Of Billy Pilgrim and Yoda

Once upon a time I read Slaughterhouse Five. Not when I was five, but it seems just as long ago. At the end of the book, Billy Pilgrim and his fellow captors wake up one day to find their prison unlocked, the war over. They wander out into the streets, and he meets a bird. The bird says to him, ‘Po-tee-weet?’ To read it written, this bird doesn’t seem very onomatofriendly, not to me anyway. This intimation of bird-speak never sat well with me. It was incredible, or incredulous rather. No bird sounded like that. On the other hand, this is Vonnegut, he’s not in the business of lying, so why shouldn’t Vonnegut’s bird exist somewhere in the world? It was possible, but I waffled on the issue for a while, until I gave up on it, leaving the matter, for the time, unresolved.

This was a concept I always struggled with from that day forward. The committing to the written word of the animal sound.

When I was in high school, I took French all four years, even though in retrospect I wish I’d taken Latin my freshman year. Point being, there was this chapter all about animal sounds, and I hated it. It was bizarre crazy talk, and none of it sounded accurate to any degree. Like the rooster, who in French says co-co-ri-co! Really? I didn’t believe any of it. It was gibberish. Was this small-minded of me? No question. Arrogant? More like ignorant. I was in high school, though; of my many intellectual transgressions then and since, this one’s a bottom feeder, a worry from someone who doesn’t yet know what worry is. I did pass the subsequent test, but only because it was vocab memorization, and that was easy. But the subject left me unsettled, a kernel stuck in a back molar, an audible anomaly I had no rationale for.

Cut to years later. My age has more than doubled. I’m working in Boston, downtown, underground in the middle of the sidewalk on Tremont. Not underground yet exactly What I’ve actually been doing is standing on the sidewalk pumping water out of the hole I’m about to go into so I can in fact go down into it. It was December 15th. I remember this because two memorable things happened that day.

This particular area of Tremont was right across from the Common. The Common’s this big sprawling acreage, not sprawling really, because it’s rectangular, bisected more or less in the middle by Charles St. It’s in the middle of downtown proper, the cornerstone of every neighborhood – Chinatown, the Theater District, Beacon Hill, Faneuil Hall, and so on. If there’s a heart of the city, this is it. The Common’s all dolled up for Christmas too, except for this one part on December 15th, this one little area across from St. Paul’s, still under construction. St. Paul’s is this old school Greek-style church with massive columns and wide steps that run nearly the length of the building, and I’m near the bottom step with this grate open in the sidewalk with a hose running out of it into the street, looking at this little construction area across the way, and all this water is pumping out of the vault, hundreds of gallons of it, and the water’s warm enough to melt snow and ice as it travels curbside down towards Boylston, warm enough to trail steam in its wake, like a fire smoldering for ten yards in a straight line. The water cut a divot in the snow and ice, down to the pavement. The pump wasn’t that great, so my partner and I had already been there for a few hours, pumping, pumping, and watching. That’s what happens when you build a city on backfill; everything underground gets wet.

This small construction area’s fenced off. I really shouldn’t say fenced off because the fence was only knee high, more like a decorative garden fence from what I could tell too, and there’s also caution tape wrapped around it, which is what gives me the construction area impression. The fence is circular, and in the middle of the fence is a Christmas tree. The tree’s in working order, lights and all, star on top and all, nothing wrong with it from where I’m standing.

So I’ve been there for a few hours, long enough that my partner and I have taken turns walking down the street for burritos and black cherry sodas. But it’s late now, near the end of the shift, so, what, maybe close to 10 PM by now. In the winter it’s dark from the time you get in on, so the afternoon watch might as well be the overnight shift for the amount of sun you see. I was thinking about going home and having a snack, a pleasure I didn’t usually indulge in until close to quitting time, so yes, ten sounds about right.

Fine then. It’s right around ten, and the streets are empty. This isn’t a residential section of town. The only foot traffic comes from either the homeless contingent or foot traffic from the Park St subway station close by, and that’s sporadic at best, more in than out, more down than up. I stood there, hands in pockets, and stared at the star atop the tree. Nothing special about it, just your typical five-pointer, but it reminded me of how nice it’d be to be able to look up and see some stars in the sky. For all the sights Boston has to offer, a constellation isn’t one of them. Maybe, maybe you can catch the North Star if you’re in the right place at the right time at the right latitude and longitude and elevation, with no clouds or streetlights or brownstones. Or Venus even. Again though, you’d need some help.

While I was artificial star gazing, a woman and child came into view. Both were bundled to the point that only their faces were visible. They walked up to the edge of the fence, the caution tape reflecting all the various colored Christmas lights with a jaundice hue, all the while flailing at their knees and ankles. The mother leaned down to say something in the son’s ear. He nodded in response, then put his mitten in his jacket pocket. He pulled something out, looked at it in his cupped hand, and tossed it towards the tree. Whatever it was, I couldn’t see it rise or fall as it went, nor did I hear it land. The woman put a hand on the boy’s shoulder for a moment, then they both got down on their knees. They made the sign of the cross, and other than the soft gurgle of water I couldn’t hear anything, it was so quiet in the city late at night, and I thought, please God, bless them both, grant them your strength, safety, wisdom, love, and compassion. Amen. I felt around in my pockets. They remained empty.

Not long after, they rose and left, and not long after that, the water was all gone. Finally it was time to go down into the sidewalk. I climbed down the ladder, careful not to touch anything. Vaults like this that’re constantly underwater are like Dagobah. Slimy mudholes, dirty and sometimes rusty. No home they are to anyone. And of course the padlock on the switch handle has been underwater all that time too, and I’m trying to get the lock to open, one last switch to throw and we can pack it up for the night, but the lock won’t budge. Rusted in place. So I call up for a pair of bolt cutters and wait, and while I’m down there waiting I’m looking up, looking up at those Greek columns outside the church, all the more massive from ten feet underground, the whole front of the church backlit in soft blue-white, Saint Paul, also known as Saul, converted on the road to Damascus, Damascus meaning ‘a well-watered place’ in Aramaic, my mind flitting about while I’m standing in mud and hypodermic needles up to my ankles, and that’s when I realize that Vonnegut’s bird was meant to sound like nonsense. That was the truth of it, of Vonnegut’s bird, of the somewhat absurd sound to word interpretation. Jibber jabber, his response to the question of why war?

Vonnegut’s bird didn’t literally exist, but the concept of that bird lives in every one of us, I realized, that potential to examine a rational or concrete thing and determine it generates no response other than irrationality. That rational thing could be anything, anyone, any situation in life. I’m talking about an illusion here, the irrational belief that we have control over our lives. We can’t control it, nor should we try, nor should I hate myself for things that happen as a result of what I perceive as a personality flaw, an inability to dictate the dealings of the universe, a pointless effort to push back against an impartial world, the insurmountable and eternal sine wave, armed with only an equally large ego. To what end do we push, or, more importantly, why? And did it do more harm than good, to fight against something that couldn’t change, couldn’t be beaten? Why should I be angry all the time?

Down in the mud at my feet the syringes twinkled blue-white, a cobalt hue. Po-tee-weet?

Here, then, was a turning point in my life.


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