The Night at the End of the Tunnel, or
Isaiah Can You See?
“It was the best of the worst of times, the worst of the best of times, the beginning of the end of the beginning.” That’s how this story begins. It’s late 70s, early 80s, New York City, and nothing works. No place is safe. Porn is everywhere. The streets are filthy, and the subways are worse. Trust is committing suicide–love is abused, and institutions and individuals are corrupt, corrupted, or corruptible. The City and country are disintegrating. Enter two of the unlikeliest characters you’ve ever met–think Charlie Brown meets Mr. Natural, or Alfred E. Neuman in The Heart of Darkness. All these guys want to do is survive, and they do–but in a way neither they nor you can imagine.
What follows is an excerpt from The Night at the End of the Tunnel, or Isaiah Can You See? which Greenside describes as “a dystopian picaresque novel.” Hold onto your hopes. They, along with everything good, are about to be taxed.
It was the best of the worst of times, the worst of the best of times, Ouroboros, Ubu, the beginning of the end of the beginning, but I didn’t know that then. It was 1979, and I thought I still had a future, which is why I’d come to New York: to prepare myself. And I did—but in a way nobody in his right mind except Leo could have possibly predicted.
I was at the time a virgin, an orphan, a lapsed Catholic, a twenty-one-year-old small-town-in-Missouri valedictorian with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities and a scholarship to study literature, and I was looking for a place to live. In the three long weeks I’d been searching — thanks to rent control and no one ever giving up their apartment even after they were dead — the only places I found that I could afford were public housing projects in the South Bronx and Harlem, where there was a waiting period of fifteen years, and the Y, where I currently resided and where a trio of not-so-wise men and a transvestite with a mustache had tried to have their way with me. Needless to say, I was dispirited, had just about lost all hope, when from out of the void I heard a tune: someone was humming the Battle Hymn.
I looked up. Sanitation workers were recycling garbage from their truck to the street. I looked down. A homeless guy gagged on a Happy Meal. I looked further down. From inside an apartment a finger — Leo’s finger — pointed at some oddly shaped words scribbled through the dirt on the window: Furn Apt Fr Cheap. I was amazed, indeed, overjoyed, and as I descended each step, my hopes rose as the humming grew louder: I was certain I’d be getting a deal. I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked again, louder. Still no answer. I opened the door.
“Hi,” I called, unable to see a thing.
“Ninety-nine a month. Utilities included,” came the reply from the dark.
I ignored it, stepped forward, and walked smack into a wall of hundred-degree heat. It was eighty-five degrees and sunny outside and this guy had the furnace on. It made me glad the utilities were included. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the gloom and looked around — at the holes in the walls, frayed and exposed wiring, hanging pieces of ceiling, torn linoleum floors, and orange-crate décor. Nailed to one wall was a colorful, crayoned, hand-printed sign that read “Hello Dali.”Taped to another was a New York City Civil Defense Evacuation Map with circles, arrows, and what I hoped were food smudges. Beneath it hung an illuminated etching of Savonarola at the stake. Stained Playboy calendars, yellowed Daily News, and hundreds of ladies underwear ads littered the floor. Anybody else would have looked at that place and seen only its drawbacks. But not me. I saw the three not-so-wise men and the mustachioed transvestite waiting for me at the Y. Besides, a dozen years of Catholic school had taught me to live like a martyr, die like a saint, and never succumb to the obvious. So even when I stepped forward, turned the corner, and saw Leo — tall, gaunt, unshaved, with bug-eyes, smiling a hellion grin, wearing black slacks, a black suit coat, black socks, white shirt, and a red, white, and blue American flag tie tied around his neck like a noose, all of which smelled of mold or compost or worse — even that didn’t get to me. Nor did the brown and green U.S. Army camouflage ski cap perched on his head or the yellow EPA hazardous-waste slicker hanging from his shoulders. All they told me was that he needed help, that he couldn’t live alone, that he was a preacher or a patriot seriously gone amuck, or a moron. I thanked my lucky stars, Saint Jude, Uncle Sam, and Adam Smith. How else could I have gotten a Midtown redevelopment zone apartment for ninety-nine dollars a month?
“I’ll give you seventy-five,” I said.
“It’s not what the market will bear.”
The lucidity of his response surprised me. “It’s not habitable,” I said. “It ought to be condemned.”
“Ha! Shows what you know.” Leo laughed and waved an official, signed and sealed, New York City inspection sticker right under my nose. “Besides, it has a view.”
This I found hard to believe. I walked to the window and looked up. All I could see was the sidewalk and people’s shoes. “What view?” I demanded.
“There!” Leo screeched. “There!” as he pointed with one hand and grabbed at his crotch with the other. “See!”
I saw right up a lady’s dress. I waited for her to pass, turned around, and gazed at the apartment once more. Then I remembered I was a liberal and a humanist — and that Mother Teresa was living with lepers in India and my summer-school classes began in three days. So, closing my eyes and gulping — and hoping in my heart of lapsed bleeding hearts that Leo wasn’t contagious and I was choosing the lesser evil — I said, “I’ll take it,” and I put out my hand to shake. But Leo was nowhere in sight. He had returned to the darkness and was once again humming the Hymn. “See you, roomie,” I waved. “I’ll be back tomorrow.” He hummed louder, and as I left, he broke into song: “Mine eyes have seen the coming of the gory of the lord.” I stopped. Stiff. Frozen. Goosebumps played leapfrog all over my skin. “Nah,” I said. “No way.” Not even he would say something like that.
All right, so Leo is a bit odd. Quixotic. Well, not quixotic in the normal sense of the word. Let’s say negative quixotic. A postmodern Don Quixote. Besides, he has his good points. For one, he speaks English. For another, he’s never around . . .. That’s what I thought of him then, and it was how I planned to explain him to my friends. Only I didn’t have any friends. Until Jean.
Jean transferred to N.Y.U. from West Virginia State. She was one of those educational opportunity students from Appalachia who looked like she walked right off the set of Deliverance: flat-chested, tow-headed, bow-legged, over-bit, hare-lipped, acned, and scarred, with a mole the size of a quarter hanging from the back of her neck. She was also sallow and slightly deaf. “The Milton mid-term’s tomorrow,” she said. “Why don’t we study together?”
“Great,” I said, and meant it. It was the first time anyone had spontaneously asked anything of me other than spare change or the time. “Meet you at your place at seven.”
“Yes, it would be heaven, but there’s no way we can do it at my place. I live in an all girls’ boarding house.”
“How about the library?”
“Too noisy. What about your place?”
I was afraid of that, but there didn’t seem to be any way to avoid it. I just hoped Leo wouldn’t be there and thankfully he wasn’t. We studied until two A.M., when Jean yawned, and I said, “Why don’t you spend the night?”
“OK, she said, and closed her books.
Anyone else and I would have been excited, but not with Jean. As far as I was concerned, she was about as sexy as a fork. Besides, for the past seven hours we had been studying Milton, whom no one but Leo would grant an X rating. Within a few minutes each of us was sound asleep and snoring.
The following morning I woke up exhausted and alone to the sound of strange noises emanating from the kitchen. Immediately, I got up and dressed and went out to protect my new friend. By the time I arrived everything was quiet, heads down, sullen. I could only imagine the worst: Leo had started talking about manhole covers or popping windows, guys with arrows, muggings, the C.I.A. in Iran, Bert Lance. I didn’t learn until much later that in less than five minutes he had gotten into her pants. Had I known, I would have been disgusted. I would have thought each of them was probably the first living thing without eight legs or wings to touch the other. Still, she was my friend — my only best friend! And it was a rotten, low-down, marvelously contemptible buddy-fucking kind of thing that Leo did to show me the true meaning of brotherhood and fellowship. “Let’s get out of here,” I said to Jean.
“Milton,” Leo mumbled as he noticed my book. “Good. Lost is better than Found.”
“Right,” I said, and pushed Jean out the door.
In the hallway Jean turned to me and said, “He’s weird.”
“Yes,” I explained, “Leo is a bit odd. Quixotic. Well, not quixotic in the normal sense of the word. Let’s say negative quixotic. A postmodern Don Quixote . . ..”
Jean laughed. “A non-Quixote, that’s good.”
And for the next several weeks that’s how I thought of him: as a postmodern non-Quixote, my own little Apocalypse Now.
The only things I had to look forward to were my exams and Dr. Roberts’ reading from Macbeth. On the morning of the reading, I awoke with my head abuzz. The evening before — at three A.M.! — I was forced to listen to Leo pontificate about Sanyo, Sansui, Toshiba, Hitachi, Yamaha, and Akai. His concluding comment: “The only fidelity left is Hi.”
“How true,” I said, “how true.” I hadn’t the slightest idea what he was talking about. It wasn’t until much later — at five o’clock! — that I finally realized Leo was talking about stereophonic sound and not the Japanese High Command. So to prove to him that I understood, just before I left for school I walked over to where he was sitting, pulled the cold hot dog he was chewing out of his mouth, and repeated: “Remember, the only fidelity left is Hi.”
Leo gave me the thumbs up sign and said: “And the only heroes remaining are sandwiches. Buy high, sell low. Every loss is a gain. A Bull is a Bear by a different name. Dearth First!”
“Right,” I said, and slammed the door shut behind me.
When I got to Dr. Roberts’ class, the lecture hall was full. Towards the front of the room I spotted an empty seat next to Jean. I walked over and sat down.
“Lots of people,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, “everybody comes out when old man Roberts reads.”
“He’s that good?”
“Yes, Gielgud, Olivier, Richardson. He’s performed with all three.”
“Wow! So where have you been keeping yourself lately?”
“Oh, you know . . . I’ve been busy.” Then she blushed. I knew it was a blush because the color of her face became different from the color of her zits. “H-how’s Leo? I haven’t seen him since . . . since that day at the zoo.” That’s what she said! Can you believe it? I tell you, that Jean is something else: she’s as good a liar as she is ugly; a treasure of unearthly delights. Of course, I didn’t know that then, so I answered, “Leo is Leo, a hazard to all that is right.”
Jean giggled. “I’ll say. But I’ve been worried. The last time I spoke with him, he sounded awfully tired.”
“Sure. He ought to be. He’s preternatural. The son of a bitch never sleeps.”
“Oh, no!” She sounded shocked. “That’s not what he told me. He told me he’s been so tired he can’t go out. Every afternoon he naps.”
“Every afternoon!” I blurted. “Every afternoon!” I stood up. “Every afternoon . . ..”
“Have you finished your soliloquy?” It was Dr. Roberts.
“Then shut up and sit down.”
I did, but I was so nervous that I knocked my books, then Jean’s, onto the floor. When I finally finished straightening things up, Dr. Roberts began to speak. From memory. The little bugger was amazing. He had to be eighty years old. He couldn’t have stood more than five feet three. Yet the guy had the lungs of a bagpipe. Words came out of his mouth as if powered by a bellows. As he spoke, his whole body shook, right down to the thin little metal legs of his walker. He was going along splendidly, rapidly approaching the part of Banquo’s ghost when suddenly from beneath the curtain there appeared a blood-splattered, sheet-covered ghoul. Slowly, it crept towards Dr. Roberts. The audience was really excited. And so was I — until I realized the blood was tomato sauce from the frozen lasagna dinner I ate in bed the other night, and the sheet was mine. I leaped out of my seat to warn Dr. Roberts, but in the commotion I made, he stopped and stared at me and gaped for the full two seconds it took Leo to reach him and tap him on the shoulder and shriek, “BOOOOOO!”
The last time I saw Dr. Roberts, they were carrying him away on a gurney. He was still gaping at me, only now he was also drooling, trying to raise his right arm, muttering and sputtering, “FFFF.” At the time I thought he was giving me the finger, which, under the circumstances, I can truly respect, although I don’t think I honestly earned it. It wasn’t until later in the day, when I went to take my exams, that I discovered that FFFF was my grade. In all my classes. Leo had told the custodian who captured him that he was my roommate and that the plan to do in Dr. Roberts was mine. And since he left the sheet with my name on it as evidence, they believed him. I went straight to my student government representative to protest, but she hadn’t been seen in months. “And even if she was here,” the secretary told me, “she certainly wouldn’t see you.” So I went to the Dean of the School of Law, who was a world class Lawyers Guilder. As soon as he heard my name, he punched me. “Roberts,” he said, “was progressive.”
“First, we eat,” Leo announced.
On the table were all of his favorites: a Mama Celeste pizza supreme; Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks; a Banquet TV turkey dinner; cold Kraft macaroni and cheese with ketchup; plenty of Styrofoam and plastic; Wonder bread; Jell-O; and Kool-Aid. During the feast, amidst the flickering of two dozen candles, we sat on our orange crates and talked about books. It was, I thought, a ridiculously easy test.
“Finish Celine, Jarry, Eliot, Yeats, and Candy?”
“All of Henry Miller, Beckett, Nathaniel West, Drew Pearson, and Oscar Wilde?”
“Genet, de Sade, Reage, Bataille, Gibbons, Kafka, Kissinger, and Moliere?”
“You got it.”
“The tragedies, Dadaists, Surrealists, Absurdists, and Rachel Carson?”
“Derrida, Freud, Duchamp, Spengler, Popper, Bukowski, and Friedan?”
“Finnegans Wake, The Book of Job, All the President’s Men, Dispatches, Candide, The Pantagruel, Gargantua, Catch-22, and all those Mad Magazines and Mr. Natural comic books?”
“Ok,” he said, finishing off the macaroni. “Now let’s get on with the questions.”
“The questions?” Suddenly, I was worried. My stomach turned. I couldn’t even finish my Jell-O. “Who asks them?”
“I ask. You answer. Let’s go.”
Nervously, I waited as Leo licked his plastic plate clean. Finally, he looked up, folded his hands, and began. A sliver of green Jell-O hung from his nose.
Q. Why are we different from all other people?
A. Because we accept our fate. More than accept it. We expect it. We are the vanguard of decline.
Q. Why, then, don’t we rape or steal or shoot at people with arrows?
A. Because you are what you do and nothing that you do really matters. One act is as meaningless as another, and everything has already been done.
Q. What is it, then, that we do?
A. We encourage and appreciate what is.
Q. And what is is?
A. Doom, deconstruction, and chaos. The night at the end of the tunnel. The chickens coming home to roost.
Leo paused. I was so scared I thought I was going to pee. I watched him stroke his chin, then rub his nose, discover the sliver of Jell-O and eat it. “Those are the four questions,” he said. He said it so solemnly I was certain I had flunked. “Now, to honor Mark Van Doren, you may ask one of me.”
My mind went blank. Everything I thought of sounded trite or false. What is it I want to know, I asked myself? What is it I really want to know? Then it came to me, the question when answered that would fill in all of my blanks. “Who made it this way, Leo? Who caused it and why?”
“Everyone,” he smiled.
“Yes, with their craving for more and better. It was the ruthless pursuit of goodness that caused it, goodness and hope: the capitalists with their faith in free markets, the invisible hand, and endless prosperity, and the Marxists with their dreams of a withered-away state and universal equality; all religions with their belief in a better world to come, and all nations and political parties for promising what they wouldn’t want to deliver even if they could; and families too, and lovers and artists and philosophers, and all those who gave with everything they had, especially their reasons. In postmodern America this was first revealed to us in the late 1950s by the publication of William Burrough’s Naked Lunch and Ike’s lie about the U-2. This was also when the Giants and Dodgers moved West and the Yankees started to lose.”
What could I say? He was brilliant. Who else could have pronounced a postmortem on religion, politics, art, and baseball in one clean sweep of the tongue? Reverently I sat there, waiting, wondering how I had done, and Leo, with his flair for the dramaturgic, sat there also, alternately picking his nose and sipping Kool-Aid. Then, when his nose was clean and his cup was empty, he shouted, “Ouroboros.”
“Yahoooo,” I shrieked, “I passed. What is it? What’s my prize?”
“It’s in here somewhere,” Leo said, standing up and clapping, then jumping up and down. “You have to find it.”
With increasing glee I began to search the apartment. I looked everywhere: under the sink, beneath the orange crates, through the garbage, in my room and all of the cupboards and all of the drawers and each of the shelves, and found nothing out of the ordinary ruins. That was when I saw Leo peeking over at his room. Hesitantly, I went to the door. I remembered reading in my high school theology classes that this was part of the ceremony. I thought I was letting Elijah in. But when I opened the door, I saw Jean. She was lying on Leo’s bed, completely naked, beckoning me with her pinkie. I gaped. I sputtered. I moaned. Then I shut the door, spun around, and leaned against the wall for support. My stomach and everything in it was in my mouth.
“It’s the ugliest thing I ever saw.”
“You got it.”
“I can’t do it.”
Leo threw me up against the wall, gripping my shirt in his hand. “Look,” he hissed, “there’s a lot of ugliness in all of us. You just have to be lucky enough to find it. With Jean it’s a little more obvious. She’s my girl.” Then he released me, opened the door, shoved me in, and commanded: “Do it!”
Only I didn’t know what to do. Jean had to help me, and from the back — that is, not having to see her zits or harelip — she wasn’t half bad. Afterwards, which was about fifteen seconds later, I pushed her away and asked:
“H-how was it?”
“Terrible,” she growled.
“Good,” I said, and rolled over to get some sleep.
Getting Leo to agree to go to the party was one thing. Getting him there was another. As soon as we arrived at the subway station he balked. “BMT,” he sputtered, “N . . . Not There!”
“Yes, Leo, it’s the BMT.”
“Brooklyn? We’re going to Brooklyn?” He began to cry. “I’m not going to Brooklyn. Uh-uh. Not me, No way.” He latched onto the banister with both hands. “No way. Uh-uh . . ..”
“Are you finished?”
“Nope. Not going.”
“Leo, that’s where the party is and that’s where we’re going. Don’t be so provincial.”
I tried reason: “Brooklyn has all of the iniquities of Manhattan — and then some. I guarantee you’ll feel right at home.”
“No way. Uh-uh.”
I tried guilt: “It was you, Leo, who said our job is to appreciate what is, and you never said Brooklyn was not.” Nothing, I knew, upset teachers more than having their own words tossed back at them by a student who actually listened. I smiled in anticipation of Leo’s response.
His face went white. He looked at me as I had never seen him look at me before. It was part adoration and part vilification, and it told me I had triumphed. Full of pride and exuberance, I waited for Leo to succumb.
“Can’t . . . can’t do it . . ..” He sniffled. “Just can’t . . . Everyone has irrational fears.”
I was speechless — then I fell to the ground and shouted a menacing, “Look out!”
“What! What! What is it?” Leo screeched, as he dove to the pavement to join me.
“I think I just saw Mr. Rogers.”
Leo’s eyeballs receded, his temples throbbed, his chin twitched, and he bit his upper lip, drawing blood. “Y-you lie,” he managed to spit.
“I could be mistaken. Let’s wait here and see.” I smiled.
“Let’s goooo!” Leo howled, pulling my arm and dragging me into the station, muttering: “It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok . . .. Some things are worse than Brooklyn.”
All the way there, despite a ten-minute delay and a thirty-five minute jarring, squealing, standing-up-because-there-were-no-seats train ride, I had a ball. I would periodically look around and stare, pretending I had spotted Mr. Rogers, and Leo would snap his head, follow my gaze, and turn green. It was amusing. But all good things must come to an end and we finally arrived at Coney. We descended and made our way to the address, which turned out to be The Church of the Living Gospel. A cadaverous giant in a green polyester leisure suit greeted us at the front door and beckoned.
“C’mon in, c’mon in. This is the place. Everyone’s welcome. Gonna be some fun tonight . . .. Yum yum.”
I looked at Leo and Leo looked at me and together we grinned at each other as we entered the church through the prayer room. It was like a homecoming. Everything inside was night-dark. The only light was on the dais. All I could tell as I looked around was that we were the only ones there under sixty. We took two seats in the rear and waited, and while waiting I remembered how proud I felt to be an American. Where else but America could men like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, men who in another time and place would have been peasants or rum-runners or Bureau of Indian Affairs land agents, where else could such men be religious leaders? And where else but the land of the home and the free and the bravado, the nation that brought us the Bill of Rights, which made legal the Old Knick, the Personals in the Swinger’s Directory, and Bound and Gagged, where else could The Church of the Living Gospel receive freedom of religion prerogatives and an I.R.S. tax deduction for throwing a fuckerwear bash? What a country! That’s what I was thinking when the minister stepped out of his closet. He brushed back his slicked-down hair with his bejeweled hands, snapped his suspenders, and stepped onto a stool so he could be seen.
“Welcome, welcome,” he intoned, “to God’s little quarter acre in Brooklyn.” He laughed at his own little joke, turned on a tape recorder, which miraculously managed to continue to play Bolero, and commenced with the business of the night.
“We are gathered here tonight to celebrate the spirit of the flesh — and to raise a little money for our church. Other faiths, as you know, use Bingo for this purpose, but we at The Church of the Living Gospel are opposed to this. Gambling, as the scriptures tell us, is a sin. Begetting, however, is the way of Our Lord. That is why we are gathered here tonight — to offer whatever assistance and aids modern technology can provide and to encourage you to add to the flock.” He then paused and reached under the dais. “So what am I bid for this dildo!”
“Two dollars,” Leo stood up and screeched.
“Leo,” I said, yanking him back to his seat, “we have thirty-five dollars max. That’s it. Let’s make sure we get what we want. Agreed?”
Leo stood back up and shouted, “Two-fifty.”
“Once, twice, sold to the man in the Hefty bag cape and crown.”
Next came the edible undies. “Eat ’em up,” laughed the minister as he held them in the air with one hand and snapped his suspenders with the other. “Sugar is good for the soul.” We bought six of those, in six different, unnatural flavors. We also bought one more dildo shaped like Karen Silkwood and guaranteed to glow in the dark, a battery-powered vibrator that the C.I.A. had supplied to Madame Nhu, a set of brass ben wa balls — for Jean, we both agreed — and a pair of matching black leather jock straps, each with a red heart sewn on the front. Beneath the hearts, in small cursive letters, they read: “I’ve got this heart on for you.” The only item we disagreed on was Lady MaDonna, the plastic inflatable woman. Leo wanted it and I didn’t. “No way,” I said, “we’ve already spent thirty-eight dollars. That’s it. Besides, we can make our own at home with a mannequin.” Reluctantly, Leo agreed.
“Hokay,” announced the minister, “that about does it for tonight. Good luck and Godspeed.” Then he snapped his suspenders, leaped over the dais, landed on someone in the third row, and hollered a thundering: “Orgy!” Somehow, then, inscrutably, the only light that was on turned off and Bolero became louder and louder. Immediately, Leo and I joined hands and scooped up whomever we could net and steered them into a corner sacristy. What proceeded next was a menage a cinq. At least I think it was a cinq. It may have been a six or a sept. Who could tell? What I could tell, though, was that one woman had but one breast, another had no hair, and a third had hardly any teeth — unless, of course, that was Leo.
“You know,” I said, as we stood on the platform waiting for the train to Manhattan, “having sex with someone is a good way to meet them.”
Leo then said one of the most intelligent things I ever heard him say. It was wisdom. Gospel. More true than the Shroud of Turin. “You bet your life,” he said, “but that’s not the best part. The best part is the moment right after orgasm. It’s the perfect time for truth and betrayal. You just have to know how to use it.”