September 7, 2018

Cliff's Edge--The Beheading

I was 17-years-old, a senior in high school, in Miami Beach, in the 1970s.  I hustled, parking cars at hotels and restaurants that lined the island like a broken piano keyboard. Mile after mile of concrete, steel, and glass pulsating with packets of rational flesh crying out for something if not knowing what and surely, I knew, not finding it in Miami Beach, no matter the good package deals that got them there to begin with.

One afternoon, starting the 4PM shift,  I pulled up to the Newport Beach Hotel (now the Newport Beachside Hotel and Resort), 163rd Street.  Police lights, flashing blue and red on green and white cruisers, cordoned off the street up the block from the hotel.  Traffic stopped. An ambulance, red light silently pulsing, eased in past the police cars. 

What happened? 

About half a block from the hotel was a small field where a helicopter tour originated. The chopper came in at an unfortunate angle and its blade separated some poor schnook on the sidewalk from his head.

The next day I returned to work, early. I walked up the street.  The chopper was gone; only a small shed, the helicopter tour office, remained.  Gruesomely enough, I looked for blood, which from a beheading should have been profuse but found none. 

Not on the sidewalk. 

Not on the grass. 

Not on the street.  

I watched as mothers pushed strollers past the field. As kids skateboarded along the sidewalk.  As a convertible left a trail of music mixed with exhaust fumes and laughter in its wake. People meandered on by, as on any Florida afternoon, even though a day before a universe of desire, passion, thought, dreams, hopes, plans, loves and fears simmering in that man’s soul had, at the speed of a chopper blade spin, spilled out with blood that was now all gone. 

Time and space seemed out-of-kilter. I remember touching my neck, and then I went to work, parking cars. Later that same night, I stood behind the hotel, the black sky over the ocean looking like a dimmed chandelier.  My thoughts were already bruised, not so much by the death, or by how macabre, but by how quickly it was gone.  Vanished.  Unreal. Hundreds of people today would pass by that exact spot oblivious to the reality that yesterday, right here, a man had his head chopped off. 

I remember so vividly, even now, looking at the stars; their distances mocked me with meaninglessness,  my own meaninglessness. What could I mean amid a cosmos so big and enduring when I was so small and fleeting, and when a man could die and the next day most everyone not know or care? Time (the little I had), and space (the little I occupied), made me feel less than zero. 

Dread, starting (it felt like, anyway) in my chest, lodged in my head. The realization, painful like a sliver under my skull, that my life didn’t matter struck me with a clarity that I had never experienced.  Maybe, at only 17-years old, I had never thought much about it? But then, there —the stars shining as they had done before I had been born and would after I had died,  my birth, life, and death not changing a cloud overhead much less the stars—as much as I didn’t want to admit it, as much as deep down it filled me with terror, cutting and unkind logic showed me how little I  meant.

 I used to often walk past the chopper field and get dinner at the Rascal House, just up the street. A few tweaked twists of fate and it could have been me headless, not that other poor schnook instead, and people would walk by just as they did all day and the stars would be doing exactly what they did all night as if I had never existed at all.

I shook my head, to dislodge the dread, to cast it away and all would be good again. But the dread followed, like a shadow. Could my life really mean nothing?  No, it had to mean something. Or maybe I thought that it had to mean something only because I wanted it to. But what could it mean when you could walk down the street and, Voila! get beheaded and the next day people walk by oblivious?

I remember thinking, Well, your existence means nothing, so why not just party hard, have fun, die young and leave a nice corpse,  or some drivel like that, though, given my premise—i.e., that my life meant nothing—that drivel was logical. And so, struggling with the dreadfully infinite gap between my existence as an entity who can grasp the concepts of transcendence and eternity (not a problem that oysters have) but apparently left out of both,  I determined to make the “best” of it,  though I learned the hard way that partying hard was hardly making “best” of anything, much less the fleeting existence I bumbled through here.

Of course, I had a paradigm shift (I wouldn’t be writing this column otherwise), and came to not only believe in God but, through His Son, Jesus, to know Him and the reality of His love.  And two things that I had longed for—transcendence (the knowledge that flesh, bone, death, and dirt aren’t it all), and eternity (that is, the promise of eternal life)—were given me through Christ’s death, even though hard and unanswered questions remain,  such as (among others) why wasn’t I the poor schnook beheaded by that chopper instead of the poor schnook who, actually, was?