Considering Salvation at the Corner of Ninth and Seventh

Eric Winsome was stuck. At a veritable standstill. Physically, stopped in traffic behind a late model blue Toyota Camry on 7th Avenue at the corner of 9th Street, and existentially, locked in a self-imposed worry-worn straitjacket of self-absorbed spiritual stagnation.

The light at the corner was green but a crammed B67 bus, lights flashing, kneeled, angling into the intersection in front of Smiling Pizza, picking up a line of passengers: Men in work boots with lunch buckets, women with shopping carts, drooling infants, juuling teenagers, and homeless souls with sacks of clattering bottles and cans bound for redemption.

Louise Little, the driver in the Toyota, her NicoDerm patch running on empty, held a cigarette in her taut quivering lips and a Zippo in her right fist tapping on the steering wheel to the Deep Purple Smoke on the Water guitar riff, which she had not gotten out of her head since she woke up this morning. In nine seconds, tops, she would either light up the god-damn Newport or run the yellow light the instant the lousy bus gave her a chance.

Eric’s fog-like crisis of faith was, simply, his unwavering acceptance of the Calvinist sublapsarian belief in predestination and in the decree made by God before the Fall that he would choose from among the living, those to be saved, and those not. Eric was thirty-four and he could not know within which group he’d be counted. How could anyone know? he thought. Worry and doubt consumed his every waking moment. Not the least of his worries, though, was whether Wendy, the woman he loved, and to whom he had plighted his troth just shy of seven years ago, would be in the same state of candidacy for eternal salvation as he hoped he was. He had his reasonable doubts.

“Seven years,” she had told him, “is one hell of a long time for a woman to wait for you to make a decision. I can’t wait for ever. My mother keeps asking me, will he, or won’t he?” Just this morning, waiting to brush her teeth in his apartment while he took his time in the bathroom she said, “Eric, shit or get off the pot, I have to get to work, goddamnit.”

On the corner opposite Louise and Eric, stood Lois and Irv Rothstein, an elderly couple waiting for the light to change so they could cross the avenue and make their bus for the early-bird special at Juniors on Flatbush. Though they were resigned to the possibility of missing it, they retained the hope that, God-willing, the light would change before the bus righted itself and they could flag down the driver and make it across the street before it left the corner.

Irv watched the light. Louise watched the light. Lois watched the light. Eric watched the photo of Wendy he kept on taped to the dashboard in front of him, The B67 began its slow rise. The light changed. Louise lit her Newport. Irv and Lois began their walk across the avenue, waving and calling to the driver.

As she walked, Lois’s upper body swayed slightly from side to side. It was the thickening, stiffening, of the arthritis in her hips.

Her shoulders rocked first one way and then the other. It slowed her down, and Irv, a spare man, a few inches shorter than his wife, held tightly to the sleeve of her jacket, trying to keep her moving and on an even keel. He held on to the brim of his hat with his other hand.

The walk sign flashed, nearing the end of its orange digital countdown. 14…13… 12…

“Hold your horses,” said Lois to the young woman talking on her cellphone in the car behind the bus, her grim lips holding a cigarette in the driver’s side window, but it was only loud enough for Irv to hear.

“Come along, dear,” he said to her, with concern and considerable affection.

As the countdown reached three, they had made it safely to the opposite curb and then at the precise moment that the zero flashed, Lois turned to Irv, “I dropped my glove,” she said, and she lurched stiffly up onto the curb. Irv looked back.

The glove, in a shade of green that matched her jacket, which she had been holding in her free hand, and which Irv had bought for her on sale at the Conways in Manhattan for her birthday, lay half-way across the roadway. Irv let go of her arm, stepped back into the street, holding his hand up to the path of the traffic. Lois teetered.

Louise hit the gas at the green light and, when she saw the man, only a few feet or so from his outstretched arm, she slammed on the brake pedal and twisted the steering wheel to the right to avoid hitting him.

At that moment a car horn from behind Eric blew, startling him. He stepped on the gas, rear-ending Louise’s Toyota, inflating both of their airbags and pushing her car up onto the sidewalk hitting Lois squarely in her stiff hips and crushing her against the back of the B67.

Irv’s heart exploded with the impact of grief, and he fell to the pavement.

Louise was later saved by the ‘jaws of life.’

And Eric? He sustained, with vertebrae-cracking suddenness, multiple spinal cord ruptures causing his surgical team to place him in a medically induced coma until they would be able to assess the best course of action, if any existed, leaving him with only a 50-50 chance of survival and plenty of time to ruminate, in his solitude, on his chances of salvation.

Of Nietzsche, Vonnegut, and Pastrami at Katz’s Lower East Side

“Hi, are you Carmella?”

“Yes. Miriam?”

“Yes. I’m so glad you came.”

“Thanks for saving me a seat. It’s crazy in here. I can’t believe it’s so packed at ten o’clock at night.”

“Sit. Please. Give me your ticket and I’ll order for both of us.”

“I don’t know what I want yet.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll get pastrami on rye with mustard and you’ll love it. I promise. I’ll be right back.”

On returning to their seats with their tray, Miriam said, “Sorry it took so long. It’s part of the schtick here. Look at this sandwich. I thought we’d share one?”

“Oh, my God, yes, it looks incredible!”

“Let’s eat.”

“Forgive me,” Carmella says, chewing, “I looked at the book on your chair. You’re reading Nietzsche. What do you think? The ‘eternal return’ idea. You think he had it right? Vonnegut wrote something about that too.”

“I’ve never read Vonnegut, but maybe I should. I think Nietzsche had it right, mostly. About what he called ‘the eternal recurrence.’ The cosmology. It’s much more complicated now. But philosophically, I’m not so sure where he stood.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, sometimes he seems certain, even challenging the reader about the idea. At others, he seems as if he’s challenging his own thinking. But the cosmological part, based on astrophysical calculations, was the right idea.”

“But he didn’t know any of the mathmatical stuff, did he?”

“No. Nor that the universe, the multiverse, is recursive and nonlinear in spacetime, without beginning or end. Eternal in that respect. Billions of years of expansion, loss of momentum, and then gravity and entropy drawing all matter and energy back to a single massive point of dense black energy. Only to explode outward with an equal dark energetic repulsion like it is now.

“But he believed that the universe was cyclic, as others had years before him. Did you get pickles?”

“Yes, half-sour. And yes, no physical confirmation of cycling, like we have now. An infinite-seeming series of cycling. A kind of Bang, Bang, Bang, rather than one Big Bang. But, of course, the whole issue of cosmology is well beyond the limits of human existence, if not the limits of human thought. I mean what Nietzsche and others were really concerned about was what is the nature of human existence and thought. Right?”

“And God.”

“Yes. And God. Philosophically, he has some cosmological support about the absence of God. We think that the entire energy content of the universe, as we see it, is a closed system. There are no leaks through which energy can either be added or lost. More mustard?”

“Sure. But how does that relate to God?”

“In a closed system, there are no external forces, or energy, outside that can enter or leave. So, no motive, creative force setting it all in motion. So, as Nietzsche proposed, no god that created the universe.”

“I’ve never tasted rye bread so good. But what if there was, or is, a god force, which set it in motion and walked away. Or better yet, one within the universe. And we can’t see it. Some unidentified, hidden, immeasurable force escaping calculation in the physical mathematical models we have.”

“Some unaccounted-for glitch in the theory or the measurements of energy in the universe?”

“Yes. Do you want some of mine? One cosmic-repulsive-attractive-cohesive energy with the potential to form matter?”

“No thanks. We just don’t know. In our tiny inconsequential moment of spacetime, no matter how many infinite iterations of the cycle, assuming that in each cycle both life and humans will be formed, we’ll never know.”  

“And, if they don’t?”

“You mean one and done? Then what he thinks matters only if it helps us understand anything more of what makes us human and what matters in our lives. But, anyway, why should what he thinks matter anymore than me or you?”

“Now you’re sounding like Vonnegut.”

“Why?”

“Because there are no absolutes. It’s all immaterial. It’s all just a story. And what we know is obviously only subjective and transitory. All we have is what we think and how we act.”

“Exactly. But isn’t that the central flaw in human thought and philosophy. That any one person’s thought can define what morality and happiness might be? The best we might get from Nietzsche or anyone, no matter how well-informed or well-intentioned, is a thought that we might consider. And, if that thought helps you find happiness as part of a good life, then that thought may be good. No more than that.”

“I don’t know if Nietzsche was proposing a universal happiness force. He almost certainly was not proposing one derived from the energetic core of the universe.

“Surely not. As if there was, in a teleological sense, a purpose to life. A predetermined achievable eternal goal of life. A cycle of eternal personal human existence in which we live and die and live again, ensuring that time and again, like a great Mandala, humans, we personally, would experience a rebirth to follow at some time, in the eternity of time, to live again and, as some believe, a new life, following this one, in which we’ll be born into a happier, more fulfilled, more moral, being. You’ve got some schmutz on your chin. No, no. There. Yes, you got it”

“Thanks. That would mean that there’d be a progression of increasingly happier states. And each generation of human beings would consist of people born happier and more fulfilled. But, so many people alive today live lives of hardship and little or no hope for anything different, just as so many have, generation after generation. If the universe were to be so programmed, why are humans still born into a life of sadness or unendurable hardship, given the thousands and thousands of generations of people born since they first appeared on the earth?”

“So maybe Nietzsche really proposed the concept of eternal return, as analogous to a life in heaven as a repetition of the life we have lived on earth, but only the good parts.”

“Yes, and would that not simply satisfy the belief we all have that the good moments of our life are worth remembering and make life worth living? And for those who believe that there is a god and an afterlife, it would somehow make the present life worth living?”

“So why do we look to philosophers to make up theories that no one really pays any attention to?”

“Because philosophers are filled with their own issues they’re trying to work out. And they have this sense growing out of their privileged position in life. The sense that they have earned it. Earned a better life by their good works or their good education, their charity, or their fortunes, or their piety. The feeling, among some, that they are fundamentally better than others.”

“For those, Nietzsche’s claim that God does not exist has no relevance. Because they’re übermensches, supermen, who see themselves as transcendent. Who regale in the trappings of a good life because it is what they have earned, or bought. It’s a comforting and rewarding philosophy for them.”

“You can be an übermensch and not believe in an afterlife or in eternal return. Isn’t that really what Nietzsche was saying? That to strive for a moral life is a goal in itself. The definition, really of the good life? Is that not what Vonnegut was saying, too? Be the best, freest person you can be?”

“Yes. I think, in the end, that is what Nietzsche might have believed. That when he posited the concept of ‘eternal recurrence’ it was really a ploy, a way to question pre-determination, a way to understand the meaning of free will, and that in life we ought to live the one best life. That to believe in a life after this life, as a second and third and fourth chance at a good life, ad infinitum, was not metaphysically tenable. That’s why he wrote that recurring life would, contrary to some other philosophies of reincarnation, be repetitions of the same hard life over and over again and why he settled on the concept of the Übermensch, not as an inherently superior being, but as one person, male or female, who strives to live the best, and in his view, the most moral life.”

“Brava. These are the very same positions that Vonnegut makes in his Tralfamadorian conception of time, which echoes Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence precisely. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to read Nietzsche like you do. I think Vonnegut is enough of a philosophical story for me.”

“Oh, my God. Look at this. It’s almost eleven. They’re going to close. I haven’t eaten even half of my half sandwich.”

“Let’s ask for wrappers for them. This has been delicious and fantastic, Carmella. We have to do this again.”

“Next Thursday? Vonnegut? The Sirens of Titan? At Angelica’s up on 187th?”

“Great. At ten again?”

“Ten, again!”

Carmella raised her half-full glass of Dr. Brown’s Celray-tonic. “Here’s to Tralfamadore and the Chrono-synclastic Infundibulum!”

 “What?”

“Read, and thus shall ye be enlightened.”