Today it’s a guy hawking prophecies on the 4 train.
Strides into the car at the Brooklyn Bridge stop,
white hair, huge, thick, scholarly glasses,
a bristling, steel-wool, Whitmanesque beard,
and starts in about the Book of Revelation.
Has a stack of Xeroxed prophecies in his hand
as he walks up the aisle. “Only God knows
the future,” he says. “Man knows nothing
of what awaits him. That’s why he acts
like such a fool. No man can predict the future.
If you know of someone who ever has,
please tell me, I’d like to hear about it.”
“Nostradamus,” I almost blurt out
from my half-slumber, but I could tell,
or thought I could, that he’d have an answer
for that. Nor did I wish to incur his wrath.
I had a brief vision of him hectoring
above me while I burst into flames
and the other passengers shifted in their seats
and looked away, or kept on reading
their Posts and Daily News,where the prophecies
he’s raving about are now being fulfilled,
with the help of U.S. tax dollars.
“The meek shall inherit the earth,” he says.
“And the meek are the poor. Blessed are the poor,
and woe to the rich, that’s what the Bible says.”
And now I’m recalibrating how crazy I think he is.
He’s certainly playing to the right crowd.
The people on this train look like their only inheritance thus far has been
more poverty, rage of exclusion and fear
of their own rage. “Look at the African-American
in South Africa,” he says, as if reading my mind.
“What could a man 3,000 years ago know
about South Africa, let alone the African-American?
Nothing! And yet prophecies of the African-American
in South Africa are right here in the Bible.”
And here, too, I think of correcting him.
Africans are in South Africa, African-Americans
in America, though white people have done their best
to divide the suffering equally between them.
But maybe I’m misunderstanding
the prophecy in question. “There are prophecies
on every page of the Bible. Every page!”
he shouts at our departing backs,
and shakes the stapled pamphlets in the air.
I wonder what his life is like when he’s not here
spreading God’s word to commuters
lost in our underground limbo, hurtling
into our shaky, unforeseeable futures. And I wonder
now as he slides backwards into my memory
what other dazzling configurations
of craziness and wisdom are taking shape,
readying themselves to appear before us.
He’s right. I can’t imagine them.
John Brehm is the author of Sea of Faith, which won the 2004 Brittingham Prize from the University of Wisconsin Press, and the associate editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, Boulevard, This Land, and The Best American Poetry 1999. His new book, Help Is on the Way, is due out later this year.