My Near-Cult Experience

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:20

    One evening, while I was waiting for my quarters to play out their life in the dryer, I was perusing a cluster of notices stapled to a telephone pole just outside the laundromat. One of them announced that a local paper was looking for volunteers. I snapped off a phone number, pocketed it and went home to roll socks.The next Tuesday evening I headed over to the Grand Canyon Restaurant?a dreary little burger hole on 7th Ave. with a dingy rumpus room-ish back area where the newspaper staff held their weekly meetings. I ordered a coffee, planted myself at one of the forlorn tables and waited for the action to start.

    Presently the editor, Peter, scurried in juggling a couple shopping bags. He was short, with squinty eyes, light brown hair and a bushy beard?and fidgety?your basic South Slope computer nerd type. The publisher, Andreas, waltzed in moments later. Now Andreas was a tall, strapping, Greek-American Adonis. He had a thick jet of hair and striking, wide-set eyes that he immediately flashed amicably in my direction. He shook my hand, and settled into a chair that he scooted unnecessarily close to mine.

    The group of 10 or so staff members was pretty much what you would expect. They had that unmistakable vegetarian demeanor and were remarkably dumpy in appearance. There was Maria, the recovered alcoholic/junkie/bag lady who periodically would jump up to free associate, throwing out alcoholic/junkie/bag lady story ideas at the patient group. There was Bob, the gentle giant divorcee who would interject quasi-intellectual nonsequiturs at unpredictable moments, and there was Helena, a recently imported blonde Swede with an overbite and an over-perky disposition. Peter and Andreas encouraged any attempt at participation with eager nods, quick jots on yellow pads and thoughtful questions and probes. For the most part, though, the group resembled the nameless fellow who sat hunched over in the back clutching a Dr. Pepper and his transistor radio. They melted into a murky stew of bodies, hanging like limp laundry on a still August afternoon, listening to the group banter with about as much interest as they listened to the clanking of plates and flimsy flatware in the background.

    The meeting dragged on for two hours. Tasks were assigned, but I shirked any responsibility, explaining to Andreas, as he made imploring bedroom eyes at me, that I was only there to scope things out?to decide if the newspaper world was really for me.

    The next meeting proceeded much as the first, filled with forgettable story ideas, advertising schemes and production strategies between slurps of coffee. From behind the wave of static, however, Peter muttered something that caught my attention.

    "That's really what Humanism is all about," he said.

    "Human what?" I asked.


    "What's that?" I asked, feeling a little silly. I mean, I thought I knew what Humanism meant, but all of a sudden, here in the midst of these cheap cheeseburgers and coffee-swamped saucers, I felt sure there was something that was ever so slightly escaping me. I looked around to see if anyone shared my curiosity. But my fellow staffers?each and every dang one of them?just bowed their heads and stared blankly at the formica tabletops.

    "Humanism," murmured Peter, setting his french fry down for a second, "is about people counting?about human beings and their ability to change themselves and transform the world they live in."

    "Sounds logical to me," I said. And the meeting's inanities rolled on as usual.

    It wasn't until about the fourth meeting that I got up the gumption to take on some local beat reporting. I was paired up with Helena to cover the Olive Vine, a new Middle Eastern pizza joint on 6th Ave., and I also took on a story about Prospect Park's ongoing renovation. Later that week I got together with my friend Alessandro, who'd been living in the Slope since the 70s. When he asked what I'd been up to, I proudly told him I'd started working for a community paper. He frowned when I told him which one.

    "Get out!" he warned. "Those people are cult freaks?just get the hell away from them."

    "But what do they do?" I pressed. I had to admit they were freaks of sorts, but harmless enough seeming, and I finally felt like I was moving in the direction of doing something more important than wiping the Fortune 500's sloppy ass.

    "Have they invited you to any of their gatherings yet?" Alessandro asked.

    As a matter of fact, Peter had just asked me if I'd be interested in going on some sort of weekend retreat. But he wouldn't elaborate on the theme or purpose?it had all been so vague. And plus, it cost money. I hadn't been tempted in the least, but now, thinking about it, I was starting to wonder. Once, as a child, I had asked my father what he did when he went away for his weekend-long EST meetings. "We sit in a circle and talk about whatever comes to our minds," he had explained. "A lot of people are crying and some people are throwing up because they have these painful memories they're getting out." It was the throw-up and the image of adults pissing in their pants because they were not allowed to leave the circle that left a lasting impression on me. Now, talking to Alessandro, I was starting to feel that same sense of awe, but magnified in a perverse sort of way; this time, the whole gruesome scene was within my grasp. I thanked Alessandro for his advice but told him I'd really need to discover for myself what I made of the whole situation.

    The next day at the food co-op I bumped into my friend Rainbow, who was mulling over the bulk wheatberries, and told him about my new endeavor. "Dude," he told me, pushing back a wisp of hair that had slipped out of his ponytail, "those guys are bad news." Everyone seemed to know about these damn Humanists but me. I really was on the fringes of even the fringiest fucking fringe, I worried.

    I decided I needed some closure. At the next meeting I demanded to Peter, "What is this Humanism business, anyway? And what's it got to do with the paper? I really just don't think I understand."

    "Humanists believe that every person counts," he solemnly replied, "that every person has something to contribute to human beings as a whole."

    And the wet-rag staffers all silently stared at the floor. I looked around, trying to figure out who knew, and of the people who knew, who knew who didn't know, and did they all know, for example, that I didn't technically know? Was I the only person here who didn't know, and did they all know this? I was starting to freak out.

    The next week our Olive Vine piece was due and I was just about done with the park article. But I decided I was not going to the meeting. I kind of felt like I was coming down with something and besides, well, I just was not going. I called Helena to tell her I'd hand in my work later. "That's okay," she said, "I can come by your place after the meeting to pick it up and fill you in on what you missed."

    "Okay," I agreed. Over dinner at the Olive Vine earlier that week I had gazed across the table at her Scandinavian visage?she was not exactly a babe, but with her perfect skin and long blonde hair, she was good-looking in a straight-shooting, Heidi-esque kind of way. She couldn't know, I had concluded.

    At 10:30, the communal doorbell rang three times. As I descended the stairs, I was smacked by this uncanny certainty that Helena was not alone outside. I opened the door and it was true. She was with Andreas. He stood next to her making those eyes at me, and inquired if I was feeling any better. I invited them to come up for a few minutes. They made themselves at home around my dinette set and I joined them with my cup of tea. Our minute droned on into half an hour of fuzzy nonsense. My head was pounding now and the mantra I was chanting inside was, "Please, just get the fuck out of my home!" I was staring into my chamomile, focusing on my silent plea, when out of the hum I heard Andreas say, "But that's what Humanism's all about." I looked up. He smiled across the table at Helena. "Yes it is," she smiled. They both smiled and turned to me. I had stopped my mantra. I bowed my head and stared into my yellow drink.

    "I'm sorry," I said, "but I'm afraid I've got to get to bed now?you have everything you need?"

    They hesitantly rose from the table and I escorted them down the stairs. In the foyer, Andreas smacked his forehead and said, "Jeez, you know, is it all right if I use your bathroom before I get on the subway?" I pointed him up the stairs. He was gone for what seemed a tremendously long time. I babbled uneasily with Helena, wondering what the hell he was doing up there. When he returned, he seemed a bit on edge. I closed the door behind them and breathed a sigh of relief.

    As soon as I entered my apartment, I could tell something was slightly askew. For some odd reason, something jammed between my desk and the mantelpiece caught my eye. It was a blue fanny pack, heavy with what seemed to be a wallet, keys and other critical items. I had not inspected the corner beforehand, but I knew?profoundly?that that bag had not been there when the three of us left the room together. My chest seized up. I ran down the stairs and out into the night. I caught up with the two of them as they were turning onto 7th Ave.

    "You left your bag!" I panted, waving the fanny pack. Andreas tried to force a smile, but it was obvious that I had fucked something up.

    "Oh, thank you," he said, dully.

    I didn't know why he had wanted to come back to see me alone?there were so many possible reasons, none of them wholesome. St. Johns Pl. was silent but for a buzzing street light. Most of the brownstones were dark. I was shivering in the middle of the goddamn street in a pair of shorts and slippers and meanwhile, up in my small home, there were some unsavory vibes still wafting about. Back in the apartment, I bolted both locks and barricaded the door with my desk.

    The next day I called Peter. "Look," I said, trying to sound menacing, "I don't know what the hell's going on over there, but you should know I'm not going to be a part of it!" I wasn't stopping for air. "You need to know that I won't be at the next meeting, or the one after that! I won't be handing in my park story and as for you guys, I don't want any one of you calling me ever again!" I ranted, somewhat impressed by my own fierceness. I paused to see if he was too.

    "I understand," he said calmly. And the line went dead.