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recently estranged from his wife of 35 years, a Ghanaian Bible-beater hugely rouged beneath a big straw hat, a withdrawn New Jersey housewife with skin like cream from an angry cow.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!”
Weariness would be a major theme for the day. It quickly became clear that the apocalyptic proselytizers lacked the mad ebullience so essential to their trade. As they approached Columbus Circle a stately couple emerged from 60 West 59th, and the heirs to the end paused to marvel at the heirs to the past. As they stood in aimless wonder, a group of Burberried theatergoers began taking iPhone pictures of their Judgment Day T-shirts and their backpack billboards, marveling as if this could only be a troupe of accomplished ironists discovered by Bloomberg in Berlin.
“You can pee in the Starbucks,” said Matt Lewis, delivering his tribe to Columbus Circle, then watched the Promise of Urination thin the flock by half.
People who dream of the world ending have usually been treated poorly by it. Here, in the Valley of Those for Whom Things Have Basically Worked Out, they died in a desert of Ivy League mating pairs and families united by fashion, people who had profitably traded Yahweh for Pfizer.
They were mocked and ignored and soon clung together in uncertain groups, weakly sloganeering, and so fiery preaching became cheerless loitering. Soon even imminent destruction couldn’t hold them to their purpose: the toddlers began singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” with the three sullen teens who presently gave them piggy-back rides. “I’ve had a rough marriage,” the hard-nosed, self-made telecom millionaire told a Rodrigues sister, sadly, as if she might heal him.
“Isn’t there another event in the Bronx?” asked the Times‘ Ms. Linderman.
Soon only Charles Manson was really in the game, drawing inspiration from whatever was being piped into his mind through a pair of earphones connected to an RCA Discman, bravely probing the ever-fuzzy boundary between soul-saving and assault, accosting Chinese retail tourists and Greenwich housewives with equal abandon. He chased a frightened businessman through traffic as Matt Lewis declared God’s work in Columbus Circle complete.
The hipster prophet had originally planned on leading the group up to the Met steps, then into Harlem, but now he received somewhat more hipsterly instructions from his hipster God: Matt Lewis would lead all unto the Ninth Avenue Food Festival, where they were serving artisanal soda and $5 roast pig sandwiches.
Thus did they leave Gethsemane for Golgotha.
The festival stretched from 57th street to 42nd, 16 city blocks filled with heirs to every immigrant wave moving through clouds of barbecue smoke. It must have seemed a wonderful opportunity, so many possible converts. But here Matt Lewis overlooked a basic rule of cult-maintenance, that cult members are natural lovers of communal belonging, easily swayed, happily lost in a crowd.
They began disappearing almost upon arrival.
Some traded latter-day evangelism for the cult of the $5 gyro. Others simply disappeared amid the throng of humanity, bright signs lost among so many larger and louder ones proclaiming excellent crepes, quesadillas and falafel.
Soon you could not see any of them, and it seemed as though the May 21 movement, like so many other bad ideas, had been corrected by history’s great steadying rudders, the shortness of the human attention span and the ineffable pleasure of just hanging around.
It seemed things could not get worse, but they did.
First they came for Charles Manson.
He had entered the Food Festival late, triumphant, unbreakable, earphones firmly in place. He tried to save a woman selling calzones, then, rejected, turned to a group of acne-plagued, braces-suffering high school seniors who, he could never have known, had yesterday checked into a nearby Days Inn on a class trip from Raleigh. They were Born Agains from North Carolina’s Wake Christian Academy, and they didn’t just want to talk apocalypse–they wanted to own it.
They agreed with him that God would destroy humanity after floating the faithful to heaven. However, they believed that only faith in Jesus Christ could ensure one’s place among the elect. Here they differed from Manson, who felt that faith-based salvation was vanity. But the Born Agains were far better read and soon set about questioning his scholarship, casting doubts confirmed when he opened his RCA Discman to show the source from which he had been drawing his awesome power all day long: James Earl Jones Reads the Bible, disc 6, John 2:15.
“Yeah, mang!” said Manson as Montana, “That’s the Whirl Ga!”
And if there is a soul, one felt it there as he said this, because he meant the Word of God.
Who, if he does exist, had gifted the long-suffering Carlos Sanchez with sufficient barriers of language, culture and class to protect him from the ensuing teenage laughter, which he took as cheers, beamingly escaping with his faith intact.
Others were not so lucky.
The group possessed a lone fashionista. He wore Ray Bannish sunglasses and John Varvatosesque booties and, down on 42nd Street, was surrounded and outnumbered by the main force of Wake Christian’s Christians. They combined the awesome derisive powers of adolescence with blind faith to achieve the wild ferocity of child soldiers everywhere: “Romans 3:33,” said the corn-silk blonde MacKenzie Hathaway, mercilessly correcting the man’s scriptural quotations; “You wanna go? Let’s go.”
Nicole Smith was lately experimenting with silver eye-glitter, and grinned as in a single voice they mocked the ridiculous logical shortcomings of his apocalypse in comparison to theirs. The Rapture could never be random, they couldn’t make him understand. God hated randomness, and it was very obvious that everyone who had accepted Jesus would naturally fly up through the sky.
The fashionista-apocalyptic huffed-off to find refuge by a sausage stand. There he flipped madly through his Bible, searching for something with which to avenge himself against the Born Agains.
Logan Porter, 17, looked on. “Childish,” he said.