One thing leads to another.
In July 2012 I moved to a new town and by December I was sorely in need of a haircut. I found the place to get my hair cut by first finding an Irish pub. I found the pub by first finding a new trail, and hiking on it until sunset, which had given me a thirst that needed quenching.
Entering the dimly lighted pub, its warmth fogged my eyeglasses, requiring me to navigate carefully through the Irish mist, past two musicians playing guitar and mandolin, and around tables where old men and women sat, weeping. They wept because the musicians were singing about angry young men in Belfast throwing Molotov cocktails at scared young British soldiers armed with machine guns. Which, of course, led to people becoming dead.
After rehydrating with pints of Guinness, I floated out to the sidewalk to walk off my happy buzz and explore this part of my new town. It was enjoyable to look in the windows of restaurants and watch people eat and drink and talk and laugh. I was intrigued by the variety of mechanical contraptions displayed in the window of a store that sold vacuum cleaners. I was next intrigued by the brightly colored comic-book style portraits of young couples, and the sly innuendo of the captions below the portraits, that were painted on the blacked-out window of a store that sold pornography and sex toys. Entering the store, the manager explained her targeted market was not horny and lonely men, but women and couples. Which, alas, had apparently led to the store now having a Going Out of Business Sale.
Half a block away I espied what appeared like a lighthouse on the sidewalk, a red white and blue swirled pole. Reaching that beacon, I peered through the dark windows behind it. Walls were cluttered with road signs, car license plates, faded photographs of athletes, and on a high shelf lining the perimeter, the mythical 99 bottles of beer. (Empty.) I had discovered Andy’s Barbershop.
Which led to me, early next Saturday morning, being in the chair inside Andy’s Barbershop, with a man actually named Andy cutting my hair.
After paying Andy for my excellent new haircut, I foraged. That is, I drove down random streets looking for a place I could buy breakfast. Waiting at a stoplight, I watched a man on the far corner slowly spinning on the sidewalk in a small circle. He wore four layers of dirty ragged clothes and he yelled at the air while chopping it with both hands. Passersby pretended he was not there, but at the same time granted him as much of the sidewalk as he needed to perform his karate.
Homeless, I thought.
Which led me to wonder why we call such people homeless. For all I knew that man lived in a mansion on a hill. Or in a decrepit aluminum trailer atop cinder blocks in an unincorporated part of town with propane tanks to fuel the apparatus he used to manufacture methamphetamine.
My socio-economic musings evaporated when, just as the traffic light turned green, I read the large green letters embedded on the side of a building directly behind the spinning, shouting, air-chopping man—Starbucks.
The barista was maybe 21, maybe of Mexican heritage, maybe weighed over 300 pounds, maybe was five feet and three inches tall, maybe had a mustache, and maybe was a man or maybe was a woman. In a castrato’s voice, they greeted me with a question, “What can I get started for you?”
Outwardly, I gave my order. Inwardly, I filed this question in my memory. Should one thing lead to another and I find myself single again, alone in a bar and in need of a provocative conversational gambit to break the ice with the attractive woman seated beside me, I could ask her, “What can I get started for you?”
I found a tiny round table just big enough to fit my laptop, a 20-ounce cup of cooperatively-farmed shade-grown fairly-traded Peruvian coffee, a toasted spinach, feta and egg-white wrap, and seven sun motes. Seated at the tiny round table to my right was a guy dressed in sharp-toed black boots, tight jeans, and a heavily starched and ironed red-checked shirt that had swirls of fancy stitching around the buttons and over the shoulders. His left leg bounced straight up and down as constant and steady as a piston in the engine of an idling pickup truck. His gnarled, tobacco-stained fingers deftly folded the sports page of a newspaper into a small square, then pinched the edges into sharp creases. He then held the tight square at arm’s length and stared at it so intensely I thought the newspaper might catch fire.
I looked back at my computer screen and, like 1.27 billion other people would that day, read the news online. Recently something happened in Connecticut, the state where I was born and raised, and I intended to read about it, even though I did not really want to read about it. As I clicked on the link, I also noted in my peripheral vision that the person at a tiny round table to my left stared at me. I glanced up, noted he was a thin teenager with shaggy dyed-black hair, and then dove into the news story on my laptop.
A 20-year-old man used his mother’s Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle to shoot her dead as she slept in bed. He then drove to an elementary school where she had been a teacher and shot his way through a locked glass door. The school principal and psychologist were in a staff meeting when they heard the shots, and rushed to the source of the sounds. The man shot and killed both women.
“I dee-jay at the ice rink.”
I looked at the young man. I said, “Ice rink?”
“Yeah the ice rink.” He pointed out the windows. “You know the ice rink.”
“I’m new in—”
“It’s just one of my gigs.” He scratched his shaggy hair vigorously. “I dee-jay other stuff, too.”
“Like parties and wed— ”
“Check this out.” He thrust the black rectangle of a phone into the space between us. “I’m streaming video on my phone right now.”
Maybe it was this sudden change of topic that led me to make a snap judgment. Or maybe it was instinct, but I decided this shaggy teenager was playing the game of Life with an incomplete deck of cards. I did admire how, in spite of his having a short deck, he was choosing to play, not to sit out the game. He had, after all, struck up a conversation with a middle-aged stranger in a café.
The video playing on his phone appeared to be of a heavy-metal band on a smoke-filled stage. The image was small and the connection jerky and there was no sound. Watching the stuttering video was like watching a flip-card animation.
“The connection’s a bit slow,” I said.
“No way this is a 4G phone.”
I nodded down at the phone. “The video’s stopped.”
He pulled the phone away and stared down at it in his hands, mystified that it was not doing what he expected it to do. He began massaging the phone with both thumbs.
I went back into my computer screen. It seemed that the school psychologist, before being shot to death, managed to turn on the school’s intercom, trying to alert others in the building. A nine-year-old student would tell how he heard over the intercom the shooter say: “Put your hands up!” and someone else say “Don’t shoot!” and people yelling and many gunshots as he, his classmates, and teacher ran to hide in a closet in the gymnasium.
In the meeting room that the principal and psychologist ran from, a teacher pressed her body against the door to keep it closed. The man with the gun shot her through the door. In a first-grade classroom, a substitute teacher was shot in the face and killed. Fifteen of the sixteen students in her class were killed. The sole survivor, a six-year-old girl, lay on the floor among the bodies and feigned she was dead. When the building grew quiet, she ran from the school, covered in blood, the first child to escape the building. She would tell her mother, “Mommy, I’m okay, but all my friends are dead.” She described the shooter as a very angry man.
“Look at this.”
I turned to the young man beside me.
“Look at the video.”
He held the phone up in my face but at the same time leaned away from me as if I was threatening or had offensive body odor.
“There’s no video,” I said.
His eyebrows raised and the corners of his mouth turned down. He pressed both thumbs on the surface of the phone. “Wait.”
The young man with the gun went to a first-grade classroom where the teacher had hidden several children in a closet and cupboards.
I remembered how, when I was a six-year-old boy in Connecticut the wood cupboards in school seemed a good place to hide. Not that I ever did. Not that I ever had to. I just liked the quiet scent of the things stored inside—the books and crayons, the sculpting clay, the blank white paper ruled with faint blue lines, and golden pencils waiting to be sharpened to perfect points.
The teacher told the man with the gun that the children were in the auditorium. But several of the children came out of their hiding places and tried to run away. The teacher put herself between her students and the shooter. A six-year-old boy in that class later told how he and some of his classmates had escaped through the classroom door while the man with the gun was busy shooting their teacher and the other children.
“Watch this.” The young man pressed on his phone while explaining to me, like a salesman, that the phone could videoconference with other people, but only if they had a phone as capable as his, and no one he knew did. He was technologically stranded.
The homeless man I saw on the sidewalk entered the café. He was not yelling now, only mumbling softly as he began walking in a tight circle near the counter. His hands were safely in the pockets of his sagging pants, not slicing and dicing the air. Everyone pretended he was not there, yet gave him the room he needed to walk in his circle muttering.
The androgynous 300-pound barista came out from behind the counter carrying a white paper bag and used it like a carrot before a horse to lead the homeless man outside. I watched through the windows as the barista took a cup of coffee and a sandwich from the bag and put them into the man’s hands. And his hands, for the first time I had observed him, stopped. The barista spoke to the man, but I didn’t know if the man heard him, because his own lips never stopped moving.
That evening, my girlfriend, who I had moved to my new town to live with, and who is a third-grade teacher in my new town, made me do something I had not done in years. She took me Christmas shopping in a mall. I thought it odd how the longest lines were for soft pretzels, and for giant barbecue tongs and spatulas that had the names of National Football League teams burned into their genuine hardwood handles.
After shopping we went to a restaurant, one link in a corporate chain, where a sign on the wall in the crowded waiting area read, Maximum Occupancy 348 Persons. Rather than wait one hour and twenty minutes for a table, we slow-walked beside the fifty-foot long bar and just as two people got up from their stools to leave, we sat in their places. Bingo.
I looked out over what appeared to be a half-acre filled with 348-plus living breathing talking laughing angry sad buzzed happy people eating and drinking at tables and in booths, coming and going and leaning over to shout at the person across from them who pretended to get meaning out of every third word they managed to hear.
There were dozens of large and larger television screens on the walls and suspended from the ceiling and there were small screens tucked in nooks and corners. Later I would find out, even on the walls of the men’s bathroom. Unlike Orwell’s 1984, the dozens of screens were not all showing the same program. I felt grateful that my new town was not ranked among the places on this planet where such a vast and confined crowd of happy people would attract angry people wearing homemade explosive vests filled with nails, screws, and steel ball bearings.
Using hand semaphore, I got the attention of one of the four bartenders. I shouted our drink orders to her. While waiting for our drinks, I looked at the four large television screens arranged in a giant rectangle above the blue-lighted freezer in which dozens of bottles of vodkas imported from all over the world were displayed. The brilliant clarity and vivid color of the large screens was stunning. In reflex, I squinted. Each screen flashed a different program or commercial. I tried hard to look at only one screen. But I could not. Against my will, my eyes jumped from screen to screen, distracted by the constant motion and choppy camera cuts, hopelessly trying to catch something that was always just getting away from me, like a dumb mark certain he could win at Three-card Monte.
Sitting at that bar and being bludgeoned by the chaos of noise, smells, sights and sensations, I ran away. That is, I retreated far, far inside me to a quiet place. I recalled the man walking in circles on the sidewalk while karate chopping the air. I wondered why the insistent young man at Starbucks wanted me—needed me—to be amazed by his phone. And I thought about the other young man who stormed an elementary school in Connecticut to slaughter children and teachers with his mother’s machine gun. I wondered, does this world drive us insane? Or do we arrive here with the madness already embedded?
Just before the noise and flashing light and voices of the crowd hauled me back to the world around me, there was one swift silent suspended moment in which I was certain—there is no part or quality or function of the cosmos that cares, one way or the other, individually or as a species or as a planet, if or how, we live and die. The indifference of the cosmos is immaculate.