume and perhaps long for a return to normal – when that’s the last place we need to go. How many times will we lurch back toward something that holds nothing but FAIL before we realize the futility and set out in a frightening new direction? The truth is we’re already headed there; all the above plus anything you read in newspixels are signs of this. Remember the change-thingy?
The whole arrangement – not impure for any reason, political or other, besides it simply could not last – is shifting. We’re waking up slowly, trying to see things the same way, but they are already different. And that’s unsettling. An economy that makes money off of money is a fabulously faulty set-up; it entices innovation that is self-immolating of the whole. Then we stand back, gape and wonder who was to blame. These would be lessons in any other context; what we will call them now, it’s hard to tell because we are attempting to see them through eyes that want to make the best of what’s left rather than use the knowledge to change what we see. We only want to adjust our vision, but it’s semantic optometry at best.
An example, as private equity firms rush to cash in on green tech. They are attempting to extend exactly the same cycle that brought us such hits as health insurance companies, credit default swaps and off balance sheet transactions: shareholder value is given precedence over actual value, much less social value. The model must be tied to it’s own failings, then we won’t have to crush it. Remember triple bottom line? This stuff is not as hard as it is different. Different from the way we have been doing business up until now, which is taking care of business, not people or planet.
If you don’t do all three, taking care of the one doesn’t work.
Fri 23 Oct 2009
If Charles Bukowski needs an introduction, it’ll not come from me. I’ll just say that if I had the time, I would put the whole text of the novel Factotum up in this one post. Unluckily for you, all you get is this story that appeared in CREEM Magazine in 1975. It’s called Jaggernaut.
They opened on the 9th at the Forum and I went to the track the same day. The track is right across from the Forum and I looked over as I drove in and thought, well, that’s where it’s going to be. Last time I had seen them was at the Santa Monica Civic. It was hot at the track and everybody was sweating and losing. I was hungover but got off well. A track is some place to go so you won’t stare at the walls and whack-off, or swallow ant poison. You walk around and bet and wait and look at the people and when you look at the people long enough you begin to realize that it’s bad because they are everywhere, but it’s bearable because you adjust somewhat, feeling more like another piece of meat in the tide than if you had stayed home and read Ezra, or Tom Wolfe or the financial section.
The tracks aren’t what they used to be: full of hollering drunks and cigar smokers, and girls sitting at the side Benches and showing leg all the way up to the panties. I think times are much harder than the government tells us. The government owes their balls to the banks and the banks have over-lent to businessmen who can’t pay it back because the people can’t buy what business sells because an egg costs a dollar and they’ve only got 50 cents. The whole thing can go overnight and you’ll find red flags in the smokestacks and Mao t-shirts walking through Disneyland, or maybe Christ will come back wheeling a golden bike, front wheel 12-to-one ratio to rear. Anyhow, the people are desperate at the track; it has become the job, the survival, the cross…instead of the lucky lark. And unless you know exactly what you’re doing at a racetrack, how to read and play a toteboard, re-evaluate the trackman’s morning line and eliminate the sucker money from the good money, you aren’t going to win, you aren’t going to win but one time in ten trips to the track. People on their last funds, on their last unemployment check, on borrowed money, stolen money, desperate stinking diminishing money are getting dismantled forever out there, whole lifetimes pissed away, but the, state gets an almost 7 percent tax cut on each dollar, so it’s legal. I am better than most out there because I have put more study into it. The racetrack to me is like the bullfights were to Hemingway — a place to study death and motion and your own character or lack of it. By the 9th race I was $50 ahead, put $40 to win on my horse and walked to the parking lot. Driving in I heard the result of the last race on the radio — my horse had come in 2nd.
I got on in, took a hot bath, had a joint, had 2 joints (bombers), drank some white wine, Blue Nun, had 7 or 8 bottles of Heineken and wondered about the best way to approach a subject that was holy to a lot of people, the still young people anyhow. I liked the rock beat; I still liked sex; I liked the raising high roll and roar and reach of rock, yet I got a lot more out of Bee, and Mahler and Ives. What rock lacked was the total layers of melody and chance that just didn’t have to chase itself after it began, like a dog trying to bite his ass off because he’d eaten hot peppers. Well, I’d try. I finished off the Blue Nun, dressed, had another joint and drove back on out. I was going to be late.
S.O. And the parking lot was full. I circled around and found the closest street to park in — at least a half mile away.
I got out and began to walk. Manchester. The street was full of private residents behind iron bars with guards. And funeral homes. Others were walking in. But not too many. It was late. I walked along thinking, shit, it’s too far, I ought to turn back. But I kept walking. About halfway down Manchester (on the south side) I found a golf course that had a bar and I walked in. There were tables. And golfers, satisfied golfers drinking slowly. There was a daylight golf course but these kitties had been shooting for distance on the straight range under the electric lights. Through the glass back of the bar you could still see a few others out there Jerking off golfballs under the moon. I had a girl with me. She ordered a bloody mary and I ordered a screwdriver. When my belly’s going bad vodka soothes me and my belly’s always going bad. The waitress asked the girl for her I.D. She was 24 and it pleased her. The bartender had a cheating, chalky dumb face and poured 2 thin drinks. Still it was cool and gentle in there.
“Look,” I said, “why don’t we just stay in here and get drunk? Fuck the STONES. I mean, I can make up some kind of story: went to see the STONES, got drunk in a golfcourse bar, pewked, broke a table…knitted a palm tree towel, caught cancer. Whatcha think?”
“Sounds all right.”
When women agree with me I always do the other thing. I paid up and we left. It was still quite a walk. Then we were angling across the parking lot. Security cars drove up and down. Kids leaned against cars smoking joints and drinking cheap wine. Beer cans were about. Some whiskey bottles. The younger generation was no longer pro-dope and anti-alcohol — they had caught up with me: they used it all. When 27 nations would soon know how to use the hydrogen bomb it hardly made sense to preserve your health. The girl and I, our tickets were for seats that were separated. I got her pointed in the direction of her seat and then walked over to the bar. Prices were reasonable. I had two fast drinks, got my ticket stub out, put it in my hand and walked toward the noise. A large chap drunk on cheap wine ran toward me telling me that his wallet had been stolen. I lifted my elbow gently into his gut and he bent over and began to vomit.
I tried to find my section and my aisle. It was dark and light and blaring. The usher screamed something about where my seat was but I couldn’t hear and waved him off. I sat down on the steps and lit a cigarette. Mick was down there in some kind of pajamas with little strings tied around his ankles. Ron Wood was the rhythm guitarist replacing Mick Taylor; Billy Preston was really shooting-off at the keyboard; Keith Richards was on lead guitar and he and Ron were doing some sub-glancing lilting highs against each other’s edges but Keith held a firmer more natural ground, albeit an easy one which allowed Ron to come in and play back against shots and lobs at his will. Charlie Watts on tempo seemed to have joy but his center was off to the left and falling down. Bill Wyman on bass was the total professional holding it all together over the bloody Thames-Forum.
The piece ended and the usher told me that I was over on the other side, on the other side of row N. Another number began. I walked up and around. Every seat was taken. I sat down next to row N and watched the Mick work. I sensed a gentility and grace and desperateness in him, and still some of the power: I shall lead you children the shit out of here.
Then a female with big legs came down and brushed her hip against my head. An usher. Grotch, grotch, double luck. I showed her my stub. She moved out the kid on the end seat. I felt guilty and sat down on it. A huge balloon cock rose from the center of the stage, it must have been 70 feet high. The rock rocked, the cock rocked.
This generation loves cocks. The next generation we’re going to see huge pussies, guys jumping into them like swimming pools and coming out all red and blue and white and gold and gleaming about 6 miles north of Redondo Beach.
Anyhow, Mick grabbed this cock at the bottom (and the screams really upped) and then Mick began to bend that big cock toward the stage, and then he crawled along it (living that time) and he kept moving toward the head, and then he kept getting nearer and then he grabbed the head.
The response was symphonic and beyond.
The next bit began. The guy next to me started again. This guy rocked and bobbed and rocked and rolled and flickered and rotor-rooted and boggled no matter what was or wasn’t. He knew and loved his music. An insect of the inner-beat. Each hit with him was the big hit. Selectivity was Non-comp with him. I always drew one of these.
I went to the bar for another drink and after getting this kid out of my $12.50 seat again, there was Mick, he’d put his foot in a stirrup and now he was holding to a rope and he was way out and swinging back and forth over the heads of his audience, and he didn’t look too steady up there waving back and forth, I didn’t know what he was on, but for the sake of his bi-sexual ass and the heads he was going to fall upon I was glad when they reeled him back in.
Mick wore down after that, decided to change pajamas and sent out Billy Preston who tried to cheese and steal the game from the Jag and almost did, he was fresh and full of armpit and job and jog, he wanted to bury and replace the hero, he was nice, he did an Irish jig painted over in black, I even liked him, but you knew he didn’t have the final send-off, and you must have guessed that Mick knew it too as he buried wet ice under his armpits and ass and mind backstage. Mick came out and finished with Preston. They almost kissed, wiggling assholes. Somebody threw a brace of firecrackers into the crowd. They exploded just properly. One guy was blinded for life; one girl would have a cataract over the left eye forever; one guy would never hear out of one ear. 0.K., that’s circus, it’s cleaner than Vietnam.
Bouquets fly. One hits Mick in the face. Mick tries to stamp out a big ball balloon that lands on stage. He can’t push his foot through it. One saddens. Mick runs over, jumps up, kicks one of his fiddlers in the ass. The fiddler smokes a smile back, gently, full of knowledge: like, the pay is good.
The stage weighs 40 elephants and is shaped like a star. Mick gets out on the edge of the star; he gets each bit of audience alone, that section alone, and then he takes the mike away from his face and he forms his lips into the silent sound: FUCK YOU. They respond.
The edge of the star rises, Mick loses his balance, rolls down to stage center, losing his mike.
There’s more. I get the taste for the ending. Will it be “Sympathy for the Devil”? Will it be like at the Santa Monica Civic? Bodies pressing down the aisles and the young football players beating the shit out of the rock-tasters? To keep the sanctuary and the body and the soul of the Mick intact? I got trapped down there among ankles and cunt hairs and milk bodies and cotton-candy minds. I didn’t want more of that. I got out. I got out when all the lights went on and the holy scene was about to begin and we were to love each other and the music and the Jag and the rock and the knowledge.
I left early. Outside they seemed bored. There were any number of titless blonde young girls in t-shirts and jeans. Their men were nowhere. They sat upon the ends of bumpers, most of the bumpers attached to campers. The titless young blonde things in t-shirts and jeans. They were listless, stoned, unexcited but not vicious. Little tight-butted girls with pussies and loves and flows.
So I walked on down to the car. The girl was in the back seat asleep. I got in and drove off. She awakened. I was going to have to send her back to New York City. We weren’t making it. She sat up.
“I left early. That shit is finally deadening,” she said.
“Well, the tickets were free.”
“You going to write about it?”
“I don’t know. I can’t get any reaction, I can’t get any reaction at all.”
“Let’s get something to eat,” she said.
“Yeah, well, we can do that.”
I drove north on Crenshaw looking for a nice place where you could get a drink and where there wasn’t any music of any kind. It was 0.K. if the waitress was crazy as long as she didn’t whistle.
Thu 22 Oct 2009
Seven months after first trying to re-brand congressional climate change legislation as an “energy tax,” Senate Republicans were back at it today with a new report and op-ed that attempts to expose the climate bill as a “$3.6 trillion gas tax.”
Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Kit Bond (R-MO) gathered outside the Capitol today, flanked by aides wearing black stickers imprinted with the slogan “CAP & TRADE = GAS TAX,” to promote a new report [PDF] that presents their “gas tax” assertions.
There’s plenty of reasons at the link why this re-branding is lame, wrong and just might work (hey, there’s slogan!). But holy Chateau D’ what If, batman, what if that proposition was granted? That even though the numbers don’t support it, what if the climate bill was construed as a gas tax ( you know, the gas tax that’s actually needed)? Now, Bailey, Hutchinson et al are doing it simply on the basis of knowing that Amur’cans will reject any tax out of hand, especially a gas tax. But, and this is where we could really use the guile of Edmond Dantes, the only way we’re going slip the chains of present usage and wastage is if the price of energy – and the cost of wasting it – goes up. Land use and urban planning will follow, not lead, this curve. So their ploy might be doubly-ingenious, and may be we protest too much by rejecting it out of hand. Look at the arc of the health care bill; can the lies permeate and end up producing a stronger bill?
Wed 21 Oct 2009
Way less. Of everything. Isn’t that what greater efficiency in allocating increasingly scarce resources – and why we’re opposed to it – is all about? We’re scared of being poor. Any way we slice any of the barometers – peak oil, greenhouse gases, climate change… this seems to be why we (Americans) oppose any remedies – they will necessarily lower our quality of life, which to us means necessarily less stuff. Considering the literal impact of that statement, this is saying quite a lot. I always make the point that by driving less, eating less, living in cities and towns instead of ‘burbs, we’ll be changing the things we should want to change. Like Gang of Four sings – open up up the till and give me the change you said would do me good. Well, this is it.
Okay, so not everyone agrees that less stuff would be better. Some posit that we’re the best and this is the best it’s ever been. Driving, getting enraged by talk radio, slurping H-F corn syrup, ahh… passion and freedom twisted around Zion, with sprinkles. Not only that, some think, nay fear, that this is the best things’ll ever be and agitators like me are just trying to bring you all down. whatever. I am. Your mileage may vary on what qualifies as ‘down,’ and the case could be made that this qualitative dissonance is source of many ills. Unless we try to figure who and why it is that our way can’t change or we’ll suffer – god forbid! – we’re only convincing ourselves. And I think we’re already convinced.
So let’s get a beat on people who think things – especially quality-type things – are being taken away from them in the name of planetary-mindedness. Who equate less with poorer and… lower. Yeesh, we’ve got some twisted brethren. Anyway, biking and eating fresh food from the market is for pinko commies and euro… what a minute, a lot Americans like euro-whatever – remember this? or this? There’s a thousand things those Euros like that seem cute but… well… What’s that saying, a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there? You wouldn’t? What’s wrong with you? Do you think of those people as poor or bereft? I know you could, but let’s unpack this. And while we’re at it, stay a while.
This is just to point out that the only way to know about any other places (places with different and less stuff) other than the place you live is to… go other places. The 15% of you who already have passports can go back to watching the game.
And that these things are connected.
Mon 19 Oct 2009
Even as we wait for Congress and its inquiry to produce results, the cultural toxins revealed by our economic crisis remain unaddressed by the leaders in the private and public sectors who might make a difference now. Blankfein may be giving $200 million to “education,” but Goldman is back to business as usual: making money by high-risk gambling, with all the advantages that the best connections, cheap loans from the Fed andhigh-speed trading algorithms can bring. As the Reuters columnist Rolfe Winkler wrote last week, “Main Street still owns much of the risk while Wall Street gets all of the profit.”
The idea of investing in the real economy — the one that might create jobs for Americans — remains outré in this culture. Credit to small businesses remains tight. The holy capitalist grail is still the speculative buying and selling of companies and the concoction of ever more esoteric financial “instruments.” The tragic tale of Simmons Bedding recently told in The Times is a role model. This successful 133-year-old manufacturing enterprise was flipped seven times in two decades by private equity firms. Investors made more than $750 million in profits even as the pile-up of debt pushed Simmons into bankruptcy, costing a quarter of its loyal workers their jobs so far.
He then goes on to mention the president of Harvard, despairing about the rise of business as the most popular undergraduate major, an issue near and dear to my own empty tangle of ventricles and atria heart. But this fixation with gambling, intertwined with instrumental financial exotica and a powerful ignorance for what any of it is about, is a kind of plague in its own right, moving to tear and sunder the mythical fabric of a nation as much any other virus or epidemic. A polity that does not serve itself will be under-served at critical points. We’re noticing several of these now. The idea that someone is doing this to us elides the actual dimensions of the problem, as if it appears to be the work of an outside force. Green is being redefined by the day – what it is, how it’s made, ways it can be lost – and you are compelled to have opinions on far more than merely what interests you. If you think this is a drag, just wait.
We – Americans – struggle with conflicting ideas about egalitarianism. That all are created equal is a strain that runs deep; that we must begin exploiting any differences from the next moment onward runs even deeper. But a fair shot at the virtues of capitalism is only possible with a revolver at 15 paces. There’s nothing else equal or just about it, because capitalism isn’t about virtue – that’s its primary feature. Many know and internalize this; many more perhaps do not. We may find ourselves at the mercy of the former, but this is because of the position they have been afforded in a society that rewards outlandish greed. Maybe, like its fossil fuel brethren, we have to educate ourselves and admit less of an affinity for greed and monetary alchemy. Maybe we decide there’s a few things about it that are unbecoming, that it may have unwelcome consequences that we should warn against. That money is better to use than to be used by. Green Money pervades, but once upon a time, in certain places it’s unadorned pursuit rang hollow.We may imagine such a place. And be better for it.
Fri 16 Oct 2009
Because I don’t think he would even recognize our present discussions on, about and concerning race – where, there is no racism and all racists are liberals – maybe some of W.E.B Dubois’s speculative fiction is in order. There exists a sizable body of academic work on Critical Race Theory, but The Comet (1920) is a poignant display of perhaps what can and cannot be unlearned, even in a moment of crisis.
He stood a moment on the steps of the bank, watching the human river that swirled down Broadway. Few noticed him. Few ever noticed him save in a way that stung. He was outside the world-”nothing!” as he said bitterly. Bits of the words of the walkers came to him.
Everybody was talking of it. Even the president, as he entered, smiled patronizingly at him, and asked: “Well, Jim, are you scared?”
“No,” said the messenger shortly.
“I thought we’d journeyed through the comet’s tail once,” broke in the junior clerk affably.
“Oh, that was Haley’s,” said the president. “This is a new comet, quite a stranger, they say-wonderful, wonderful! I saw it last night. Oh, by the way, Jim,” turning again to the messenger, “I want you to go down into the lower vaults today.”
The messenger followed the president silently. Of course, they wanted him to go down to the lower vaults. It was too dangerous for more valuable men. He smiled grimly and listened.
“Everything of value has been moved out since the water began to seep in,” said the president, “but we miss two volumes of old records. Suppose you nose around down there-it isn’t very pleasant, I suppose.”
“Not very,” said the messenger, as he walked out.
“Well, Jim, the tail of the new comet hits us at noon this time,” said the vault clerk, as he passed over the keys; but the messenger passed silently down the stairs. Down he went beneath Broadway, where the dim light filtered through the feet of hurrying men; down to the dark basement beneath; down into the blackness and silence beneath that lowest cavern. Here with his dark lantern he groped in the bowels of the earth, under the world.
He drew a long breath as he threw back the last great iron door and stepped into the fetid slime within. Here at last was peace, and he groped moodily forward. A great rat leaped past him and cobwebs crept across his face. He felt carefully around the room, shelf by shelf, on the muddied floor, and in crevice and corner. Nothing. Then he went back to the far end, where somehow the wall felt different. He pounded and pushed and pried. Nothing. He started away. Then something brought him back. He was pounding and working again when suddenly the whole black wall swung as on mighty hinges, and blackness yawned beyond. He peered in; it was evidently a secret vault-some hiding place of the old bank unknown in newer times. He entered hesitatingly. It was a long, narrow room with shelves, and at the far end, an old iron chest. On a high shelf lay two volumes of records, and others. He put them carefully aside and stepped to the chest. It was old, strong, and rusty. He looked at the vast and old- fashioned lock and flashed his light on the hinges. They were deeply incrusted with rust. Looking about, he found a bit of iron and began to pry. The rust had eaten a hundred years, and it had gone deep. Slowly, wearily, the old lid lifted, and with a last, low groan lay bare its treasure-and he saw the dull sheen of gold!
A low, grinding, reverberating crash struck upon his ear. He started up and looked about. All was black and still. He groped for his light and swung it about him. Then he knew! The great stone door had swung to. He forgot the gold and looked death squarely in the face. Then with a sigh he went methodically to work. The cold sweat stood on his forehead; but he searched, pounded, pushed, and worked until after what seemed endless hours his hand struck a cold bit of metal and the great door swung again harshly on its hinges, and then, striking against something soft and heavy, stopped. He had just room to squeeze through. There lay the body of the vault clerk, cold and stiff. He stared at it, and then felt sick and nauseated. The air seemed unaccountably foul, with a strong, peculiar odor. He stepped forward, clutched at the air, and fell fainting across the corpse.
He awoke with a sense of horror, leaped from the body, and groped up the stairs, calling to the guard. The watchman sat as if asleep, with the gate swinging free. With one glance at him the messenger hurried up to the sub-vault. In vain he called to the guards. His voice echoed and re-echoed weirdly. Up into the great basement he rushed. Here another guard lay prostrate on his face, cold and still. A fear arose in the messenger’s heart. He dashed up to the cellar floor, up into the bank. The stillness of death lay everywhere and everywhere bowed, bent, and stretched the silent forms of men. The messenger paused and glanced about. He was not a man easily moved; but the sight was appalling! “Robbery and murder,” he whispered slowly to himself as he saw the twisted, oozing mouth of the president where he lay half-buried on his desk. Then a new thought seized him: If they found him here alone-with all this money and all these dead men-what would his life be worth? He glanced about, tiptoed cautiously to a side door, and again looked behind. Quietly he turned the latch and stepped out into Wall Street.
How silent the street was! Not a soul was stirring, and yet it was high noon-Wall Street? Broadway? He glanced almost wildly up and down, then across the street, and as he looked, a sickening horror froze in his limbs. With a choking cry of utter fright he lunged, leaned giddily against the cold building, and stared helplessly at the sight.
In the great stone doorway a hundred men and women and children lay crushed and twisted and jammed, forced into that great, gaping doorway like refuse in a can-as if in one wild, frantic rush to safety, they had crushed and ground themselves to death. Slowly the messenger crept along the walls, trying to comprehend, stilling the tremor in his limbs and the rising terror in his heart. He met a business man, silk-hatted and frock-coated, who had crept, too, along that smooth wall and stood now stone dead with wonder written on his lips. The messenger turned his eyes hastily away and sought the curb. A woman leaned wearily against the signpost, her head bowed motionless on her lace and silken bosom. Before her stood a streetcar, silent, and within-but the messenger but glanced and hurried on. A grimy newsboy sat in the gutter with the “last edition” in his uplifted hand: “Danger!” screamed its black headlines. “Warnings wired around the world. The Comet’s tail sweeps past us at noon. Deadly gases expected. Close doors and windows. Seek the cellar.” The messenger read and staggered on. Far out from a window above, a girl lay with gasping face and sleevelets on her arms. On a store step sat a little, sweet-faced girl looking upward toward the skies, and in the carriage by her lay-but the messenger looked no longer. The cords gave way-the terror burst in his veins, and with one great, gasping cry he sprang desperately forward and ran-ran as only the frightened run, shrieking and fighting the air until with one last wail of pain he sank on the grass of Madison Square and lay prone and still.
When he arose, he gave no glance at the still and silent forms on the benches, but, going to a fountain, bathed his face; then hiding himself in a corner away from the drama of death, he quietly gripped himself and thought the thing through: The comet had swept the earth and this was the end. Was everybody dead? He must search and see.
He knew that he must steady himself and keep calm, or he would go insane. First he must go to a restaurant. He walked up Fifth Avenue to a famous hostelry and entered its gorgeous, ghost-haunted halls. He beat back the nausea, and, seizing a tray from dead hands, hurried into the street and ate ravenously, hiding to keep out the sights.
“Yesterday, they would not have served me,” he whispered, as he forced the food down.
Then he started up the street-looking, peering, telephoning, ringing alarms; silent, silent all. Was nobody-nobody-he dared not think the thought and hurried on.
Suddenly he stopped still. He had forgotten. My God! How could he have forgotten? He must rush to the subway-then he almost laughed. No-a car; if he could find a Ford. He saw one. Gently he lifted off its burden, and took his place on the seat. He tested the throttle. There was gas. He glided off, shivering, and drove up the street. Everywhere stood, leaned, lounged, and lay the dead, in grim and awful silence. On he ran past an automobile, wrecked and overturned; past another, filled with a gay party whose smiles yet lingered on their death-struck lips; on, past crowds and groups of cars, pausing by dead policemen; at 42nd Street he had to detour to Park Avenue to avoid the dead congestion. He came back on Fifth Avenue at 57th and flew past the Plaza and by the park with its hushed babies and silent throng, until as he was rushing past 72nd Street he heard a sharp cry, and saw a living form leaning wildly out an upper window. He gasped. The human voice sounded in his ears like the voice of God.
“Hello-hello-help, in God’s name!” wailed the woman. “There’s a dead girl in here and a man and-and see yonder dead men lying in the street and dead horses-for the love of God go and bring the officers-” the words trailed off into hysterical tears.
He wheeled the car in a sudden circle, running over the still body of a child and leaping on the curb. Then he rushed up the steps and tried the door and rang violently. There was a long pause, but at last the heavy door swung back. They stared a moment in silence. She had not noticed before that he was a Negro. He had not thought of her as white. She was a woman of perhaps twenty-five-rarely beautiful and richly gowned, with darkly-golden hair, and jewels. Yesterday, he thought with bitterness, she would scarcely have looked at him twice. He would have been dirt beneath her silken feet. She stared at him. Of all the sorts of men she had pictured as coming to her rescue she had not dreamed of one like him. Not that he was not human, but he dwelt in a world so far from hers, so infinitely far, that he seldom even entered her thought. Yet as she looked at him curiously he seemed quite commonplace and usual. He was a tall, dark workingman of the better class, with a sensitive face trained to stolidity and a poor man’s clothes and hands. His face was soft and slow and his manner at once cold and nervous, like fires long banked, but not out. So a moment each paused and gauged the other; then the thought of the dead world without rushed in and they started toward each other.
“What has happened?” she cried. “Tell me! Nothing stirs. All is silence! I see the dead strewn before my window as winnowed by the breath of God-and see-” She dragged him through great, silken hangings to where, beneath the sheen of mahogany and silver, a little French maid lay stretched in quiet, everlasting sleep, and near her a butler lay prone in his livery.
The tears streamed down the woman’s cheeks, and she clung to his arm until the perfume of her breath swept his face and he felt the tremors racing through her body.
“I had been shut up in my dark room developing pictures of the comet which I took last night; when I came out-I saw the dead!
“What has happened?” she cried again.
He answered slowly:
“Something-comet or devil-swept across the earth this morning and-many are dead!”
“Many? Very many?”
“I have searched and I have seen no other living soul but you.”
She gasped and they stared at each other.
“My-father!” she whispered.
“Where is he?”
“He started for the office.”
“Where is it?”
“In the Metropolitan Tower.”
“Leave a note for him here and come.” Then he stopped. “No,” he said firmly, “first, we must go-to Harlem.”
“Harlem!” she cried. Then she understood. She tapped her foot at first impatiently. She looked back and shuddered. Then she came resolutely down the steps.
“There’s a swifter car in the garage in the court,” she said.
“I don’t know how to drive it,” he said.
“I do,” she answered.
In ten minutes they were flying to Harlem on the wind. The Stutz rose and raced like an airplane. They took the turn at 110th Street on two wheels and slipped with a shriek into 135th. He was gone but a moment. Then he returned, and his face was gray. She did not look, but said:
“You have lost-somebody?”
“I have lost-everybody,” he said simply, “unless-”
He ran back and was gone several minutes-hours they seemed to her.
“Everybody,” he said, and he walked slowly back with something film-like in his hand, which he stuffed into his pocket.
“I’m afraid I was selfish,” he said. But already the car was moving toward the park among the dark and lined dead of Harlem-the brown, still faces, the knotted hands, the homely garments, and the silence-the wild and haunting silence. Out of the park, and down Fifth Avenue they whirled. In and out among the dead they slipped and quivered, needing no sound of bell or horn, until the great, square Metropolitan Tower hovered in sight.
Gently he laid the dead elevator boy aside; the car shot upward. The door of the office stood open. On the threshold lay the stenographer, and, staring at her, sat the dead clerk. The inner office was empty, but a note lay on the desk, folded and addressed but unsent:
Dear Daughter: I’ve gone for a hundred-mile spin in Fred’s new Mercedes. Shall not be back before dinner. I’ll bring Fred with me. J. B. H.
“Come,” she cried nervously. “We must search the city.”
Up and down, over and across, back again-on went that ghostly search. Everywhere was silence and death-death and silence! They hunted from Madison Square to Spuyten Duyvel; they rushed across the Williamsburg Bridge; they swept over Brooklyn; from the Battery and Morningside Heights they scanned the river. Silence, silence everywhere, and no human sign. Haggard and bedraggled they puffed a third time slowly down Broadway, under the broiling sun, and at last stopped. He sniffed the air. An odor-a smell-and with the shifting breeze a sickening stench filled their nostrils and brought its awful warning. The girl settled back helplessly in her seat.
“What can we do?” she cried.
It was his turn now to take the lead, and he did it quickly.
“The long distance telephone-the telegraph and the cable-night rockets and then flight!”
She looked at him now with strength and confidence. He did not look like men, as she had always pictured men; but he acted like one and she was content. In fifteen minutes they were at the central telephone exchange. As they came to the door he stepped quickly before her and pressed her gently back as he closed it. She heard him moving to and fro, and knew his burdens-the poor, little burdens he bore. When she entered, he was alone in the room. The grim switchboard flashed its metallic face in cryptic, sphinx-like immobility. She seated herself on a stool and donned the bright earpiece. She looked at the mouthpiece. She had never looked at one so closely before. It was wide and black, pimpled with usage; inert; dead; almost sarcastic in its unfeeling curves. It looked-she beat back the thought-but it looked-it persisted in looking like-she turned her head and found herself alone. One moment she was terrified; then she thanked him silently for his delicacy and turned resolutely, with a quick intaking of breath.
“Hello!” she called in low tones. She was calling to the world. The world must answer. Would the world answer? Was the world Silence!
She had spoken too low.
“Hello!” she cried, full-voiced.
She listened. Silence! Her heart beat quickly. She cried in clear, distinct, loud tones: “Hello-hello-hello!”
What was that whirring? Surely-no-was it the click of a receiver?
She bent close, moved the pegs in the holes, and called and called, until her voice rose almost to a shriek, and her heart hammered. It was as if she had heard the last flicker of creation, and the evil was silence. Her voice dropped to a sob. She sat stupidly staring into the black and sarcastic mouthpiece, and the thought came again. Hope lay dead within her. Yes, the cable and the rockets remained; but the world-she could not frame the thought or say the word. It was too mighty-too terrible! She turned toward the door with a new fear in her heart. For the first time she seemed to realize that she was alone in the world with a stranger, with something more than a stranger-with a man alien in blood and culture-unknown, perhaps unknowable. It was awful! She must escape-she must fly; he must not see her again. Who knew what awful thoughts he had?
She gathered her silken skirts deftly about her young, smooth limbs-listened, and glided into a sidehall. A moment she shrank back: the hall lay filled with dead women; then she leaped to the door and tore at it, with bleeding fingers, until it swung wide. She looked out. He was standing at the top of the alley-silhouetted, tall and black, motionless. Was he looking at her or away? She did not know-she did not care. She simply leaped and ran-ran until she found herself alone amid the dead and the tall ramparts of towering buildings.
She stopped. She was alone. Alone! Alone on the streets-alone in the city-perhaps alone in the world! There crept in upon her the sense of deception-of creeping hands behind her back-of silent, moving things she could not see-of voices hushed in fearsome conspiracy. She looked behind and sideways, started at strange sounds and heard still stranger, until every nerve within her stood sharp and quivering, stretched to scream at the barest touch. She whirled and flew back, whimpering like a child, until she found that narrow alley again and the dark, silent figure silhouetted at the top. She stopped and rested; then she walked silently toward him, looked at him timidly; but he said nothing as he handed her into the car. Her voice caught as she whispered:
And he answered slowly: “No-not that!”
They climbed into the car. She bent forward on the wheel and sobbed, with great, dry, quivering sobs, as they flew toward the cable office on the east side, leaving the world of wealth and prosperity for the world of poverty and work. In the world behind them were death and silence, grave and grim, almost cynical, but always decent; here it was hideous. It clothed itself in every ghastly form of terror, struggle, hate, and suffering. It lay wreathed in crime and squalor, greed and lust. Only in its dread and awful silence was it like to death everywhere.
Yet as the two, flying and alone, looked upon the horror of the world, slowly, gradually, the sense of all-enveloping death deserted them. They seemed to move in a world silent and asleep-not dead. They moved in quiet reverence, lest somehow they wake these sleeping forms who had, at last, found peace. They moved in some solemn, world-wide Friedho above which some mighty arm had waved its magic wand. All nature slept until-until, and quick with the same startling thought, they looked into each other’s eyes-he, ashen, and she, crimson, with unspoken thought. To both, the vision of a mighty beauty-of vast, unspoken things, swelled in their souls; but they put it away.