Beware the Everyday Epiphany

I keep a close watch on myself to make sure I don’t succumb to magical thinking. Irrational by nature, I’m easy meat for the false promise of instant illumination, unearned insight that will spare me days, weeks or months of weighing costs and benefits. There’s a Mexican rancho market only a short distance from me, but I generally stay away — I’m afraid I’d get thrown out for reading the tripas they put in tacos.

There was that time, about three years ago, when I decided I had a vocation for the priesthood after recognizing St. Maximilian Kolbe in a stained-glass window. My own namesake! I thought! And a Holocaust victim! What clearer sign could I ask for? Months later, when it began to dawn on me that religious life is a bad fit for cranky loners who are deeply in debt, I felt grateful the figure in the window hadn’t been Joan of Arc. I might have taken it as a cue to start dressing in drag.

Last Sunday afternoon, a young woman came to my door. From her tangled hair and gently bewildered expression I could tell she’d spent a very enjoyable weekend indoors behind drawn blinds. Ever since this guy named Chris took the unit next to mine, I’ve seen a nonstop parade of these bacchantes. Chris is about 50, a Native American of the Crow Nation, and a postal employee of 20 years’ seniority. Exactly what his schedule is I don’t know. He’ll vanish for what seems like a week, then spend the next week walled in, entertaining company.

I’ve gotten to know a few of these women as they’ve passed my unit on their way to Circle K for cigarettes and Thristbusters. They seemed to be pros or semi-pros, in their 30s and heading downhill quickly. This one was different. In her early 20s, she had clear, almost translucent skin and the long, curling eyelashes of a giraffe. “Can I use your computer?” She asked.

I’m not a prig, mind you, and I try not to be a bad or selfish neighbor. But my computer is my livelihood. I may forget to put it to sleep or let it get infected with spyware, but that’s a right I claim exclusively. Besides, I live in a low-income area. Many of my neighbors look like the kinds of people I see waiting in line for the common computers at the local public libraries. I have nightmares about the same line forming outside my door.

These calculations must have registered on my face, because the girl added, “Please?” She gave me a smile so sleepy and so sweet, it must have done something to my inner ear, because I started feeling dizzy. I asked what she wanted to use it for. She told me: “To apply for food stamps.”

A damsel in economic distress. A waif on welfare. My objections collapsed like the old Sands in Vegas. I told her to go ahead, and even typed out the URL of the appropriate agency’s website in my address bar. Then, as though she were changing or nursing, I turned my back on her. To defuse the tension further, to convince myself I was acting from the purest of motives, I stepped outside, wishing that, like St. Francis, I could find some snow or briars to roll around in.

Not two minutes later, she came to the door. “All done,” she said. “By the way, if you see Chris before I do, tell him it’s 64, not 66.” Figuring this was some food stamps code, I promised I would. Then she shook my hand and disappeared down the path that led to the parking lot and beyond.

About an hour later, I saw Chris heading up the same path, in uniform. I gave him the message; he thanked me with a smile and a wave.

Now, it happened that I’d written my way through all that morning’s Masses. Still feeling the momentum, I was thinking I might write on through the evening and confess it the following Saturday. Writers should have private chaplains to work around their muses. But just as I was getting down to work, my computer started acting strangely. Every time I clicked a link or tried to refresh a page, the little wheel-thingie would spin and spin and spin. After minutes of watching this frictionless whirling, I’d get a message: “INTERNET EXPLORER COULD NOT OPEN THAT WEBSITE.”

That’s when I had another one of my waking dreams of Constantine. It’s a sign, I thought. A sign I’ve got to go to Mass. If I go, whatever’s wrong will have fixed itself by the time I come back. If I don’t, I’ll need a new modem. Inspired, I washed and dressed. The record will reflect that on the last Sunday of Christmas season I stumbled over “with your spirit” and “under my roof” with the rest of the faithful.

When I got back, Explorer was working, but only barely. Pages would load, but had to be refreshed constantly. Nevertheless, the improvement was real enough to preclude complaint. By the following midday, Explorer was back to normal again. All things considered, the karmic exchange seemed pretty fair.

The whole business vanished from my mind until yesterday afternoon, when I clicked on my Start button. Just as my cursor reached the Explorer icon, I noticed something I’d never noticed before:

Internet Explorer-64 bits.

“Tell him it’s 64, not 66.”

When Chris first moved in, he asked me if I minded his sharing my Internet connection, promising to split the monthly bill. I said I’d think about it but blew him off. Tired of waiting for my answer, he sent his doxie to inflitrate my camp. The hungry hooker with a heart of gold was none other than Chris’ own Mata Hari. I’d been hoodwinked, duped. In wartime, I’d probably be broken before the regiment and shot at dawn. Monday night, I saw them in the Circle K as I was picking a Big-Az cheeseburger out of the cooler. I thought I heard a saucy note of triumph in her voice as she greeted me, but I couldn’t have been further from guessing the reason behind it.

As I write this, I find myself wishing, for the first time, for a blast of that old magical thinking — a penny transverberation, a budget Theophany. Rather than stand face-to-face with my own stupidity, I’d prefer to think it was the devil himself who snared me by the Cox.

  • Sarah

    Oh my gosh!! That’s horrible! What kind of person does that?

    But maybe what it was was a push out to door to get you to go to Mass, when you would have otherwise decided to stay and work had your computer been working, hm? ;) But really… Don’t feel stupid about it. You were doing something nice and were taken advantage of.

    Last month I was in a bad car accident which totaled my car. It wasn’t my fault at all, and was actually a hit and run. But for days afterwards I kept blaming myself for it in the most ludicrous of ways like, “If I hadn’t been in such a hurry to go, if I had just left the house a minute later, that driver and I wouldn’t have even crossed paths.” That kind of thinking is silly, and in fact most of the things that happened as a result turned out to be exactly what I needed, though I didn’t realize it at first.

    I don’t think “magical thinking” as you call it, should be written off so quickly.

  • jkm

    Just a hint: the Holy Spirit is quite as likely as the other dude to do a bit of Cox-grabbing to get your attention, and I don’t mean anything as virtuous but quotidian as a holy tickler alarm that it’s time for Mass. Insight into what’s truly revelation and what’s wishful thinking is a transverberation worth more than a penny, or even a cable bill, and that’s where this led you, magically. There have been stranger Strangers met on the Emmaus road than Chris and the giraffe-lashed Ms Hari, but however it gets you to the table where your eyes (and ours, by your willingness to witness) are opened, it’s worth the journey.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    He’s not still glomming internet off of you, is he?

  • Melody

    My computer does stuff like that too, but I think it has senile dementia. It’s six years old which is practically an antique in the world of I.T.
    BTW I love the Waterhouse picture.

  • LeAnn Lilly Larsen

    OH my goodness. You were duped. But how could you refuse a woman who needed food stamps?

  • DWiss

    You’ve touched a nerve of mine that is connected to the centers in my brain that govern guilt, shame and resentment.

    Just before Christmas my wife and I had dinner with some upper-, upper-middle class friends. Their oldest daughter is a freshman in college, away from home and on her own for the first time. The parents are proud and excited and they had so many stories to tell. Most of the stories featured their daugter’s room mate, a nice girl from the other side of the tracks. Divorce, abuse, untimely deaths, substance abuse: her family has an impeccable under-class resume. She is perpetually short of cash, food, gas, transportation, books, supplies, university fees. And, you guessed it, my friends have genrously filled the gap. And filled it. And filled again the ever widening gap. Duped!

    Years ago I was rushing through San Francisco on my way home the day before Christmas Eve. I passed a beautiful young girl, late teens, sitting on the sidewalk next to a baby carriage. It was cold and rainy and the baby was invisible under a pile of blankets. The girl wanted money for shelter. Thinking of my own happy children warm at home waiting for Santa, I actually had a tears in my eyes as a went to the ATM and withdrew $100. I walked back to the girl and breathlessly told her to find someplace warm and dry for her baby, and Merry Christmas. A week or so later, deja vu. There she was again, same spot. I said hello and asked if I could see the baby. No, sleeping. Duped!

    I was watching a cheesey true crime show about a little girl who was abducted and murdered – by a neighbor, as it turned out. This happened in Tracey, California, very near where I live, just a few years ago. The girl lived in a trailer park, and one of the police detectives who was interviewed commented that the investigation was especially difficult because of the shockingly high number of repeat child molesters who were residents of the trailer park, each of whome had to be questioned. One or two admitted to fondling the girl now and then, but not killing her. In other words, they were looking for a needle in a stack of needles. Crime, poverty and abuse are a way of life there.

    There is no real institutionalized poverty in the United States, unless by institutionalized you mean that people have been taught how to survive on the margin, grifting and skating by any way possible. We don’t stop this by random acts of generosity. Until we can get a generation of people to see that education and hard work is the ticket out of hooking, begging, abusing and stealing your neighbor’s internet service, and then teaching their children that better path, then we all have to refuse the girl who wants to borrow our computers to apply for food stamps. Otherwise, we’re going to be duped, and wonder why our Christian impulse to charity was tossed in the gutter by those receiving it.