Fueled by two hours of sleep and a hangover straight from the nastier parts of Revelations, I decided I wanted an issue of The Watchtower. It’s a trance I slip into at times. An inexplicable and irresistible need to hop into the back of a crazy man’s car and see how fast we can go before it flips. The closest analogue is possession, something I’m sure at least one of the prophets of the A-train would appreciate. I prefer to call it terminal bile fascination.
My body was shutting down, but that didn’t matter much to my mind. A half-decade of amateur acrobatics and professional substance abuse made most health concerns seem pointless. Getting to sleep quickly was merely adding air bags to the Hindenburg. The only result would be a prettier corpse.
Eventually, they will kill me. They’ve been trying to convert me for three years, and violence must look more attractive than continued failure. As one of the doomed souls commuting from Whogivesafuck, New Jersey, I’ve met every breed of evangelist the subway has to offer. The Krishnas had a short but colorful career before establishing their permanent colony of noise at Union Square. On a slow winter afternoon, I ran into a partisan for Allah. Every election year, a fresh-faced girl is waiting to explain why the incumbent loves me. But Jesus is a constant presence. Nothing short of another Reformation will separate church and transit authority.
The subway preacher is inescapable. He knows the tunnels underneath Port Authority better than the rats or MTA interns. He’s waiting during the death march to work, the frantic sprint to a doomed date, and the defeated crawl back from a nightclub. When the rapture comes, he will not be surrounded by his loved ones or congregation. He will be waving Chick tracts in the face of a homeless man.
Granted, many of the people flowing in from Times Square could use some kind of divine intervention. If your vacation peaks at buying a Minions t-shirt from a chain that exists a block away from your house, you’re overdue for an exorcism.
My rule is to keep my distance, but I do an awful job of following my rules. I usually spend a few heartbeats watching anyone shouting impotently on the subway. Part of me hopes for a kernel of genuine wisdom. The rest wants to see if there will be a fight.
A fight almost found me in April. The speaker was a spindly man in a plain white shirt. I was late for lunch, but he could do without since he was full of the spirit.
“You can’t run from the Holy Ghost! Run back to your lives of pleasure, sin, and sodomy! It will still find you!”
Vanilla rhetoric. It wouldn’t make the grade on the Bible Channel at 4 A.M. Sodomy, pleasure, and sin are redundant, as anyone that’s enjoyed a week in Atlantic City can attest. They’re also chapter titles in my autobiography. I prepared to move on, but the evangelist span around and leveled a finger at my nose.
“Do you have the Holy Ghost?” he asked, alive with conviction.
A series of emotions played out on his face, including the ever-familiar “I’m gonna knock this nigga out.” Jesus won out, and he went back to his spiel. That’s the first point I’ll give the subway preachers: they don’t seem to be hypocrites.
I don’t think I was chosen by chance. There’s a presumed Christian sympathy among black men and women. I’ve disappointed a faction of my online dates with my spiritual indifference. My old job also involved dressing like a toolbox, which hid the antipathy that usually emanates from me in audible pulses. Much like my online dating profiles. The preacher wanted audience participation, and my costume and skin tone said that I’d give him a moment.
That incident stuck with me. Partially because of my blase inhumanity to my fellow man, but mostly because I wished I’d said something more clever. Maybe it was part of the terminal bile fascination that led me to look for an issue of The Watchtower. The magazine would be my passport into the world of subway evangelism. On my journey, I would learn more about people that thought differently than me. Or at least find a funnier way to dick off.
For the uninitiated: The Watchtower is a monthly publication for curing the lost and damned. It’s a Jehovah’s Witness publication available to the curious, drunk, and faithful on racks in any express Manhattan stop. The magazine is free, putting it in direct competition with The Village Voice and Gay City. It features significantly fewer ads for Siberian massage parlors, so I didn’t own a copy.
It’s worth noting that the people offering The Watchtower are the quietest partisans on the subway. While the competition varies in volume, tone, and homelessness, the The Watchtower vendors simply look embarrassed to be there. Later in the day, they become someone’s receptionist. This made them the perfect starting point. I needed a warm-up before I met the firebrands.
“Are you a bible reader?” asked the pointwoman. She had a soft tone and demeanor, developed in a lab to avoid offending or abrading. There were three people behind the impromptu booth by the A-train stairs, and she was the face. Their clothes had a retro feel that I couldn’t quite peg. Not as far back as the fifties, but definitely not after Bush senior. These went well with the eager smiles pointed at me from three tactical vantage points. It was like walking into a Nixon-era Apple store with a cracked mp3 player.
The question stalled me. The answer was simple, but it had the scent of a job interview. “Are you a bible reader? Are you familiar with our brand? What are your strengths and weaknesses as a worker? Why did you think a degree in liking books qualified you to work as a heart surgeon? We’ll e-mail you next week.” I felt my value being guaged, and chafed.
“Not really,” I answered. The magazine was already in her hands. She introduced herself as Kelly as she handed me the team literature.
“That’s fair. This is a good first step. There’s a lot in here that can help you with your problems.”
“And if you find it inspiring, you can contact us! Just cut out this stub in the back, and send us you name, address, and e-mail. We have a variety of…”
I found myself waiting for her to explain iPhone payment plans, and started drifting. My gaze landed on the sign on top of the The Watchtower magazine rack. The words “Are You In Control Of Your Life?” were in tan letters on a red background. It wasn’t a triumph of graphic design.
That’s the question hovering over the public’s head. Getting control of your life, not graphic design. Often, the answer offered is surrendering control to someone else, and your opinion on that shapes your reaction to Jim Jeffries’ stand-up routine.
I parted ways with Kelly and thumbed through my first souvenir. The July issue of The Watchtower left a weak first impression. “How to Deal With Anxiety” graces the cover in white Arial text. It’s the kind of overreaching look-at-me headline that used to define banner ads and currently defines clickbait.
I’d like to say I found my next target through some clever planning, but I bumped into the Scientologists while reading The Watchtower. I might as well have been carrying around a road flare. The Scientologist response time to an impressionable youth is faster than the NYPD response time to a unaccompanied negro.
They worked in pairs. I was flanked by a man and woman in the age bracket deemed acceptable for headlining romantic comedies. In a twist, there was no plastic smile to match their casting. They handed out promotional cards with mechanical efficiency. My copy of The Watchtower was suddenly joined by two “free tickets.” The Church of Scientology wore the trappings of a younger religion on its sleeve. Magazines were relics, Scientology deserved the glitz and glamour of film. Any commuter willing to brave their Manhattan headquarters could catch a viewing of The Story of Book One: Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Heath: A Dianetics Film. A classic case of subtitle fever.
The film shows every hour, and my ticket said you should bring your friends. It featured a picture of an erupting volcano, and promised the viewer a chance to “Find out what is controlling your life.” The words were following me. The search for control over my life had taken over my life.
I was offended. It wasn’t the Church of Scientology’s myriad past misdeeds, present misdeeds, or scheduled misdeeds. The horsefuckers managed to give me the team literature without answering a single question! That wasn’t the game. There were rules. The relationship between demagogues and asshats with pencils was well established. The rules kept book burnings and intelligencia coups to a healthy minimum, allowing bystanders to watch us peck at each other from the comfort of their non-burned homes.
The same formation that stopped me from avoiding the pair kept them from getting away. I approached with the entitled gait of a suburban parent looking for a department store manager. It was up to me to preserve the social contract.
“Is something wrong?” asked the woman. Judging from her voice, she hadn’t slept much more than I had.
“Who directed this movie?”
“I don’t know,” answered the man. His partner detected trouble, and melted into the crowd. “It’s about discoveries in mental health. Have you heard of the reactive mind?”
“Who designed this flier? It’s a little awful.”
“I don’t know.” I’d learned his favorite words. “But you should give the movie a shot. It’s all about L. Ron Hubbard’s research, and achieving your goals.”
“Ah, his church.”
“It’s not about Scientology. It’s about the science of Dianetics,” he said reassuringly. “It can really change your life.”
“The ticket says ‘Now showing at Church of Scientology of New York.’ This isn’t about the church? Did they sell the building? Have you had a reformation?”
“I don’t know. It’s good though.”
His partner waved, and he returned to her orbit. I was left with a ticket about the “reactive mind – the source of your fears, insecurities, pains, and nightmares.” I gave the interview up as a wash.
My personal battery was running low, and I needed to be at work in an hour or go back to writing cover letters. Luckily, the next subject wasn’t far. The tunnel would provide.
For the condemned souls beneath Times Square and Port Authority, a single tunnel connects transfers between the 8 Avenue line and Broadway lines. It’s crowded. During the walk, you’re guaranteed to find an amateur preacher putting in an Olympic effort. The passage provides a captive audience, one of the original building blocks of advertising. The preacher may not find people at their best, but they will find people that can’t escape.
Today, there was a man worthy of the subway preacher brand. He stood in the middle of the passageway, providing maximum traffic interference. The only way out was through him and his pamphlets. Waves of commuters parted around his voice, leaving me an unobstructed view.
“My hope is not in myself, my job, my family, my life. It is in Jesus!” he declared to the rush hour pilgrims. This was followed by something I failed to learn in Spanish class.
He sweated through a light blue t-shirt as he spoke. At a glance, he was least two decades past the beautiful years. Retirement had been replaced with enlightenment, and he wanted to spread the wealth. He kept a children’s backpack covered in pink flowers behind him, which held extra pamphlets. Curious choice, but the New Testament seldom comments on fashion.
“Jesus will be your representative in heaven! Right now, you are condemned. But he will make the case for your salvation, and take you out of the lake of fire!” he continued. I recognized the dime stop turn to fire and brimstone from my early years in Jamaican churches. It’s the Baptist playbook’s version of the long pass.
Something must have been unusual about my approach; he was genuinely surprised when I stopped to talk. He nearly dropped a few of his pamphlets, but swiftly recovered.
“Are you a believer?” he asked. I’d been here before.
“Of course. My name’s Darius, and I’m a tourist,” I said, telling three lies in rapid succession. “I was wondering what brings you out here. I’ve been curious all week.”
“I’m spreading the message of Christ,” he explained curtly, sliding the team literature on top of my folder. I could feel myself losing his attention as he hungrily eyed the crowd behind me. Evidently the soul of a tourist wasn’t worth much.
“The message of Christ,” he continued past me, to the crowd. “Jesus died on the cross. He took the punishment on the cross in your place. He’s more than a prophet. He is God the son.”
A passing woman shouted “Praise the Lord!” without breaking stride. I was impressed, I rarely saw subway preachers acknowledged, let alone positively received. He also collected two Amens as the speech continued.
Something about him gave him an edge over other subway preachers, and it was completely intangible to me. I’m tempted to simply say that faith changes your perspective. I had the spirituality of a dead coconut, and it sounded like any of the other speeches screamed at me on the journey to my cubicle. But to the believers, he was making waves.
One woman laughed at him. It was an exaggerated, high pitched laugh that brought back memories of the playground. Researchers can only speculate what combination of Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher quotes she started her morning with. The preacher wasn’t thrown off, but I was suddenly sharply self-aware.
The pamphlet was my main entertainment during the train ride. It lacked what little marketing edge could be found in The Watchtower. There’s a certain plodding tone unique to Protestant tracts, and this wasn’t breaking convention. Fire and rebirth followed by a reminder of the fire, wrapped up in seventeenth century diction. I like to think that there’s a style guide out there somewhere.
After emerging from the Q, I was immediately greeted by two dozen Krishnas. Singing in key goes against their tenants, and my headache was driven by a tag team of sleep deprivation and gin hangover, so I moved on. If you were waiting for some sterling insight on their perspective, it’s not coming today. I suspect it’d be worth its own article.
I took a seat on the Union Square steps for some quiet, because I am an idiot. This was immediately rewarded with a surprise visit from an unscheduled preacher. He stood in front of a set of clothes laid out to dry, which may or may not have been his own. His hair had gone on vacation, though I couldn’t tell if it was the result of stress or a razor. He glared balefully at the Krishnas, and then started his lecture.
“All the shaolin monks in all the temples were black! They came up from Africa, shaved their heads, and invented all of it. All these monks and Hare Hare’s don’t know shit. Remember that.
Jesus was black too, but no one gives a fuck. No universal love and brotherhood. People like that are why they killed Kennedy. Dropping bombs on everybody. It’s all fucked. Bullshit. Men running around with each other.
I’m black. Jesus and the monks were black. Just like me. The Mongolians, they were black. People don’t want you to know.”
He had more to say, but his voice trailed off to a low mumble. I could have followed him, but I doubted the rest could top what he’d offered already. I was also roughly twenty minutes away from being fired.
Here’s my composite picture of Jesus Christ de Nazareth: He was black, except for pamphlets where he’s white. He’s a fair substitute for my self, job, family, and life. He’s a canny metaphysical attorney. He probably wrote Dianetics. He’s in control of my life, and wants me to save myself by giving him control of my life.
Feel free to take any or all of this too seriously. I’m going back to sodomy.