Letters at 3AM

Reflections on how Western civilization lost its moral authority.

Letters at 3AM
Illustration By Jason Stout

A few days before Christmas, 1962 ... I was 17, a high school senior in Waterville, Maine, where I lived with a family that had taken me in three years before when I was homeless ... I boarded a Greyhound about 11 at night, bound for New York City, where I hoped to see three of my younger siblings (living in a Catholic children's home), my mother (temporarily out of the mental hospital), and my father and brother (if I could find them) ... I'd already learned that a person and a family can break into pieces and never be put back together again; that even good people (like my father) could be cowards; that "the kindness of strangers" was a real quality in this world; and that if I couldn't depend upon myself I could depend upon nothing ... but I wasn't thinking of all that ... I was thinking about a girl named Donna who lived in Queens (if I could find her) and seeing my friend Dave, as the bus pulled out of Waterville under a gentle snowfall.

The last to board the bus was a woman in her 20s. Her skin was pale, her hair was long and unkempt. She had no coat -- and it was about 20 degrees out. She wore a tight blouse, tight black "chino" pants. Threadbare flats, no socks. Her chinos came down to just above her ankles; she had no luggage, only a handbag. She didn't take a seat at first, just stood in the aisle, swaying with the movement of the bus. Then she said aloud, "This is the craziest thing I've ever done."

She chose a seat just across the aisle from mine. I tried to avoid staring, but one detail transfixed me, on and off, for the 10-hour drive to Manhattan: Above her right ankle someone had carved a swastika. Recently. The bleeding had stopped but the neat straight cuts were still raw and red.

If she's still alive she's in her 60s, heavier no doubt; her swastika scar has probably faded, its carefully carved lines now curved and twisted by the growth of her calves. I doubt she carved it herself -- the angle is too tricky for such exact work. Willing or unwilling, she held her leg still, or others held her down, while someone worked with a sharp blade (the cuts were clean). She was forced, I suspect, for she seemed to be escaping: no warm coat, no socks, just a handbag for luggage, all indicated a hasty exit. I wondered where she'd come from; that was still a time when regions had strong accents, the Maine accent was the most distinctive in the East, but her one sentence bore no trace of Maine. I wondered many things, but didn't say a word.

I was fascinated but not shocked. Since the age of 5 I'd seen many varieties of madness -- in my family, on the streets, and even under the proper façade of the people who'd taken me in. I'd experienced brutality and violence; hers was merely another variety. But I've often thought of her when I hear talk of how America was once orderly and peaceful and sane. After all, we boarded that bus two months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we'd all almost died in a nuclear conflagration. There was nothing sane or orderly about that time but its trappings. Underneath, there was a constant background sound ... not an actual sound, but a kind of psychological echo ... the sound of something cracking, ripping ... the sinister fizz of a dissolving American Dream ... she was only one more indication that things were not as they seemed.

I still possess the two books I had on my lap that night. One I'd bought: Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle. One I'd been given by my friend Carl hours before boarding the bus: William Carlos Williams' Paterson. That night I read over and over Lowell's "The Holy Innocents," written in the year of my birth, the year the world learned of Auschwitz, the year of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The world out-Herods Herod; and the year,/The nineteen-hundred forty-fifth of grace,/Lumbers with losses up the clinkered hill/Of our purgation ... Lamb of the shepherds, Child, how still you lie. And, two pages later, the poem "New Year's Day": The Child is born in blood, O child of blood. I've often thought, re-reading those poems: This is where I came in. This is where I joined the riotous procession -- part Mardi Gras parade, part death march -- that we call "history." The year that Western civilization lost, utterly, in the eyes of the world, its moral authority ... though America has yet to admit that. The swastika on her leg was merely one small emblem, moving through a snowy night, of a chaos that had become the unadmitted rule of life.

In Paterson William Carlos Williams was more exact. My book is heavily underlined (my young mind was racing that night): The language, the language fails them/They do not have the words/or have not/ the courage to use them./ -- girls from/families that have decayed and/taken to the hills [boarded a bus!] no words./They may look at the torrent in their minds/and it is foreign to them./They turn their backs/and grow faint -- but recover!/Life is sweet/ they say ... Pages later: the whole din of fracturing thought/as it falls tinnily to nothing upon the streets. And still later, an audacious idea: Beauty is a defiance of authority. And those lines where the aging poet made his last stand of hope: No defeat is made up entirely of defeat -- since/the world it opens is always a place/formerly/unsuspected.

Forty years later I sit with those two books amid the clutter on my writing desk. Beside them tonight are a Nov. 28 column from The New York Times' Bob Herbert and a Dec. 17 article from The Wall Street Journal. Both concern the bestselling video "games" of this Christmas season -- $10 billion in sales, the games are up 22% from last year. One, Herbert reports, "is a game in which all boundaries of civilized behavior have vanished. You get to shoot whoever you want, including cops. [Pedestrians too, the Journal adds.] You get to beat women to death with baseball bats. You get to have sex with prostitutes and then kill them (and get your money back)." Another features "rioting in the streets, looting, individual acts of extreme sadism, and, of course, endless gory murders." The Journal interviewed a mother with an elementary-school-age boy as she bought such a game for him. She said she "had little choice" because her son wanted this game so much. She justified this with: "Anyway -- it's Christmas."

She is saying, without meaning to, that Auschwitz has become part of our way of life -- not in its details, but in its utter absence of mercy. We market massacre as play, given as a gift to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It's useless to point out that the consequences will be severe, and that those under 18 (55%) and over 18 (45%) who "play" these "games" are massacring something in themselves for the profit of people who are already the walking dead -- for only moral zombies would invent and offer such gifts. It's useless to point out that those who "play" are exercising not their pleasure but their fear: These video exercises (they are exercises more than games) give their participants the illusion of control -- for they live in terror of a mayhem utterly out of control, a chaos against which (so they fear) nothing can stand. While they engage the video they become the horror they fear; thus they hope to fear it less -- not realizing that they are doing the opposite, they are taking the fear deep within themselves until it roots itself within not only as fear but as vision. They are half-consciously numbing themselves to the mayhem, in the frail and equally half-conscious hope that to be desensitized is to be immune. Tough luck. There is no immunity. The world out-Herods Herod ... The Child is born in blood, O child of blood. Merry Christmas.

That woman on the bus, the blood fresh on her swastika, not a tattoo but a carving ... she, and not the grand pronouncements of the think tanks and politicians of the day, was a herald of what we'd become; or rather, of what we'd have to deal with in ourselves. But she at least was dealing -- escaping, or trying to. The gamers are immersing, they're swamped, sinking into the horror. That woman -- I felt pity for her plight but I dug her wildness, and still do. Williams in Paterson: If there was not beauty, there was a strangeness and a bold association of wild and cultured life. But there ain't nuthin' wild about sitting on your ass and playing a video game, no matter how transgressive the game. You're just trying to insulate yourself while filling some predator's pockets. Wildness is getting on the bus in the middle of the night and going into the unknown. "This is the craziest thing I've done in my life." Wildness is doing, not seeming.

Lamb of the shepherds, Child, how still you lie. Where did she go when she got off that bus? What kind of Christmas did she celebrate? As Butch Hancock sings, Where do you go when you're already gone? A question Jesus might have appreciated. Yeah, Merry Christmas. end story

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Christmas, Robert Lowell, Lord Weary's Castle, William Carlos Williams, Paterson

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