The end-times faithful who gathered on 59th and 11th Saturday morning seemed like the inadvertent offspring of a methadone addict who had tricked an AYSO soccer widow into sex by posing as a lonely seminarian in an AOL chat room. They listened admiringly as Park Slope’s Matt Lewis, 42, recounted his passage from mere hipster to hipster-apocalypse evangelizer.
Mr. Lewis, like the rest, had been persuaded by Harold Camping, an 89-year-old West Coast radio personality, that recent advances in the field of amateur biblical scholarship confirmed beyond doubt that on May 21 a chosen few would float elegantly skyward as a massive earthquake began a five-month period of destruction leading to human extinction. (Mr. Camping had predicted the same thing would happen on Sept. 6, 1994, but the complete annihilation of the species disappointingly failed to arrive as scheduled.)
Mr. Lewis’s winding, 10-minute monologue moved from discovering Camping’s prophecy on Family Radio–”between NPR and WPLJ”–to subletting his Park Slope apartment (“for various reasons”), to the numerical peculiarities of the Tribe of Levi’s Egyptian exile, to reoccupying his Park Slope apartment, to his recent release from a job teaching ESL and the unemployment benefits that have financed his recent studies into the hidden truths of ocean sedimentation that, he noted, have succeeded in “completely validating the 13,000-plus-year-old history of this planet.”
“You’re gonna lead us, right?” asked one woman, and Matt Lewis nodded that yes, he would. He really had no choice–as a lifelong New Yorker he was one of the only apocalyptic evangelicals remotely familiar with the streets of Sodom. And so the shepherd, such as he was, looked down 59th Street at his flock, such as it was. There was a hard-nosed, self-made telecom millionaire recently estranged from his wife of 35 years, a Ghanaian Bible-beater hugely rouged beneath a big straw hat, a withdrawn New Jersey housewife with skin like cream from an angry cow. There was a trio of sullen teens and a pair of hyper toddlers, all dragged here by parents against their will. There was even a large Rodrigues family, seven in total. The youngest, Raquel, 10, wore bushy pigtails beneath the purple baseball hat on which she had written “MAY 21st” using glittery acrylic, in the bouncy letters of happy childhood.
It got better: The Times had sent a stringer, Juliet Linderman, who completed the parade of absurd forms as the token postmillennial Brooklyn writer. She carried a Tumblr tote bag, had a George Saunders quote (“Everyone you’ve ever loved you’ve treated like gold”) tattooed above her foot, and wore an Nixon-Agnew pin on the plaid overcoat whose rough wool suggested huge faith misplaced in the healing power of art. She didn’t not live in Greenpoint.
But even Ms. Linderman had nothing on Carlos Sanchez, 50. He wore all black, his eyes howled when he spoke, and his uncanny resemblance to a darkly famous 20th-century figure would, given the circumstances, demand delicate treatment.
“Have you ever been told that you bear a resemblance to someone?”
“Me? Somebody?” he replied, in the voice of a toothless Tony Montana.
“I can’t quite put my finger o-”
“Charlie Manson!” he boomed, offering a low-five. “I knew you were going to say that because many people say that! ‘You look like Charlie Manson!’” he added, noting the resemblance was even stronger before a recent haircut, proving that any identity, however grisly, however apocalyptic, is better than none at all. He had recently achieved minor YouTube stardom when he was found living in an Amtrak tunnel beneath the city. As a Charles Manson-lookalike, Tony Montana-soundalike mole-person, his eschatological pedigree was so formidable that he was naturally asked to lead all in a prayer made only more inspiring by its broad unintelligibility.
Thus blessed, they strapped on backpacks retrofitted to carry signboards proclaiming Judgment Day May 21, showing a shadow-figure man cowering before a blazing sun, “Cry mightily unto God … ” written just beneath him, and “The Bible Guarantees It” written on a golden seal of approval, stopping just shy of “As Seen on TV.” Then the men-made-billboards maundered east, away from the river, through the cool spring morning to proclaim the really, really bad news.
Most were strangers to Manhattan. They stared up at the tall buildings in muted wonder and hugged the sidewalk for fear of clipping. A notable exception was Bo Young Park, an officious sixtysomething Korean woman with FBI contacts and hair like a Vegas Elvis. She had been an opera singer, performed Il Travatore, sang at Carnegie Hall and lived by Lincoln Center. A Pucci scarf was tied around her neck and her hot pink painted toenails matched the trim on the black-pocketed apron she had stuffed with a highly ambitious quantity of May 21 pamphlets.
“I went to my church and my church pastor was telling me, ah, Mr. Camping is Satan!” She explained her conversion to Mr. Camping’s cause as we crossed Ninth Avenue. “I cannot believe he’s calling Mr. Camping Satan because he never get onto anybody personally, okay? And then next Sunday, I went to First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue and three woman pastor came up, one woman preaching she was a lesbian. I said, ‘What’s going on in this church? You know?’ And then I was so, wow!“
We all come to God in our own way.
She was optimistic about the prospect of being raptured into heaven a week later and had contributed money to Harold Camping’s cause, but when asked how much, she grew press-weary; “I no want you interview me!” she told The Observer, and with finality, “I no want to be interview!”