Thomas never did return to the Cedar Inn, nor to the Foxes. He vaguely sought a new solution to the problem of a bed. Heavy drinking made his mind diffuse and suggestible. He wasn't sleepy, but he had not yet thought of staying up all night. So like a ghoul, he followed the ravages of the crisis. He stopped to watch neurotic women fight for cabs, cabbies exploit, students cavort, bars exchange customers, candles burn to the nubbins. He heard streets sound to ceaseless steps, the laments of the bedless, the nonsense of the chattering transistor radios. He saw buses grimly cheerful, sides bursting through clots of people.
He walked in doors. The Fifth Avenue Hotel, One Fifth Avenue, the New York University student hotel at Number 35. "What has happened to Professor Swazey?" He walked into the lobbies of apartment houses. Everywhere were clusters of people passing around news that wasn't news. He learned nothing. No one did anything. They sat for company like the old folks in the old days on the wood porches of Iowa. For once the buildings of New York lived. They had reception committees. People had a reason to hang around the doors.
He would have passed a new law: not that buildings must have doormen, but that as the price of living in society, the people of a building rotate an hour a day as official loiterers.
Tonight is the night that people listen to one another. It is the death knell of the flick and the ad. LBJ had nothing to say. Nor officials and authorities. Democracy is arrived. Equal talk among equal knowers.
His feet began to hurt him. He had walked for hours in loafers. He was in a seventeen-story building on Tenth street and all that lived was a knot of people in the foyer, tied by the light of a storm lamp, a candle and a radio. Three little old ladies sat on chairs in a row. There was an old gentleman, and several others.
He asked for a friend of the building; "where are the Granachs," he said.
"You can find them on the twelfth floor if you want them."
"Well, I'll think about it while I rest," and he sat down in the lounge of boxy and steely furniture. ("Abe, what do you have that's modern for my place on Tenth?" "I've got something for you. It's a good set, not new, but good.")
The radio told all: Nothing is known about the cause. It went further: "The Office of Emergency Planning in Washington says that they will look into the matter of the Massive Power Failure."
. . . The mayor of Rochester denies our earlier reported story that there is looting in Rochester. . . Sorry."
"The ferries are running. The ferries are not running? O, alright, the ferries are not running."
The cluster of persons responded not. Every assurance was questionable. They voiced complaints. Why were not a hundred experts called and asked what might be wrong? Ten, no, thirty million persons had not the consolation of one expert to come on and give an elementary lesson in electric power. Just announcers - bold, sloppy, trained seals.
They turned to the blind man. He was sitting there too. This was nothing new to him. Mr. Epstein had to be helped. Mr. Epstein was a bore. If they listened, what would he say?
Gradually the gods of the radio waves betrayed them, and they learned the life of the blind. But a vicious circle is created, for blind is blind, despite the willingness of the blind to be led by the blind.
They talk and talk. Some truth emerges. But it is philosophy, morality. Nothing to do with lights going out. That isn't the important thing anyhow.
"Turn down the noisy radio; we can't hear what Mr. Epstein is saying. Speak Mr. Epstein."
And he speaks of the life and hard times of Epstein. I was born in Russia and was moved to Egypt and there became blind and moved to Algiers and moved to Paris and moved to New York and all the while I must have been learning something. Because I was blind, my parents worked hard and made money. So I am able to live in the building and he walked by a man, not even a dog. A good man--Melvin here - and somebody reads me stories.
And I tell you the advice of the blind is 'do not be blind.' Settle for something else. Everything I say, I say from authority, like a psychoanalyst, not because I know anything. I say be kind, be happy, be this and be that because I can't be anything else. The blind man's life won't let him. Else I would be wickeder and nastier and a real clinging vine.
I would undertip (the blind need not tip at all). What do you want me to do, bear false testimony?
When Mr. Epstein talked, it was in an apologetic tone as if he could see on the faces of his listeners a painful ennui. As he proceeded he gained eloquence but it was always the meaning, not the words, which were delivered in a weak high well- tuned voice, that captured attention.
"You have to understand that everything that enters into me enters as a thin thread, through the head of the needle you might say. Maybe it's the truth, who knows? But I mean that it comes in and is spooled in a simple old-fashioned way, so my mind is not a set of flashing lights, like that great man, Mr. Adlai Stevenson, but like a ball of twine, which when it gets knotted, is tied up on the same piece of endless thread.
"I have a memory that is very long and very Jewish. In it are all the disasters of my people. I remember only the sight of my rabbi and my father. Not even my mother do I remember seeing.
"When I hear ladies and gentlemen around me calling out about the darkness, naturally I think of the darkness in which we were born. Then we were in Egypt and for seven days the land suffered from hurricane and darkness. All man's light was extinguished by winds and the sun could not be seen. The world was in a trance. The same fate befell America, Asia and Europe in those days. It was then that the Jews escaped from Egypt and wandered at the mercy of the Lord for many years, when the sun shone dimly or not at all.
"Most of us died."
"A few survivors founded the new kingdom and began the writings of the Bible. From the darkness, more terrible than any today, a darkness like the kind I have always lived in, came the great good.
"They tell me it is dark now. I do not know it. Bring the plagues, the invasions, the famine, the earthquakes, and the storm, and I would still say, well, so we are again started where we began, on the road of the Laws and the Angels."
This utterly unexpected speech by Mr. Epstein brought only silence in response. The one-eyed storm lamp shone. The candle patiently devoured itself. No one could come to terms with him. There was much of consolation, something of humility, and a little pique that their exciting problem of the moment had to be measured sub specie aeternitatis and thereby much reduced.
Mr. Epstein's man Melvin, of all people, saw fit to restart the discussion. His transistor now hung from his neck noiseless and his face animated instead. "There is no problem, you know," said he. "There was no problem. This darkness, this here darkness--well, it doesn't exist any more than the light, and like black and white doesn't exist. Now Mr.Epstein here he is not white or black and I am not white or black, am I, Mr. Epstein?" (Mr. Epstein smiled in agreement).
"The fact is here today and today is the past. This moment is all there is. It's like being sent, maybe by music or by drugs or something. It's useless to figure it out, because it's gone before you know it and it doesn't matter if it's gone because something else is right here in its place. Mr. Epstein he says that worse things have happened, but I say that whatever happens now is both the best and the worst that can happen."
Mysterious and mortifying, for Melvin was not supposed to mystify. Disagreeable also, though Mr. Epstein, it is true, displayed a sweet smile still. Mrs. Gerson, who at every moment since she had entered the lobby seemed poised to climb to Apartment 10 E, was provoked into her workaday
manner and took charge of the class.
"Now see here, Melvin, " she said, "I do not understand what you are talking about. I do know that every problem has to be solved in its own terms, like whether your transistor set is or is not broken. (Here she poked at the set and dropped her purse, which Mr. Epstein promptly retrieved for her; he had good ears.) "But there is a solution and you find it by fixing whatever has gone wrong. If we're in the dark now, it's because of a bad witch or an accident somewhere. Find the source of the trouble, repair it, and bango, the lights go on again and everyone is happy."
"Even Mr. Epstein?" Cruel Melvin.
"Well, of course, . . . you know what I mean. That's different problem. . . There are hundreds of problems," One of the three old ladies giggled.
"If you ask me, Mrs. Gerson, most of these problems come down to human greed. The owners of the power companies want to get the most out of their equipment and let it run down."
The custodian, Mr. Pachek, was speaking.
"We have the same problem here. How many times have I asked for the locks on the front door to be changed, and what do I get - excuses. Until someday somebody is going to get robbed and they'll say, 'Pachek, why did you let them in?' Let them in! Who let them in?"
"It's the system,. The capitalist system. Not that the communists are any better, mind what I say, but it's the capitalist system and the big companies and everybody else--the little guys, too, even, like the cab drivers - who are after the fast buck and don't care who gets hurt. You watch. They won't be anybody to take the blame for this. It's an accident, an act of God. When you don't pay the electric bill, it's an act of God - you just try to say it."
An impatient and self-confident Thomas seized the podium. The insouciance of the pedagogue (in business, it would be called chutzpah) entitled him to express himself everywhere unceasingly.
"Let me understand what you're saying: The gentleman, whose name I now know to be Mr. Epstein (Mr. Epstein ducked his head graciously for introduction), cut down his problem by resigning himself, and referring to a golden standard of olden times.
Melvin's idea is that a problem is here today and gone tomorrow; seize the moment, beautiful Zen.
The lady disposes of power failure and attendant ills by mechanical explanation.
The three old ladies said "yes, yes" in pleased tones, but Mrs. Gerson snorted them into silence.
"Young man (perhaps you aren't so young), you are as bad as Melvin. Confusion of your conscious thought makes plain your predilections. Without ten flights of stairs to climb, you can ignore both the precedence and consequence. For myself, I have the steps to take, and you can go to your devil."
Whereupon Mrs. Gerson strode towards the stairs, and, with little regard for the maximum illumination that philosophy needs, Pachek trailed her with his lamp.
The three old ladies sat on their stools. "We are the Chorus. We are Greek."
"No Mams," says Melvin, "You are the Chorus, but I am the Greek."
"Call yourself names, if you please," said they. "We call ourselves the three wise fools." And they showed themselves the chorus, at least, by the way they cackled in unison.
"Let's go now, girls," said one, and with astonishing spryness, they leaped to their feet and disappeared into the darkness. Far from being short, Thomas observed, they were actually quite tall. And they walked in a way that by now had become distressingly familiar. Just to convoke the terrible thought however, caused a nauseating and dizzying rush of blood to his head.