Monday, March 19, 2007

Smoke and Mirrors

"Here," he said, "let's try this one."

"Why not?" I shrugged. "Let's." I shot one last, furtive glance all around and quickly ducked inside. "Think anyone took a picture?" I quipped, only half-jokingly. He seemed annoyed.

I stopped to get my bearings. We were standing in the entrance of a dimly lit and somewhat gloomy diner on an unfamiliar street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Since my visage makes it apparent that I should be eating only kosher, and it is equally apparent that this diner doesn't quite serve glatt meat, I sincerely hoped the neighborhood is unfamiliar to any other Orthodox members of the wandering tribe as well. I'd rather this delightfully incongruous sight not be the talk of the town tomorrow morning, as it is liable to be if someone heimish spots me here.

We didn't stand for long. Soon, a perpetually smiling waiter with a pleasant demeanor approached and offered to seat us at a table of our choosing. We chose one with an unobstructed view of the comings and goings outside, but not one close enough to the floor-to-ceiling windows to allow the passers-by to catch sight of us. You can never be too safe.

"Menus" the waiter said, as he dropped them at our table. I picked one up and halfheartedly scanned the strange choices offered, almost disappointed when I couldn't find kugel or chulent or even chicken soup. Nothing seemed worthy of trying, which was just as well. I wasn't very hungry, anyway. It wasn't food that compelled me to come all the way out here, but rather ... what exactly? I wasn't entirely sure, but I knew this: it was a rare chance of spending some time with friends who knew my true self, and it promised to be an interesting time. A time away from never-ending obligations, away from an emotionally taxing charade, away from an impossible two-faced existence, away from soul soiling duplicity, away from pervasive and repugnant judgmentalism, away even from too many years of exhausting philosophical and theological ruminations, arduous debates and the total destruction of a worldview I was taught to hold dearer than life itself. Away from it all.

"You're not going to eat?"

"I guess I should," I muttered as I picked up the menu again, looking -- without success -- for something I might call food. A flash of inspiration suddenly hit. As long as I'm here, I thought, I might as well pig out.

"Get me number thirteen," I told the smiling waiter next time he came around. "And don't go overboard with the sauce."

He took the menu from me and looked at the number I indicated. Canadian bacon, it said, served with something uninteresting and tasteless. To his credit, he didn't flinch or even skip a beat. "Sure," he said simply, though I can only imagine the tale he must have told the kitchen staff or his friends later at the pub.

The first bite was rather delectable, I have to say. I savored the delicious taste -- the taste of freedom and autonomous choice. The second was a bit smoky and heavy on the palate. The fifth tasted positively slimy, the next was nauseating, and by the time I finished the first slice I was ready to throw up. "Pig is horrible," I kvetched. "Let's move on to better things."


Better things, it turns out, involves a bigger crowd. We were a motley crew assembled in an apartment set in a motley neighborhood far from prying eyes, with a prominent crucifix serving as droll silent commentary and a comical finishing touch to what surely would have been an amusing scene in turn-of-the-20th-century Yiddish theatre -- only this was more of a reality show. We were a crowd of friends -- chasidish and yeshivish, some frum-looking and some obviously frei, some apparently men and some obviously women -- assembled for no particular reason other than to meet and pass the time in pleasant company. Just like a shalom zachor, I thought, only better.

To my surprise, I soon felt more at ease than I've felt at any chasidish farbrengen in a long while. The feeling of stifling uniformity I get each time I attend a community event -- which feels like attending a lemming convention -- was noticeably absent. So were the mind-numbing spirit-rotting arguments about chasidish politics, discussions of the latest rabbinic prohibitions and proclamations and news about who else had a baby (yet again) or got engaged at the ripe old age of eighteen to someone they've met for a grand total of thirty minutes and conclusively determined their absolute compatibility since, see, one of them is a boy and the other a girl.

I was busy enjoying the atmosphere when some kind-hearted soul produced free beer (thanks!). Things were taking an interesting turn. Soon, someone else produced free hugs (much appreciated!) and yet another ... free pot (dude!). I felt strangely transported -- to an alien civilization, a different age, or perhaps an alternate reality. Am I dreaming? I imagined how it must have felt for those living in the restrictive conformity of the 50's suddenly finding themselves thrust right into the hippie culture of the 60's and 70's. We were far from being a bunch of counterculture hippies, of course, but the cultural disconnect was similarly disorienting -- and exhilarating.

I stared at her hands as she slowly, carefully, ground the cannabis flowers into a form she claimed was more conducive to smoking. I was getting an education, though not exactly the one I always wanted. She was giving an education, though not exactly to the people she ever imagined. She seemed bewildered to be teaching this to a couple of Hasidim in full regalia, but I couldn't blame her: I was fairly bewildered myself. Should I try it? I contemplated this for a while. On the one hand, I'm way too old and have too many responsibilities to start experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and I'm still too young to have a mid-life crisis. On the other hand, There's a time for everything, as the astute poet claims in Ecclesiastes, and this seemed a good time for losing my mind. The poet won out.

A horrible minutes-long coughing fit accompanied the first puff I took out of the pipe. I never knew I could go this long without catching my breath. What did I just do? And then everything changed.

I giggled at the slightest provocation. How amusing, I thought to myself, about nothing in particular. I tried to explain a great epiphany I just had about the way lobsters are killed and eaten -- but was interrupted mid-sentence by my own laughter. I never finished the thought, suddenly grasping that it doesn't really make any sense -- and neither does anything else. We live in an absurd world, I concluded, and I like it that way! I had a couple more epiphanies, but was having a hard time trying to articulate them. The English language seemed foreign and unfamiliar, totally useless for expressing whatever it is that was going on in my mind; Yiddish didn't have the desired effect either. I realized that shutting up is the prudent thing to do; how amusing!

It was my turn again. I inhaled deeply, keeping the smoke in my lungs as long as I could. Then I exhaled slowly, and reality as I knew it vanished in a puff of smoke.

I tucked my chin into my chest like a pugilist squaring off against a feared opponent, closed my eyes and lost myself in my own mind. What an interesting and remarkable place to be lost in! Wow. I didn't want to find my way out!

The background chatter seemed like so much white noise: comforting, but unintelligible. From time to time I glimpsed little vignettes of the reality around me, like the one-second stills in an advertising reel attempting to impress some sort of subliminal message. And what an amusing message it was! I listened to short one-sided snippets of the ongoing conversation -- something about hand-cream and wine, about chicken and college, about porn and chulent -- and smiled knowingly at what they mean to me, even though I was sure they mean something else entirely to whoever was uttering those words.

Touching my own skin felt oddly sensual and invigorating. I ran my fingers through my payos and longed for the pure bliss and divine pleasure it must be to run a hand through a woman's hair -- something I've never experienced. And then I thought about how easily I amuse myself, and was greatly amused.

We're sitting in some sort of restaurant again, but I can't be bothered to find out how we got here. "Do I seem weird to you?" I ask whoever is sitting next to me. "Because I seem weird to me." We were eating dinner -- or breakfast, I wasn't sure. I knew it's very late and time to go. A drunken Arabic woman is sitting right next to me for some odd reason, something I find amusing at first, until she starts cursing the Jews. I shoo her away. Someone was being very friendly to her in Arabic and there's some discussion and general befuddlement as to why she suddenly turned spiteful. I smile to myself, wondering why it doesn't occur to anyone that our friendly colleague who exhausted his Arabic vocabulary trying to flirt must've thrown in some juicy Arabic curses without realizing what he did. A simple miscommunication -- the root of most hostilities. An epiphany, but not one I have the vocabulary to share.

"Hey," I say to my chauffeur. "I know I may be out of my mind right now, but it seems to me you're driving between lanes."

"I know," came the reply.

"You know?! Get the hell back in lane, then!"

"I'm trying."

"Nice!" For the first time in many hours, I'm not amused.


I get up with a start. The sun is shining brightly through the window, and it seems a day like any other. Did I just dream all that? I wonder. I never had such lucid dreams. What a silly and self-indulgent escapist fantasy, writ large by an especially vivid dream! Or was it? I look around; the bed seems familiar, but it definitely isn't mine. Neither is the room, or the house. A tangy and bitter aftertaste assaults my taste buds, and a pungent smell lingers in my nostrils: the taste of bacon, and the smell of weed. What is going on? Did I really escape my own little prison, leaving everything I cherish behind? Did my past, my history, my identity, my very self, just vanish in a Puff of Smoke?

I stumble into the bathroom and stare blankly in the mirror. A man is staring right back, a wry, mocking grin painted on his face.

"What do you think you're doing?" the man in the mirror sardonically asks. "Flee? From what? 'Prison?' Whom are you kidding? Look at yourself! Look where you are, who you are, what you have! You know where you belong, and that's that!"

A nasty little man, this man-in-the-mirror. Can I not back up a couple of decades and start again? I'm traveling down a track that's going to the wrong destination. Can I not at least jump over to the neighboring track?

"You dim-witted, feeble-minded klutz. This train doesn’t go backwards! You can't get there from here. You want to forcibly rip up the track you're on and try to reach that track over there? You'll travel in the sand, you say? Ha! And what do you think will happen to all the little cars you're pulling behind? You'll wreak a great amount of havoc, and the ensuing dust and debris will so gum up the works that none of you will ever make it over there anyway!"

You stupid, malevolent, and pessimistic little shit. You're lucky I'm still all kinds of mellow, or I might have socked you in the kisser right here and now -- whoever you are, Mr. Man in the Mirror. Stop with the stupid metaphors and leave me be! Please? Pretty please?

"Now, now, look here. You seem rather disheveled. Brush the knots out of your beard, comb and curl your nice payos, and go get with the program before you get into real hot water. You know I mean the best for both of us. That's all you can, and will, do."

Fuck! I need another toke.