Three Conversations, One Answer: Let the Good Times Blow!
by Jim Knipfel
Let me tell you something I just learned about my friend John, something that makes perfect sense and ties in tight with something that's heavy on my brain. We were watching Conquest of the Planet of the Apes at John's place, nestled snug up against the Gawanus Canal.
John's an architect, and before the movie got underway, he explained that his entire visual sense, his architectural vision, was inspired by this film. I was mighty impressed. I was even more impressed after the film was over.
For those who haven't seen it, it involves an America of the near future; an America which has become a sterile police state. At some point, a virus from outer space wiped out all the planet's dogs and cats, so people started adopting apes as pets. The apes evolved some, and soon enough they became a slave class. Caesar, a super-intelligent chimp, shows up on the scene and organizes a violent ape revolution. The End.
Funny thing is, at the beginning of the film, we learn that it takes place in Los Angeles, 1991. Take that as you will. It's also interesting in that it's a film that has you hoping that a bunch of apes will wipe out all of humanity.
Back to John for a minute. I guess you could say that he and I are pretty grumpy most of the time. The worse the news gets, the happier we are. Just think of us as "Armageddon Buddies."
So he calls me a few days ago, all excited.
"I don't know what it is," he said, "but something's going on. Something big's gonna happen--you can smell it in the air. I mean, a picture of a man levitating on the front page of the Times? Nerve gas attacks? Strange religious cults popping up everyplace? Something is getting just fundamentally weird as we get closer to the millennium. I just realized that I'm stockpiling water and batteries--and I don't even know why! "
"Yeah, I know I can smell it. Thing is, people aren't paying much attention to it."
"Some day soon, the whole fucker's just gonna blow."
"We can only hope... Problem is, what if we survive?"
"But that's the best part--getting to play around in the ruins--it'd be like living in that last Herzog film about the fires in the Kuwaiti oil fields."
"I guess I said at the time that that's the world I always wanted to live in. Yeah, maybe, but Christ, we'd still eventually end up like Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, watching Woodstock day after day after day. That's a nightmare I can't handle."
"Y'know, that's actually something I've been thinking about lately. I'm living like that now--barricaded all alone into the top floor of a fortress-type building, with my blow-gun perched by the window--"
"But instead of Anthony Zerba and his zombies coming out at night to get you, you just have gangstas and hookers--"
"Yeah, but they still stand down there on the corner, mocking me."
I thought about this for a minute.
"Maybe the world has already ended, and we were just too bored to notice it."
"God, I hope not. I want to be there to see it."
"Yeah, me too."
The next morning, Phaedra called, and while we were chatting about this and that, she brought up the imminent end of the world, too.
"Ooh, honey, it's comin'," she said with no little glee. "The whole time I was living in Philly, I just kept waiting and hoping for it, but now I'm getting the real feeling that it's just about here. Everybody's going crazy." Phaedra was very excited.
"Y'know," I told her, "something I've always said, and I'll still say today--I won't feel as if I've really lived until I look across that river one day to see the mushroom clouds rising over Manhattan." Then I asked her the same thing I asked John.
"Aren't you just a little worried that you might survive?"
"Oh, honey, that's where the fun is. If it happens, you're gonna die anyway, so why not play around for awhile afterwards?"
All this started to strike me as a little bit odd. Two phone calls in two days, both of them independently predicting the end of the world. Not religious zealots waiting for the return of Christ, not neo-nazis talking about a coming race war. Just two intelligent (if cynical) people coming to the conclusion that we're in the end times.
It's an issue that's always obsessed me, and recently I'd been doing a bit of reading about fin-de-siecle Europe, just to see what kind of connections I could make between then and now. So a couple of weird religious groups popped up, but they didn't commit mass suicide or acts of urban terrorism. So a few people started writing hyper-violent plays, but they left the violence in the theater. That's about it, really.
Maybe it just has to do with the fact that we're not just talking about the end of a century, here. We're talking about the end of an entire fucking Millennium. Maybe that's why folks are so itchy. Or, maybe, hopefully, that's why the whole world really is going mad.
As if the world was intent on proving me right, that afternoon I received my very first neo-nazi greeting card in the mail. On the cover is a little line drawing of a Viking with a long, confusing quote from Ragnar Redbeard. Open it up, and it says "The highest law of nature is the preservation of one's own kind. Dare to dream the Iron Dream." Soon to be in a Hallmark store near you.
The real kicker came the next morning. I was sitting at the table, drinking a mug of cold coffee and eating a bowl of cereal, when the phone rang again. As usual, I let the machine get it.
"Aaahelloo there, Mister Knipfel, aarrre ya there? Missster Knipfel?"
It was Ken, King of the Millennialists. Of course, I wasn't thinking that at the time, I was just thinking, "Oh, it's Ken." I picked up.
Ken was more excited than any lawyer should ever be allowed to be.
He'd just read about the big cockfighting bust in the Bronx, and figured it was something I needed to know about. He also thought I needed to know that Frank Sinatra, Jr., was going to do a two-week stint at Tavern on the Green. But that wasn't all he was thinking about.
"Look at these stories from just the past few days--chain gangs are coming back, cockfighting, prisoners being put in stripes again, nerve gas, biological warfare--something Big is happening. I'd been having my doubts lately, but this just reaffirms everything I'd always hoped. It was like we came through a bad twenty years, starting with Gerald Ford, where nothing really happened. There was punk, but that never turned into anything. But now it seems the weirdness is spreading like wildfire."
"It's the end of the world, Ken! It's the end of the world!"
"There's something going on. It's like we really are turning back the clock--on the one hand, back to the days of Jack Black and Raymond Chandler, and on the other to--"
"The end of the world!"
"The thing is, I've been talking to other people about this, and they can feel it, too. It's not an isolated feeling."
"I only hope we're finally right about something."
Later that afternoon, I brought all this up with Linda. Linda never does much talking about the apocalypse. In fact, she usually tends to act as the voice of reason when John and I get too excited about mushroom clouds and mass hysteria.
"The problem you two have," she told me, "is that your imaginations are too good. If it does happen, I don't think it'll be the glorious technicolor movie you guys are picturing in your heads. Remember that mushroom clouds are created by people--and I think people are just too fucking incompetent to ever pull it off. Even if they tried, they'd just screw it up somehow."
"If the world really does come to an end, it'll probably end up being really boring."
If that is the case, maybe I was right earlier when I suggested that it's already happened, but nobody noticed.
One Answer: Let the Good Times Blow!" copyright 1995 by Jim Knipfel.
Published originally in the NYPress.