My boss told us a story about the old gritty New York of the early 1980s. He was having a drink with a friend in his apartment, watching a sparrow perched on the fire escape. This was a time when people could barely go below 14th street after dark; a time when people were forced to be so vigilant in their daily lives that they were practically putting locks on the straws in their soda cans. So a mild-mannered singing sparrow probably seemed out of place even before a giant crow swooped down from the sky and pinned the sparrow down on the iron grates. My boss and his friend watched as the crow pecked out the sparrow’s heart and ate it. The bird-murder happened fast; they hadn’t even risen from their seats before it was over. His friend was horrified: “The poor sparrow!” But my boss had lived in New York for a little longer than she had. He didn’t say anything. He just stood by the window, looking at the sparrow’s motionless body, its thin crumpled wings, and thought to himself, What a city.
Once when my friend and I entered the subway station it was on fire. There was visible smoke hovering lazily in the air. Passengers pulled their shirts up to cover their noses and mouths. But the whole scene lacked a sense of alarm—no sirens or blockades—and everyone was still buying Metrocards and going about their regular business, so we just swiped on through and waited for our train to arrive. Sometimes things are on fire in New York, and nobody cares. Our understanding of the actual severity of a given situation is so dependent on everyone else’s continued maintenance of a poker face that I think if a meteor were hurtling toward the city and everyone just remained calm, we’d all just grumble about what it was going to mean for train delays while we scrounged our pockets and bags for stray quarters, because we’re about to have a laundry emergency on our hands.
The other day I saw two guys standing at a card table with a sign that said, “What are the three things God cannot do? Find out here.” And on the table there was a poster with three little doors you could open, like at zoo exhibits where you guess three things polar bears eat. I didn’t open the doors, but off the top of my head I think there are actually probably more than three things God cannot do. For example:
1.) Suggest helpful hangover remedies, from personal experience.
2.) Shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
3.) Love it when you talk dirty like that.
4.) Make me both understand the stock market and retain that information for a period longer than ten minutes.
5.) Slip the maitre d’ a twenty.
I wish those guys had tried a little harder with their hook. How about a diagram of heaven or something? My roommate got a ticket to heaven once. There’s a bear with a pot of honey on it. That was in Boston, though.