We all have that one irrational thing that just scares the living crap out of us. Or that one irritant that gives us the keebles so bad, we’d do anything to get away from it. Winston Smith was petrified of rats, elephants of mice. I have a normally placid friend that will physically attack in an effort to stop you molesting that squeaking Styrofoam. Indy hates snakes. Do water bugs bug you? Nails on a blackboard? The list is endless. Me? I don’t like a wooden ice lolly stick touching my cold teeth as I’m finishing the lolly, it freaks me out, so does peanut butter stuck to my soft palate, here panic ensues. Some people really hate birds, when they see one they go, “Ehhhch!’ How inconvenient that must be, with so many birds hopping about these days. I really hate wet wool, especially if it’s trying to get on me. But these are just things that make me shiver with disgust and revulsion, like that hugely popular song; The Wind Beneath My Wings; it makes my skin crawl but it’s not going to give me a heart attack. But what about those things that literally terrify you?
My mother, for instance, is deathly afraid of blimps. When she sees one in the sky (usually because some, thrill seeking, family member has pointed it out to her) the reaction is immediate and hilarious. First she will sink to the ground as if the earth itself is tipping over, then she starts to wail and point and weep, clutching at the knees of the nearest bystander. ‘Keening terror’ I think they call it. The blimp provokes such a profound fear in her, such a catastrophic sense of dread that she is helpless against it, to the point where, if a real threat came along, let’s say a rapidly approaching, grinning, ax-wielding, blood-soaked maniac in inmates pajamas, it wouldn’t get her off the sidewalk during a blimp sighting. In terms of evolutionary psychology, these irrational terrors can’t be helpful to our chances of survival. Pathological behavior, like too much sat fat, isn’t good for you; unless she knows something about blimps that we do not? But wait, surely these irrational terrors are simply a veiled fear of death? You can’t just fling yourself on the ground and scream, “Ahh, I’m definitely going to die one day in the future!” They’d cart you off the nearest
loony bin mental health facility. Far better to say, “Oh sorry about that! I’m feeling much better now. Such sinister things those dirigibles! They gimmie the willies something awful, so they do!” Yes, mother has shown us fear in skyful of zeppelin.
So what’s mine? Ok, I’ll tell you. Although its pretty stupid, I’m already breaking out in a cold sweat thinking about it. Kind of the converse of hers really, it’s being in the water, with something big. No other people in the water, just me. It could be a pool, a pond or a lake, could be the ocean, any body of water really. It might be a whale, or a wreck. A submarine would be particularly terrifying (shaped a lot like a zeppelin!). Its just being in the water with something that has way more mass than I do and I can’t really see it too well and I can’t run away and if it starts moving, I might get sucked under and drown. This gives me a fear akin to falling from a great height and seeing the ground rushing to meet you. And I was a competitive swimmer! I have swum alone in pools and lakes and ponds and oceans. Sometimes I did feel the approach of terror, but I’ve never swum next to a ship or with a whale or a sub and I’m not likely to start now.
The reason I got to thinking about my greatest fear is because I saw this woman freaking out down by Lincoln Center. I was sitting on the median strip passing a few moments before an appointment. The median strip down on that section of Broadway is particularly clean as they have these guys constantly sweeping and spraying and wiping everything. I guess if you’re paying $500 per square foot a month for your yogurt-free-yogurt store front you might as well have a dude with a big blue rolling bucket making sure the benches are yogurt-free-yogurt free as well. She exploded onto Broadway coming east off of 61st street. ‘Not another damn movie shoot while I’m trying to enjoy my crabgrass flavored yogurt-free-yogurt. Dam it all to hell!” I looked around for the camera, but there wasn’t one, no one carrying a massive silvery disk of fabric, no thick black wires over the sidewalk, no impatient hipsters with walkie-talkies and Bat Utility Belts. This spectacle is for real! Now why should that be surprising to me? People who scream in the streets are very common in NYC. You can’t throw a wooden lolly stick without hitting a whacko chemically challenged outpatient having a heated conversation with his ‘absent’ friend or enemy, nemesis, freaking giant rabbit whatever. But this one was different, she looked like she hadn’t been insane earlier in the day. It looked like it had just happened, she’d just this minute, snapped.
It was the shopping bag she was carrying that made us nervous. By ‘us’ I mean me and my fellow onlookers, because she had an audience almost immediately. I looked around to see if anyone else was watching and they were, we were scattered over Broadway in a pensive constellation, some closer to me other perhaps a block away but we were all looking at her, some chewing their thumbnails, some holding Lattes loose and forgotten at their sides.
It was both crisp and creamy this bag. There was obviously something expensive in it, a cardigan or a dress maybe or slacks & it had a great logo, French Royalty care of Beverly Hills. ‘Ohh, she’s been shopping today, before this all started!’ We thought to ourselves. She turned on her heel, did an abrupt 180 and continued raving in the other direction. A guy on his cell leapt out of her way, as if she might bite him. Not yet thirty, she had black slacks and a white headband, a nice jacket and shades jammed into her brunette hair. She was screaming, literally at the top of her lungs. “Are you fucking joking? ARE YOU?” She’d already shredded her vocal chords, the volume was incredible, (there was a ping back from Gracious Homes across the street) but even so, you could hear she was only a minute from loosing her voice. It was hoarse in just that way, husky with tiny bits of sound dropping out. Instead of bringing it down a notch she continued to scream as loud as she possibly could. “NO. NoNoNo. No!” Another 180, spinning, almost loosing a heel this time, completely wild & unaware of her surroundings. We were looking for the earpiece. ‘Is there an earpiece? I don’t see the earpiece. Oh God, let there be an earpiece! She must be on the phone. She’s just having an argument with her boyfriend. She was shopping so she must have been OK earlier. The phone rang, there was an argument…’ It was disturbing, as I’ve said because she looked like one of us, she wasn’t an out-patient, not homeless, not whacked out on street drugs. ‘She has a job & some taste. She’ll be fine when she settles down,’ we thought. Yeah but clearly she wasn’t just angry, she was psychotic & about to get run over. Damn it! She’d been one of us a minute ago, just another grazing gazelle, keeping calm and carrying on but now she was one of them; carrion. And if it could happen to her..
It went on and on, up and down the block, screaming, bouncing off cars. I stopped looking for evidence of her phone, there was no phone. Eventually she stayed in a straight line and moved uptown. Unconsciously we all took three steps in her direction, keeping her in sight for just a little longer. Her screams grew fainter, “WHY DON’T YOU JUST GO?” had been her mantra for a while now. Sobbing, “Why don’t you just GO?” the fight was leaving her. “WHY don’t you just go?” her voice was almost gone now. Begging, pleading. Really wanting an answer.
What happened to her? When she’d gone, I started thinking about this news story that due to my special fear, had scared the crap out of me several years ago. It was about two men, a father and son, who had gone SCUBA diving in one of the Lochs in Scotland. They had some experience but were not really up to the task of a pitch black dive. Just a few yards down, they were unable to see their dials. Thinking they were level they actually began to sink steadily. Imagine it; you think you’re ten yards down enjoying yourself but actually you’re forty yards now seventy-five yards below the surface of a frigid loch. You might feel a bit out of it at one hundred yards down. Something nagging at the back of your mind, like a phone call you were supposed to make. But you’re enjoying a quiet reverie and sometimes you just have to let these things go. You’re back in that great place you used to go to with friends, it was always sunny in the garden area and you laughed so hard the beer came out of your nose .. Wait, have you noticed a certain pressure? And which way is up by the way? Do you then just slip away peacefully to that sunny, summer beer garden with smiling friends or is there a moment of sudden panic & realization? Does a little light come up on your dial? “While You Were Away.. you passed the point of no return”. Do you then start to thrash and beat uselessly for the surface far, far above? Are you incensed? Thoroughly pissed that your life disappeared like a full monthly Metro Card simply misplaced somewhere? One minute you were treating yourself to that Prada bag you’d had your eye on for a while and next thing you find yourself strapped to a gurney in Bellevue. We’re not really built for this modern life are we? We may see many more of these snappings & thrashings in the dark days to come. That’s why I never go shopping.
But you know what? Now that I come to think of it, she must have been on the phone. Maybe she just needed to blow a fuse, get it off her chest. It could have been building for weeks I’ll bet. She’ll be fine. They say Yoga does wonders.