There was a woman screaming on Park Avenue yesterday morning, flecks of furious saliva spraying from her twisted 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 brick: It’s not my fault and a run of foul names, then It’s not my fault and another run of names. It’s not my fault, you (blank). It’s not my fault, you (blank)ing (blank). It’s . . . not . . . my . . . fault, not my fault, you evil (blank).
I don’t know, maybe, whatever it was, it really wasn’t her fault. But the cell phone and the make-up, her dark purse, her blue coat, her warm leather gloves¯the accoutrements of sanity around that raging 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 passing crowds fixed their eyes at uncomfortable angles and hurried by. A child stared in anxious fear, till his mother began chattering about breakfast, over-bright and over-loud 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 in the window of the storefront behind her. Then the traffic light changed, and I crossed the street away from her. 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 yesterday, in the bank’s vestibule after work, among the automatic teller machines. 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. Every shop window dresses up its mannequins in Christmas clothes, and every apartment building’s railing wears its strings of lights and tinsel. There in the bank, while I checked my balance, a man was talking on his cell phone, one foot up on the window sill, as the Christmas shoppers hurried past outside, their arms full of packages.
"It’s not my fault," he said. "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 a lie? He was smoothly 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 that sort of smooth charm, in fact, that always grates in my ear with falseness¯he launched into a long story about how he didn’t really want to sue them, whoever they were, but then he was the kind of person who needed to see that he got his rights, and it wasn’t his fault that they had messed everything up.
It’s not my fault ¯the cry we’ve made every day since Cain was born. Down somewhere in the heart, there’s always 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 fight: It’s just the way things are; it’s not my fault. What would genuine innocence look like, if it ever came into the world? I know the answer I am called 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 blankly in their trances, like charlatans with a crystal ball. Like mediums calling the dead.
I emptied my pockets on the way home: 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 .