Dateline: Downtown

Dateline: Downtown

Dateline: Downtown

Dan Roche

I saw Sisyphus by South Station the other day. I’ve seen him around for years. He used to live in Copley after he escaped from Hades, but he’s recently moved downtown (yep, back to Hades.) He’s traded his rags for a pair of Dockers, work boots, a quilted jacket and some thermal underwear, and his boulder for a two-wheel dolly loaded with two hundred pounds of gewgaws and doodads, which he covers with a tarp he’s fashioned out of trash bags and duct tape.

OK, so maybe he’s not the real Sisyphus. He’s a homeless man I’ve kept a wordless relationship with for about a decade now. I entertain theories about him: by turns, he’s been a brilliant engineer driven mad by his own genius, bent on completing an impossible project for which he is endlessly acquiring materials; a former middle class family man who lost everyone to a Christmas Day air disaster that only he survived, and is collecting furnishings for some future house never to be–or he could just be a pack rat. I’m not sure.

I’ve seen him in the swelter of summer, fought the wind (and lost) with him in white hell blizzards. I offer him help with his load and he never responds, he only trudges on. His body ripples with muscle and his face is taut with concentration. I’ve never seen him at rest.

He’s probably not unhappy. His face is smooth, though weather worn, without the giveaway signals of deep suffering that cloud the faces of so many homeless. I like to think that he’s perfectly content doing what he’s doing, that it’s the rest of us who are wasting our time, and if it weren’t for people like me bothering him he could carry on with his cryptic mission, thank you very much. It’s nice to think that with the thousand uncertainties of the 21st century mindset, where nothing is trusted and everything becomes a question answered only by “I don’t know”, somebody, somewhere, knows what he is about, and that I can find that someone by walking down Atlantic Avenue a ways.

“Do what you do and know why you’re doing it.” It’s a nice dictum, and one I followed for a while. Then one day I realized–not only did I not know what I was doing, but whatever it is I was doing would lead to no good end. I’m still extricating myself from the consequences of the decisions I made that I was so certain about once upon a time.

The fact is, postmodernism is necessary. Nobody likes it, but we have to question everything, ourselves first and foremost. Yes, it’s leveled everything we hold dear; our conception of God, our ethics, all of the traditional safeguards we’ve built our society on. The universe isn’t orderly, and all of the attempts we’ve made for centuries to impose order have become chimera. There probably aren’t any universal truths, and that is a terrifying conception of the cosmos. Paradoxically, it may be truth that there is no Truth.

This isn’t an attack on faith- faith is beside the question, an entirely personal choice. I’m simply stating that everything we know or think we know as a species may be utterly false. It’s a real possibility. Not much holds up to deductive reasoning if you follow it thoroughly enough, and that deductive reasoning is the cornerstone of the free inquiry we’ve taken to. It’s like a Chinese finger trap; we’ve stuck ourselves, and yanking is only going to hurt. We can gently extricate our digits and walk away, and that’s a reassuring, though ultimately unsatisfying, prospect.

Because there may be no way to bust the trap. I wish I knew where this is all leading, but as of early February 2007 the editor of the Mass Media opinion section is just as messed up in the head as any of you out there. Probably moreso. No answers. Sorry. If I weren’t so thoroughly agnostic, I’d be in a monastery. But here I am, and here you are, and a few miles away from us a determined man pushing his weight in electrical equipment uphill downtown may be the only one who really knows what is going on, what he is about, and who doesn’t have a blessed doubt in the world. It’s just like Dickinson said:

In this short LifeThat only lasts an hourHow much — how little — isWithin our power.

…And ain’t that the truth?