April 17, 2015
Empathy for the Devil
Posted on Mar 17, 2011
By Mr. Fish
“QO?” muttered a barefoot teenager sitting cross-legged on a Mexican blanket who, with the long hair and beard, might’ve been Jesus Christ had his lips, ears, nipples and nose not contained enough piercings to make me think that he was much more like a fish that, by being festooned with so many hooks, had been mutilated by the questionable good luck of having escaped the frying pan.
“Huh?” I said, stopping to look down and notice that he was surrounded by rows and rows of what was either homemade jewelry or Slim Jims that had been fellated into thin reeds and used to lasso whatever he could find at the bottom of his grandmother’s junk drawer.
“Quarter ounce?” he asked, grinning and squinting into the sun that was setting behind my head. “Thirty bob?”
“What?” I said.
“Thirty bob, governor?” he said, no doubt attempting to turn his little drug deal into something quaint and literary and time-honored.
“Oh, no thanks,” I said, smiling and walking away. Shielding my eyes and looking in the direction of the Pavilion Stage, I figured that I had about half a mile to go before I reached the will-call window, so I busied myself by trying to remember exactly how much a quarter ounce of pot was and whether 30 bucks was even a fair asking price. I remembered back to my freshman year at college and the time when I went with my older brother to buy some cocaine in North Philly. I thought about how I felt as if we were ascending the innards of a cuckoo clock upon climbing the wooden stairwell in the drug dealer’s apartment house, which was dark and ramshackle and full of cobwebs. Then there was the drug dealer himself, living all alone in the top room, precisely where I imagined the clock’s cuckoo would reside, all bug-eyed and sweating, his insides seemingly full of baby spiders all looking for a way out, the job of going cuckoo every half-hour enough to prevent him from ever relaxing, much less sitting down and catching his breath. “Your brother tells me that you’re a writer,” he said, worrying the grubby hem of his T-shirt with his yellow fingers, his red hair and freckles making him look like an explosion in mid-blast. I half-shrugged and agreed. “I am, too!” he said. “I got something that I want you to read. It’s a reworking of “Freewill” by Rush. I rewrote it in Elizabethan English and it’s a little long, practically fills a whole notebook, but it’s awesome—let me get it!” He went to get it and I picked up the tiny pile of crushed twenty-dollar bills that I saw on his dresser and shoved them into my pocket, figuring that dealing coke might be against the law but combining Rush with Elizabethan English was an abomination against both God and nature and something that nobody should be allowed to give away for free.
I thought about the drug dealer’s scale and how my brother looked that afternoon hunched over it like a chemist. Then I thought about all the scales that all drug dealers everywhere use. I considered the ounce as a unit of mass and I wondered if when a drug dealer says that something “weighs an ounce” he’s referring to the drugs that are being weighed or the mechanism that registers the weight. Sure, I figured, an ounce requires the corroboration of a scale to qualify its legitimacy, but if all scales have slightly different calibrations—and they do!—then where does the truth reside, in the ounce or in the device used to qualify the ounce as an ounce?
That said, is an ounce an ounce because it is deemed to be an ounce by a scale or is it an ounce because an ounce is a hard-core truism that we use our minutely varying scales to roughly approximate? Can the truth even be approximated or is the truth true only when it is absolute? If the truth can be approximated, then it cannot be a fact, but rather it must be an opinion, and if the truth is a matter of opinion then morality can have no legitimacy as a foundation upon which humankind can determine right from wrong. Thus, human values are as arbitrary as favorite colors and because no one has a favorite color called whitepinkredorangebrownyellowgraygreencyanblueviolet, the twin classifications of hero and villain must at one time or another fall to each of us with at least tangential justification, whether we’re driving like an asshole down the highway or trying to balance a budget or trying to keep a crown on our head or dropping bombs on so-called enemies on a battlefield or forgiving the devastation of the environment because we can be thrilled by a trillion twinkling electric lights that stretch to the horizon.
After 20 more minutes of walking at Bethel Woods I settled into my seat, barely 15 feet from the stage, feeling less like somebody who was there to have Glenn Beck and his Nur für Deutsche-type Honor Rally flushed from his short-term memory and more like somebody who had exploited the very same hierarchical social structure that Beck and his chums typically celebrated as enlightened living, the In-GOP-We-Trust coins remaining unspent and copulating in their trousers, their noses thrust into the air with the tips edging that much closer to the air-conditioned ass of God™ himself. I had tapped into a system that rewarded privilege and relegated everybody else to the slow line, and because I had access to the celebrity of Graham Nash—celebrity being just another word for royalty—I was able to enter the event free of charge and glide past all the cheap seats and half-pirouette into my chair like Elton John at a royal wedding. It didn’t matter that my favorite color was light blue foil and that I never comb my hair and seldom wear underpants and that I can’t keep my fingers out of my nose and make no secret of my disdain for practically everything that the dominant culture stands for: I was no more moral than anybody else. Only arrogance and conceit will ever tell you any different.
And then, when the old lady in front of me, during Stephen Stills’ guitar solo for “Love the One You’re With,” lost her teeth because she was doing the Hammer so hard and people needed to use the light from their cell phones, mine included, to find them, I didn’t care that I was just another face in the crowd because I knew that at least in a crowd, every once in a while, everybody will lift his or her feet together and peer into the darkness to find a single person’s filthy smile.
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