I work late nights. It’s less distracting, and the gloominess of a new york night suits my taste a lot more than the garishness of sunshine. A consequence of this is that I spend a lot of time late at nights at subway stations, waiting for trains running off-peak schedules. It can be an interesting place to be at night, primarily so for the people you run into.
Take the other day, for instance, when I sat at a station in upper Brooklyn waiting for the R-train that would take me home. It was like any other day. My mp3 player was out of charge and I was getting rather bored, so I looked around, pondering at the pointlessness of it all. Apart from the MTA workers who were changing trash-bags, the only other person around stood at the far end of the platform – a pleasantly portly man of indeterminate age, in a hat, round-frames and a well-cut three-piece suit that looked rather out of place there. I thought it rather strange. What followed was even stranger. He noticed that i was looking around, and walked over.
“Do you mind if i sit here, young man?”, he asked in an oddly soothing voice – the accent part BBC and part network english.
Making himself comfortable on the adjacent seat, he pulled out a silver pocket watch and frowned.
“Never on time, these people. I must have a word with them sometime.”
“So”, he turned around, “what do you do for a living?”
Quite an uncharacteristic question in this city, but the sincere crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes were rather reassuring.
“Well, so do i! I study people. You might say I am a.. what do they call it?”
“A psychologist?”, I ventured.
“Yes! A psychologist. But not exactly, since I am in the spiritual business”
“A priest?”, I asked.
“In a manner of speaking. But priests and godmen are little but minions working for Religion & Co. , wouldn’t you say? I have much more, dare I say it, *extensive* interests in the business”.
With that, he bent over and whispered conspirationally, “Lets say, for the sake of the analogy, that I am a very influential partner”
I was too confused to say anything when he pointed an index finger upwards and asked me, “So tell me, do you believe in *Him*?”
“Mostly agnostic. I cannot find rational justifications for why he should exist. He may or may not and either way i do not think it directly affects me.”
“Have you never sinned?”
“That depends on how you define it, right?”
He laughed. “Let me tell you that he does exist. Both of us do.”
Then it hit me.
“I thought you looked different. Not so.. friendly.”
“Ah, you mean the horns and forked tail? I still do it occasionally. It was a clever gig, but lately I have diversified into another line of business. You know exactly why the costume has to be there if i had to harvest my fair share, right?”
“Because sin cannot exist without fear?”
“And what does *fear* need in order to exist?”
I grew curious. “What is the nature of this diversification?”
“Good question. Not only the question, but also the reason that makes you ask it. Let me first tell you about the agreement i had with *him*. Leaving aside the fine print, the basic idea was that those who feared consequence would be *his* and those who did not would be mine. The whole religion thing was just a way of implementing it.”
He pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose and continued,”Then I had a better idea. It would allow me to have greater reach, while still remaining true to our agreement. I realised its potential long ago, but for very many years, i could not implement it. For most of history, man was just too busy just trying to stay alive. But lately things have changed, and it’s been rather easy”.
“Most of all,” he chuckled, “this line does not involve Halloween costumes and visions of fire and brimstone and imagined reincarnations as lower life forms.”
An approaching train rumbled in the express tunnel, three blasts of the horn indicating it was a service train.
“Ah”, he stood up. “Its time.”
“Wait, I don’t understand”, and followed him to the edge of the platform, as he leaned over the edge and peered into the tunnel.
“Its easy, son. We – me and *him* that is – built the edifice of religion around one of the basest of human emotions – fear. But there is another emotion that is equally fundamental, and, for my purposes, more potent, because it does not involve *him*. Fear is important for keeping religion going, but without this other thing, we would not have been able to sell the concept of it in the first place.”
The train rolled in – a service train pulling open wagons meant to carry trashbags. It stopped for a brief while and the workers threw bags into the wagons.
He climbed into a wagon and continued, “My new line would just need thinking, questioning minds. And the more men found time for it, the bigger would be my harvest. You see, this thing that I talk about leads most people to the realization that consequence is an arbitrary concept and hence not to be feared. And as per our contract, they are mine.”
The train gave another blast on the horn and started moving. “If you still don’t know what I am talking about, recall how you felt life was when you first saw me”.
“And what brought you that conclusion?”, he said, receding farther and farther away.
“The quest for purpose.”
“And what drives that quest?”, he shouted as he disappeared into the bowels of the underground.
“Curiosity”, I mouthed silently and smiled.