Well, it's Christmas Day, finally. Hope you woke up to lots of presents, or your kids did. Or if you don't celebrate, hope you at least wake up to some happy circumstance, such as I did. No tree, no trimmings, but my boys home for the holidays, and my wife off work. Christmas Eve spent pleasantly, with Chinese food, Settlers of Catan, and a movie ("Love Actually") with the prospect of a day of vigorous relaxation ahead of us.
Too much fun to spend time cobbling together more prose quilts. So one last Christmas chestnut plucked from the Bottomless Vault of Columns Past. We'll return to something fresh and fantastic tomorrow.
Well, fresh anyway.
A busy mid-December State Street. Lots of shoppers. Amateur bands flailing away at their instruments, producing sounds very similar to Christmas carols. And, inevitably, the corner preacher, screaming hoarsely into a microphone, his voice further distorted by the cheap and blown-out speaker, warning the indifferent passerby about the perils of damnation.
I haven't yet walked up to him, smiling. I haven't yet gently taken the microphone from his hand. He would seem to understand and step aside, demurring.
"Brothers, sisters," I would shout, eyes wide and glittering, holding high an outstretched hand, fingers spread. "Brothers and sisters! Change your evil ways. Repent, repent!"
I point toward a middle-aged woman scurrying by. "You, madam! Do you fail to use your turn signal when driving? The lever is right there, an inch below your hand. Use it, madam! Use it, or risk the peril of hell!"
Then she is gone. I grab a man by the arm, tightly holding his coat as he struggles to pull free.
"And you, sir, do you drink coffee? Do you work in an office? Do you take the last cup in the office coffeemaker and not make more? Do you leave a teaspoon of coffee in the carafe to smoulder and blacken, forcing somebody like me to scrub it out and make a new pot? Repent! REPENT! Or . . . you . . . will . . . go . . . to HELL!"
He breaks free and is gone.
Nobody thanks you for trying to make the world a better place. Nevertheless, the work must be done.
A comfortable executive type—nice tie, cashmere scarf—happens along. I press the heel of my hand to my forehead, closing my eyes hard.
"Woe!" I bellow in my lowest tones. "Wooooe, woe to executives who don't take time to be pleasant to their workers. Be nice! Be nice! It doesn't cost anything to be nice. And the alternative is the fiery purgatory of EVERLASTING FLAME!"
A gigantic, bulky sport/utility vehicle idling at the curb catches my attention. I wheel around, spreading my arms wide, trying to puff myself to Moseslike stature.
"The slopes of the Pit are slippery! Four-wheel drive will not keep you from sliding down, down, down, down. Do not imagine fog lights will illuminate your path to heaven. Come to a complete stop at stop signs. Watch your speed. Woe to the arrogant. Woe to the Lincoln Navigator owner. Woe to Land Rovers. Ride high now, but remember, you are on a highway straight to HELL!"
Something feels as if it is snapping in my throat — a vocal cord, maybe. But I keep going. The word must get out.
"Telemarketing is Satan's work!" I yell. "Devilish tendrils of anonymous greed reaching into our homes, destroying our equanimity of mind, interrupting dinner! Repent! Stop bothering people. Get a real job! Lest you wake up one day and find yourself twirling in HELL!!!"
I'm reaching a groove. "Look in the mirror! See if the evil mark has been set upon you! Rude clerks? Hell! Reckless cabbies? Hell! Those WTTW people begging for money every time I turn on Channel 11? Hell, Hell, HELL!!!!"
A small crowd has gathered. I soften my tone, take it down a few notches.
"People," I implore quietly, looking from face to face. "The hour is late. But there is still time. Renounce your evil ways. Join the family of humanity. Return phone calls. Keep appointments. Tip generously. Do not create a hell on earth for others while reserving a spot in it yourself."
There is light applause as I hand the microphone back to the minister. The hubub continues. At least I tried.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 10, 1998