Sunday, November 27, 2016

Leonard Cohen's Inferno

An elderly man sits in a chair by the window in a hospital, gazing out on an unseasonably warm November day.  He wears a fedora and smokes a cigarette, despite an IV unit hooked to his arm.  While not emaciated, he is frail, a few dozen pounds underweight.  Another day in paradise, he mutters to himself: this is Leonard Cohen.  He would be on his death bed, but his prostate has him going to the bathroom every 45 minutes.  The past few days, he can feel death approaching, like an old friend to whom he owes money.  I always pay my debts, Leonard mutters to himself, with self interest.  It takes him a few moments to realize he’s just pissed his hospital gown.

He closes his eyes and loses consciousness.

When Leonard wakes up, he finds himself on a subway train, surrounded by six 55-gallon black garbage bags filled with detritus, dozens of copies of free newspapers and smelly, used clothes.  Oh boy, he says to himself, the morphine is really doing a number on me this time.  But he’s not dreaming, or lost in a sedative haze.  In fact, he feels more alive than he has in months.  He’s still smoking.  Oh, he thinks, only assholes smoke on subway trains.  But I am an asshole, he assures himself.

Not only is he a smoking asshole on the subway, he did just piss himself, the same stream he started in his hospital room.  He’s wearing a pair of dirty gray corduroy pants a few sizes too big, his belt a yellow police “do not cross” line roll of tape.  And a black sweatshirt with Mickey Mouse on the front.  No shoes.  He can still feel the trusty fedora resting on his head.  Christ, this is embarrassing, he tells himself … but it somehow feels right, like I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.

He looks down the subway car, which is packed, morning rush hour, commuters on their way to work in midtown Manhattan.  Some scowl at him, but most are too engrossed in their smartphones to notice him.  It’s not just that, Leonard thinks, they’re freaked out by me, by my presence, subtly ignoring me despite being completely focused on my presence, this stinking, insane prick who just pissed himself.  And they can smell it, I know.  They’re crammed in like sardines while I sit here like King Rat, surrounded by my movable kingdom of discarded winter coats and sweat pants, crazy shit picked from the garbage cans of Central Park West because they somehow speak to me.  The African-American Barbie Doll.  The packaging bubble wrap I like to pop with my fingers to pass the time.  The Stephen King paperback, Salem’s Lot, which I completely identify with, the vampires, not the heroes.  The blue football helmet with a red devil’s face on the side.

Just then an arm extends from over the heap of garbage bags and grabs the helmet.

Sid (in a light, nasally English accent): Hey, man, that’s my team!

A blonde haired woman with raccoon mascara eyes sits next to him, slaps his hand away.  She’s wearing a sleeveless red t-shirt with a swastika on it, black skirt, matching, torn tights and army boots.  He’s a punk rocker with spiky black hair that looks like it hasn’t been washed in weeks, wearing a black leather jacket with no shirt underneath, a patch of acne on his forehead.  He pulls the football helmet over his head, finding it a few sizes too big.  The helmet rocks gently back and forth with the subway train’s swaying while he grins maniacally at Leonard.  He resembles one of those bobble-head sports figures placed on the backseat ledge in cars.

Nancy (in a thick New Jersey accent, a caustic shrillness in her voice): Sidney, put that back, you should know not to take what’s not yours.

Leonard hates her accent, how “yours” becomes “yew-ahz.”  I know these people, Leonard thinks, have met them before.  Unfortunately.  These punk kids.  His eyes are as vacant as a hotel in foreclosure.  She’s a nightmare, like so many of the groupies back in the 70’s who would hang out backstage in New York or Los Angeles, those annoying harpies who didn’t realize having sex with him was more a radical error than a grand prize.  But wait a minute, he thinks, this routine is decades old, not since the 1970’s or 80’s has he dealt with kids like this.  Back when he lived …

Sid: Leonard!

Leonard jolts to attention.  How does this weirdo kid know my name, Leonard asks himself.  Maybe he’s a fan who somehow recognizes me in this homeless person get-up?

Sid: Leonard!  Leonard Cohen!  Hello, mate.  My name is Satan.

Nancy: You’ll always be “Sidney” to me.

Sid: Yes, dear, but you created me.  To everyone else, I’m Satan.

Leonard: What do you mean “I’m Satan”?

Sid: I am who I say I am.  You just died in that hospital room.  As you always thought you would: all alone and pissing your pants.  You were right, Leonard, just about everyone goes that way.  Despite all the glowing obituaries of celebrities loved by millions muttering famous last words while fawning family members send them off like angels with harps.

Nancy: Fuck that shit!

Sid: Yeah, fuck that shit!  Everyone dies alone, baby.  Where you’re going, fucking nobody is going with you.

Leonard: Where am I going?  Is this hell?

Sid: Well, no.  We’re on a 1 train heading south from 125th Street.

Leonard: Literally, yes.  But figuratively?

Sid: Figuratively no longer exists.  Everything in the after life is literal.  We’re on the 1 train heading south.

Leonard: People get ready.

Sid (laughing): Exactly, mate, there’s a train a’ coming, you don’t need no ticket, just get on board!

Leonard: And I’m a homeless person now?

Sid: Weren’t you always?

Leonard: Yes, I guess so.  My way of life granted me nicer illusions than a subway car though.

Sid: You’ve always been smart enough to get it.  Illusions.  Exactly.

Leonard: So I accept the 1 train heading south.  What’s my purpose here?

Sid: Same as it ever was.  To make people wonder what the fuck is happening.

Leonard: Was that all it was?

Sid:  Pretty much.  And a higher calling than most.  You saw through the money and fame.  That was good.  Most people don’t.  You joined up with the Buddhists for awhile, who are nice people, but a little fucking crazy, don’t you agree?

Leonard: Well, yeah, but not in a bad way.

Sid: And that way of life was doing fine until you realized your manager had screwed you out of that million-dollar pillow you could always fall back on while living the ascetic life.  Always a nasty wake-up call.

Leonard: It surely did wake me up to my purpose in life.

Sid: Which, on the surface, was to sing your songs, like no one else ever had, or ever will again.  But your real purpose …

Leoanrd: To make people wonder what the fuck is happening.

Sid: Correct.  Save we’re working in the wrong tense here.

Leonard: To make people wonder what the fuck just happened.

Sid: You were always one step ahead.

Leonard: But … what the fuck did just happen?

Nancy: You died, man.  Happens to everyone.  Nothing to be ashamed or afraid of.  Unlike pissing your pants, you bad boy!

Leonard: So the afterlife is still a journey?  Some subterranean journey on a train with no last stop?

Sid: There is a last stop.

Leonard: South Ferry, if I remember correctly, although I got in the habit of taking cabs years ago.

Sid: That’s the last stop on the 1 Train, but we’re not getting off there.  And you’re not getting off with us.

Leonard: Am I getting off at South Ferry?

Sid: No, that would be too easy.  You’re going to ride for awhile.

Leonard: So this train goes under the water, into Jersey?  Through the rest of America?  Around the world?

Sid: Those places no longer exist for you.  I would say “in your immediate future” but there is no future in the after life.  There’s just now.

Leonard: How is this any different from what I’ve believed for years?

Sid: Well, your belief was in the here and now.  It should have been in the now and then.

Leonard: Then being life on earth.

Sid: Right.  And now being life itself.  When life on earth stops, which it must. 

Leonard: I always tried to appreciate life itself.  For what it was.  The simple act of breathing. Seeing things.  Hearing music.  Feeling emotions.  Having sanity.  Having health.  They were hard to find sometimes.  I knew their value.

Sid: And you were right to recognize that’s what really mattered, what all the fuss was about.  Not the money, fame or power.

Leonard: Punk rock.

Nancy: Yeah, man, punk rock!  Same difference!  I like the way your mind works!

Leonard: But I believe life itself just ends.  You close your eyes one last time, and that’s that.

Sid: I believe the same thing, too.  But shit happens, what can you do.  Your beliefs are irrelevant here.

Leonard: I can grasp that I’m not supposed to understand all this.  And that I answer to a higher authority.

Nancy: You mean us!

Leonard: I guess.  At least you’re helping me understand what the fuck just happened.

Nancy: Silly!  That’s your job now.

Leonard: I feel like I’m waiting for Godot.

Sid: Godot jumped in front of an Uptown D train last Saturday night, Leonard.  He came and went.  All this is what happens after Godot arrives, makes it clear he’s an enormous shithead, and everyone’s glad he left.

Nancy: Godot really was a shithead!

Sid: And that’s saying something in present company.

Nancy slaps Sid on the back of his bobble-head helmet, then wipes her hand on her skirt.

Leonard: You said you’re leaving me.  What happens after you go?

Nancy: That’s why we’re here.  Listen, Leonard. To put it in terms you’ll understand, you died and went to heaven and hell.

Leonard: Come again?

Nancy: They’re not always separate entities.  Sometimes it’s the same place for different people.  One person’s heaven is another person’s hell.  You’re an agent of good will, someone who’s been sent here to reward and punish.

Leonard: How do I do that?

Nancy; You see these people around you?  They’re dead, too.  Most of them are in hell.  Let’s face it, riding the subways in New York is much closer to hell than heaven.

Leonard: Literally.

Sid: That’s the ticket, mate!

Nancy: Your job for them is to do what you’re doing now.  I know you can’t sense this, but these other people on the train, they can’t see us.  “Us” meaning me and Sid.  They can see you.  And hear you.  And smell you.

Leonard: So the past few minutes, from their point of view, I’m just some homeless mental patient talking to himself amidst a barricade of trash bags.

Nancy: That’s right.  These people were meticulous in life.  Rule oriented.  Type A.  Driven.  Never deviated.  Did some awful things to get ahead.  Homeless people are stone fucking assholes to them.  Sure, they pity the homeless, but far more than that, they loathe them.  Partially because they feared suffering the same fate. But, let’s face it, mostly just because homeless people are assholes.  Crazy or not.  Rightfully so or not.  They’re just a pain in the ass.  Look around you.  It’s rush hour.  You’re taking up the space at least a dozen people could fill.  It’s borderline dangerous trying to get out of this subway car due to all the shit you have piled up here.  You stink.  You’re smoking in an enclosed public area where it’s been banned for decades.  You’re fulfilling your purpose just by being here.

Leonard: I’m “what the fuck just happened.”  I’m creating the conditions of their hell.

Nancy: Exactly.  And make no mistake, this is a long ride, and this is the fun part.  Some of these people are going to break down.  They’re going to yell at you.  In some cases physically attack you.  We’ll let them cut loose on you a little bit, but not do serious harm.  They’ll try to throw your bags of meaningless shit off the train, but will find each bag weighs hundreds of pounds and is immovable.  As you will be, too.  Hell is trying to throw some homeless guy off the train who just shit his pants ... and you can’t even lift him up!

Leonard: Sisyphus would be proud.  How could I possibly create conditions of heaven in this state?

Sid: That’s the tricky part, and that’s where your genius comes in.  I think it’s safe to say that you were an irascible figure in life.

Leonard: I beg your pardon.

Sid: You’re a funny guy, mate!

Leonard: Of course.  I could be a real dick.

Sid: Me, too.  It’s our nature.  Every now and then you will meet someone here who doesn’t quite grasp that he or she is in heaven.  Heaven for them is visiting New York City.  You might do something as simple as give someone directions to go ice skating at Rockefeller Center.  You’ll tell them.  But on a deeper level, you’re going to meet people who were plagued with self doubt, who didn’t think or even understand that they deserved to go to heaven.  You ever notice how nice it is when someone on a subway train actually gets the balls to talk to a homeless person and realizes there’s a human being there?

Leonard: Sure.  I got the same feeling when I met Lou Reed at a party once.  I thought we’d be gazing into a two-way mirror of self loathing, but we spent a few hours laughing and talking about our favorite doo-wop singers.

Sid: I met him a few times, too, and he thought I was a dick.

Leonard: He was a very wise man.

Sid: Ha ha!  You know what I’m saying.  It’s your job to affirm their sense of humanity by speaking to them, consoling them, letting them know, yes, this is heaven, and they’re free to roam and find themselves.  They will get off the train at various stops.  But you’ll send them off filled with a sense of purpose, and the feeling that they’ve just been told about the best possible thing they could ever hear.

Leonard: You’re allowing me to break the good news to them.

Sid: I’m not.  She is.  If it were up to me, I’d kick them in the balls and be on my merry way.

Nancy: Well, that’s why we are who we are.

Leonard sighed.  It was all making sense to him now.  He noticed the piss had dried in his pants.

Leonard: You said I won’t be riding this train forever.

Sid: You’ll know when to get off.  We’ll let you know.  And when you do, you’ll go to some place in life where you had a great time, when you were younger, making love to numerous beautiful, talented women, living a nice life of leisure and creativity.  Although you were such a sower puss, you didn’t quite grasp it at the time.

Leonard: Does anyone ever?

Sid: Not many people ever do, but they catch on way down the road … usually after they’ve pissed themselves in a hospital room!

Leonard: Where will I get off?

Sid: At our stop.  Look.  It’s the next stop.

Leonard looked up to see that subway doors close on the southbound 1 train as it departed the 28th Street station.

Leonard: 23rd Street.  You’re not going to the Chelsea Hotel by any chance, are you?

Sid: Yes!  Yes, how did you know that?

Leonard: I moved out a few years before asshole kids like you moved in.  Although I did have to hang around that annoying kid who was always shoving vacuum cleaner hoses up his ass.  And his ingratiating girlfriend.

Sid: Well, you’ll be glad to know, all the major players in heaven and hell live there in the after life.  It’s a pretty crazy place, but I think you’ll like it.  Your life will be exactly as you recall it from those days, and this time you’ll grasp how good it is.

Leonard: That’s something to look forward to.

Sid: There’s always something to look forward to, even if it’s a brick wall.  Oh, look, Nancy, 23rd Street, our stop.

Sid takes off the football helmet and tosses it back onto a garbage bag.  He and Nancy nudge the bag out of the way to exit the subway train.  As the doors are about to close, Leonard calls out to them.

Leonard: You said you were Satan.  Who is she?

Nancy looks at Leonard with a crooked smile.  He knows, instantly, that he is looking at God, and in that moment he feels peace like he has never known, as if all the garbage bags have disappeared, the subway train, too, and he's in a green field on a perfect summer day, like no drug he had ever taken, no emotion he had ever felt.  Not a care in the world, everything is all right, all bad memories forgiven, no expectations required. 
Automated Female Subway Announcer: This is a hellbound 1 train.  The next stop is 18th Street.

Automated Male Subway Announcer: Stand clear of the closing doors.
God quietly communicates to him that he will forget this moment of bliss when the subway doors close.  Which they do.  Leonard farts loudly as warm tears of joy well in his eyes.

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