The Madness of Clarity
An explanation is in order.
One morning around twenty-five years ago I was on a subway train, headed to Fulton Fish Market. I wasn’t going there to buy fish, but a few dozen yards of Cat-5 wire from a spot called Cables N’ Chips. Weirdly enough, the store still exists, billing itself as a “New York Institution” alongside a seemingly infinite stockpile of those.
Anyway, there was a madman in my subway car. That in itself wasn’t strange; New York was filled with moon-bayers and cuckoos of every flavor. This one looked straight out of central casting, wearing a rumpled brown trenchcoat over an old blue suit. Not “vintage” or “retro”. Just too old for him, and too big. He was quiet, mouthwise. But his whole body was vibrating like a tuning fork, or the final note of a death metal anthem.
At a certain point in the ride, the madman took an intense interest in yours truly. I felt The Eyes on me, in that sixth-or-seventh sense way us New Yorkers do. So I kept a bead without keeping one, if you know what I mean.
We were still a few stops out from Fulton when he made his move. My corner-eye caught him reaching deep into the breast of his coat. I remember thinking:
This is it. You’re John Conner, kid.
And Discount Arnie is about to blow your goddamned brains out.
But instead of a heater, he pulled out a phone.
Not a “smartphone”, mind you. All phones were stupid back then. Not even a flip phone, or one of those giant dinosaurs the white collars tooled around with for a while in the early-90s What he fished out was a plain plastic receiver, complete with a curly-cue wire. It was the kind of thing Ma Bell gave you for “free” back in her heyday, when she was busy cornering the market on disembodied speech. And yet he pulled it out like he was drawing Excalibur from its sheath.
I couldn’t help but look at him directly. He kept his gaze steady on mine as he lifted the phone to his mouth, a weirdly hunted look in his eyes. Like he was afraid of me, as deranged as that sounds.
I don’t know what he whispered into it, or what — if anything — was whispered back. But at the next stop he was gone, baby, gone, sprinting down the platform and barking into his crazy phone like a Secret Service agent, then disappearing from every part of my life until this very article.
I’ve had many encounters like this. Too many, my friends might say. But they’d only say that in a laughing way. I recount for them tales of the deaf-mute car thief who I swapped notes and then punches with in a basement bar, the parole-breaking injun on the Greyhound trying to smuggle himself back into Canada, the Michigan cabbie who smuggled a kidney to a hospital on Halloween. Very close to Hell, Michigan, if that matters. And for a good punchline, I guess it does.
I don’t mind that they laugh. It’s perfectly fine. I know how to tell a story as a joke, including the sad and scary ones. It’s a skill I attribute to my grandfather; a man who survived a month of absurdist bloodshed on a tiny, shitty rock in the West Pacific. But I can’t help but think that part of why they laugh is that they often don’t quite believe me.
Not that they think I’m lying. I’ve been blessed with friends who, like me, sport bigtime bullshit meters, and who can’t abide liars as a species. But I sometimes wonder if they think I’m embellishing, or maybe misremembering history in a way that favors a good yarn. Not lying per se, but nip-tucking the truth out of artistic instinct instead of for advantage or out of malice. I don’t even think that’s a bad thing. We chisel the messy past into sharper myths and legends to make sense of bigger things. In fact — as an anon — much of my work on this blog requires the application of art. Not to embellish, but to obscure and disguise as a defensive measure.
Except when it comes to my constant encounters with lunatics, that is. Because, like all the best jokes, my secret is that I’ve been telling those kinds of stories arrow-straight, for my entire life.
Phone Guy wasn’t talkative. Not to me, at least. Or to anyone else, most folks would claim. After all, what other party could he have been possibly exchanging words with, over his stinky armpit line?
No one and nothing, is what the strict materialist would say. “You were right the first time, Mark. The dude was clearly cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.”
Because of course he was.
Because, what else could he be?
Like I said, I have stories that are far screwier than that fragmentary moment on a train. For example, my black market organ ride to Hell on Halloween sounds like something out of a movie, which fails at being funny or scary because it's too obvious, or is trying too hard. That so many of these tales can be corroborated isn’t even a proper defense; after all, who doesn’t want to be written into a good yarn, even if they know it’s 80% horse apples?
But it’s the stories I don’t tell that keep me up some nights. Most of those aren’t even what could be described as stories, and couldn’t be shaped into ones even with the best hammers and chisels on Earth.
How do I tell the story of Claudette? The melodramatic, bipolar, childless, hasbeen actress with the Long Island brogue, who haunted my favorite smoking spot for years, and who cried in my arms countless times about her loved and despised dead mother?
“Mark, I miss my mom.”
“Where’s my mom, Mark? Where is she?”
Or of Daniela, the bipolar, childless, obnoxious drug addict and Nightmare Tenant who still pretends to be a party girl at 65, who inflicts herself on neighbors and strangers, who is always calling me “Brad Pitt” and “Johnny Depp”, who flatters me because she wants something from me, just like they all seem to want something.
Not money. They never ask for that, and I don’t have any even if they did. Besides, I know for a plain fact that none of them are homeless. Maybe some are on a path to the streets, but they sure as hell ain’t there yet.
So what do they want?
Even “companionship” seems like a stretch. Most of what I get from these regular irregulars sounds like a news broadcast conducted at gunpoint, where the anchor’s pleading eyes don’t come anywhere near matching his bizzarro words. And yet, just like Phone Guy, they seem to lock in on me time and time again. It’s possible — even likely — that they themselves don’t know why.
And while I’m sure all of you have similar tales, I’ve noticed an extreme discrepancy in my case, and one that only seems to be increasing in number and intensity over time. They come at me in waves, like bats echolocating in the dark. Sometimes it’s two or three encounters in a single day. Especially lately.
I can’t help but wonder why.
A recent example:
A man named Ron approached me yesterday morning. Ron is 64 years old, wears a black eyepatch, holds no discernable job, and tools around with a big dumb friendly “Support Animal” of a golden retriever. Ron claims to have an Alzheimer’s-like condition, for which he’s on seven different medications to control. I know this because he’s told me the same thing in excruciating detail at least four separate times over the past year alone. So the whole “control” part is definitely not working.
“And please, because of my memory condition, ya know, I mean, if I told you all of this before, please don’t hold it against me. Because I have this thing with neurotransmitters up here (points to his brain’s right hemisphere, just above the eyepatch), so I might tell you the same thing over and over and over…”
Like every other instance where we’ve met for the first time, Ron gives me too much information (or perhaps not nearly enough, for Doctor Bisone’s taste). He didn’t remember my name or face, he said, but he remembered me, remembered I was sitting with him and drinking a soda (in actuality, a seven-and-seven cocktail loaded into an iced tea bottle). So, here he comes, bounding straight over with that smiling blonde dope in tow.
Ron is somehow both scrawny and potbellied, with tiny, soft hands that tremble uncontrollably. I don’t know why Ron wears his pirate patch. He claims — in typical materialist fashion — that it’s due to some obscure and incurable psychological illness, linked to some form of undisclosed trauma. He says the neurologists can’t figure it out, and say there’s nothing physically wrong with him. For once, I agree with those idiots. It sounds more like a magical spell or curse. And for all I know, it is.
My wife was with me on this occasion. But while Dame Bisone has had her own solo encounters with him, I was Ron’s obvious focus this time, spotlit in his monocular frame. We sat politely as he inflicted himself, an old married couple listening to a radio transmission from a bunker on Mars. At a certain point, while Ron rambled on and on about brain scans and medicine, I interjected:
“Do you see anything beyond the flesh?”
His lone eye twinkles and shudders.
“No,” he says, almost offhand, but then starts talking about God and death and the afterlife at length. He claims to have been thinking about all of these things today, right up until the moment he spotted me.
Ron qualifies his “no” with a bunch of postmodern trash about “God being love” and whatnot. He’s a lapsed Manhattan Jew who knows the Torah well, and starts reciting chapter and verse to us. He talks of Jacob wrestling the angel, of Israel as the WWE champion of the religious game. The way he speaks, it’s clear he assumes we’re a couple of dunces who’ve never cracked open a bible, or a book of any kind. A fair assumption, these days.
Ron pounds away at the Jewish thing for awhile. “Let me tell you another Jewish joke!” he says, then takes the long, scenic route back to the Borsht Belt. I mostly say nothing in response to these, smile but do not laugh. Then he’s right back to medicine, physiology, psychology, material. He informs me that medicine is “empirical.” I tell him so is car repair, but you don’t bring your car to a grease monkey to fix the driver.
He laughs at that one. But it's that cold, strange, bitter laughter. For the third time — but still the first, for him — he says his greatest fear about whatever’s eating his mind is that he’ll forget how to commit suicide. He pauses for effect and studies me. I am careful not to give him what he expects or wants.
Ron is a madman, of course. Or “bipolar”, which seems to be the default diagnosis of the age. I know this because he constantly tells me. All of them tell me, wearing it like a badge of honor from a thankless war. I also suspect many of them have been diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, if only from the litany of drugs they’ve been prescribed. But bipolar sounds way sexier, almost adventurous. “I’m off on a bipolar expedition, my love. Keep the home fires burning.”
It’s also one of those magic words that are supposed to shut us sane folks up. Not only because it sounds very science-y, but because it’s also a stigma, and perhaps even a taboo. I confess it’s getting harder to tell the difference between all three of those categories lately.
I give Ron a hug before we part ways. I’m not a big hugger, as a rule. But I hug all of these bipolar explorers for some unknown reason. Maybe I’m hoping to somehow transmit something I can’t even name.
“You’re a kook magnet, Mark!”
That’s the usual explanation on offer, right after I recount one of these tales. It’s also the most boring one, useless due to broadness.
My wife claims it’s because I’m her “handsome boy,” and that the women are just drawn to that (and maybe some of the men. This is New York City, after all). Other times she jokes about me having the kavorka, which is nearly as broad and useless as kook-magnet, but at least has some ring of poetry to it.
But sometimes, when we’re both in a serious mood, she says:
“Maybe they just smell it on you, Mark.”
We both know very well what it means. It was the reason I took up the pen in the first place, why I wrote “The Devil Incarnate” as a precursor to figuring out how to write about the Harm Assistant. She doesn’t call it that, but she’s seen enough of its handiwork to know — not believe, but know — that it exists. Not as a metaphor or gestalt side-effect, either. Exists the way a cloud or a fire exists. A plastic and ethereal shape that can look like any number of things, to any number of people, and yet brings measurable, material and destructive effects to the table.
Most people only see its fingerprints, or snow trails quickly fading in the blizzard of modernity. We — and a few others — saw the thing in action. We saw it smash and bite, saw it play strange games designed to scare us off. Oddly enough, it has had the opposite effect.
And so, we get in a serious mood about it sometimes.
“Maybe they smell it on you, Mark.”
But what about before?
These sad and haunted wretches have found their way to me for as long back as I can remember. On the other hand, maybe causal time is even more of an illusion than I sometimes think it is. Maybe, when seen from some other perspective, I was always going to build it a meatworld puppet — or armature, or weapons platform, or whatever it was I nearly lost my mind and soul making.
And maybe that’s not the whole story, either. Maybe a human life contains several unseen forks and nodes where we actually do have a choice, and in those moments we become agents of Destiny instead of her prisoners. In fact, I’m as sure of that now as I am of anything. The question is what to do with that knowledge.
I have the same question pertaining to God and the devil. Yes, they exist. But what exactly am I supposed to do with that?
As some of you know, I have been absent from our little club for over a month now. I have been struggling with the next chapter of the Harm Assistant. It’s not writer’s block that’s been getting in my way. It’s been something much more serious.
Until now, I have been writing the series from memory, disguising various details as best I can. But for this part of the tale, I knew I needed to review certain production notes, photographs, video and other materials, in order to tell it properly.
I still have the laptop I composed the software on. Before July 7, I hadn’t cracked it open in almost a year. Something serious happened back then, too. You’d think I’d learn my lesson, but I’ve never been the sharpest knife in the drawer.
I unearthed the machine from its Faraday tomb, stashed up on the highest shelf in the closet. It took more than ten minutes to boot up. In fact, moments before my login screen appeared, I had all but decided to pull the plug. Then another ten to fifteen minutes passed, its processor grinding away like metal teeth on concrete as the OS tried to become something usable. It didn’t take nearly as long, last time. Maybe it had acquired something like Ron’s “Alzheimer-like” condition in the interim. I made some green tea and scrolled Substack while I waited.
I didn’t access the files directly. That might have taken an eternity anyway, given the machine’s dreadful state. I also confess to a bit of “superstition.” But if you’d seen what I’d seen on this haunted hunk of Chinese spygear, you might be a little superstitious too.
I plugged in one of my portable drives and started sifting through the file names and dates, copying over anything that rang a bell. I used a bit of what I found to start the article, but it was tough sledding. So much of this stuff doxxed-by-default that my attempts to disguise it might as well have been the product of fiction. This was particularly the case when it came to the project’s filmed components. Certain notorious names and infamous locations kept popping up, and were drained of their objective meaning once I costumed them.
I decided to take a short break from the piece, which has now stretched to more than four weeks of radio silence. During that time I began drinking heavily, my mood swinging wildly at times. Three weeks ago, I accurately and verifiably predicted the death date of a woman we knew, the mother of my wife’s oldest and dearest friend. The grieving daughter stayed with us for a week afterwards. On the last night of her visit I treated her viciously, detailing each and every one of her faults in a mocking tone that, in retrospect, sounded eerily familiar.
About that death prediction: I can’t find the words to explain it, or any other of the weirdly accurate predictions I’ve made over the years. The best I can say is they’re like phantom puzzle pieces that suddenly slam together. There’s been other weirdness like that in my life. I’ve discussed books and films I’ve never read or seen with fluency, for instance, and have been visited by dead people in my sleep.
I know, I know: that shit is impossible. It’s all hallucinations and dreams. Take your meds, Mark.
Except, I’ve never been on any meds. At worst, I’ll pop an Aleve or Benadryl from time to time. And I don’t discuss these strange events with people, including those who know me well. That’s some pretty Big Crazy to keep a lid on, if I know my schizos (and, unfortunately, I do). In fact, that’s the reason I don’t go into detail about such topics even here on Substack, under the cover of digital night. I generally only write about that which can be corroborated by at least one other party. The more — and more neutral — the better.
I know it’s not hubris. I don’t have superpowers, and wouldn’t want them. I know it’s not witchcraft, either, and that I’m not a witch. But I was, however, a very long time ago. A fourteen-year-old punk kid who did rituals with adults in the woods, and cast spells alone in my bedroom. All I can say about that time period is that one of those spells appeared to work. In the years to come, addled by sex, drugs and postmodern philosophy, I would reduce and rationalize that event to atomic dust. In fact, I matured into an almost perfectly godless adult, chasing pussy and the almighty dollar with all the other rats.
The same holds true for my work on the Harm Assistant. I wasn’t “casting a spell” but chasing fame and fortune — and actually smelling the possibility of those, for only the second time in my life. But once again there’s the twin mystery of causality and time, and added to that the one of fate-or-accident.
The short and seemingly irrefutable story is this: I poked a hole in some kind of invisible membrane, and something terrible leaked through. What does my intent matter, in that regard? Or, if it does matter, maybe the combination of pride and greed is enough to do the trick. That, and a mind darkened by pain and rage, both brain hemispheres humming on all cylinders, the space between them closing and sharpening to a near-infinite point. If you think about it that way, I guess it makes sense.
I’ve since put the machine back in its coffin. I’ve thought about smashing it apart with a hammer, burning its remnants in a drum. But for some reason, I just can’t bring myself to destroy it. Maybe some part of me feels like it’s become my responsibility. That I’ve become its custodian or guardian, somehow.
If that’s superstition, sue me.
Which brings me back to the loons; that endless parade of walking, talking non-sequiturs who uncannily sniff me out, the head-med lab mice who confess every wound and crime imaginable, who want to preach about a God they don’t seem to believe in, or one they twist and mutate into funhouse shapes.
What is it they smell?
There is another possible answer, and I hope it’s the right one.
Since I started writing, I’ve found myself in the digital company of powerful minds, both directly and indirectly. In the latter case, there are anons likeand , or public figures like and . In fact there are too many to mention. My Substack subscriptions list is swiftly turning into a phone book. These people are performing the necessary work of exposing all the buffoonish treachery which currently engulfs us. They also include several people I’ve come to know slightly, and even to work with on shared projects. As a group, they tend to be diligent, precise and, above all, pragmatic people, of the kind who attend to that which can be attended.
And then there’s me among them: a faceless wraith and disembodied voice, writing under a fake name and an unsolvable shibboleth of a masthead. Some stranger stamping the ether with thoughts about demons, robots and other monsters. A guy who looks at one-eyed Ron and doesn’t see a “mental illness” or “neurological disorder” but rather something quite a bit more serious at work.
I’m sure that some of my friends on the Tonic 7 pod and at Deimos find some of my writing elliptically strange, if not a pile of starkly unbelievable bullshit. I guess the latter would be far worse, if they thought I was just making stuff up. I’d much prefer someone thought I was a nutjob than a liar.
What I’m struggling with is that I don’t seem to be either of those. And yet, those people are the ones who single me out of a crowd, who report me to imaginary spies on underground trains. Or who try to invade my space, to get too close for comfort. I get the feeling we’re not as close as they probably think we are. Like most people, I have various modes I can slip in and out of, defensive shields that I can raise, snake charmers and snakeoil salesmen I can summon. If they notice I’m doing any of that, they never say so. They’re too busy broadcasting ill-conceived Big Pharma ads, and quasi-religious sermons about the Mother Earth Gaia Flying Spaghetti Monster Sky Daddy.
And yet, I hug these haunted maniacs. They are genuine hugs, and some of them have wept in my arms. I couldn’t figure that one out, or even come up with a decent theory about why I would do that, given my instincts and all that I know.
Then, last night, I thought about Poltergeist.
If you’re around my age, this image probably means something to you:
Among other things, the story of Poltergeist is about a TV that eats a little girl. The portrait of chaos above is iconic of that devourer, a chthonic monster of the telecommunications age. But it’s also an echo of the underlying tale’s true villain and victims.
The former is a demonic cult leader who persists in misleading and tormenting his bewildered followers in the afterlife. Under his spell of words, they see the little girl as a way into the light of Heaven. So she is snatched across the Veil, where they chase her like a beacon through the endless night. She is innocent and unknowing, just as confused and terrified about what’s happening as those lost souls who chase her.
What I like about this explanation is that it doesn’t smack of hubris, or even of intent. I don’t know much about what’s going on behind the Veil, and don’t claim to. I haven’t published books or earned degrees, and if I told you my name tomorrow you wouldn’t recognize it. I have been spared fame and fortune so far — and I think I’m starting to really grasp what it means to be spared such things
So in this version of what’s happening it’s not the Assistant they sense, but its absence. Someone who broke free of its claws, no matter how imperfectly. No matter how much I fuck up, like I recently did.
Or maybe it’s something else they see. Not in me but nearby, something on or around me. A little lightbulb in darkness, like the light of Carol Anne Freeling.
Not my light, mind you. I’m a deeply flawed man. I get easily frustrated, and am sometimes quick to anger. I have all the usual problems and vices, and a few of the rarer ones too. I put my pants on one leg at a time, and sometimes even screw that shit up.
But for whatever reason, maybe some thing-or-one has taken an interest in me. Not the Assistant, and probably not Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life. But the same one-or-thing that helped me beat ChatGPT to a pulp. Or used me as a vessel, maybe, to do that deed itself.
Maybe it’s not the right explanation. But I’ve decided to try to look at it that way for a while.
The best part is there’s no clarity in it. Nothing technical to obsess over or explain, no intricate theories or details to torment me, until one day I wake up stuffed to the gills with lithium, or talking to invisible agents over armpit-phones. I think maybe such searing, maddening clarity can only be rendered by a false light, flickered by a false god. The madness of seeing perfectly, but with one eye blind. Just like Ron.
And, yes, there are demons. I summoned one once, doncha know.
But maybe it’s better to sometimes shrug that off too, like a little kid who tries and fails to understand molecular physics, or how babies are made. To strive for the true light, yes. But to also find comfort in the blur and shade from time to time, if not peace in the black of night.
All will be revealed someday. Maybe even the real version of me, without this internet disguise. I get the feeling I probably won’t have a choice in that matter, if and when the time comes. On the other hand, there are all those forks and nodes. Maybe I’ll land on a hot one, and know what to do.
In the meantime, I’ll try to find a better purpose for the rest of the summer, and not get my panties in a twist about monsters-in-boxes. I will finish my story about that someday, but only to let go of it forever.
I don’t know if it still hunts me, but I no longer care. I’d even hug it if I could. That might work better than holy water or garlic, for all my dumb ass knows.
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