1C – The Street Preacher

Diogenes hobbled through the lobby, shoving his way through outheld hats and hands, to finally reach 42nd St. then doubled up hacking after inhaling a miasma clogging the air thickened by burning rubber drifting from iron-gratings. Manhole smoke too surfaced from cooking fires in subterranean camps.  He hadn’t seen the streets in a year and didn’t recall so many child whores.  He made it sanely through the lobby but now, on the street, his knees buckled. He once traveled decades ago to Tangiers and Marrakech, and beggars ran to his side with expressions untouched by civilization, but this was precisely the opposite.  The decay or regression of civilization, felt far more disquieting.

He stumbled upon odd glimpses of humanity walking over the rubble.  Besides those lost in casing everyone for crumbs or victimization, there were welded junk sculptures and “gash” paintings depicting scenes of revolution and paradise.  An idiot in goggles wearing “pasties” danced on 5th Avenue to a tin whistle entertaining mat-haired lounging in mounds of makeshift box “skyscrapers” decorated with TV antennae and melted radios.  Crude but oddly hopeful paintings of The Pure Land promised by Future Buddha covered still-standing billboards.

Diogenes stepped over a blanket deliberately meant to cover a hole in the pavement, wherein below, the half-flooded subway was squatted by families waiting to capture a shoe or a bite to eat from unwary pedestrians.  He passed an utopian painting: a badgerlike family knelt to receive yogurt from the multiple hands of a Hindu god, who also drew them, ecstatic, from their subway to heaven.  A child waved a dirty ribbon at him from a pile of empty oil drums, sporting three pairs of lenseless glasses from his belt.  Scribblings in praise of ambrosia (heroin) in blood stuck to his shoes. Walking further west, a roar from toughs echoed, repeating a popular melody –“Fuck the world I wanna get off!” — pounded out with lead pipes on overturned Jeeps.

A huge crowd assembled on 6th Avenue, spilling into Port Authority, including hag transvestites and prostitutes who gathered to heckle a street preacher.  He just mounted his box, shouting: “All of this has been prophesied in Revelations!, They are building beasts underground! They’re making the world a graveyard!” through a bent aluminum megaphone. The street preacher sweat profusely through his faded blue Salvation Army uniform, waving his hands wildly at the sky, and below, to the ground.  Diogenes, jostled by hustlers, stepped up to listen, and it slowly dawned on him why this fake prophet created a sensation even in contemporary Times Square, filthy with snake-oil prophets: he advocated infanticide.

Just as the crowd swarmed in to assault, perhaps strangle, the preacher, a young man to Diogenes’ right, stood up and loudly defended him.  The crowd momentarily hushed.  It felt as if time had stopped.  Or history rolled back. The young man’s face revealed no gonorrheal sores, nor small pox pits, nor were his eyes jaundiced, or puffed, but clear, and his expression forthright, innocent.  Worse, he was healthy, broad-shouldered, wearing clean burlap trousers and a pair of fully soled boots.  The crowd turned if only for a moment of nostalgia.  Yet, as he shouted, with a full set of teeth, a shiny head of black hair — with that unbroken complexion — defending what even they knew to be lunacy and murder, the crowd coiled to destroy this second monster, who somehow escaped the ravages of Collapse.  Diogenes found himself busting through the mob, hobbling to help the second victim, and within seconds, the mob, feeling vaguely threatened, lunged with even greater vengeance on the third, a post-middle-aged clerk with a lame leg.

Diogenes struggled to breathe as they tore his shirt, knocked then pinned him down, thrashing him with bricks, bottles, and trash can lids.  He screamed in pain, curled up, then closed his eyes to concentrate so to protect his face and not suffocate, until the crowd left him for dead.  The young man was rapidly escorted away by paramilitary Blunts who inexplicably ran in just as Diogenes went down.  The orator, box under arm, slipped away unharmed before suffering any harm.

Diogenes had a dream: He was riding on a jet decades ago, then  found himself shivering in a snowstorm in Paris facing the Métro Gobelins.  The boulangerie, or bakeshop, filled the air with scents of fresh bread, “C’est une malédiction!” a young girl cried, “Fou!” Diogenes tried to object, murmuring German instead of French then attempting English, but his jaw, even his lips felt heavy.  It was misting now near St. Cloud … his skin appeared to be steaming, and he was being cradled in the arms of the same girl.  “You were always such a fou!”  she smiled, looking down at him.  “You mean fool.”  Diogenes added, then saw his torn pantleg stripped back with a layer of his skin.  Beneath the flesh a row of strawberries appeared … “Food!” she said, and laughed.

Meanwhile, an immense, bio-engineered hound of mixed shepherd and basset parentage nosed Diogenes like a packet of excrement and barked into his face.  Diogenes’ ragged pants lay open and a clownish onlooker urged the dog to eat the “links”.  The hound had his own orders, it seemed, and instead, bit into the scruff of Diogenes’ collar then dragged him unconscious through a series of streets West, until they finally reached Lincoln Tunnel, now clogged with crouching families in suffocating camps.

The hound ploughed on, dragging Diogenes past unventilated cameos of cannibalism, necrophilia, starvation, past Civil War victims wrapped in dirty shrouds to die from gas or grenades — pawed through makeshift cardboard walls, eased his burden over mounds of sleeping bodies, negotiated odd entanglements, ignoring shadowy mouths crying for release, for the day when the ceiling would crawl with fissures and cave in, and wash them, with their despair, out into the oily Hudson, and into, oblivion.

Finally, after emerging, and dragging Diogenes through a fountain a few rounds, and dislodging him from a moment of unconscious clinging to a fire-hydrant, the panting hound slowly walked through an industrial wasteland to the edge of a Hoboken parkinglot.  There, rubble bulldozed into small mountains encircled a wide pit where beggars squatted or built like beetles rolling dungballs, peering through smog in shit-soaked rags.  Reaching the pit’s edge, the hound finally dumped him, letting him tumble into a mass of lifeless abdomens and prone heads. At this point, coming to, Diogenes turned, and vomited.

From the pit’s crest, a hooded figure commanded: “Virgil. Fetch him here!”  The hound, foaming, was too paralyzed with fatigue to obey his erstwhile master, and Diogenes had to claw up himself, shivering with disgust.  He cried for help.  The robed figure replied, “Get up, you dumb bastard, if you don’t wish to be buried!”  Diogenes struggled to his feet, grabbing at weeds, dizzy, white with fear, and reached the man, grasping his ankles.  Diogenes looked up at him as the man eased back his hood.

You disgust me.  Rise to your fucking feet before I kick you back to your death!”

“Who are you?”  Diogenes sputtered.

“Grabmaler, you shit!”  he replied. “And you?”

“Diogenes, a clerk, a former clerk — I worked as a Midtown clerk until … this morning.”

“If that’s your life’s work, you’ve come to the right place!”  And the man turned away.

Hours passed in delirium at the pit’s edge.  Bulldozers churned gravel in the smoky haze, until night fell, starless.

Diogenes awoke sipping water from a tin offered to him by a wizened little boy, who seemed incapable of speech but who did help Diogenes stand then led him to a tent where they found Grabmaler sipping bourbon besides a kerosene lamp.  Diogenes stood unsteadily, waiting, watching the man sketch red wolves on a notepad.

“So, a dog saved your life.” Grabmaler finally remarked, without looking up to Diogenes at his tent’s doorflap.  “‘Man’s best friend’  That’s the cliché. But everyone underestimates dogs.  Especially since we’ve sunk below them, peeping at life, from our graves.”

“And who, what are you?” Diogenes asked, trying to gain composure.

The idiot boy finally spoke up, stammering: “He … a … philo-sulphre!”

Grabmaler chuckled, “Yes, that’s what he calls me.  Anyone sane, any man who can read, any man who sleeps in a bed, qualifies as a patriarch, a god.  Anyone not a geek — is worthy of worship! Right?”  Grabmaler prodded the boy, sardonically: “A priest, a father, or ‘philosulphre’.  Right?  Now mark him.  Apparently he watched his father be tortured to death by his elder brother and stopped speaking, except to me.  Or at least around me.  He wants me to be his father but the very thought of his or any father fattens his tongue … so he calls me that.”

“No!”  the boy shouted, fiercely, stamping his feet: “He’s a phila … philo … sulphre!”

“He must like you.  He never speaks, really.” Grabmaler smoothed the lip of his glass.

“Nightmares are wish-fulfillments too …”, Grabmaler mused, pointing toward the tent opening, and, presumably, New York. “But sometimes a nightmare is more truthful than a dream.  Beyond these domestic bombings, paramilitary extremism, utopian promises, then regression, atavism  — it’s hard to see why you, or any man, would prefer to live with only the past to remember, and enjoy.  This life I make for myself, well, it doesn’t necessitate fantasy.  I turn the nightmare upside down.  I examine the root, the footlights projecting up through the seeming cartoon, to what makes it …  work, what makes it true.”

“And what make you rich … ” Diogenes chanced.

Grabmaler grimaced, “Talk only when I want to listen.”

Diogenes heard dogs yelp and Grabmaler stood up. “That will be Rupert and Undine arriving from New York.”

The tent canvas parted and a girl, perhaps just under twenty, eased in.

“Undine, this is Diogenes.  Where’s Rupert?”

“He’s feeding Virgil.”

Her voice had a rich sonority but also the guarded, almost quavering defensiveness which young women always had now.  Her neck sloped smoothly and she rubbed her eye.

“I’m Diogenes … excuse …. my appearance.”  Diogenes managed, looking down at his pants, embarrassed.

“Rupert,” she said, turning away, “was nearly jumped by a mob yesterday near Port Authority.”

“And … ?”  Grabmaler examined her icily.

“Let him explain!  He can be so impossible.”  She forced herself out of courtesy to notice Diogenes.

“He’s untouched isn’t he?”  Grabmaler asked gravely.  “I warned him about New York.”

Diogenes watched Grabmaler and sensed something odd now in his movements, something protective but forced in his vitality.  When Grabmaler’s eyelids dropped he momentarily saw another, much older, beaten man.  He was august, seemingly powerful, but also needy, and his very body reflected it, with a wary staginess. Minutes passed without a word spoken.  Undine, sat down on a deck chair, smoked a cigarette, then bit her nails.  Grabmaler sketched, sipped bourbon.  Diogenes remained standing.

Finally, the young man they were waiting for opened the tent, with an air of habit.

“Did Undine tell you what happened?”

“Just that you were nearly beaten by a mob.”  Grabmaler rose, helping off the young man’s coat.

“Hey, who’s this?” This is the guy told you about, Undine! I’m sure of it!”  He veered over to Diogenes to peer at his face.

“Yes, Virgil dragged him to the pit.”  Grabmaler stated distantly.

Diogenes recognized him.  His young face had etched itself in his retinas.  Instead of feeling amazed, Diogenes felt a suspicious shiver.  Strictly speaking, he never believed in coincidences.  He took a long look into Grabmaler’s eyes, and this time Grabmaler looked back, not with the paternal warmth with which he welcomed Rupert but with cool, harnessed pride, as if daring Diogenes to delve further into his business. If he knew Diogenes sensed a sham around which his familial hearth was set, he knew he was powerless to upset it.  Grabmaler reached over to hand Diogenes a drink — a misty gin and tonic with lemon — and mumbled, coldly, “Cheers”.  As Rupert related what happened to him Diogenes settled down on a mattress and rough pillows and grew sleepy.  He thought he heard Grabmaler offer paternal council, the mute kid fiddling with the doorflap.  He thought he smelt Virgil in the tent.  Undine seemed to shrink into the corner.  He wasn’t sure anymore, slumping on the cushions …