A grand dame bursting with vertiginous authority crackled information from behind a flash light at the Information Booth of Pennsylvania Station. Just before the blackout, the re-constructors of the Mausoleum of Killed Free Time had cleverly shifted the counter so that Thomas would not have found it if, with equal cleverness, he had not happened to fall through a large hole freshly dug, and landed smack in the middle of the gentry earnestly seeking knowledge.
He was flattered in that the flashlight probed him out immediately and he stopped brushing rust and slivers from his hands to ask quickly, before the light should pass, "Are there any trains to Bayside?"
"No," and the beam of light displaced itself upon another intent face. His brief passage before the bar left him with many unanswered questions, such as: "When will the trains begin running?" and "Are there lights in Great Neck?" and "Where has the new entrance of the Men's Room been excavated?" and "Is the Ticket Counter in the same place as yesterday?" and "Where can I get a drink?" and "What happened?" and "How do I go about resigning my citizenship?"
"No" is an act, not an answer. No question in the world, thought Thomas, the Professor, can be answered by "No."
"Well, that wasn't much of an answer," he grumbled.
Next to him a plaintive voice bleated "You're so lucky, I've tried for ten minutes to ask a question and the light never strikes me."
Some people don't even get "no" for an answer. How terrible! Thomas clucked sympathetically. He would have said, "many are called, but few are chosen," but reflected that he might appear unduly pompous be taken for a minister, and end up perforce with a confessional booth of his own, so he said crisply, "That's the way the cookie crumbles."
However, he actually felt a trifle better. Happiness comes from outstripping others in the hopeless competition of life. Yet as soon as he thought of his little pleasure, then of the axiom, and then of Hobbies, who had first said it, his little pleasure was gone -- he could never feel happiness, it seemed, because he would somehow uncover its infirm foundations.
He waded through the hip-deep murk toward the great center hall. Passing him was a woman wearing white and holding a lighted candle, immediately succeeded by a sleek, black hipster with a transistor radio glued to his ear, and a retinue of brokers and bankers carrying dispatch cases. They solicitously garnered the buds of news that he would let drop.
A mass jammed into the main hall in celebration of its utter wreck. The miserable commuters, who every day in recent weeks had scrambled like tiny crabs between the subterranean chaos and a platform of cranes, trucks and tractors that had been lifted and stranded there grotesquely by some huge force, had been frustrated before, times beyond number. They suffered more now that the lights were off.
It was too late to revolt, however. The neurotic platoons of humanity that stood between the naked steel girders had been quieted by shock upon shock, minutely applied over long periods of time, of which the latest was this noctivagous opacity.
The people in their lovable and loving mass assembled amidst twinkles of light and felt toward their God of the machine age much like the fisherman who, struck by storm at sea, had either to disbelieve or to believe more strenuously, then and there.
Thomas, an unbeliever since his year one, could even take a positive pleasure from the disappearance from view of those signs which the advertising office had put up saying. "Sorry for the inconvenience while we are building your new Pennsylvania station." And "Sorry -- but close it we must -- to build your new Station." How cute they had been -- with squiggly little drawings of cheerful workmen in helmets -- our station, too: "Just step to the counter, the one next to "Tickets-all points" (the one with the long queue and no ticket-seller), and pick up your free stock shares of the Pennsylvania and long Island Railroads."
These were supposed to soothe the public (As the scuttling crabs were called) while American genius, the most abundant and misused in the world, showed that a magnificent palace could be brought down upon the heads of thousands of trains and people and a skyscraper built over them without physically annihilating them, and with the trains running on time -- well, almost on time.
Where do I go to join the revolt, wondered Thomas; where does the lumpen proletariat enlist? But the dolls plumped upon the seats of the motionless trains responded not.
Thomas was attracted to a light brighter than most and moved toward it. It was a storm lantern surrounded by a group of perhaps thirty young men. Judging by their uniformity of age, the light bags they carried, and the way in which they were enveloped by camaraderie and yet divided into isolates, two and threes, they were army recruits.
"Hey, Mike" called one, "Why don't you immolate yourself, so we can get some light around here."
"Fuck you, sonny."
That seemed a better answer than "No" to Thomas. He pressed in closer. Draftees fascinated him. He remembered his own condition in February of 1943, when grown to a meek eighteen years of age, he found himself in such a group at the Dubuque railroad station at six o'clock of the morning.
"Hey, Sarge, when do we leave for Viet Nam?"
"What's your name, I'll see that you get preference." The sergeant was in civilian clothing. (They don't frighten the lambs too soon in the new army.)
The boy was quiet.
"I know a kid who was drafted and his papers got mixed up, and he was sent over and in twenty days he was killed at Kantum."
"Kantum!' Where is Kantum? Not knowing even the name of the place gave credence to the story. One could see the poor guy now ----
"What am I doing here. Hay, you guys, hey Corporal, hey, Lieutenant, I don't know how to fight. I don't know how to work this thing. Where do I dig my hole? How do you know when they're coming, hey corporal, how do you know when they're- coming? Hey you guys, help me out, tell me what to do. Do I have to stay right here? When are you supposed to stick you head up? I can't hear you! I can't see you! Don't leave me alone here, lieutenant, keep me with the mortar squad till I'm ready."
"You're ready. Nobody's ready. You're ready as anybody."
Sweat; squirm into mother earth: Why is the enemy so angry? If only we could stay put and they could stay put then our planes could take them out from the sky and that would be it…
Not quite. The men shift themselves about. They like to hear the leader talk, but they are a little embarrassed at asking him too much. He is authentic. He is of the army right here and now.
"He has it made. Probably he was in Korea or Viet Nam or some place and now really lives it up in New York. Takes it easy in his own quarters when he feels like and then goes off and raises hell. That's what I'd like." So they thought.
Other old men hung about the group with Thomas.
Were they the eternal fathers sorrowing for the sons leaving for war?
Were they the exempted old bastards longing for others to shed blood?
Were they veterans afflicted with nostalgia, ready with advice.
The "old vet" ploy would not work. "Who wants to hear out that nervous old coot?"
"You fellows just drafted, huh?"
The fishy stares. "Pipe the old vet!"
"I was with the First Division. Ever hear of that. I bet you will. Best division in the army. Africa! France!"
Yeah, and "oh cherie," and "hi ya babe." And "remember the Place Pigalle?" And all that horse shit.
"Well, old man, our wars are better, mainly because we're young and our wars are news, see, news, front page! We will be on the front page, while you go back and forth to Rockaway; so fluff off."
"You young fellows have it easy. Now in the old days... there was…"
What was there? -- why was it hard? He didn't know.
Try again, go through it again, what was it? What could make them listen? Dirty stories about Brussels?
"Resist, boys, don't go; goldbrick! I did and here I am. Even the First Division had goldbricks like me."
Look at them. When not casting remarks into the darkness, they harked -- contemptuously, tolerantly.
"Listen to me boys. You're lucky. You napalm now and the helicopters. You'll never see a tank coming at you. Be happy for that."
"What happy? I'm for the quartermaster!"
"Listen, you're in for it."
"In for what?"
"Yes what?" The trouble with pacifists is that they cannot say anything that relates to what young jackasses feel until the young animals are about to be splayed by a mortar shell and then it is too late to change one's position on peace or war.
"So, mother, hold your tears. Woman, stop slobbering. Can't you see, even in the obscurity, their blankness, irritation, contempt, annoyance, anger, embarrassment? All the deadly hail must shower down upon them before they can take seriously your wail of despair. They invite Armageddon."
No one listens to messages anymore.
Ergo nobody is to be deluded.
Wise those stupid kids. Dumb like foxes.
Ah, to die and not feel deluded with the last gasp of breath.
What muscle, what health, what power, what competence, and none of it serving anything, for Nothing calls to be served.
Perfect soldierly material. Their energy and drive comes from a dead generation; this is now competence without ideal, non-ideological warfare.
"Hey, Sarge, why don't we pull out of Viet Nam?"
"Better ask President Johnson, I just get you in, get a receipt, and get back to chasing broads."
"Pull out, and let the Communists have it? . . You dimwit."
"What will they do with it?"
"They'll just keep on going."
"They'll be on us next."
"How come? Where's their fleet, huh?"
"Nobody will have respect for us anywhere."
"You're pretty sick, aren't you?"
The sick draftee was replaced by a brave one.
"What we should have done was to drop a few atom bombs and seal'em off."
"The Chinese have the bomb too."
"One to our hundred."
"How about the Russians, then, they got a lot."
"They hate the Chinese. I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't take care of the Chinese themselves."
"Hey, Sarge, How's the ass in Viet Nam?"
"Don't know. Never been there."
"Never been there?"
"Never been farther than Fort Dix."
Staggering news. The war suddenly receded to far, far away. No one had ever been there, maybe no one would ever go there. Then what was the meaning of it?
"My boy is there and I can tell you it's terrible." A woman was speaking. She didn't belong there, but what could one do. These dammed women crawl in everywhere.
"He gets bad food. He can't sleep. He says the other boys are tired and they are afraid to go out in the villages because the people hate them and turn them over to the guerillas. He says the other soldiers don't believe in the war and want to go home."
The leader lost his aplomb. He angrily turned upon her.
"Lady, you have no business in this group. This is an official governmental trip."
"And furthermore the war is senseless. It's just to keep that man Johnson and a lot of generals and admirals happy."
"Madam, are you a professional agitator or something?"
"Professional agitator! I like that! I am a decent, law-abiding housewife. But I think that you and a lot of others are making a good thing out of this war and we are killing a lot of innocent children and civilians, and our own boys are going to be there for a long, long time and many of them will be killed. I hope to heaven that you do not have to go over there and suffer like they are."
"Madam, they aren't suffering."
"Yes, they are. You all should go home, if you had any sense, and let them come looking for you."
"Yeah, man, that's for me." So said a long skinny figure who detached himself from the group and began to move out, his curved neck bobbing like a crane above the crowd. "Yeah, me too," and two others of gangling shape (they might have been triplets) pushed their way to the perimeter.
"Hey, wait, you guys… You come back here…You're under arrest!"
The sergeant was excited and flustered. He straightened up, his fedora fell off, he pursued them with his lantern. The group milled about; most were rather shocked, incredulous, some were like Thomas, tingling with excitement. There are men to take the world in their hands!
The men ganged around the sergeant whose light displayed his return.
"The clowns," he said, in offended tones, "They didn't even belong to our group!"
The men marveled. Then they laughed. Loudly. The sound carried all over the station, and the crabs stopped scuttling to heed it.
The sergeant was nonplused.
"Where's that woman?"
But she too had departed.