I'm sitting in Dante's, a flabby pizza parlor out on Route 23, listening to Sinatra sing "Summer Wind" -- my fickle friend -- thinking that there's no way to get away from The Voice, not here in the Garden State. The silk mills may be dead but the American songbook goes on. Yesterday it was an oppressive seventy-seven degrees in Teaneck, sitting in traffic on Route 4 behind a five-car fender-bender blocking the left lane, the heat a harbinger of hellish days to come. I saw three Chrysler vans and two Japanese sedans, families with children, cops and EMS personnel, two of the drivers Orthodox Jews talking on cell phones, no one seriously hurt -- thank god -- just dazed and confused. Maybe it's that old devil moon at work. Last night, I walked around the pearlescent lake watching this lunar beauty keep watch over the homes of the working class, their lights turned down low, too many men and women out of work, those who have no history, just appetites and emotions.
It was warm enough for a barbecue. Another one of A.'s boyfriends came over and started a fire in her backyard grill. This one drives a Ford Explorer, the last one rode a Harley. They've all been soft-spoken and polite. He waved and invited me over for a Corona. "Name's Tom. Beautiful evening, huh?" We talked about an accident that had happened Thursday morning on Route 515 -- a girl crossing the road to board her school bus was clipped by a car coming up the hill. "People drive too fast up here," he said. "You know they wanna put speed bumps on Breakneck Road? But it keeps getting voted down. You know what the excuse is? It'll slow up emergency vehicles."
I told him, yes, I had heard something about the council's deliberations. I'd also heard that Tennessee Gas Pipeline wanted to pump water out of our lake to use in their drilling operation. They're building a segment of their 300 Line Project less than a mile south of here "to serve the growing demand for interstate natural gas transmission service in the northeastern United States." What corporate bullshit. The pipeline runs through some of the last undeveloped tracts of land in the whole state -- including the Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge, the Kittatinnies, the Newark water supply reservoirs, acres of farmland, Stokes State Forest, and a handful of so-called refuge areas, all supposedly protected by the Highlands Act. Who cares? Apparently "our" need for gas transmission is "growing" and we need some big profit-making enterprise to "serve" that need. This is the gas extracted from "newly accessed" Appalachian and Marcellus shale. Forget wind, forget solar, forget nuclear reactors, especially now with the crisis unfolding in Japan. Our need is growing. Forget conservation. Our need will always be growing.
Tom was poking around the charcoal, he had a good fire going. He started talking about the earthquake and tsunami. "Those poor people. It just goes to show you never know. You live your life like it's always gonna be the same and a wave comes along and washes you away." A. came out of the house with two more beers but I didn't want any more to drink. She made an offhand comment about not knowing god's will. I asked myself: to whom should we pray? The effin god of tectonic plates? After what he did, the bastard?
Historians claim that the massive Lisbon earthquake of 1755 shaped the Enlightenment. How will the feeble-minded respond to the calamity in Japan? The right-wing governor of Tokyo Prefecture called last Friday’s earthquake and its resultant tsunami "punishment from heaven" because the Japanese had become greedy. Two hundred thousand years of human evolution and this is what you get -- idiocy. This from the same politician who denied the rape of Nanking.
Okay, the world is contingent -- you remember: we walked out one fine morning and our world too changed for no good reason. It happened in New York on September 11, 2001. One minute the sky was blue, the next minute people were falling through it to their deaths. Sure enough, within hours some punk preacher was scolding us, claiming that a handful of terrorists toppling the World Trade Center was the Lord's payback for our transgressions -- homosexuality, abortion, drunkenness, materialism, whatever. How easy for the deranged to believe that an angry god had rained fire down upon us, and not a bunch of fanatics with box-cutters and their own vision of heaven.
I told my neighbors about Rie who lives in Tokyo. She's been keeping tabs on all my friends in Japan -- emailing daily reports of deprivation, heartache, confusion, but no deaths among our immediate circle, even among the booksellers of Sendai. After the quake, I went and took Susan Neiman's often brilliant Evil in Modern Thought off the shelf and started reading it again. I'm a human being. I need to account for these events that destroy lives, that kill fellow humans, whether caused by a band of savages or by the slippage of one continent under another. I was looking for the motive in the rock, the dance in the circumstance, the intention in the act. I figured effin philosophy has to got to have some usefulness, even if it can't help me live. It has to explain something, doesn't it? Shite.
I took another beer from A. and drank. My thoughts were no concern of hers, she was just being neighborly. In a few weeks, she'd probably have another boyfriend and Tom would be hanging out at the OK Tavern looking for a Friday date. The moon had risen above the treeline to the northeast as he arranged a bed of white-hot coals for cooking. "We've got an extra steak -- you wanna join us?," he asked. "Thanks, but I've got plans. Much appreciated." I thought to myself, everyone has a history just as every place has a history. I bade them goodnight and headed up the road toward a dark house.