It's 2 A.M. and the doorbell just rang. What the hell's that about? My wife and child are safe in bed, and I have no kin in this part of town. I live in an old, multi-unit co-op and the doorbell is interior, which means that whoever is outside my door is inside the building. It should be of some comfort to know that this means they'd have had to get past the building's security system, but it isn't. People do it all the time. In all likelihood, it's not someone I want to see at 2 A.M. or any other time, but then again... We have friends in the building. Suppose one of them is hurt, or ill, or simply desperate for one reason or another. If that were me, wouldn't I want someone to come to the door?
I did open the door at 2 A.M. once, a long time ago. I was 22 and living in a Greenwich Village walk-up, having recently graduated from NYU. My girlfriend from Georgia had come for an extended visit and was in my bed.
I was up working on a piece of music when the knock came. "Who is it?" I asked, going to the door with an unlit cigarette in my fingers. "Your downstairs neighbor," came the answer with a quaver of desperation. "Can you open, please?" I did. It was a light-skinned black man, maybe 24, possibly of Caribbean origins. He was slender, shaven, and well-dressed. ("A clean and articulate black man," as Sen. Joe Biden famously described Barack Obama.) Reassured, I opened the door. My visitor kept a respectful distance. In fact, he never crossed my threshold. He didn't have to. "I'm so very sorry to disturb you at this time of night. I live in the apartment right below you and could hear that you were up. My girlfriend is hemmorhaging and I need to get her to the hospital. Do you have a car?"
He gave me the time and space I needed, seeming to appreciate that it was a difficult thing he was asking of me. Maybe not if you live in a small town and actually know your neighbors, but in New York City, yes. I did have a car, and it was securely parked for the winter, wedged into a tiny spot on Sullivan Street which I had attained at great expense of time and chrome and which would no longer be mine if I moved. But how could I not? I looked, briefly, at the man. His eyes teared up at my softening. Maybe it was the opening of his tearducts that made me think about the word "hemorrhaging." I couldn't know exactly what it meant in this situation, but at the least it meant an unremitting flow of blood. Would there be blood in my car? On the seats? A stranger's blood. And then my thoughts went to this: had he stabbed her?
"Or fifty dollars for a cab," he said, as if acutely tuned in on my distress.
"Is that what you need?" I asked.
"What's the nearest hospital?" he asked.
I didn't know. I had only moved in a few weeks before.
"That's all right. The cabbie will know. I'm sure fifty dollars will do it."
"Okay," I said. "I'll be right back."
I turned my back on him and left the door open, but he did not come in. He gave me absolutely no cause for suspicion other than his blackness, and that was a prejudice he somehow knew I would never allow to drive my actions. All I had was three twenties. I fanned them out of my wallet and stared at them. "Would forty--" I began to say. Then, and only then, did he make physical contact. He touched my hand and said, "That's all right. I'll bring back your change. You can trust me. I'm not one of those..." The money was suddenly in his hands, not mine. Like magic. He put a hand on the door frame, sighed, and said, "Listen...when this is all over and we're back in the apartment, I'll give three knocks on the ceiling with a broom. You and your lady can come down for wine and cheese. It's the least we can do."
The door closed, and my wallet was empty. The instant his spell was broken, I knew it'd been a con. I tore down the stairs, but he was gone like a wraith. I stood outside the building, listening to the jazz drifting from the Village Gate, and experienced the not entirely unpleasant feeling of having been fucked well and left in thrall. Of course I was pissed off, but I was also impressed. In hindsight, there had been any number of red flags, but I had missed every one. I soon discovered that my downstairs neighbor was a bald Croatian man who lived alone.
A classic big city con, right? A life lesson. A cop on the street, to whom I eagerly recounted my tale the next morning, said, "It happens. You won't get burned again. I'm glad you told me your story, kid, but do yourself a favor: don't tell anyone else. They'll take you for an easy mark." So the question--the only one that matters--is: did I learn my lesson? After all, even white rats can be taught not to pull the red string that delivers the shock, right? The thing is, though, that a rat's brain doesn't work like a human's. Rats want peace and quiet, and safety. A rat will never acquire a liking for the frisson of the possibility of getting shocked again. Rats may be savage, but never perverse.
The doorbell rang again. I was concerned that it would wake my wife. I saved my work on the computer before getting up, based on the twisted logic that if whoever was at my door happened to kill me, at least my manuscript would survive for an editor to beat into shape. I went upstairs and padded across the hardwood floor to the door. I leaned in to the crack. "Who is it?" I asked, flipping open the deadbolt even before the answer had come.
So the question for discussion is: why exactly does the moth seek the flame...figuratively, that is?
For those interested, the new book, "NOWHERE-LAND", is finally finished and in the hands of my agent. Google "Ka'ba Stone" or "Black Stone of the Ka'ba" for a taste of its core mystery. It's another piece of gonzo fiction exploring, among other things, the twisted sisterhood between Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, Near Eastern mystery cults, the nature of virginity, eunuchs, life as an alternative reality, nihilism and rave culture as yang and yin, black opium, sex trafficking, and Sufis. If you'd like to see a synopsis, write me at: email@example.com.
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