A rational, reasonable conversation

The take-out bowl with yesterday's leftover veggies and noodles looked microwave-able, so I set the timer to six minutes on low power, and thought it would be breakfast. Instead it was just a mess.

The plastic container melted, and when the microwave dinged and I opened its door, noodles and cabbage cascaded onto the threadbare carpet. Most of it I cleaned up, and the roaches will clean up the rest, and I had Top Ramen for breakfast — the beginning of a disappointing, frustrating day.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Deprive a man of the breakfast he wants, and he might get grumpy. I was that man. 

There weren't many seats on BART, so I was in one of the 'booths', where two benches face each other. Some yuppiefuck and his overdressed wife were sitting opposite me, annoying me, not in any particular way but merely by existing. 

In downtown Oakland, they got up and got off the train, and I hoped for an empty booth the rest of the ride. It wasn't five seconds, though, before a 35-ish father and his 5-ish son sat down.

The kid was just friendly enough to be a bother, waving at me, putting his hands over his eyes so nobody could see him. When he peeked out, I made a face at him and the kid giggled and said, "You're funny."

Wasn't trying to be funny, kid, and that's when I noticed he was wearing a badge. It was made of tin or plastic, a star with five points, with block lettering that said, "JUNIOR POLICE OFFICER."

And of course, kids play cops and robbers and whatnot, and it's harmless, probably, but I don't like cops and the badge bugged me.

"Oooh," I cooed, "are you a junior police officer?"

"Yup," he said proudly, and his dad smiled at me. His dad was wearing glasses and looked kinda wimpy, which definitely factored into what I said next.

"Are you on the lookout for junior poor people you can hassle, and junior black people you can beat up and kill?" 

Father & son both lost their smiles, the dad yelled something at me, and in mere seconds they'd walked all the way to the other end of the train, and I had a booth to myself for the rest of my ride to Berkeley.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Telegraph Ave is usually a jumble of cars, pedestrians, street vendors and street people. Because there's a crowd, Christians often preach and sing at the corner. I hate 'em, of course. Today there were eight adults, with three little kid, and I tell you, when the Christians start talking about Heaven it's hell on earth.

They're on the Ave about once a month, often both Saturday and Sunday of the same weekend, but it's only been two weekends since their last missionary visit, so there were genuine groans from Brenda to my left, and Umberto to my right, and me (of course) when the Jesus People started setting up their mikes this morning.

As I've written before, it's their microphones and amplifiers that infuriate me, more than their silly message. Over loudspeakers onto a public square to an audience that doesn't want to hear it, there's no escape, so the Lord was pounded into our eardrums non-stop, beginning at 11:AM. 

We work on the Ave so we had to be there, but the pedestrians —potential customers — are free to go, and they always do. When the Lord-lovers click their microphones on, the crowd thins out by about a third. Who wants to shop and stroll on Telegraph when it sounds like Sunday in church? So in addition to annoying the fuck outta me, the preachers are bad for business. 

Already in a bad mood, I fumed as the first sermon of silly platitudes faded into the second, and then they started singing the same godawful godsongs they'd sung last time and the time before and the time before that. Then they started their stale stories about how, once, they'd been interesting people, until they found Jeeezus. And then they sang again.

I've got sunshine on a cloudy day
When it's cold outside
I've got the month of May
I guess you'll say
What can make me feel this way?
My God,
Talkin' 'bout my God

I don't have a God, but still — My God! The songs and preaching brought clouds on a sunny day, and something had to be done about it, but what?

In past months, I've shouted in the Christians' faces, taunted their preachers from across the street, insulted the imbeciles who hand out their flyers… Short of violence (which certainly has its appeal), there's only one tactic I hadn't tried — a rational, reasonable conversation with one of them.

Is that even possible, I wondered? Would any of the sanctimonians be capable of an intelligent dialogue? 

For that matter, would I be capable of it, without devolving into screaming at them?

It's not possible to convince Christians that their silly god doesn't exist, but that wasn't what I wanted to try. I only wanted to see if I could calmly, politely, rationally convince them to turn down the volume on their amplifiers.

And that, I decided, would be my challenge for the day. Yessir, I was going to engage with the Christians, reasonably. No shouting. No insults. No profanity.

"I'm gonna step away for a moment," I said to Brenda. "Could you keep an eye on my table, please?" She nodded, and knows me well enough that she knew something was up.

At the corner, two men were handing out save-your-soul tracts. I walked past them and approached the band, which was crucifying another pop song, making it into an awful hymn.

The singer was a white man in his twenties who couldn't sing, so I approached him, and in my most calm, polite, conversational voice I said, "Don't you think it's rude to sing over a PA system, to people who don't want to hear it?"

I hadn't really noticed the microphone between us, but Brenda told me later that my question came through the speakers louder than the song.

The singer eyed me nervously but kept on singing "Read It," their Christianized version of Michael Jackson's "Beat It," now about the joys of reading the Bible.

Read it, read it,
then you listen up and heed it

A short, thin man stepped between me and the singer, and a second man stepped up next to the short guy, holding a stack of flyers and smiling at me enormously. Both men were talking to me at the same time, the small one in a snarly, angry tone telling me to get off the stage, but there was no stage, only a plot of asphalt they'd claimed and taken over. 

The smiley guy was quoting the Beatitudes, and seemed more 'Christlike', so he's the one I aimed my experiment at. Gonna stay calm and cool, and have a conversation with this man:

"Don't you think this is rude?" I asked him, sweeping my hand toward the singer and the band. 

"You, speaking into our microphone?" the smiling man said, smiling. "Yes, that is rude. Why don't we step to the side, and talk about it."

His voice was smooth as pudding, his smile seemingly permanent. God, this guy was slick.

And maybe he had a point, too. I hate their microphone and didn't mean to be talking into it, so I followed him a few feet down the sidewalk, until he stopped, smiled even bigger than before, and asked if I'd heard about Jesus.

"Oh, yes," I answered, still politely and in my softest voice. "I've heard about Jesus all my life, but that's not what I wanted to talk about. I'd like to know if you've heard about manners." And I smiled, almost as big as his smile, which slightly deflated.

"I'm sure I don't understand," he said, which struck me as an oddly dishonest choice of words. How could he not understand? Ah, but patience, Doug, patience. 

"By 'manners', I mean that it's rude to blast your sermons and songs through microphones and loudspeakers, at people who don't want to hear it."

"We have a permit from the City of Berkeley," he said, and flashed his high-beam smile again.

"A permit makes it legal, but doesn't make it less rude."

"If you don't like our message, perhaps you should complain to the City Council," he said. Had his smile lost a few megawatts?

"No," I answered, and even added a friendly, folksy chuckle, "I'm not complaining about your message, only your volume." He smiled bigger, but sorta folded his forehead like, huh? "Say anything you like, free speech is cool — but when you say it through mikes and loudspeakers, that's simply bad manners."

"We're trying to save people's immortal souls," he said sorta paternalistically, "and I hardly think that's bad manners." With another horrible hymn being sung in the background, I looked at this smiley guy and knew he'd be, quite literally, a tough nut to crack.

"Try this," I said. "What if someone set up amplifiers and loudspeakers in front of your home, and talked and sang all day, so you couldn't think, couldn't relax, couldn't have a moment's peace and quiet."

"Oh, that's not the same at all," he said, shaking his smiling head. "There are no homes here. This is a business district." He smiled all over again, and raised an eyebrow at me. Touché. 

Frustrated, I sighed. There are some apartments above the shops, but this isn't really a residential area, so the fucker was right, and almost involuntarily, I smiled back at him.

"Well, what if someone set up loudspeakers outside your church, so you couldn't hear yourself pray."

"God could still hear me pray," he said, "but I guess I'd ask if they had a permit from the city." Dude seemed awfully proud of his permit.

"No, you wouldn't. Come on. At the very least, you'd go up to them and ask 'em to turn the amplifier off, or down, and that's all I'm asking, politely, please—"

His smile had turned into a chuckle, so I interrupted myself to say, "It's not funny." He nodded, and his chuckles stopped. Was I getting through to him?

Next I said, "Perhaps you don't know how disastrously your street preaching effects business for all of us—"

"Ah, you're one of the street vendors?"


"And what do you sell?"

Oh, no no no. Maybe he knew what I sell, or maybe he was only trying to steer the conversation, but for obvious reasons I didn't want to go there at all.

"That's not relevant," I said. "What's relevant, sir" — still keeping it polite — "is that your loudspeakers drive people away from Telegraph." That seemed to be sinking into him, so I added: "And it drives people away from your message, too. I don't think Jesus would use a microphone and loudspeaker."

That last line, recycled from a rant written for last month's zine, was supposed to stop him cold, make him think, but instead he said, ever smiling, "Oh, yes He would. Jesus would use all the modern technologies — microphones, television, radio, even the internet. I'm sure He'd have a website."

I was tired of looking at this man's teeth, tired of his sidestepping my point, but determined to remain as congenial as he was. I would not raise my voice, would not use naughty language. My argument was for manners, so my own needed to be impeccable.

The singer behind me had begun mangling yet another tune, though, and I couldn't think of anything intelligent to say.

"Maybe you should apply for a permit," said the smiling Christian," which confused me. I thought he was talking about a vendor's permit, but he was talking again about his group's permit to preach on the sidewalk. "Maybe you'd do better sales if you had a microphone, too."

What a stupid argument, I thought, but didn't say. "A hundred vendors on Telegraph, all of us barking into microphones — that would be unbearable. All the customers would vanish, the street would be empty, and you and I wouldn't be here, having this conversation—"

"But we are here, friend," he said, smiling and waving a Christian tract toward me, as if I'd take it.

"Hey, hey," I said, just a little too loudly, nudging his hand away and blocking his other hand, which he'd reached out to wrap around my shoulder. "Are we having a conversation, or just talking at each other?" My voice was inching up, and I made a conscious but difficult effort to speak more quietly. "All of this is rude, sir — singing hymns at ninety decibels, and then trying to give me a pamphlet, when Jesus is not what I came over to talk about."

"Well then, what do you want to talk about?" Oh, Lord, the man's godly grin, his fluorescent teeth — I wanted to knock a few of them out.

"As I've said," I said again, "everything you're doing out here is rude. Even ruder," and this was tricky, but I said it soft and even semi-smiling, "you smile like a saint, but you haven't heard a word I've said."

"I've heard, friend," he answered. "You think it's impolite that we try to save people from eternal hellfire. I think it would be awfully rude if we didn't," and again he used that paternalistic tone of voice, like he's the teacher and I'm the child. I grit my teeth painfully hard, wondering whether to continue or concede defeat. Civil chit-chat with this Christian was getting nowhere.

"After all," he continued, "Jesus died for you. The least you can do is listen to His message."

"No, that's not the least I can do. I can do less. And while we're on the topic, dying was a trivial sacrifice for your Jesus. It meant nothing, because he knew he'd be coming back from the dead, right? If resurrection is part of the deal, hell, I'd die even for a worthless loser like you." And yeah, my voice had gone up, I'd lost my cool, and the experiment was a failure.

"Hey," he smiled again, but sadly this time, "who's being rude now?"

"Me. It's my turn." Flashing both my middle fingers, I walked back to my table, where I'd been absent for ten minutes.

And there I simmered all afternoon, while the Christians preached and sang. Umberto and I shouted occasional insults at them, but the amplified droning of religion went on and on and on... 

♦ ♦ ♦  

To some extent, being a Christian requires people to switch their minds off, but that doesn't mean Christians are stupid. That guy was no dummy. He'd had an answer for everything I said, and he beat me fair and square. You win, smiley guy — there really is no talking sense into a Christian.

"It's so sad," that same smiley man said into the microphone when it was his turn to preach, "that people wonder why mankind was created. Why are we here? Well, I know why. Yes, I have the answer to the eternal question." Long, dramatic pause. "We were created to praise God! That is our purpose, and isn't it wonderful!"

Umberto nudged me and said, "Sounds like God has an almost-human lack of self-esteem."

"All we have to do," the smiling preacher continued, "is live our lives by the principles of the Bible!"

"My life is built on the principles of Jack Benny's biography," said Brenda.

And I laughed, but had no jokes of my own. It was hot, the Christians were relentless, and I'd lost my temper when not losing my temper was my goal.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Eventually but way too late, the Christians finished their screeching and preaching, unplugged their speakers, closed their Bibles, and packed their equipment into a creepy-looking white van that needed to be washed.

Most of them rode away, but there wasn't room for all of them, so the smiley Christian and his wife stayed behind — and they walked up to my table!

This was gonna be it, I thought. What with me and Smiley and all the blasphemous fish at my table, this would be a conflagration to begin the End Times. My frustration had been building ever since I'd double-flipped him off, but this time I wasn't going to try to be polite.

Apparently, though, I'd made so little impression on the smiley guy that he didn't even recognize me. And he had no curiosity about the fish. He'd only stopped at my table to ask innocently, "Could you tell us which way is the subway station?"

Before I could think of a retort vicious enough, Umberto answered, "It's down. Go straight to hell and you'll find it on the way."

"I know you know," said Mrs Smiley, "that Christ died for your sins."

"Well, what a patsy," Brenda said. "I live for my sins."

And it occurred to me that I have a few friends here, but alongside that heartwarming thought, they were getting all the good zingers. All I could think was that the smiling Christian's face must've hurt from wearing that big, phony smile the whole damned day.

And he smiled again, and his wife flashed exactly the same smile, a matched set that seemed so zombielike I got goose bumps.

"We'll pray for you," Smiley said, the Christian translation being "Fuck off," and they walked away.

After they'd taken several steps, I suddenly knew my line, and called out, "Hey, wait a minute." They turned around, and I said, "Your God can part the Red Sea, raise the dead — but He can't lead you to a BART station?"

The smiling Christian smiled, and started saying something like, "It doesn't work that way, friend." He and his wife blessed us with a few more platitudes, then walked down the Avenue, not toward the subway station but away from it.

From Pathetic Life #25
Saturday, June 8, 1996

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.


  1. The Florida Panthers are playing in the Stanley Cup finals. I guess they're just local boys who grew up playing hockey on the frozen surface of Lake Okeechobee. I've been to Florida a couple of times: thankfully, the panthers seem to stay away from the beaches. No, I don't have money to travel to Florida. A couple of my employers were under the impression that I was attending conferences. I don't recall the subject matter, but the whoredurves were tasty.


    1. If they sell enough tickets I guess they can play anywhere, but hockey down south seems ridiculous to me. Anyplace south of where water freezes, actually.

      I didn't even know the Florida Panthers existed.


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