Men Threw Balls To One End, Then Back Again: Scientology

by

06/15/2006

227 W 46th St, NY, NY 10014

Neighborhood: Clinton

Jake’s girlfriend broke up with him, so he started driving and turned up eleven hours later at my apartment.

We were the kind of friends who’d been close once but who didn’t speak often anymore, owing not to any particular falling out, but to the passage of time and a mutual inability to put any effort into the maintenance of relationships. In the three years I had been in the city, Jake had never shown much interest in visiting, yet suddenly there he was, looking to be entertained for a while, until things looked better back in Michigan.

Before Jake showed up, my plan for the day had been to drink coffee for a few hours and then to head to Midtown and try to get converted to Scientology. Jake said he’d come along.

First, we sat at the Playwright Tavern on 8th Avenue. I ordered a coffee and Jake had a beer, which I told him was a mistake: we had to keep our wits about us. The Scientologists would hook us up to e-meters, little machines that functioned as lie detectors, and then they’d ask us questions about our lives.

“Unless they ask me if I’m drunk, I don’t think the beer will make any difference,” Jake said.

We just have to be selective about what we tell them, I said. You want them to think you take them seriously, that they might really be able to help you, and that you might eventually be willing to pay them money. I’d prepared myself for it, I told him: to make myself look like a perfect candidate for recruitment, I’d mentally whittled from my life story any signs of assuredness, optimism, and intractable non-extraterrestrial-based religious belief.

I finished my coffee and declared myself ready.

“Alright, let’s go,” Jake said.

“We can’t go walking in there together,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Because we’d look like tourists or something, two guys going in as a joke,” I said. I told Jake he had to wait at the bar and give me a ten minute head start so that I could look like some sort of wanderer in need of spiritual guidance.

“Fine,” he agreed, and ordered another beer.

I loitered in front of the church pretending to read a display about Dianetics. I hoped that somebody would spot me looking casually interested, just a random guy on a random stroll who was interested in random displays he saw on the street, and then I’d get invited inside and promptly hooked up to one of their machines. Nobody came, though, and I was afraid I was beginning to look suspicious, or at least illiterate, after squinting at the display for so long. I went inside.

The church had taken its styling cues from the interior of a Lexus: heavily lacquered walnut, LCD television screens, and lots of glass. “Can I help you?” a receptionist asked.

I told her I was just looking around and pointed stupidly at a bookshelf, as if it was exactly what I was looking for.

“There are exhibits you can view downstairs,” she said.

On the lower level there was another desk and another receptionist. She was prettier than the first, younger, with dark Shirley Temple curls and charmingly crowded teeth. She also asked if she could help me. I wanted to ask her to take me directly to the lie detectors, but I didn’t want to tip her off to the fact that I knew the truth about them. I was just looking around, I said, and then congratulated myself on keeping my story consistent.

“Well, how did you hear about us?” she asked.

I wasn’t prepared for this question. I wanted to tell her how mixed up I was, that sometimes I was sad and that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but that I was soon going to have a job that would provide me with ample disposable income for things like, say, religious counseling services.

“I’ve seen Dianetics tables set up in the subways,” I told her. It looked like people were recieving guidance.”

“Ah yes, the stress tests,” she said.

She stood from behind her desk and smiled. I seemed to have passed some initial hurdle. “We show a short film on Dianetics, if you’re interested in learning more.”

Excitedly, I told her I was. Then, thinking that I might have sounded too eager, I shrugged and tried to look nonchalant about it all. She told me the next movie would start in a few minutes. In the mean time, she planted me in front of an interactive LCD screen.

I pressed play. One after another, converted Scientologists gave their testimonials. Mostly, they spoke above subtitles in thickly-accented English. They were uniformly positive and wholly vague–the clips could have easily been lifted from infomercials for real estate seminars or Proactiv Solution. However, the narrator interested me because I recognized the voice–it was the voice of the History Channel. I didn’t think it did the Hitler documentaries, but I knew it was the voice of Modern Marvels, the show about incredibly boring subjects like rock quarrying, taxidermy, and why bridges sometimes fall over.

Did this mean the voice belonged to a Scientologist? Or was it just a mercenary that read anything? After listening to it introduce a woman who claimed Dianetics improved her eyesight, I wondered if the History Channel voice should worry about damaging its credibility. I’d never questioned anything it’d said before, but I’d also never heard the voice declare it a “fact” that I had a “reactive” portion of my brain that looked like a flaming, cancerous orb and that compelled me to act like a schizophrenic with poor vision. Would I believe the voice the next time it claimed miners use saw blades made of diamonds to quarry marble? It did seem like a rather expensive way to cut rock.

When I ran out of options on my LCD screen, the Shirley Temple receptionist returned and escorted me to a viewing room for the movie. There were enough seats for thirty people, maybe more, but I was the only one there to watch. “The film will explain more about what you just saw,” Shirley said. “Afterward, we’ll have you fill out a short questionnaire about what you’ve learned.” I chose a seat in the second row and she left me there.

The History Channel voice started up again and I tried to think of ways to pass the next 15 minutes. I was about to get up to look around for hidden cameras when the door behind me opened and two people entered. They sat in the back row which, I saw now, I probably should have done: what if they were there to evaluate me? It was a man and a woman, but I couldn’t get a good look at them because it was dark and I had no excuse to turn fully around. I pulled a pad of paper from my messenger bag and pretended to take notes in case they were trying to see if I was taking the whole thing very seriously. Then I remember that I’d heard Scientologists liked to sue people for writing about them, so I stowed the pad again.

I sat up straight in my seat and listened to them whisper, but I couldn’t decipher what they were saying over the History Channel voice, which was talking about the flaming tumor again. Apparently, the reactive mind continues to listen even when we are knocked out cold from a violent accident, like getting beaned with a baseball. Though we recover phsyically, the next time we were in a similar situation, say playing catch with a little boy, the tumor takes over, and suddenly we’re screaming the same things we heard other people saying when we were knocked out, word for word, like, “call a doctor!”, “what were you thinking throwing like that?” or “strike three!” This was actually quite interesting, but I was pretty sure that the two people behind me were making out, and the sounds they were making were all I could pay attention to–the squishes of kissing and the cricket chirps of denim-rubbing.

When the film was over the receptionist returned and handed me the questionnaire. It was a single page on a clip board. I’d been hoping for something long and perplexing, packed with questions engineered to trick me into admitting I was depressed and in dire need of e-metering. Instead there were just a few prompts, most of which asked the same thing: how did my “reactive mind” affect my life? It seemed like a trick question: I wasn’t supposed to know how it was affecting me, as by definition it was unconscious. If I speculated and guessed correctly, it didn’t seem like there’d be any need to hook me up to the e-meter. “I’m not quite sure,” I wrote. The final question was multiple choice and asked me how I would describe the movie I saw. The three choices were “serious,” “entertaining” and “educational.” I quickly eliminated “entertaining,” concluding it was intended to root out tourists and happy people, but I couldn’t decide between the other two. “Educational” would indicate that I was gullible, which seemed positive. “Serious” implied a degree of urgency, as if my reactive mind was the type of thing my mother would call long distance about: “Kurt, your brother got into a car accident! And your reactive mind is making you blind!” I chose “serious.” Shirley returned and took my clipboard. She pulled up her chair, which I found encouraging.

“It says here you’re not sure how your reactive mind is affecting you,” she said, and then she paused and bit her bottom lip with her crooked teeth. Did Scientologists believe in orthodontics? I couldn’t remember.

“That seems correct, because you wouldn’t know when it was affecting you,” she finally said.

Victory! I thought, and almost broke out into a recruitment dance, which probably would have looked like I was having a seizure, because that’s what all my dances look like. This seemed like the ideal time for the lie detector, but instead Shirley reached behind her desk and pulled out a book titled Dianetics.

“If you’re interested in learning more, you should really read the book,” she said.

I told her that I wasn’t quite sure.

“This is how you find out,” she said. “It’s all in here.”

I wanted to do more research before I bought anything, I said.

“That’s the thing: everything is in the book,” she replied.

“There’s no need to research it. We already have it all right here.”

I told her I guessed that was so.

“You’d just be doing double research. Why would you want to get the information twice? This just saves you time.”

“Well…”

“Hey, its only eight bucks,” she said.

Was this another test? I did want to show her that I was the type of person to credulously hand over cash on demand. I paid her eight dollars.

She handed me a receipt and we were left with nothing to say. The money-for-book exchange marked a shift in our relationship; it seemed like Shirley was shocked I was the type of person who would pay, and I was offended that she hadn’t figured me out earlier. She smiled again but it was strained, and we said things like, “so,” “well,” and “um,” before Shirley strode across the room to the next visitor. I pretended to read the book, but nobody else came to speak with me.

Jake wasn’t at the Playwright Tavern when I returned. I called his cell phone and got his voice mail. I waited in front of the Scientology center for a few minutes but felt uncomfortable, ashamed, like I was prolonging a conversation with a girl who’d already refused to give me her number. I walked to Bryant Park and watched a group of men play a game I didn’t understand on a patch of dirt that seemed designed for this purpose. They tossed a rubber ball some fifteen or twenty feet away and then tried to land baseball-sized metal orbs nearby. I considered asking them what the game was called and how it was won, but didn’t. They weren’t speaking much, seemingly lost in the intricacies of their sport. I tried to understand their game from the few times they congratulated each other for skilled throws and those instances when they grimaced or mumbled curses, but could discern no meaningful pattern, except that they threw each ball to one end of the dirt patch and then threw them back.

I tried calling Jake again; there was no answer.

*** I had enough time to have two ice cream cones and a cup of coffee before Jake showed up and told me the game was called bocce ball.

“So?” I said.

“So?” he replied.

“What was it like?”

“You were there, too,” he said. “You know what it was like.”

“I was in there for 30 minutes,” I said. I wanted to know what happened beyond the 30 minute mark, which I now imagined was like the speed barrier on a Delorean—boring at low velocity, but hit the mark and you get flaming tire tracks and time travel.

Jake wanted to know if there was anything we could do in New York that wasn’t Scientology-related.

“Bocce ball,” I said, and then agreed to go to the bar.

“She hasn’t called,” Jake said, meaning his ex-girlfriend, as we ordered our drinks.

I waited for him to take a swig of his beer, and then asked again what was it like in there. “Did they show the flaming orb movie?”

“No, different movie.”

“No flaming orb?”

“No flaming orb.”

“Was your movie just longer then?”

“Honestly?”

“Honestly.”

“You know the cute receptionist? Cute, dark hair?”

“Yeah.”

“I figured I’d stick around and see if I could get her number.”

“She has crooked teeth.”

“A charming imperfection. I got the feeling she was coming onto me.”

“You stuck around in a Scientology church for a girl?”

“I thought if I showed interest she’d be impressed. She wanted me to hang around, kept showing me more information.”

“That’s what they do when they’re trying to recruit you.”

“Did she tell you where she grew up?”

“No.”

“L.A., then Florida.”

I was drinking too fast, which gave me an excuse to leave Jake at our table to get another beer at the bar, and to think of a way to make him shut up.

“But you didn’t get her number, did you?” I said when I returned.

“The more I saw of Scientology, the more crazy it made her look. After an hour, I was looking for a way to get out of there.”

“That’s just an excuse for not asking her.”

“Are you angry at me?”

“No,” I said.

“You sound angry.”

“I’m not.”

“You’re mad about the Scientology girl?”

“Who, Shirley?”

“Then what?”

“Nothing.”

“You were hoping I’d get converted.”

“No I wasn’t,” I said.

“You sent me in there knowing I was down about the breakup hoping I’d come out a Scientologist. That’s why you wanted me going in alone.”

“No,” I told him. But a drunken confrontation wasn’t out of the question.

“You’re kind of an asshole,” he said, and went up to the bar for another beer, or to get away from me.

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