Magazine | February 8, 2010, Issue

Apocalypse, Please

I have made no New Year’s Resolutions because I spent the first week of January watching specials about the end of the world due to take place on Dec. 21, 2012. Since my 74th birthday also fell during this week, I would ask those of you who regularly tell me that you pray for me to keep up the good work. Ask not for me to be spared, just that I will still be around to see it happen, because for a misanthrope it’s a consummation not to be missed.

It’s too soon to tell whether the next human race that replaces us in some 60 million years will call us the Gedds or the Lypses. Their archeologists will find shards of videotape cans so marked and eventually put together “Armageddon” and “Apocalypse,” but they will have to be really high-tech to restore what I saw with a mere flick of the remote. It was Nostradamus Meets the Mayans all the way, one channel after another, each with a solemn voiceover saying, “Not if, but when.”

The History Channel did another in their Life After People series but they’ve been airing these for some time, and they’re tame compared to the new line-up. They carefully point out that they don’t claim to know why people disappeared, only that they are all gone, and then show a lot of grass and weeds growing on skyscrapers, bridges, and other engineering miracles until, untended, they eventually collapse. The underlying message is that we need people, which is why the only thing I liked about the series was its title.

Then came the New Year’s Revelations. We got a two-hour “factualized” fictional account of a family — mom, dad, and teenage son — who survive a pandemic disease that kills most but not all Americans. We follow their experiences from the initial stages of coping, on through rage, hysteria, emotional numbness, paranoia, hunger, thirst, and so on, supplemented by explanatory commentaries from doctors, sociologists, and assorted experts. Two of their experiences are real sucker punches. One is New Year’s Revulsions, when they find the toilet won’t flush and the shower goes dry, guaranteed to trigger our special American terror of smelling bad built up by decades of deodorant and air-freshener commercials. The other is New Year’s Restitutions, in which the menacing talk we have heard of late about “taking back” our communities is presented as natural, legal, and inevitable when an armed gang, the remnants of a town, shoot anybody they feel like shooting to keep out looters.

The factual fiction ends anticlimactically when the dad scratches his hand while repairing something and, lacking antibiotics, dies of an infection. There’s a way to cure that. Just switch to the Discovery Channel, where professional survivor Bear Grylls is building a raft to escape the Ever­glades. He, too, scratches his hand, and he, too, lacks antibiotics, so he pees on his hand because the ammonia — or something — in urine has antiseptic properties.

#page#Someone certain to scratch his hand is the star of the History Channel’s new show, Apocalypse Man. He’s trapped in a big city after a disaster has killed off most everyone else, and he can figure out a good use for every piece of rusty junk he finds. An old bicycle pump? He uses it to siphon off gasoline. Grappling hooks? He can swing from roof to roof instead of walking on streets where other survivors can attack him and take his bicycle pump. A flashlight? He advises us not to carry it down at the hip in the old civilized way, but up at the shoulder so you can slam it into the face of someone trying to take it from you.

What he really needs is a map of the city grids so he can travel by sewer and come up under the manhole of the street he wants. He knows just where to find it, too — and why. “You probably didn’t have a library card before,” he says, “but the public library has just what you need.” Then, in a delicious throwaway line, adds: “In Hurricane Katrina, the library was the only place that wasn’t looted.” He finds his grid map and navigates the sewers without saying a word about Jean Valjean.

Where is all this heading? Try New Year’s Remunerations. If you remember the backyard bomb shelters of the ’50s, you know “enterpernoors” are going to make a lot of money from it, just as they have from identity-theft panic. Somebody will market a flashlight with flip-up brass knuckles, or for the kids, grappling hooks. This will be a boon for parents fed up with permissiveness; if Junior gets scratched they can pee on him.

Or try New Year’s Reservations. The Titanic centennial will be ruined. By April 1912 our definition of disaster will be so engorged that a mere collision with a mere iceberg will be nothing more than a Lypse that went blip in the night, a quaint Retro-Gedd that missed the boat.

As for the election of 2012 — why bother? If real panic ensues a dictator could take power, but who? Obama seems consumed with what your average inner-city manchild calls “acting white,” but while Harry Reid might take comfort from this, a panicked populace chanting “Do something!” will yearn for the powerful specter of the Angry Black Man, if only to find some there there.

Who else? The mainstream Right is full of soothe-sayers who will try to shrug off the doomsday prediction and tamp down the panic with sideways grins and constant reassurances that “I’m a glass-is-half-full kinda guy.” The most likely candidate for president-dictator is one of the oleaginous power-preachers on the radical Right who would rather count Remnants than votes. If he could convince enough people that they will be among the Saved, he would win by the biggest landslide, as well as the lowest voter turn-out, in our history.

So here we are with 35 months to go, waiting for the other shoe to drop. If it does, it won’t really matter because we have fulfilled our New Year’s Reparations and elected our first black president. Our work is done. Now we can belong to the ages.

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