There was a woman screaming on Park Avenue, flecks of saliva spraying from her mouth as she raged into her cell phone, “It’s not my fault.” Over and over, like the high-pitched squeal of a power saw cutting bricks: It’s not my fault and a run of foul names, It’s not my fault and another run of names. It’s not my fault, you (blank)ing (blank). It’s not my fault, you evil (blank). It’s . . . not . . . my . . . fault.
I don’t know, maybe, whatever it was, it really wasn’t her fault. But her cell phone and makeup, her dark purse and blue coat, her warm leather gloves—the accoutrements of sanity around that face of public madness—made her seem guilty, somehow. Guilty of something, down to the bone. The man at the Salvation Army kettle kept his tense back turned against her as he rang his Christmas bell. The crowds of passing strangers fixed their eyes at uncomfortable angles and hurried by. A child stared anxiously till his mother began chattering about breakfast, overbright and overloud as she tugged him around the corner.
I saw the screaming woman for a moment framed by the giant candy canes and white Christmas garlands soaped on the window of the storefront behind her. Then the traffic light changed, and I crossed the street, my shoulders hunched in self-protection. It’s not my fault, you evil (blank). It’s . . . not . . . my . . . fault.
Is twice a warning or only a coincidence? For I heard the phrase again that same day, in the vestibule of the bank after work. New York is still one of the world’s great Christmas towns. Too dirty for too long to clean up well just for the holidays, Manhattan still makes a brave show for the season. The shop-window mannequins sport their Christmas finery, and the railings on the apartment buildings don their strings of lights and tinsel. Maybe movies—from Miracle on 34th Street on down—are what have made New York’s Christmases seem so iconic: the ice skating at Rockefeller Center, the skimpy elf costumes on the strutting Rockettes at Radio City, the sleigh bells on the horse cabs, the piles of toys at FAO Schwarz, the window displays at Lord & Taylor.
But at least, as a result, New York still tries. There in the bank, while I waited in line for an automatic-teller machine, I watched the city’s shoppers hurrying past, their arms full of Christmas packages, and listened to a man talking loudly on his cell phone, one foot up on the window sill.
“It’s not my fault,” he explained in a confident boom. “I’m just the kind of person who has to keep after things.” What is it about self-justification that always makes it seem so false? About that phrase “I’m the kind of person” that always makes it sound like the beginning of a lie? He was well dressed in loafers and slacks, a nice overcoat, and seemingly indifferent to the fact that the people at the ATMs could overhear him. With the effortless patter of a story told many times before—with the sort of smooth charm, in fact, that fails because it announces too openly just how charming it is trying to be—he launched into a long tale about how he didn’t really want to sue, but then he was the kind of person who needed to see that he got his rights, and it wasn’t his fault everything got so messed up.
It’s not my fault—the cry we’ve made every day since Adam took the apple. Down somewhere in the belly, there’s an awareness of just how wrong the world is, how fallen and broken and incomplete. This is the guilty knowledge, the failure of innocence, against which we snarl and rage: That’s just the way things are; there’s nothing I can do; I wasn’t the one who started the fight; it’s not my fault. What would genuine innocence look like, if it ever came into the world? I know the answer my faith calls me to believe: like a child born in a cattle shed. But to understand why that is an answer, to see it clearly, we are also compelled to know our guilt for the world, to feel it all the way to the bottom.
I sometimes wonder to whom all the city’s cell-phone talkers are speaking. People all around them, thousands and thousands: there, that angry balding man slamming past in his stained parka, and there, that coatless woman with the deliberately unfocused stare smokers wear as they stand with their arms crossed outside restaurants, and there, that tired-looking girl in the sweater trying to stop a taxi, and there, and there, and there—an endless stream of presence, and still they shout or murmur on the street, pouring secrets and imprecations into their clenched phones and throat microphones. Talking to the ones who aren’t there. Communing with the absent, like fortune-tellers with a crystal ball. Like mediums calling the dead.
Sometimes New York hints at something different. There is a strange impression the city gives after a snowstorm—a kind of epiphanic feeling, a sense of being taken for a moment out of time. People walk in the middle of the streets. A few pull out their skis and slalom down First Avenue. The taxis all disappear, and for a moment the whitewashed city looks clean and small-townish.
But New York cannot play for long at being the New Jerusalem. The ultimate time-bound place, it cannot step outside the rush and rattle of commerce. The supreme City of Man, it cannot pose as the City of God. With their town bright and almost pretty, New Yorkers act for a few moments as though things have changed—or rather, as though these few moments don’t count, as though the apocalypse of falling snow has lifted them out of time and the storm had left them for an instant clean and unhurried. Last winter, I saw an old-fashioned toboggan—ten or twelve feet long, the wooden slats curling to a two-foot swoosh in front—being drawn along 14th Street, filled with laughing children. Who has room to store a toboggan in Manhattan on the off-chance of snow? Someone, clearly. Someone who has been waiting years for the white apocalypse.
Most Christmases, however, there are only cold drizzles, the icy rain that never seems to wash anything clean. I emptied my pockets on the way home from the bank: another Salvation Army kettle, a drunk man on the sidewalk with a hand-lettered sign I couldn’t read, a woman rattling change in a paper cup. I hate the city, all tarted up in its tawdry Christmas clothes. Mewing us together on its streets, it forces us to see the human stain. It forces us to know. It’s not my fault, I muttered as I blew on my cold hands. May God have mercy on us all. It’s . . . not . . . my . . . fault.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things. This article was originally printed in the December 2006 issue.