Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Archive of the Day

From "501 Minutes to Christ" by Poe Ballantine, from this year's Best American Essays. The essay was originally published in The Sun.

In the first section, Ballantine is writing about life in Middlebury, Vermont, as he makes clear. In the second section, he is writing about a trip to Louisville.
Outside of a psychotic who attacked me a few months ago (I stuck his head into a snowbank until he promised to leave me alone) and a middle-aged fellow who drives around town shouting obscenities from a riding mower, there is not much happening here in Middlebury, Vermont. It’s a handsome town, though: kindly in spirit, smart and well run, home of a fine college with an extraordinary library. My position as cook at the Café Chatillon down along scenic Otter Creek is more than tolerable. So too are my living quarters: usually I’m stuck in a single room near the railroad tracks. Here I live far from the tracks in a small, clean apartment attached to the comfy house of a middle-class family who spend most of their time watching television. The canned laughter fluting melancholically through the walls has become as familiar to me as the sounds of plumbing or forced air from the vents.

I am, unfortunately, watching a lot of TV myself. The cable is spliced in gratis from the house, and ever since I sobered up, I don’t seem to get out much anymore. Granted, I could screw that teenage girl who’s been coming around, or I could have an affair with that married woman who eyes me at the gym, but that’s all part of the old life. The old life had no meaning. I have learned, through my many years of depraved blundering, that men are not mere flesh, for flesh without spirit cannot move, laugh, drink absinthe, forgive, or consider the end of time. Flesh without spirit (see: meat) simply goes bad, simply stinks.


Even angry, it isn’t smart to walk in this part of town after dark. There’s glass smashed on the sidewalks, a trash can overturned in the middle of the street, a house entirely covered in graffiti. A streetlight has been extinguished, shot out or shattered with a rock. Across the street, a pack of snuffling mutts, noses down, offer me a collective disinterested glance before shuffling past...

I must not be far from the railroad tracks. Yet within four blocks I pass four churches. Unlike the surrounding bars, liquor stores, massage parlors, crack houses, and porno motels, all crumbling in their definition of man as pork chop, these Roman Catholic, Gothic First Methodist, Byzantine Baptist, and Greek Orthodox structures appear built to last, even if their doors are locked, their mad and destitute turned out into the street. In the doorway of the Greek Orthodox church stands a lone sentry in a filthy robe and a gold Burger King cardboard crown, the smoky stump of a candle burning at his feet. Under his shabbily bearded and thickly lugubrious face he holds a sign that reads, 501 MINUTES TO CHRIST.

I’ve seen Christ twice in my life: once while stoned and all alone in a flea-ridden Mission Beach bungalow; the other time, not long ago, while praying out of the depths of my despair. On both occasions the darkness parted and my heart was lifted with awe. In clear and sane seasons I understand that Christ is merely a refined cultural label for spirit, an archetype who will not return like Superman to save the world in its final chapter of time. But, the smell of my old life still in my nostrils, I also know that spirit (and all its archetypes and guises) is all that I will ever possess of worth.
(Here's another piece of Poe's writing that I think/hope you'll enjoy. And a tip of the hat to SD for recommending I read the essay excerpted above.)


Post a Comment

<< Home