Back in the day, death was predictable. If you were lucky, you’d grow old and die in your sleep, surrounded by loved ones and drug-induced fairies and elephants. The drugs were administered to reduce your pain, but also to keep you from speaking prophetic (and obscure) words on your deathbed (arrrrrrrrgggghhhh….Rosebud).
Sometimes you’d die a violent death, but it’d still be expected. Like bleeding to death after attempting to juggle butcher’s knives and chainsaws while riding a unicycle. Or drowning after sledding down a hill naked, and breaking your coccyx on a semi-frozen river before plunging into the ice-cold water while your brother watched from above, laughing his ass off. These comically tragic endings were usually preceded by, “What the fuck was I thinking?”
Today, death in the city is more like CSI and Law & Order than a Frank Capra movie. Beware: there’s danger on every dark street and potential killers passing you on the sidewalk. My eye-opener was in Philadelphia, where a large sign and chunk of concrete fell off the side of a building, landing on a man walking underneath. He died instantly. I always wondered, though, if he heard a sound and looked up, expecting to find a sign from God about what he should do with his life. “Here’s your sign!” said the Old Testament God.
That incident reminded that life is sometimes brief, but also that you need to keep your eyes open for potential dangers lurking in the urban cesspool. Still, you may never see death coming and there are things that will always catch you off guard.
My second reminder of this came last week, when a man dressed like a hobo and holding a Bible sat down next to me on the bus. No, he wasn’t dressed like a homeless person, but was wearing a baggy overcoat with a super-wide striped cotton tie. He looked like a circus clown without the makeup. After a few minutes of watching me out of the corner of his eye, he asked me what my notebook was, and I told him it was a writing journal. “You mean like one of those sign-in books in the huts along the hiking trails?” he asked.
(Yes, just like that, a trail sign-in book, and I’m filling it out while riding the bus. I thought I’d get a head start on it.) “No, it’s a journal for writing stories,” I said.
“Oh,” he said and then added, “You know, I actually sat next to you because I was going to stomp you to death. I thought you were the psychiatrist who called me a ‘bad person’ and ruined my life.”
(Really? Oh, that’s nice, good luck with that.) How do you respond to that? What do you say to a man who just admitted that he was going to kill you? My usual response would be to ignore him until he went away (or the bus reached my stop, whichever came first). But this time, I thought I’d take a more evolved approach. I laughed and said, “Well, I’m glad you realized I wasn’t the psychiatrist before you stomped me.”
After that, we had a nice (because it eventually ended) conversation about how the psychiatrist ruined his life, his life as a minister and hiking the Appalachian trail (although he seemed shocked to know that the trail runs through New Hampshire).
When I went to bed that night, thankful for surviving another day in the city, I remembered something that I learned once about Buddhists. Some of them make a habit of finishing their glass of water before going to sleep, because they can’t be certain that they’ll wake up in the morning. It’s their way of accepting death as part of life. It’s not a bad ritual, although I’m sure it works just as well with bourbon and elephant-inducing psychedelics. And sex, too: don’t forget to have one last night of hot sex before you go to sleep. And video games: master another level of World of Warcraft. And be sure not to put off surfing the internet for a few more hours.