I should not have been surprised when the man sitting next to me on the subway started to lean over my shoulder and read the essays I was grading for my tenth grade biology class. I’ve always had a flair for attracting the attention of the most—shall we say—unconventional passengers: the ex-cons, the aspiring philosophers, the schizoids in need of medication. I could sense the man’s bug-eyed stare from under the folds of a black hoodie as the train pulled out of the station and I tried to make sense of a fourteen-year-old’s half-improvised, half-plagiarized take on evolution.
“Hey,” I heard the man say, “that’s some real Charles Darwin shit, isn’t it?”
I sighed as I circled an error in my student’s paper. Based on appearances, it should have been effortless to ignore me, to leave me in silence to write corrections in the margin. I surely looked as pale and grey and utterly generic as any bespectacled middle-aged man on the subway: an exhausted lump of protoplasm quivering in a cheap corduroy suit.
Yet something in my ostentatious mediocrity attracted people like my neighbor, the man huddled next to me in wrinkled jeans and ratty boots, his face blanketed with unkempt whiskers and blotches of eczema. Perhaps I signaled my own availability for conversation by being just about the only person in the car without buds in my ears and a screen flashing in front of my eyes. Virtually every other seat was taken by an aspiring cyborg.
“There’s nothing here about Darwin,” I said, hoping my fib might end the discussion. After grading thirty midterm assignments that afternoon, the last thing I needed was another set of half-baked ideas about natural selection. As it was, my students’ essays were causing me to question whether I needed to adjust my style of teaching or change my career entirely.
“That’s good to know,” the man said, his voice emerging in an insinuating whisper, a conspiratorial incantation of half-spoken consonants and softly oozing vowels. “Can you believe those lies about apes and shit they teach in some schools?”
I stuffed my student’s paper into the well-worn leather briefcase on my lap as the train pulled into the next station. I’d suffered through more than my share of sanctimonious lectures throughout the years. There was no shortage of pious fanatics trying to show me the error of my ways. The last thing I needed was a sermon by someone who appeared to be a born-again drug dealer.
“They never tell you about panspermia,” the man said, perhaps offering his version of a fix. “I bet you’ve never heard about that.”
Against my better judgement, I felt a response emerging from my mouth. My highly accredited ego could not allow someone to intimate a limit on my accumulated knowledge. As my wife liked to remind me, I had a habit of resorting to speech when silence would have sufficed.
“I know about the theory of panspermia,” I said. “The belief that life spreads itself across the universe. Viruses on asteroids and the like.”
“That’s no theory,” the man said. “Scientists have been hiding the evidence for years.”
“Evidence of what?”
“Life on Mars.”
I felt like I was in a study session with the stoners in my junior physics class. They were constantly pestering me with questions like whether the atoms in your fingertips were in fact tiny solar systems.
“They don’t want you to know about the disaster,” the man said. “How the Martians had to flee their world millions of years ago and make Earth their home. They don’t teach you about that at school.”
“No, they don’t.”
“People need to hear this. How we descended from those ancient astronauts.”
I squinted at the sooty array of glass towers as the train emerged from a tunnel and started across the bridge over a grey river. I had spent the better part of my career trying to teach people to rise above their elemental superstitions and come to terms with the world as it actually is. But with increasing frequency, I found myself getting stuck in variations of the same old argument.
“So you would rather be a Martian than evolve from apes,” I said.
My neighbor sank back into his seat and tugged on the string of his hoodie.
“It’s not who I’d rather be: it’s who I am,” he said. “It’s who you are too.”
I stared at the chimneys drifting past the window as the train entered a tunnel on the far side of the river.
“I know it’s a little hard to believe,” my neighbor continued. “That’s okay. There’s a lot of false information out there. It must be hard—even for a teacher—to sort through all the bullshit.”
I allowed myself a slight smile. If I thought it might improve—or, better yet, terminate—the discussion, I would have revealed just how skilled I was at that particular brand of sorting.
“Trust me,” my neighbor said, “if more people knew the truth, it would change everything. Just think of what would happen if more people knew where we came from—how it connects us to the sky, the planets, the universe.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The man scratched a nose crisscrossed with a network of red capillaries.
“If you think of things my way, our ancestors came out of the clouds to bring us to a new home,” he said. “Your way, we’re nothing but worms that learned to climb out of the mud.”
The man pursed his lips in a manner that was all at once accusatory and triumphant. Like William Jennings Bryant at the Scopes trial, he had made his case. As far as he was concerned, he had left me with nothing to fall back upon but my own puny faith in a theory that would carry me no further than a legless creature trapped in amber.
“It’s not my way,” I said. “It’s science.”
“False choice,” the man said. “Science or religion.”
“What’s so false about it?”
“Neither one tells us who we are anymore. Where we’re supposed to go. That’s why the world is such a mess.”
I hadn’t felt this helpless in a conversation since my first year as a teacher, when a tenth grader hijacked my lesson on the genetic similarities between human beings and our simian ancestors. She stood up in the middle of the classroom and declared that she didn’t come from no monkey. At least then I had the minor satisfaction of correcting her grammar.
“Where are we supposed to go?” I said.
The man smiled with gritty yellow teeth.
“You tell me.”
I shook my head as the train made a sharp turn in the tunnel. More than anything else, the man’s smile infuriated me. It was the leer of someone who knew he couldn’t lose because he would always play the game on his terms. Debating him made as much sense as debating the finches Darwin catalogued in the Galapagos.
“Maybe we shouldn’t waste any more time arguing about evolution,” I finally said. “Let’s just build a fleet of spaceships and go to Mars. We could escape this mess we made on Earth and go back to where we came from—not for the adventure of it but for the preservation of the species.”
The man was still smiling as the train pulled into the next station. He clambered to his feet as the doors opened, and before I could react, he balled his hands into fists and tapped his knuckles against my own.
“You’re good, man,” he said. “You might just have found the way.”
“Spread the word, man. Spread the word.”
Confident that the word I was supposed to spread was self-evident, my neighbor departed the train with a slouchy grace. He didn’t look back at me until he had stepped onto the platform.
“Spread the word,” he said with a finger placed at his temple. “Spread the word.”
As the train accelerated into the next tunnel, I looked across the car from one face to the next, hoping for some hint of recognition, a confirmation from the choir: a curled lip, a raised eyebrow. All I saw were the same familiar gazes fixed on illuminated screens. Perhaps everyone was killing time until the astronauts returned to Mars to reclaim our ancient homeland.
Wheels screeched on metal tracks and the overhead lights flickered as I reached into my briefcase for a notepad and pen. I still had a long ride until my stop and could have finished correcting my students’ essays. But first I wanted to jot down some notes on the different ways I might approach the syllabus for the next unit in my biology class. If I was going to be objective about the matter, none of my lessons seemed to be working anymore. As long as I planned on staying in the field, I was going to have to adapt.
Image Credit: Painting by Congo, a chimpanzee (1956-58)