Photo by Naoto Sato
The world was supposed to end on May 21, 2011. One man I spoke to at a bar was a little disappointed when Earth was still turning at 12:01 AM on the 22nd. I guess that’s what you would expect from someone who is sitting by himself. His face was ruddy with alcohol and he was chomping on some feathers from a Native American headdress he was wearing. Some random girl on the street gave it to him, he explained.
Another man said, “Well, the world ends every day.”
“And it begins every day!” I said. I’m usually the optimistic one in a crowd. I also believe in everything: ghosts, King Arthur, Robin Hood, the Loch Ness Monster, conspiracy theories and true love, amongst other things. So May 21st was a challenge as it’s hard to be an optimist on a day you believe the world could end. There’s no denying the world can end on any given day, but I would much rather it be a surprise. I must admit that when I found out about the world ending in May of 2011 I felt a little gypped, as I had expected to enjoy a whole year of my life before having to worry about the world ending in 2012.
Of course, the End of the World is a common theme in humanity’s collective memory. We are obsessed with our own demise and our collective ego does not allow us to separate our fate with that of the Earth’s. So, naturally, during catastrophes like the Black Death we assumed the world was ending. In reaction to the forecasted doom, many practiced extreme penitence and flogged themselves. These flagellants rolled into towns carrying the plague with them. Since misery loves company, the flagellants claimed they could cure plague victims and perform miracles in an effort to persuade others to join them. Some people, seeing that the plague did not discriminate between sinner or saint, resorted to hedonism and debauchery so they could at least go out with a bang. Though the Earth has continued to continue, the world has ended in many ways already. The world as the Native Americans knew it, for example, ended the day Columbus landed on Hispaniola.
The first time I heard about the end of the world was in 2007. There was a special about Nostradamus on the History Channel and he predicted that the world would end in 2012. I found out the day before a test for grad school. I was a New York City Teaching Fellow getting my Masters in Teaching while working full time as a classroom teacher. To prepare for the test I was diligently Googling all the names and theories and laws that I had failed to pay attention to in class. After learning that the world might end in five years I saw the test not as a step towards my future, but as an obstacle preventing me from relishing every last moment of my life on Earth. I found my way to the nearest bodega and got some beer.
At the bodega a funny thing happened. The sliding glass door guarding the beer looked innocuous and the handle felt normal when I gripped it hard with all the weight of my new knowledge, but as I pulled it, instead of sliding obligingly to the right the door started keeling over right on top of me and I thought I would be one of the lucky ones to die before shit hit the fan. Though it would have been painful to be impaled by hundreds of glass shards, at least there would still be people around to mourn my passing.
The door fell on top of me knocking me against a shelf. But it bounced off my body as if I was made of plush before tossing itself to the floor and smashing into a thousand pieces; none of which touched me. Was it a miracle or was I just lucky? At any rate I was comforted by the fortunate outcome of this near death experience and took it as a sign that I shouldn’t so readily believe in the worst.
Three years later, when I was still a teacher in the Bronx, I was in my classroom proctoring a state-mandated practice test. My students had already taken at least ten such practice tests in different subjects. This test came on the heels of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Some of my students, who didn’t have younger siblings or cousins, had been bringing used clothes to class to send to Haiti. My students were quite the humanitarians, but there isn’t a state-mandated test that measures that.
Five minutes after I had distributed the test booklets, one of my students, Eladio, turned to me and said, “Ms. Kilmer, maybe 2012 will happen.”
It was not unlikely that my students equated all of these tests with the death of a certain part of their soul, and that perhaps Eladio was using a clever metaphor to express his feelings regarding all of this testing. But I wasn’t sure.
“Why do you say that?” Though Eladio was taking a test and as the proctor I should have scolded him for talking, this was a matter of tantamount importance. After all, I know how hard it is to take a test while the end of the world is on your mind.
“Well, first there was an earthquake in Haiti, then there was an earthquake in Chile, and this morning there was an earthquake in some place called…Turkey?”
Eladio was one of the first students to know about the earthquake in Haiti and one of the first to vocalize his desire to help. He loved watching the news and telling me about it, and now he was informing me about this earthquake that I was not even aware of.
I told Eladio that many scientists say that 2012 is not going to happen. It was the least I could do. In retrospect, I should have told him that yes, 2012 will happen, right after 2011, and right before 2013. Not sure if his fear had been dispelled, I wondered if he was thinking of five thousand and one better things he could be doing with his limited time than taking that practice test.
In the hours that led up to the projected end of the world this May, I found myself wondering how I should spend my time before the apocalypse commenced. Believers quit their jobs and spent what they thought would be their last days at Columbus Circle passing out flyers. I, on the other hand, wanted to make sure I was at least enjoying myself. Conveniently, it was a Saturday, a day on which I tend to enjoy myself anyway.
My friend and I ended up spending the whole day walking along the Hudson River and working up an appetite. We decided to get pizza at an Italian restaurant. I’ve been trying to mind my budget, so I was going to pass on ordering wine. I explained this to the waiter since he looked offended when I declined to look at the wine menu.
“Ha!” He mocked my logic. “The world is going to end, so if I were you I would just buy wine and forget about the food!” My friend and I laughed and decided that, what the heck, we might as well get both.
As the day progressed I started using the Apocalypse as an excuse for mild misconduct. My friend and I left a bar without paying for our drinks, bought more beer at a bodega and drank it on a stoop. We saw people fighting, boozing, carousing and canoodling on the street. But then again, if there hadn’t been fighting, boozing, carousing and canoodling on the streets of New York City I might have been more likely to believe the end was near. And because this is New York City, where anything can happen, it was strange, but not too strange that I ended up sitting next to a white man in a Native American headdress after the deadline for the end of the world.
The man in the headdress confessed that he was an alcoholic. I wondered if alcoholism is another form of flagellation. Standing outside Columbus Circle all day passing out flyers certainly is, and debauchery is rampant in New York City on any given day. In some ways not much has changed since the Black Death. I thought about Eladio and what he might have done on May 21st. It was a comfort to know that since it was a Saturday he couldn’t have possibly been taking a test.