Regular followers of this blog know that I suffered a heart attack in the middle of this year and am now the owner of two stents in my left anterior descending artery. I also happen to be hypertensive. Aside from fried food, savory snacks and sugary treats, the thing I miss the most post heart attack is walking.
For as long as I can remember, my mind has been a hornet’s nest of thoughts, worries, stories, alternative timelines in which I live the dream and face the consequences for daring to do so. It gets to be maddening every once in a while. To calm the hornets to a dull buzz, I used to take long brisk walks, but a few weeks before I was hospitalized and a few months afterward I was unable to do this without experiencing chest pressure and shortness of breath. Recovery has been slow but I’m finally at a stage where I can walk again with no ill effects.
Now, every morning I take a three-hour walk along the same crooked path through residential neighborhoods so I can set my body on autopilot while I lose myself either in my thoughts or in other worlds provided by audiobooks or radio plays. The only time that I am mentally present in the act of walking is when I encounter one of my pet peeves:
- I cannot have anyone walking directly in front of me (within arm’s distance); and
- I cannot have anyone pacing me (where they exist in my peripheral view).
This may seem strange to you but when I walk, my personal space area expands to provide me with the illusion that I am isolated from the rest of humanity. It’s also why I walk early in the morning when the streets are less crowded.
The reason I’m mentioning this is because on Christmas Eve while out on my morning constitutional, I became aware of a young lady in my side vision. I’m not sure how long she had been there before I noticed her but when I did, it bothered me. To be clear, she wasn’t within my expanded personal space, I was on the sidewalk and she was in the street but she was definitely pacing me.
Oh, I forgot to mention, at my normal pace, I can cover the route I walk in two hours flat. The problem is that I’m no longer a spring chicken, so at that speed, two-thirds of the way in, my legs feel like they’re transmuting into lead. I was forced to adopt a moderate pace, thereby adding an hour to my journey, and the woman keeping time with me was on rollerblades, which meant something was definitely off here.
When I looked over at her, the first thing I noticed was that she was maskless. Since March of 2020, the lower half of my face has been covered whenever I leave the house, even when I’m in an open space and no one is around. Reports have said it’s not a matter of if you’ll contract the COVID Omicron variant but when, and if that’s the case, I’d like to prolong that inevitability as much as possible.
Anyway, back to Roller Girl, who was smiling and waving at me. Now, I’m a native New Yorker and it’s been my experience that the only time people smile at you is if they’re:
- From out of town
- Pulling some sort of grift
- Prepared to hand you a sob story to part you from your money, or
- Trying to lure you into a van, Buffalo Bill-style, in order to turn you into a skinsuit
Deep, deep, deep, deep, deep down I’m a friendly person in the right social setting, just not on the city streets, so I returned neither the smile nor the wave and continued on my merry way. But Roller Girl maintained that spot in the corner of my vision, which disturbed my reverie enough for me to remove my noise-canceling earbuds.
“Can I help you with something?” I asked.
Roller Girl waved again and hit me with a smile packed to the rafters with pearly whites in what my mother used to call a gator-mouth. One of my many failings is that I have always been a horrible guesser of age, but if I was forced at gunpoint, I’d put her somewhere between late teens and early twenties. She had a young Rae Dawn Chong quality to her features. Dark wavy hair spilled from under a crocheted hat that matched her tan calf-length coat with fur collar. Jeans and a scarf reminiscent of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who completed her ensemble, and of course, the white rollerblades.
“Hi!” she said, enthusiastically, and stated who she was, something that began with a K but as I am the infamous forgetter of names, I’ll simply refer to her as Kendal.
This time I responded, “Hi,” apprehensively.
“I didn’t mean to bother you, it’s just that I see you walking this way at the same time every morning like clockwork, and since we’re headed the same way I decided to say hello.”
“On your way to work?”
“To an appointment?”
“No.” I loved curt answers because they always let the listener know, I’m not interested in small talk so either quit while you’re behind or get to your blasted point.
“Okay,” Kendal said. “Then let me ask you a question: When you walk, do you walk alone, or do you walk with God?”
Oh, now I get it. Honestly, I should have caught on sooner because there were two types of people I tended to attract, the absolutely mental and proselytizers. Even with my hat and face mask covering two-thirds of my face, something about me must have screamed, This sad bastard needs Jesus in his life!
Among the many things I simply cannot abide, proselytizing ranks pretty high on the list. It always carries an air of condescension, despite the best intentions of the Born-Again speaker. Once you’ve asked and I tell you I’m not interested, your following action should be to move along to the next hopeful convert. This almost never happens. But Kendal carried an air of politeness about her, so I let her recite her spiel, occasionally answering:
- “Yes, I’ve read the Bible, many years ago, but I can’t quote chapter and verse.”
- “No, I haven’t accepted the Lord into my heart, just as I don’t take in any of the other belief systems I don’t embrace.”
- “Yes, I’ve heard the saying, the greatest trick Lucifer ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
And when she noticed the standard approach wasn’t working, Kendal switched gears and attempted to relate to a wretch like me.
“I was raised in a religious household but I fell from the path of righteousness,” she said. “I lost my way and my faith in The Almighty, because I thought I was smarter than He was. What did I need Him for? I knew how I looked and how boys looked at me and I knew how to get them to do whatever I wanted. I filled my life with parties, alcohol, drugs and fornication, but the time came when I reached rot bottom [I didn’t have the heart to correct her by saying the phrase was rock bottom] and my soul was empty and nothing I tried could fill it. Then one day, a man approached me just like I did you. Supposably [again I didn’t correct her with supposedly] he was directed by God to save one particular soul, mine. Just like God sent me for you.”
When my path led me out of the residential neighborhoods and onto a commerce boulevard, I was forced to stop at certain corners to give way to traffic. Not once, but thrice did Kendal try to get me to pray with her at these stops in order to receive an instant release of all the burdens in my life. And like Peter, I denied her three times.
When we passed a Matrix Resurrection movie poster at a bus stop, I saw the wheels turning in her mind and she shifted her pitch, offering me the red pill/blue pill option, before trying to twist my melon with the Inception angle of this life being Man’s dream within Satan’s dream within God’s dream, before going off on a Jacob’s Ladder tangent that she couldn’t quite bring around to make her point. To her credit the one thing Kendal didn’t challenge me with was that time-honored favorite, “You don’t believe in God because you can’t see Him, but you believe in air and you can’t see that, right?”
But eventually, she did ask, “Well, if you don’t have faith in God, what do you believe in?”
“I believe I’m not smart enough,” I answered, as I always did whenever anyone bothered to ask. But it’s a poorly constructed answer that required clarification. I should change it, but it had become an almost automatic response at this point. That, and I’m just too damned lazy to do so.
Off her confused expression, I said:
“I, myself, am a non-spiritual entity who believes that when it comes to the origin of things—the universe, life, etc.—that I am simply not smart enough to know the truth. And when I say I, taking the full weight of ignorance upon myself, I actually mean we as in mankind or peoplekind or whatever passes for politically correct phrasing nowadays. This does not, however, mean that I do not applaud anyone’s attempt to gain answers, I’m just not satisfied with any of the options presented to date.
“And that’s not just with religion. Creationism versus evolution? I’ve got no dog in that fight. I proudly ride the ignorance fence when it comes to our humble beginnings because, in my opinion, religion and science both offer up a series of theories yet to be proven as fact.
“You believe differently? Good on you. I sincerely hope that works out for you, sincerely hope you’re right, and sincerely hope you receive your reward for being righteous.
“I’m not in the habit of knocking people’s spiritual beliefs. It’s none of my concern what system you choose to embrace, and with all due respect, I couldn’t care less who or what you worship. Totally your business and I’m cool with it all, especially if it gives your life some sort of balance and leads you to do no harm.
“This isn’t to say that I don’t find the Bible a fascinating read, but I view it as—again, no offense intended—mythology. Same as with Greek, Celtic, Aztec, African, etc. writings that deal with the human experience in relation to the worshiping of gods. I also enjoy apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts, all of which eventually find their way into my work.”
Kendal didn’t agree with a lick of this blasphemous nonsense and after a good forty-five minutes of loggerhead debate, she gave the “stop and pray with me” one last-ditch effort.
“You know,” I said. “I will…if you can do me a favor. For the sake of argument, I will accept that God sent you for me, and God being omniscient, knows that I’m cynical, so what I’d like you to do is to ask Him to give you the words that will open my mind and heart to Him. Remember, He knows me and knows that a Bible verse won’t do the trick. So, can you please take a moment and ask Him, out loud or silently to yourself, I’m not sure how that’s done, and if what He directs you to say offers me even the slightest doubt that my belief system is wrong, I promise you that I will stop and pray with you.”
In all the times I presented this request, no one ever stepped up to the challenge. The response I usually received was that God didn’t have to prove Himself to me. The onus was on me to open my heart and let Him shine His light into areas I was attempting to hide in the shadows.
But Kendal actually remained silent for a moment and when she spoke, she said, “I see you, thou art beautiful, and I love you.”
That, I was not expecting. Kudos to her. It was said sweetly enough and damn-near convincingly but alas and alack, not enough to sway me. And I told her as much.
We ran into another traffic light and this time Kendal attempted to hand me a pamphlet, which probably contained pieces of the rhetoric she spouted off to me, along with a Bible verse or two and the location of whatever church she was affiliated with.
I told her she should keep it because if I took the pamphlet, it was only going to wind up in the first trash can I came across.
Then Kendal turned the pamphlet around and said, “My number’s on the back,” and sure enough there was a phone number handwritten in pen at the bottom of the brochure.
I couldn’t avoid chuckling. “That’s the first bad move I’ve seen you make in this entire exchange,” I said, shaking my head. “At the bare minimum I’m twice your age, probably even three times, so it’s safe to say that I’ve been around the block once or twice, and game recognizes game. Now, if I was your age, that number gimmick just might have worked on me, but I’m not, so you’re wasting your time.”
For the first time during our exchange, Kendal took in the measure of me. The thing I didn’t mention in all this was that when she wasn’t keeping her eyes peeled for obstacles in her path, Kendal maintained direct eye contact, which made me feel like I had her undivided attention. A rare experience nowadays, especially from a younger person. Finally, she nodded, shrugged, and said, “Can’t blame me for trying.”
She skated back the way we came and as she passed, said, “I still see you, thou art beautiful, and I love you.” To which I had no reply.
It’s been two days since that encounter and each time I’m in the vicinity of where I first met Kendal, my head is on a swivel trying to locate which hidey-hole she’ll emerge from, but since I do not walk with God, I continue to walk alone.
In honor of the noble, and slightly questionable, efforts of Kendal, I urge you all to go forth this holiday season and be true to your own belief systems (and should you wish to add this sinner to your prayers, I surely won’t stop you).