A few years ago, I wrote a sequel to my first novel, Berman’s Lament, which was about the adventures of a print reporter lured over to the glitzy world of TV news. The sequel, The Manhattan Project, is Jed Berman’s memoir. Since I don’t have any burning issues to write about at the moment, I decided to publish Jed’s memoir here in serial form, until someone convinces me to stop. I reserve the right to interrupt the serialization for breaking news (issues, dramatic insights) at any time. Herewith, the first installment of The Manhattan Project:
“Invention binds us to all who have gone before,
even to the remotest bounds of time.”
The Young Folks Book of Invention
“…understanding our empathic nature
will at some point dissolve the massive belief systems
that dominate our societies and that threaten to destroy us.”
Marco Iacoboni, neuroscientist
“Empathy is the only human superpower.”
Elizabeth Thomas, independent curator
This story should begin with a sound rather than words. A very loud, human sound. What people used to call a primal scream, an existential howl rising up from deep, deep in my gut. Why scream? Maybe because there simply are no words, after a while, that can express what I feel. The guy who made primal screams popular back a while said screaming is a very natural thing to do. It’s what some people do when they hurt. Others sob or cry. But some of us just want to scream.
Sure, the next question is why do I hurt? That’s a very big question. How much time you got? ‘Cause if you really want the answer, it’s gonna’ take a while.
I’m actually a very normal, responsible person. I’m a professional journalist. I’ve won awards. I can tell you more about that later if you want. But what I want to tell people about now is the hurt, the reasons why I ended up with the screamers and the sobbers and the criers. I sure as hell didn’t ask for this, and I wasn’t raised to see things as I do now. And what makes me hurt isn’t just the personal insults and intentional attacks and betrayals I’ve had to absorb from other people along the way. Hell, I think most of us could tell those stories. And I don’t expect anyone to feel any special pity for me if I think I’ve been abused or stepped on or overlooked out there in the world. No, that’s not what hurts.
Truth be told, I don’t think my primal scream is personal, at all, other than the fact that it’s the reaction of one individual, with all the wrinkles and mannerisms and thoughts that make me me, to the incredibly painful things that happen every minute of every day of every week of every year of every century of every millennium since human beings rose from the primal soup of amino acids and what-not that glommed together to become Life. I did not ask for this. Hell, I’d rather not notice, like so many other people. I’d prefer to be so self-absorbed I didn’t know any of this was going on, maybe even get into doing some of it myself. I would be ecstatic to stop having the thoughts that lead to the questions that I can’t answer.
The good thing is, I do believe there are people around today, maybe there always have been, people who know something about all of this, and can help me get it straight. In fact, I met a guy back a while. You might not have given him the time of day, he doesn’t look like much. But there’s some depth to him, some wisdom, I think.
I ran into him outside the supermarket in Old Town. There’s a bench in front of the smoke shop next door and he was sitting there, smoking something hand rolled, from the looks of it. Oh, sure, now you think I’m about to repeat the babblings of an old doper, who made his way to the north woods of Maine. Well, you’re wrong. This guy really isn’t that old. He’s not so worn out looking, either. His hair is not gray and his clothes—a green T-shirt and jeans with hiking boots, it was summer when I first met him—are fairly clean, certainly as clean as mine, for the most part.
In any case, he was just sitting there calmly smoking his homemade product and drinking a cup of coffee. I had just come out of the smoke shop with a pack of cigarettes I’d bought on the sly after telling my wife I quit. Since I can’t smoke around the house, and gas costs too much these days to drive around having a butt, I sat down on the other end of the bench, unwrapped my cigarettes and lit up. That’s when the guy turned to me and started to talk. He didn’t waste time on the weather. He launched right into the heavy stuff. It wasn’t the kind of superficial bullshit you get from a lot of people. These were things he had obviously spent some serious time on, stuff that struck home with me, went right to the core of the things I dwell on almost obsessively, the things that make me hurt.
That was not the first time I’ve just happened to run into another person who seemed to vibrate at pretty much the same frequency as I do. The first time was years ago when I was taking the bus back to school in Maine. It was a female in that case, in the old days most adults would have called her a girl. Of course, in the post-feminist era that won’t fly. I should call her a very pretty, blond haired, young woman. Truth is, she was a girl.
She got on after I did and it was fairly dark on the bus, so I couldn’t actually tell, at first, if she was all that great looking. But her hair was blond and very long; it rolled down her back in waves that broke nearly on her waist. The bus was getting pretty full when she stepped up into the aisle, and the seat next to mine was still empty. She started back the aisle and stopped by my row and turned toward me, and asked if the seat was taken. I sort of coughed out the word, No. That often happens to me in times like that. I want to be warm and comfortable, but my introverted personality makes that tough to do. But that didn’t scare her away; she smiled at me, and slid into the seat, yanking her big, woven bag onto her lap.
At that point I couldn’t think of a thing to say to her, and my brain was screaming that she didn’t want me to say anything to her. So I just sat there for what seemed like a very long time. The bus hadn’t pulled out yet, and it was very quiet all around us. It felt really awkward which, in retrospect, it shouldn’t have because we were just two strangers who happened to buy tickets on the same bus ride and ended up sitting in two seats right beside each other. It was nothing more than the extremely unlikely convergence of two people’s journey through life (I picture our individual travels as a maze of red, dotted lines criss-crossing the globe, like the route the airplane takes in the Indiana Jones movies.)
I mean, I can sit on a plane now, in the seat by the window, and have someone I’ve never seen before and probably will never see again sit down right next to me, and stay right there for all of a two-and-a-half hour flight, and I won’t say a word to them. In fact, I usually prefer that. Most of the time, if they decide they want to chat, they don’t have much to say that’s worth listening to.
The most recent exception to that rule, I have to say, was the guy who got on in Detroit on my way back to Bangor. He said hello when he sat down, then focused mostly on reading the in-flight magazine while we taxied out to the runway. As we lifted off and banked away from the airport, he pointed out the window to the ground and said, “There it is. The Fermi 2 nuclear plant.”