One block from work, my phone stops playing music for no good reason. Ordinarily, I’d assume I’d hit my pocket just so, but there’s no chance this time. My hands were out, drumming the air in a mostly unobtrusive way to “Zero” by the Smashing Pumpkins. I really don’t think it was me. The phone’s on the fritz. Sometimes it does this, and I have to just find another song. Just one of those things–something else in the world going wrong. I’m scrolling through artists, wondering if I want to spend the rest of the day listening exclusively to The Police, when I think, “HOO BOY! I’m really going to die someday!”
I said I thought that, but really I shouted part of it at a street vendor. Picture a man walking along, thumbing through his iPhone, walking past a food cart, suddenly screaming, “HOO!” with a look of surprise and a bit of a faint smile.
It’s certainly not the first time this thought has occurred to me; first time I had it I believe I was three or four years old. In the pie chart of Thoughts Most Thought in My Head, it’s probably somewhere between “I want to have sex” and “I could really go for some tater tots.” In junior high, I almost stopped reading horror novels because it no longer seemed to matter if the characters lived or died, since they were all going to die someday (only later realizing that, all things considered, it was better to go in one’s sleep than to be carved up by a clown wielding a rusty chainsaw). These days, I’ve gotten used to the thought, scolded it for being cliche, and yet still it comes bounding along from time to time, in varying strengths and severities. It stops by, says hello, menaces me a bit, then flitters away again to wherever it goes after that.
But like a slap, the thought can be playful or painful. For whatever reason, this morning, it’s born hard–a real sharp crack right across the cheek of my half-awake mind. The smile on my face is because I find the sudden severity of it amusing, and my masochistic side is closely tied to my sense of humor. Call it self-schadenfreude.
It’d be the same if someone came running around the corner with a giant mallet and hit me hard in the stomach. I’d go down, sure, but I’d do so laughing, because, honestly, who does that to someone? Like putting pureed habanero in someone’s OJ, it’s rude but so funny.
Then I’m on the south side of 20th Street, heading west toward my building, watching people walk past me with their dogs and their own iPhones and iPads and Kindles and things, thinking, “Yep. I really am gonna die. Rumor has it it can’t be avoided. And no afterlife, not for me, dirty atheist that I am. It’ll be like before I was born. Remember that? Sure don’t! That’s the good part. I don’t think I know what death’s like, but, really, I do.”
The mind-melting idea of nonexistence, the suffocating lack of any thoughts at all, terrifies me. I cling to fantasies: that maybe everyone else is playing a giant joke on me and no one really ever dies and someday all the people I think are dead, like Stanley Kubrick, my grandfather, and Osama bin Laden, will pop up over the other side of my cubicle and say, “Surprise!”; or that someday, given infinite time, the universe simply has to repeat itself, and I will return to relive my life an impossibly long time from now–a resurrection through recycled molecules, the spiritual equivalent of monkeys eventually randomly retyping Hamlet.
Such thoughts rarely work, and they didn’t today, either. The people passed me, I passed the people, that old drink-to-the-face thought evaporated, and I pushed play on “Next to You.”
Then I went into work and wrote some computer code.