Fifty thousand believers

I hike across Manhattan this morning to pick up my runner’s bib and electronic chip for the New York City Marathon. I’ve run this event four times before; somehow the Kenyans always beat me. On the last occasion I placed 6000th of 36,000 runners and felt pretty pleased with myself. That was about 1998. That was twenty years ago, in the lives of humans, a full generation. A generation on, my body tells the story of my degeneration.

The sun shines, the autumn leaves glow gold and blush red. The thronging streets empty into the Jacob Javitz Convention Centre. THe human tide washes me before it and sets me down gently before overhead signs that read: BIB NUMBERS 1-100; NUMBERS 100-1000 and so on, all the way to Numbers 70,000-80,000. My number is 57,072. The bib persons shine their smiles of American teeth at me. They welcome me. From Australia? Wow! How old are you? Wow!

I approach the line where you try on the official souvenir shirts for size. In America the seats in airport lounges are very wide. In this country I think I’ll be a SMALL. The SMALL t-shirt is tight and smells richly of the hundreds who’ve sweated within it before me. I need MEDIUM. To my left a dozen or two women of all shapes and ages tear off their shirts and expose their underwear. An unexpected display. They do this to try on the souvenir shirts for size.

I wander aimlessly around the vast hall in a beatific state. Accents of all nations, shirts of all nations, languages enough for Babel, smiles, smiles on all sides. What – as the poet asked – is all this juice and all this joy? Unbidden, unchanging, my own teeth have organised themselves into a crooked grin. This huge assemblage, all for the simple task of bib-getting and shirt-receiving; these mere thousands here of the many tens of thousands who’ll run with me on Sunday all look idiotically happy.

Why? For what? Eighty thousand adults all gathering for play. Eighty thousand innocents.

As I leave the happy concourse and thread my way through the incoming thousands I pass two police officers. They wear bullet-proof vests and helmets. They grip in their arms their weighty submachine guns. Fifty-one marathons down and I’ve never seen this before. But something broke last Shabbat in Squirrell Hill. A fabric was torn in Boston in 2013. When they told me then the race was called off because bombs had gone off I kept running. I would not believe it. This, this glorious foolishness was the marathon, this the ceremony of innocence.

Feeling mounts within me. The physiology of imminent weeping signals intensity. It comes to me that this might be my last one. And if it be the last, ‘What larks, Pip old chap! What larks!’

The Security Lobby

I am free. They said, you are free to go. For the moment. I’m not in Gitmo. I haven’t been rendered. Not yet. I’m taking the opportunity to set it all down.

There’s not that much to tell. Step this way please sir.

The officer in Security at SFO spoke politely. All her colleagues – in a short space I met quite a few – spoke politely. I followed the officer to an open space at one side of the XRAY scanner. Your XRAY was not satisfactory, sir. My colleague will pat you down.

Her colleague is male. He pats me down, very thoroughly from the rear. From the front he pats me down vigorously, albeit selectively. A man asks me to touch some paper. After I do so the paper is tested in a machine. Your fingers show the presence of residues, sir. For a short space we stand in silence. The silence of the officers is an interrogation. I offer my own silence in return. How will this play out? It is only six am. I arose this morning at four. What have my fingers touched over these hours? I mean, what chemicals?

The officers asked me to come this way. Politely. This way is a small room. A third officer joined us and closed the door. The smallness of the room brought all occupants closer. Opposite me, smiling broadly, the patting officer, broad and tall. A powerful man. The presiding officer slim, female, perhaps forty years of age, standing at my right, the line of fine dark hairs running along her upper lip interrupted by the fine surgical scar of her neatly repaired hare lip. The last-entered officer took up his position behind me, between me and the door.

Are these your items, sir? I looked at the items resting mysteriously on the bench behind the widely smiling Patting Officer. The items are mine. I said so.  Please open them sir. I did so as they watched and waited – for what? Explosives? Firearms? Tweezers? 

The lady pulled open a box of sky blue plastic gloves, inserted her delicate hands and groped inside my baggage. I pointed out the small velvet bag containing my ritual gear – phylacteries, prayer shawl: Those are holy. Please handle them with respect. The officers, being American, respected ‘holy’.

The groping of my backpack completed, they turned to my roll on. The gloves were pulled off and tested for residues, a fresh pair pulled on. Grope, grope: What are all these books?

They are gifts for family, books. I wrote them.

Really?

Eyebrows shot up, faces turned from my items to me; for the first time the officers – all three – reacted to the unexpected. They looked impressed. Or something. For my part I misgave: perhaps ‘writer’ equals ‘leftist’, equals ‘intellectual’, equals ‘terrorist’? Should I have said, I am a doctor? That might remind them of terrorist doctors from George Habash to the English train bombers to hapless cousin Mohammad Hanif, who wasn’t, but who owned a guilty Sim Card. 

What guilty information lies concealed in my laptop?

What traitorous phone calls hide in my phone? They wilI find I have advocated for refugees, cheats, Muslims, border violators.

 

I reverted to silence as the chief Groper resumed groping and the others seem to disengage. The silence was very silent. Only a few feet distant from this room hundreds of bootless feet passed through Security. The hall that buzzed and rang around me a few minutes ago was not heard in here. It occurred to me that just as I did not hear the world, the world was unable hear me.

 

Groper looked up. Her hand rested upon something I did not see, something I own. Do all these items belong to you?

To the best of my knowledge, yes, they do.

To the best of your knowledge.  A harder edge to the voice.  An unpleasant pause.

Sir, do you know or do you not know? Did you pack this bag? Has this bag been out of your direct sight at all?

I mumbled reassurance that made things no better, no clearer.

 

Blue gloves that had done groping touched strips of test paper. All quiet as the machine pondered my possible residues. 

Groper-chief officer straightened, exchanged a look with the tall broad man. A small movement from behind, a sensation of space encroached.

 

You can go, sir. The ritual fringes you wear set off our scanner. We see that in people of your faith. And you

must have touched something this morning, perhaps a bench in the Security Lobby. You are free to go. Have a safe trip, sir.


Tearful in New York City

My red rimmed eyes smart. Tears fall. A victim of homeland security in the United States, I cannot blame the state of my eyes solely on the State of Siege. My blephs were reddened and my tears prone to fall before leaving Australia.

What is blepharitis?

In general I know –itis. -itis is my stock in trade – be it stomatitis, be it balanitis*, be it appendicitis – if it’s inflamed, it’s an –itis. My own inflammation is blepharitis. Blepharitis is the inflammation of an organ that has no known name: search as we might in medical dictionaries and in general lexicons we will find no blephs. But blepharitis, which is the inflammation of that part of your eyelid which is neither external skin, nor internal membrane, but the terminal edge of the lid, hurts in a niggling and mildly miserable manner. The seat of the problem is a scaly deposit, a scurf, somewhat like dandruff, that forms on the edge of the lid. With every blink that scaly stuff scratches the surface of the eye. The eye responds with perpetual tearing.

There is no cure for blepharitis.

My grandson Toby – known in this blog for his flirtations with danger and for his love of this grandfather – witnesses my tears as they swell to a fullness and fall. His insect features tighten with concern. He approaches, leans forward, pulling me down towards him,
studying my face anxiously. His rodent digits grab at my arms to arrest me: ‘Are you sad, Saba?’

His love makes me laugh for joy. My mirth augments the tearing. A full waterfall of affection and my blepharitis is somehow sweetened.

My son-in-law Dov, a rising genius in ophthalmology, advises me: ‘There’s no cure, but there is treatment; you need to dip a cotton bud in diluted baby shampoo then scratch away at the scaly stuff at the edge of your eyelids. I invite my readers to try this: most enjoy the practice quite as much as vaginal douching performed with sandpaper.

On the eve of my trip abroad, I decant some baby shampoo into a urine-less urine specimen jar. I seal the jar and pack it carefully in a nest of socks in my suitcase. On arrival in the United States I open my suitcase and read the enclosed:

NOTICE OF BAGGAGE INSPECTION.

To protect you and your fellow passengers, the Transportation Security Administration is required by law to inspect all checked baggage. As part of this process some bags are opened and yours was selected for physical inspection.

My suitcase has been selected! I feel honoured. Glad to protect my fellow passengers in this manner, I rummage for a pair of socks. My fingers report something unexpected, the tactile sensation of something cold and viscous and gooey, not unlike cooled semen. Sticky soggy socks everywhere swim in baby shampoo manufactured by Johnson and Johnson. The urine jar itself is fragmented, shards of plastic dripping yellow.

The shampoo treatment suspended, my blephs scale, my eyes smart and redden and weep. Without Toby’s loving concern blepharitis is no fun at all.

The Prayer of the Traveller

Many of us are on our travels as I write this. Today I will resume mine – one hundred and fifteen kilometers by road before a flight of forty minutes (in the air we register time not space), then a break before resuming for the next seventy minutes of flight. Finally thirty kilometers of suburban roads. Then home. Home – that word for an idea that houses our love; for the island we build to grow a couple into a family. After two stationery days I’ll skip from the continent of my birth to the land of the free – three flights, ten security checks (eight of these in the US) – eighteen hours in the air.

Long before the Malaysian airliner disappeared I had my misgivings. The loss of a civilian passenger aircraft over Donetsk did nothing to comfort me. And now the AirAsia tragedy. Travel is dangerous. Out here in the Outback, the roads are full of kangaroo, wandering stock, feral donkey and camel, species which share with the shahidi a zest for homicidal suicide. Air travel, far, far safer, remains hazardous.

Travel has always been thus.

If you are a wuss (I am) and if you have a prayerful bent (I am severely bent in that way) you might pray for a safe arrival – and if you are needy or greedy (I am both), you’d slip in a word for your safe return home.

The following comes from the ancient Traveller’s Prayer recited by Jews. The text catalogues a surprisingly contemporary list of hazards:

May it be Your will to direct our steps to peace, to allow us to reach our desired destination in life, in joy and in peace.

Rescue us from any enemy, ambush and danger on the way and from all afflictions that trouble the world.

Let us find grace, kindness and compassion from all who see us.

You can fill in your own particular concerns. (Afflictions that trouble the world are plentiful. I think of Ebola. I think too of violence of all kinds – both abroad and within our domestic walls.)

An anxious Jewish traveller (Jewish people are past masters at anxiety), having completed the lines above, might feel the need for elaboration or emphasis. Such persons follow on with Psalm 91. I do. I love this one: I loved this one and I quoted it to my shell-shocked teenage daughters after two hilarious hoons chucked rotten eggs through the girls’ car window, breaking on and altering the grooming of their lovely long locks.

Five years ago, grandson Toby, famous in these pages for his flirtations with danger, drew a picture in vivid primary colours. The picture, three inches by one and a half, was intricate, pulsing with the vibrancy of his four-year-old being. Toby presented it to me: ‘This is for you, Saba.’ Since that day it has sat between the leaves of my travel prayer book. It guards the place of Psalm 91.

One who lives in the shelter of the Most High abides in the shade of the Almighty. He will save you from the trap of the hunter and the deadly pestilence. You need not fear the terror by night, nor the arrow that flies by day; nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the plague that ravages at noon. Though a thousand may fall at your side, even ten thousand at your right hand, yet unto you it shall not come nigh.

I am not simple – or faithful – enough to believe that simply reciting these words will guarantee my safety. Saying the words is not the equivalent of completing the enrollment forms in supernatural travel insurance. I am not insured. But it is in the beauty of the poetics; in the relief of putting fears into words then filing them away; in the unspoken reminder that in matters in which I am powerless there is no point fretting – in these I find comfort, acceptance.

I am not insured, just assured.

I wish us all safe travels.