Meet me at the corner of Apocalypse and Now
IN MID-JULY of 1969, our twice-weekly house maid, Betty, told my mom that she would be going home to North Carolina for a few weeks. She said she would go to her “mama’s grave — ’cause when those men land on the moon, that was going to be the end of the world.”
“Betty and the moon landing” was a story members of my family told with some cosmopolitan amusement for some time when speaking about our childhood.
In 1984, when I was in my early 20s and I lived in New York City, pursuing my dreams of becoming famous, I would occasionally ride my bicycle through Rockefeller Center.
Over the course of a few years, I encountered a man who held a sign. He was a cipher. His fierce eyes reminded me of a hawk’s talons as he gripped whatever he saw with his stare, as if he might devour it.
The first time I saw him, he was wearing three overcoats, and his sign said, “The end of the world will be Nov. 29th.”
It was July. I kept his end date in the back of my mind, and sometime that December I recalled it with a wry smile.
The next time I saw him, a year or so later, his sign said, “The end of the world will be Nov. 14.”
The last time I ever saw him his sign said, “The end of the world is coming... REPENT.”
I’m pretty sure I was in the majority of people who dismissed him as just another New York City crank, but what struck me was the certainty of the dates, at least for the first two instances.
In the third account, he was telling me what to do. But what to repent for, what good might that do me?
I frankly didn’t have the presence to ask him a real question without letting my you’re-crazy-and-I’m-not judgment spill all over him. Plus: whatever he had? I was sure I didn’t want it.
* * *
LATELY, I’ve been learning about our climate crisis. Unlike the reactions from Betty and the man in Rockefeller Center, these predictions of catastrophe come from scientists.
Their predictions range, and some hedge their bets, but about one issue there is a ton of consensus: Whatever actions we as a society of world citizens take — or don’t take — in the next eight years might drive us off the ecological cliff. It might be possible to swerve our guzzling Hummer and narrowly miss the chasm.
Either way, we will stay dangerously close to the edge of climate collapse for the foreseeable future.
Against this reality, I’ve noticed that Esquire has published a list of the 10 best apocalypse movies. I saw another similar list, this one with 100.
Have you noticed? The Walking Dead is in its 10th season on television, and the films Zombieland: Double Tap and The Dead Don’t Die both opened in wide release this summer.
According to some, the cause for these apocalyptic themes is humans’ preponderance for experimenting with genetics. I keep wondering if our god complex is benign or malign.
It seems clear that if we can’t control the consequences of even the machines in which we have the most faith (i.e. the internal combustion engine), then how can we possibly keep the genie in the bottle when messing with our genetic code?
When I roll these thoughts into one theme, I call it the Frankenstein Idea: We can’t control what we create, nor can we affect any of the consequences of our fixes.
Or, to paraphrase Colin Powell’s most famous saying, “If we make it, we own it.”
* * *
LAST JUNE, eight teenagers held a die-in protest action at the annual Strolling of the Heifers parade in Brattleboro.
They did so to protest the fact that their future has been systematically and ecologically compromised, yet no one — like the person I overheard at a coffee shop remarking on the inconvenience of a paper straw — will even listen to their screams of pain, fear, confusion, grief, and rage.
There was a months-long blowback of public and private argument of whether the kids’ demonstration, which held up the parade for 10 minutes, was a good thing or a bad thing.
If we (in Brattleboro, the state of Vermont, the entire United States, or — gasp! — the world) can’t come to a consensus very soon about how much disruption we are willing to put up with in order to save ourselves, we are doomed.
As I write that sentence, I realize I sound like that man near Rockefeller Center.
But it’s not that extreme.
Even if humanity does die out, at least the Earth will survive.