Table of contents


by Alfred de Grazia



When Thomas reached the great arch at the bottom of Fifth Avenue, he did what others did, fifteen minutes sooner or later. He looked up for the towers of New York. His was the long view. His was the intellectual view. Let Howard and others like him get the people out of buildings. In the tower lay the future. In them lay the shapes and aesthetics of doom. He pondered them.

The towers were, of course, darkened. The lights of the Empire State Building were turned off. All the University buildings' lights were turned off. Washington Square was opaquely outlined. The trees took the lights of the cars upon their leafless bones. Traffic milled like hot-eyed ants around an obstruction. The cars and trucks did not blow their horns. A world-respect suffused them. The world knew it was in for something. Noise could not resolve the situation.

Others who reached the corner paused like him for the ritual of the Empire State Building. The tall God was mantled, as the covered altars of the churches on Good Friday. Ordinarily He is exposed to bald sight in his sufferings over man's failures. To make His message even more emphatic: He is covered up. The faithful had to be a little more impressed than usual by the sheerly changed aspect of God.

Strange, those who are different are the same. He should not have looked up: after all, everyone, all those who were cattle, sheep, students, looked up, and he succumbed, not only succumbed, he did not realize that he had succumbed. He was lost, or rather, he would not be finding himself.

And, like the rest, only slightly reverent, he paid obeisance only for the moment. He did not contemplate the death of God for long. There was nothing more to learn from it for there was nothing of meaning in it. As he had often told his students in regard to what they did not know, they had to have it in them in the first place.

If he would pray, as he sometimes realized, it should have been "Oh, God, how do you put something in one in the beginning?"

Onwards, therefore. Having indicated to himself no path except all paths, he would still ask. What is the path, where the duty? He failed by the last breathed words of Gertrude Stein that he respected; ask not what is the answer, but what is the question? And yet he Napoleonically succeeded: toujours l'attaque.

Other people knew immediately what they wanted. They wanted to go home. A cab with a single passenger paused, and restarted with six. A cab let off a Villager from upper Madison Avenue and was assaulted by a phalanx from Brooklyn; they tried to combine a mathematical formula. It did not fit at least two of them, but the two had already boarded; so it went loaded to the gunwales to unreconciled ports of call. Yet a third taxi was blinded for battles: "Avenue A only," yelled the driver, and his doors were locked.

"The subways are dead," said a citizen to Thomas.

Dead? Jammed, you -- stuck, disabled, closed by riot, stabbing, shooting, assault, seats cut up, fire on tracks, "fuck you" and "viva Castro" on the windows, yes -- but they could not be dead. Thomas began more truly to wonder: Was some monstrous plague creeping upon the city?

What ought I to do, he asked again. Surely I must have a duty. He thought of his family obligation: That's it: Call home. Find out how things are. Be asked: Why aren't you teaching (suspiciously), be told Kevin has the same nasty cold, be commanded to consider how tired some people were who had to work hard all day while he merely taught. Whatever the message, he wanted to hear it badly.

He looked for a telephone. There was one on the corner of Eighth Street and University Place that he often used. When he reached it, he found a line of callers waiting for turns. He looked up the street to Tenth where another booth stood. It was surrounded.

How do phones work anyhow without electricity? Again he thought how ignorant he was. For that matter, what's an electrical blackout? He constructed an image of his living room lamp short-circuiting and expanded the vision to giant size -- a truck hitting a tower, a bolt of lightning crossing a transmitter.

All too trivial for such a massive effect. It had to be sabotage. Or a nuclear chain reaction in an atomic power plant. Some great explosion. Great effects required great causes. He who taught that a weak idea can throw the switch on the world did not really believe so himself.

He walked into the darkened Cookery, which looked more like a bistro of la rive gauche than a neat palace of pancakes, traversed the room, and lighting his candle, let himself cautiously down the stairs to the men's room and its adjoining telephones. A good choice.

But there was no response from the central board. He fished for the dime, dropped it, spilled his cards while bending over, banged his head on the box while straightening up, and knocked over the candle. He rendered the failure less absolute by relieving himself, recollecting the advice of the King of England to the Prince of Wales, going on tour: never pass up the chance to go to the toilet.

That duty done, another arose -- the class, what has happened to his students? ("I am their leader, I must follow them.") Upstairs, down the street, around the corner, into the Main Building and up the stairs. No one seemed to be going up, some seemed to be going down, and then there were the loiterers in the shadows below.

Where had the bureaucracy gone? Did they turn out the lights? Did they cover their typewriters? Were their papers left in confusion, or by the light of a match did they neatly decamp? If he could but see, he might come upon a scene from all the fictions of catastrophes: white explorer in central Africa comes upon Lost Atlantis, great temples and ivoried halls standing ghostly beneath the menacing brow of smouldering Mount Madazong… A garrison city with everything stopped exactly as it was when Pussy Galore's flying Circus sprayed it with poison gas… the citizens of Pompeii who loved their cups and bed partners too much to leave them for a Vesuvian shower of dust, and were frozen for all eternity in a cake of ash.

He arrived at the fifth flour, scarcely out of breath. Deep breathing and isometric exercises: He congratulated himself. But the classroom, as he had guessed, was empty. It had a stale smell of human coats and shoes. In the shivering flame of his candle the one-armed seats formed a spectral audience.

Should he write a message? No one could discern it. If they played a light upon it, what could it say: "Class called on account of darkness." Nonsense. The world of communications had changed. We are dim-eyed dogs, we sight bright lights, hear sounds, and feel.

There was a female giggle from the rear of the room and an embarrassed male cough. Two people don't make a class, he thought, and went out.

Quis custodes custodiet? Where were the officials gathering? Was there a meeting of the deans, associate deans, assistant deans, secretaries to the deans, with a handful of personnel directors, deans of women, men, admissions, recorders, comptrollers, public relations men and all the what-not that is the visible what of the university? Where were all the bastards? Stay away from them. They would make a bore even out of this.

"At six-ten, the meeting convened," Scribbled Mrs. Luella Lumpoor, her candle slipping between her legs, "under the chairmanship of Associate Dean Rospiglioso, who was then replaced by Dean Chandler. The motion put before the group by Mr. Chauncey Becker was to terminate officially the classes. After some discussion, during which Dean Moscowitz pointed out that the classes had already terminated of their own accord, the motion was passed without opposition. Director of Personnel Lukas requested a separate motion for the sake of administrative employees of the University who, he granted, had already left the premises too, but who would, without the motion, feel that they might not be covered under the previous motion and therefor would be uncertain of their status for purposes of vacations and sick leave. Dean of Admissions Harvey Leftover disagreed, feeling that the emergency, while very real, should not be permitted to disrupt hastily the calendar which provided for certain things to be done only at certain times during the year. He warned of the many consequences that might conceivably follow by taking too rigid a position under the circumstances. Discussion ensued and it was decided upon recommendation of Dean Wishfell Hollander that the first motion and all other motions be stricken from the record and that the official policy of the University be that the blackout did not occur. Mrs. Lumpoor was accordingly instructed to preserve no record of the gathering, but hereafter to carry a supply of candles in her desk."

Thomas, of course, could not be sure that those officials were convening. He was retreating from all conceivable meeting places as fast as due caution would allow, muttering the motto of administrators: "Fac ut ex post facto." "Order nothing that has not already happened." It could also mean "Do what has been done." No matter. Both applied.

He still had nothing in mind when he exited from the Main Building. He was trying to think of some possibilities he might take up, but he had never possessed authority. Indeed he was subvented to be a critic of the culture. Every role seemed therefore unsuitable.

He considered whether he should help dislodge people from elevators. But where were all these people? Should he apply at the nearest tower: "Excuse me please: anybody locked in an elevator here?" He could hold a candle while they lowered ladders through the trapdoor of the cages. There were always many people standing around who could do that.

He might go about reassuring old ladies closed in their apartments in the hulking anonymous buildings: "Madam," after knocking furiously to arouse them, "There is nothing to be frightened of." "Nothing except you, I thank you very much, Good-bye!"

Perhaps he might help combat the looting. There must be some going on. Why wasn't more looting occurring? Everyone knew that New York was ready for a complete breakdown of law and order! The darkened stores were intact. There were no suspicious characters sneaking in and out of buildings, though to be sure everyone looked a little shady. Anyhow, you cannot stop something from going on if it is going on precisely because it cannot be stopped.

Because he had a bent for both irrelevance and irreverence, Thomas switched roles and now considered now he might engage in productive looting. If I were to do it, he figured, I should merely knock on doors in a rich looking building, saying I was the block warden, and move along until there would be no reply from one apartment, and that door I should jimmy open.

Of course, the next-door neighbors might be peeping. And the door might be very though to crack open: I should have to buy a good set of tools. And learn to use them.

I could simply threaten people with a weapon and skip off with the swag. Without telephones and in the dark, they could scarcely catch me. He admitted to himself that there was a certain risk involved, even under conditions of the blackout, a risk which, since he held a tenure position that locked him into the university budget until 1980, he felt he should leave to dope addicts and the aspiring poor.

He had arrived at University Place and Eighth Street by his North by east instinct. Six harlequins were directing traffic there. They seemed to be males, somewhat peculiar albeit. The chief could have stopped traffic in broad daylight.

He must have been an astonishing apparition in the windshields of the nervous drivers, long hair whipping in the breeze, great clown's shoes of suede with turned-up toes. They did not flap, but they might very well. A mask, no, a face. A lantern that seemed to have been torn from a carriage house of the last century. Black, short, tight pants; a white waistband, a monkey-jacket with red sleeves sticking out. Black or White? Shouting something.

The traffic follows him -- or does it? No one disputes the new rule. The untrained corps de ballet miss their steps. He waves up and they wave down; he wheels left, they wheel right; nor do they synchronize with each other. The cars mix up. Pedestrians try to obey, but often cannot, and are laced by admonitions and frightened by apparitions.

The New Empire is badly run. Throes of nation-birth. The premier dancer has a slightly familiar look to him. Thomas was used to having his "C" average students turning up as ambassadors to the United Nations from one country or another, but he was not sure this one was a student.

The dancer was closer now. He gesticulated, pursed his lips, blew several shrill blasts of air. He adjudged that all vehicles heading South should now go East and he is furiously whipping them on.

He is next to Thomas now.

Thomas was excited and baffled. The headlights of a car struck the white waistband full and he could see dull stains upon it. It is the dishwasher from the Eighth Street Delicatessen! He could be much else perhaps -- a student, a fag, a beat, a husband (mark this as questionable), a dope-peddler, a Christ fool. He is Emperor of Brazil now, king of the Mardi Gras.

He is dancing crazier than ever and all the crowds, going four ways, beat to his time. His disciples imitate every gesture. His followers are legion. Scoring, castigating, lashing, coaxing, wheedling, patronizing, domineering -- while the heavy mountain of plates stands in the sink. Geronimo is saving the world. This is why he was born. Thomas, the intellectual diner, dissolves uneasily into the shadows.

The harlequin spots him. He says: "Hey. Professor!"

Thomas retreats further.

"Hey, Professor!"

"Shut up, you clown," commanded Thomas.

He felt that the Revolution had come.

The Master of the slave traffic was asking him to come forward and serve the Cause.

"Hey, Professor, "(How menacing that sounded.) Come on over!"

Thomas realized now that he was supposed to cross the street.

He was being treated specially by the New Society.

He felt obsequiously grateful and scurried across with a little smile of appreciation.

The clown pirouetted triumphantly and a rush of cars closed behind Thomas.

Thomas felt his duty strongly at this juncture. To get home. The stronghold of Suburbia. The Central city was lost. Everywhere the harlequins had taken over the streets. The traffic was waved left and right, up and down. The pedestrians admired the new elite. Their colorful costumes. Their dash and aplomb. Before tonight, they wouldn't have given them the time of day.

Up Fifth Avenue. Each new corner had its complement of traffic managers. The crowd was grateful. Any order better than no order, even better than the old order in some ways. At Eleventh Street, he heard and saw Professor Swazey at the entrance to Number 35. He who had earlier been so confident that the lights would go on in minute was saying to several students, "I'm afraid this may last for a long time, several days at least." Fourteenth Street, Eighteenth Street, the great trucks packed into the darkness of the side streets, timorous people in streams, lemmings in terror of the precipice ahead, but driven by the collective urge to home. They must realize full well now that they would wander for hours.

A truck emerged from its dock at a printing plant, loaded with happy employees, the driver sitting up and proud: no cargo as good as human cargo. The ordinarily arrogant buses were at the mercy of their erstwhile passengers, who stood at the intersections bidding them stop and go, jam-packed, doors shut tight and movement by the inch and yard.

To the rear of one of them clung three skinny freeloaders in Halloween masks. Thomas was astonished to recognize them as the candle sellers. What are they up to now? Why are they in masks? This is a serious business, not a circus, even though he felt a little clownish himself from one moment to the next. He actually waved to them, believing that they might be the candle profiteers. One had that particular curved spine and protruding backseat that he had noticed before.

At Twenty-fourth Street two trucks met head-on, joining bumpers:

Rock and wrack

Horns into Back,

Alug, grunt and groan

Grip through to bone.

Crash and thud

Bows against blood

Grip and Grind

Bull's head and horn.

Thomas out-walked the traffic. He turned up Eighth Avenue. All the stores were dark but open. The bare black confounded him. From outside, nothing. Inside they were dense with humans. Faces flickered in flashlights. Disembodied heads floated by with candles beneath their chins. The sidewalks, whose dimensions, curbs, hydrants, grates, and posts meant so much to the ambulatory New Yorker, on guard against trip and filth, lay somewhere below the knees, obscured.

Back to the days of War went Thomas, to the blackout of Europe. He was in Naples, Lyons, London? He searched for his phony money, and unbuttoned the flip of his tunic. He was lost again, his jeep was missing, where had his convoy gone? This liberated town was brighter, but in the light of batteries, gayer in its surrender to the partisans: abundance steeped its darkened recesses all about. This was no real blackout of war and he had to stop pretending. Only the demolished hulk of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station, now sticking up in the moonlight, looked like Berlin in 1945. He had little hope for a train to Long Island, but he should try. So he walked on.


Table of contents