His name was John Metcalf, and if you had noticed him at a party, you might not have sought him out for conversation, because he was quiet and self-contained.
And it would have been your loss, because he was funny and gentle and sharp. When people around him would lose their composures, John had a nice equilibrium, which I came to value. His lifelong love was baseball, a game he played and watched and thought about, a game whose equilibrium - it is after all a game whose very contours suggest a desire for balance and equipoise - mirrored his own.
John lived in Greenwich Village, and on
, when he realized it was going to be the kind of day when planes fly into buildings, he went to a nearby market to pick up a little extra food, in case he was trapped in the neighborhood, and, I suppose, because it was the only thing he could think of to do.
He was walking south with the bag of groceries in his arms when he saw one of the towers fall. One of the ways a baseball game can end is with what is now called a "walk-off home run." When a home run in the bottom of the ninth suddenly provides the batter's team with the winning run, the fielders simply walk away from their posts, there being no point in playing the rest of the inning. It's always very dramatic, but it never feels quite right, if you have any affinity for that balance and symmetry that make the game so popular in Asia.
The collapse of the World Trade Center was a walk-off home run, a screaming shot from home plate to hell. Nothing to be done. Just go home. The normal cyclings of the day ground to a sickening stop in mid-rotation.
Ten months later, John was walking through the same neighborhood, this time carrying a pizza, when very abruptly his heart stopped working, and he died. He was 58. Unassuming about himself, John would have been genuinely surprised by the reactions, by the anguish of his nieces and nephew and the heavy sorrow of his baseball buddies. He would be surprised - I knew him only through my friendship with his brother, who adored him - to see me sitting here sniffling and shedding tears as I write about him.
It has been impossible not to think of John lately, because his eyes gazed upon the falling tower and because, a year after the disaster, America's biggest fear was that there would be no baseball. The baseball calendar follows the old farming calendar: Plant in April, if you dare. Reap your last harvest in October. Things are coaxed into life. They flower. They feed us. They die. Their remains are plowed under. The next season, if anyone has the strength and the heart for it, things are coaxed into life once again.
All things end. All things pass. All things fade and disintegrate with time. John is gone and so will you be and so will I, someday. It's simply a matter of when. Those buildings were going to fall down, sooner or later; and someday there will be no such thing as baseball. There's a walk-off home run waiting for every single thing that takes up space on earth.
In a moment they die;
At midnight the people are shaken and pass away,
And the mighty are taken away by no human hand.
This is the big secret exposed by September 11, 2001. Not that people, crazy with anger, can slam a piece of petroleum-filled metal into a spike of steel and glass for such and such a reason. But that the whirlwind will come for us. It got somebody else yesterday, and that's why you're reading this and why I'm writing it. Tomorrow, it may sweep away you or me and leave behind people who will sniffle and grieve and then cheer up until it comes for them. Equilibrium means that for every birth, there is a future death.
Only in America does this sound like a crazy idea, something a person brings up because he doesn't know any better, because he is off his nut and lacks social skills. We don't die. Not with regular checkups and safety harnesses and daily cardiovascular workouts and bike helmets and airbags and five servings of fruits and vegetables. Not with television. Look right there on the screen. That's
, and that's
, and that's
down there in the picture-in-picture. Do they look dead to you? You can get five kinds of lettuce twelve months of the year. We are always planting and harvesting but never dying. We buy "indelible markers" to write our kids' names in their T-shirts. Indelible markers. Talk about hubris.
Fox television had a show on last year called "The Tick," a comedy about a superhero, a big, strong, good-natured dope in a blue costume. It didn't last long but one of the episodes hinged on the Tick's failure to understand mortality.
"Everyone dies," his smarter sidekick told him.
The Tick was shocked. Crestfallen. He murmured, "Even ... horses?"
Yes. Even horses. The line got a laugh from me, but I empathize. I'm as stunned by the news as he is. The Tick is just standing in for the American outlook.
I love the Japanese term "the floating world" with its sense that everything is transitory, fleeting. We have almost no vocabulary for impermanence. To us, "a transient" is somebody with no mailing address. I have news for you: We're all transients.
There are other lands where a heat wave kills 1,000, a drought 10,000, a tsunami 50,000. Last year 2.3 million Africans died of AIDS-related illness. There are places where everybody you know dies. And then you do.
America is the exception. In World War II, the sergeants used to goad the battle-wary into action by cracking, "What do you wanna do, live forever?"
It was a joke then. It's a tacit understanding now.
We don't live forever. At least not like this. Maybe something saves us, preserves us, redistributes us. Jesus or some cosmic wheel of energy. Nobody can guarantee it, not even the guy who talks to dead people, five days a week in syndication.
Meanwhile, we would do well to embrace real and obvious cycles, the "tale of the tape" that begins here and ends there. The floating world. You can learn to dig it. Not that I have yet.
Some heart attacks are so sudden that the person never knows. That's what they tell you. I'd like to think John had half a second. And that maybe what he felt was a memory, suddenly restored so fully and vividly to all of his senses that he was living it all over again. The way a day in March used to feel, when he was a kid. The way it felt to millions of kids in the Northeast, standing in their driveways, with the sun suddenly a little brighter. The air was still cool, but suddenly it was a breeze, not a wind. And somewhere in it lay the promise of warmer days and longer afternoons. Oh yes. We all felt it. That exact moment on a day in March, when you suddenly knew things were going to change for the good.