This is a repost from my regular blog here. It documents one particular difficulty I did not anticipate when looking for an apartment in New Jersey. I thought it would be a good introduction for this profile.

"Cody does not find a suitable apartment"

"I'm a very religious person. I probably should've told you that on the phone."

.: So began a three hour conversation with a potential landlord/roommate. Some background: I start grad school in September, but I want to spend the summer here beforehand to get a feel for the place. I can only withstand so much culture shock, you see, and I'd rather not have it from both grad school and Jersey at the same time.

.: I researched some apartment listings online, but I also wandered around campus looking for fliers with those little tearable phone number slips. I found one that looked decent: $530/month in a shared household; I'd get my own room. I called the number on the slip, and the man answered with a distinct but not oppressive east coast accent. The house was far from campus, and I was without a car as well as ignorant of the bus routes, but he said I should go by foot because I probably needed the exercise. Likable enough.

.: I started in downtown and reached his house in just half a back of sweat later. Not bad time. He answered the door and immediately showed me a copy of the lease. "By the way," he said, "I'm a very religious person. I probably should've told you that on the phone."

.: I told him I just spent the last five years at Baylor; I was used to being around religious people. "Are you Baptist?" he asked. I must confess, I hadn't anticipated this natural follow up to my statement, so I fumbled a "No..." and let the matter rest there, hoping he wouldn't pursue it.

.: He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was going into plant biology. "I was real big into plants a long time ago," he said. "So peaceful."

"Well," I said, "not always."

.: In what I thought was a continuation of the topic, he said he wanted to show me something special when I was done reading the leasing information. I figured something was up when I got to the last line in the handwritten section on house rules: "This is a Christian household. If you hate God do not move in!!!"

.: That's when the crazy started. The "something" he wanted to show me was two statues -- one of Mary and one of some saint -- that wept. He keeps them in his room, right next to other iconography and, for some reason, this poster of the fundamental particles of the universe.

.: The babble came fast and furious. "Cody" -- for I made the mistake of telling him my name -- "This right here is proof of God's majesty. These are actual tears -- unexplainable tears. And they came from nowhere. Matter, from nowhere. I didn't put them there. Nobody put them there. It's not like somebody came by and sprayed water on them. I've heard people say it's humidity and condensation, but that doesn't make any sense. God directly broke the second law of thermodynamics. So the big bang theory has another headache. But that's what they still teach in school."

.: I may have received only a B+ in physical chemistry, but I know damn well that's not what the second law of thermodynamics says. In fact, I told him as much. I also told him that the big bang theory was first postulated by a catholic priest. He dismissed both facts without much consideration and bemoaned once again the current "gospel" being taught in schools.

.: His attention returned to the statues. He pointed to the places of the miracles -- namely, the faces -- and mentioned how they are without blemish or dust, unlike the tops of the heads and shoulders. This was strong evidence because, as we all know, miracles of God are kept clean. He then took the opportunity, since I mentioned my Baptist environment, to alleviate my fears by explaining that Catholics don't worship icons. "These are objects."

.: He then asked me if I liked photography. I knew where this was going. He pulled out a well-worn binder of photographs and placed it atop the glass casing of an old record player (the house scored massive retro points, if nothing else). He flipped across page after page of excruciatingly detailed photographs from disposable cameras until he found the one that he, presumably, thought most impressive. It was a picture of a man standing in a parking lot at night. Stripped of the important details (as we shall soon see), it looked pretty much like this:

.: But this was no ordinary picture my ordinary eyes were gazing upon! There was something else to behold, something that (according to the testimony of Mr. Miracle) the eye didn't see at the time the picture was taken -- because the human eye and cameras work exactly the same, so when they don't record a phenomenon the exact same way, we should get all worked up about it.

.: No, when this picture was developed, there was magic smoke everywhere. What's more, I had a handy guide right next to me who could interpret the significance of every whirl and twirl of said magic smoke. The billow to the left of the guy, see, was clearly God's guiding hand giving a thumbs up (I am not making this up; he is):


.: Let me assure you (though you have no reason to trust my artistic ability) that I am accurately representing the contents of the photograph with my renditions. (The fingers, I confess, are an embellishment.)

.: Then, right next to the guy, you can see a seated Jesus Christ with His right hand raised in the air. No outline distinguished God's hand from Jesus', obviously -- it's smoke. But he assured me the two were separate:


.: But the next one is truly astounding. To the right of the man you can see, as clear as day, the beak and two wings of the holy spirit (who is, I did not know, a bird):


.: So there's the Trinity right there. But you know catholics aren't content with just The Big Three; naturally, they have to bring along Mom, who you can plainly see praying in profile:


.: You can kind of make it all out too, can't you? Even though it's just my poor drawing (from memory!) of an equally nebulous apparition caught on film, you can kind of see a godly thumbs up, an angel bird, and a burrito-shaped Virgin Mary. But like I said, I had a handy guide right there telling me what I should see. He had picked out all the important details to highlight and ignored everything else. In reality, the photo looked much more like this:


"Cody, you wouldn't believe it, but some people once they look at this tell me they don't see anything." This anomaly (their negative reaction to the miracle, not the miracle itself) is explained by a lack of grace from God. That's not what he said, of course. What he really said was God's grace towards him allowed him to see the otherwise clear as mud miracle in the image; I'm only assuming that the logically consistent converse also applies.

.: I still hadn't said much by this point to challenge any of his assertions. As gently as possible, I asked him if he had ever shown the picture to other people without first explaining what they should be seeing. He said he hadn't, and he seemed confused as to why he should.

.: I tried to illustrate by analogy with double-blind tests in medicine: neither the patients nor the doctors know who's receiving the medicine and who's receiving the placebo until after the results are recorded. Likewise, a simple test for the anomaly in the photograph would be to give people two photos (the "miracle" and an ordinary photograph) and ask them to point out the one with the miracle in it. Unsurprisingly, he felt no need up until now to perform any such test, but he did happily offer me the task.

.: I didn't get a chance to tell him that it's not my burden, because he liked to move from topic to topic. He returned once more to his statues, and I couldn't resist offering another test concerning the perennial cleanliness of the their faces: the parts that accumulate dust all happen to be horizontal surfaces; the weeping faces are both vertical. A simple test would be to lay the statues on their backs, face up, and see if dusts accumulates.

.: He objected, "That part isn't really that relevant."

"Well if it isn't relevant, why would you tell me in the first place?" Subject change.

.: There were several annoying refrains throughout the conversation. "I used to be a skeptic like you when I was younger" popped up more than once, as did "I'm a scientist by training too." (Electrical engineering, in case you're collecting data points for the Salem Hypothesis.) For some reason, maybe because I have a bad habit of nodding my head when somebody talks to me at length, he assumed I was religious, even though the only information I offered on the matter was that I was not a Baptist. Far be it from me to correct him. Maybe, I thought, he'd listen a little more closely to what I said if he weren't immediately prejudiced by my renunciation of belief in God (a folly strategy, I realize, but whatever).

.: The last miracle he thought worthy to mention had to do with some old lady who allegedly lives on nothing but the wafer used in the Eucharist. I pointed out that there are those who can one-up that claim, and his youthful skepticism returned! I also offered a simple test for the old lady's claim: ipecac. We would expect the stomach of someone who lives on only a meager wafer to hold nothing more substantial than acid and mucus. A single kernel of corn would give the game away. Unfortunately for him, the test is one-way: nothing but mucus and acid could simply mean she hadn't eaten anything that day, not that she eats nothing else ever.

.: Mr. Miracle demurred. "What could be more simple than just watching her?" Indeed. What could be more simple than maintaining constant surveillance of an elderly woman for weeks on end, never letting her out of your sights for a moment, recording her presence on camera and having others review the hours and hours of footage? He's right: one sip of ipecac is too complicated.

.: He wants it both ways: he wants the real-world validity miracles offer, but he immediately rejects the use of any real-world methods of verification. What gets me is that he shouldn't be afraid of such investigations, because when push comes to shove he always has an ace card up his sleeve: Satan.

.: Satan, I've learned, is the Great Unfalsifier. So the lady took some ipecac and barfed up tuna salad? Satan put it there. He's capable of miracles too, I was told. And as near as I can tell, his role is to render all religious claims unfalsifiable. Can't see God's presence in the picture? Satan's messing with your grace. You can see God's presence in the picture? Congratulations, you've bested Satan!

.: I'm sure some thoughtful Catholic reading this will correct me and tell me that's not how Satan really acts, according to church doctrine. Thing is, I'm not the one who needs to be told that. This wackaloon is the one claiming to be an adherent to doctrine. But there are more simple Catholics than there are thoughtful Catholics (his words, not mine, so spare me the griping), and for them miracles and cartoonish visions of Satan are more important than philosophy and reason. Unfortunately, the childish superstitions this man holds are unlikely to be repudiated from behind the pulpit any time soon, and until they are I am free and right to criticize any religion that tolerates them.

.: Damn shame, too, because the house was a pretty nice place. Decent sized room, serviceable kitchen, and nice location, plus the cheapest rent I could find. Of course, overnight visitors were forbidden -- he does not abide fornication in his residence. (This kind of moral steadfastness did not preclude him from describing the balcony as "a nice place to look at all the cute girls passing by.") He described a previous female tenant in more than flattering terms but was quick to point out that he doesn't take in tenants to date them. "Phew," I said, placing my hand on my chest, "I sure am relieved." He squirmed a little and said, in all seriousness, "No, I don't do that kind of thing."

.: We said our goodbyes and I left. I never told him what I really thought. In fact, I told him quite a few things that I didn't think. I'm a little ashamed of that, too. I wish I were more open about my beliefs, if not for integrity's sake then for pragmatism's:

"I'm a very religious person. I probably should've told you that on the phone."

"That's nice. I'm not a religious person."

"Oh. On your way, then. No need to talk to you for three hours."

"Very good. See you never."


.: There is one redeeming aspect to this story: on the way back to my motel room I hailed a taxi cab. Before driving off, the driver had a short conversation with a fellow cabbie. Apparently somebody had committed suicide by throwing themselves on the train tracks, and this had caused several delays and considerable loss of business for the taxis by the station. The friend said something about this being a reason why people should go to church:

"That's what happens when you don't believe in God -- you commit suicide."

My cabbie vehemently agreed:

"People who don't believe in God are fucked up."

.: I sat the whole ride in silence. When we finally arrived, I reached for my money and said, "You know, concerning that conversation you had with your friend, I just wanted to say that I don't believe in God and I love my life. Here's your fare."

.: He paused for a second, genuinely, I believe, bemused. "You don't believe in God?" he asked incredulously.

"I don't," I said, gently closing the door and walking away.

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Comment by Cara Loryn Hammer on August 11, 2009 at 1:47pm
I've immensely enjoyed reading this. That experience was priceless, and I'm glad you didn't shut him down, lol you know you'll remember that guy forever. Unfortunately, this story bursts my dreambubble picture of Jersey as a secular utopia. Don't know where I got the idea...wishful thinking, I suppose. You write well. :) As for the taxi drivers...I'd think if any profession would drive someone to the realism of atheism, it would be cab driving. I'm surprised they were god fearin'.



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