the destroyer > the vent > Marina Petrova


“Miss, can I ask you a question?”

He is the cab driver and I am his passenger. Hard to say no.

“Sure,” I say.

“What’s the point of a Christmas Tree?”

I have lived in New York long enough to form a habit of deducing the driver’s religious affiliation by his choice of headwear and the thickness of his facial hair. This driver is wearing a crisp white turban and has a bushy black beard – I’m guessing Sikh. Time is about 8:30 am. Temperature outside is about 30 degrees. Weirdness of the question on the scale from 1 to 10 is about 14.5.

“It’s tradition,” I say, “that is the short answer.”

“No good,” the turban sways unhappily.

I don’t owe him an answer but I look for one. It’s buried deep in the dusty attic of my brain, haphazardly thrown in the box with old derivative formulas, ripped driver’s manual pages and lyrics to ”Tainted Love”:

A Christmas tree is a relic of a pagan time, a time when gods were plentiful and had no qualms about hanging out with mortal folks. A decorated tree was a part of a fertility ritual, people danced around it so crops would grow better. Then Christianity came around, the new God was a bit standoffish but told the faithful to keep the tree to boost his popularity, probably not anticipating how tacky baby Jesus will look as a tree topper. In contemporary times, a Christmas tree became a symbol of another ritual, known as the holiday shopping season.

I relay this to the driver, skipping the baby Jesus and the holiday shopping reference.

“No, no good also, not true,” he says.

But it is true.

He runs a red light and repeats the question.

“What do you think the point is?” I ask him instead.

A broad, crooked smile transforms the driver’s weary face in the rearview mirror. His hollow cheeks fill out, his unibrow lifts and his bloodshot eyes glisten a bit.

“The point of a Christmas tree,” he says “is to symbolize the beauty of God’s creation.”

Bingo! We are on 66th Street and Broadway but have arrived at an intersection of blind faith and organized religion.

“You have to accept God into your life, miss,” he adds.

Seems to me though I don’t have to do that, in fact, there is not much I have to do besides brushing my teeth in the morning, staying away from wild bees and not pushing little old ladies into elevator shafts. I definitely don’t have to talk to self-righteous cab drivers, how about that sir?

I imagined I said that, once I got out of the cab, instead of pretending to read emails on my phone.

“All the good in this world comes from God, miss,” the driver adds. “If you believe in God then you can be good. But you cannot be a good person if you don’t believe in God.”

“Really sir? Are you trying to tell me that religious people are always good?”

That is what I actually said. What’s a little logical fallacy between a cab driver and a passenger at 8:30 in the morning? But the driver only shakes his head again without losing the jovial grin.

“No, no, miss, you don’t understand, you don’t understand, God makes you good, but you have to believe in the true God.”

That clarifies it! Thank heavens and the almighty someone finally explained this to me!

“Do you know how many people have killed in the name of a true God over the last couple thousands of years, sir?”

“That is true,” he agrees and his whole body sags as if all those sins of the faithfully suddenly fell on his shoulders. “But those people, the ones who did bad-bad things, they will not reach salvation, you know? There will be no salvation for them in the end. They did not really believe.”

“They certainly thought they did! What the hell, sorry, what is the difference? If you do good things, why does it matter what you believe?”

“God cares about your salvation, miss, God wants you to believe.”

“How do you know?”

“What do you mean?”

“How do you know what God wants?”

He looks at me in the rearview mirror, puzzled and disappointed, probably thinking that I am an imbecile who accidentally fell off the salvation wagon due to the pure inability to understand. An imbecile I might be, but I am no longer irritated. I find it hard to be truly angry with someone who is concerned with my salvation unless, of course, that someone is my mother.

On the way to salvation we pass the church on 5th Avenue and 54th Street. A crowd is gathered outside. There are velvet ropes along the stairwell holding back the paparazzi, eager tourists and sleepy but curious office workers. Traffic nearly comes to a standstill.

“What is going on there?” the driver asks, “are they shooting a movie?”

“I don’t know,” I say, then I remember. “No, it’s not a movie, sir, today is the funeral for the three little girls who burned in a fire in Connecticut on Christmas night.”

I remember because this story kept getting media coverage on the account of being heart-breaking beyond any reasonable doubt which always translates into ratings for the news networks. The house burned down. The girls’ mother made it out of the fire and so did her boyfriend, the one who took the smoldering coals out of the fireplace and left them on the back porch before the family went to bed. He took the coals out because the girls worried about Santa getting burned coming down the chimney.

But that’s not what happened. Santa never showed but the back porch was made out of wood.

My boss went to the girls’ funeral service later that day. He lives about 10 houses down from the family. He said the girls’ father could not walk; he had to be carried in. He described the three small coffins on the mantle.

If I was God and this had happened on my watch, I would resign and go into early retirement or at least consider some professional development courses. Thinking about the girls’ mother feels like having the insides of my stomach polished with sand paper. So I clench my teeth and try to breathe.

My driver is saddened but seems to remain calm. “Ai-ai-ai, he says, “what a tragedy.”

No shit, I think.

One thing I will give to religion – it comes in handy during the times of major, mind-boggling, unprecedented catastrophes. The belief that life does not end at worm food has the effect of a cough syrup, it soothes the throat and potentially makes one slightly high.

“Do you not believe in God?” the driver then asks.

“I… I don’t know,” I say. But the truth is I probably don’t. I just haven’t seen enough evidence as to his existence but I have, however, seen plenty to the contrary.

We pass a black suburban with a license plate “TUNA57.” The crowd outside the church keeps swelling.

“And all your touch and all you see is all your life will ever be,” isn’t that how the song goes?

“You have to believe in God to be a good person, miss!” the driver says.

“Why?” I ask.

I highly doubt that in the matter of about eight blocks we can make it to salvation, even with all the traffic on 5th Avenue.

“Because all the good in this world comes from God; there is no light without Him.”

“All right,” I say.

Good people are always so sure they are right.

Barbara Graham said this, it is her one and only famous quote, it made the history books and was uttered by her before her execution in a gas chamber in 1955.

Barbara knew a thing or two about the good people as she and two of her cohorts killed a 64 year old widow named Mabel. The plan was only to rob the widow, but she got stubborn and refused to tell where she stashed her money. So Barbara cracked Mabel’s skull with a pistol and then, later, suffocated her with a pillow just to be sure.

Turned out Mabel had $15,000 worth of jewels in an old purse hidden in the back of her closet, one just had to be patient and know where to look. But Barbara was not taught patience because her mother left her at the age of two, on the account of being a teenager who was being sent to a reform school, the same reform school Barbara herself ended up in few years later. Not sure what the school did for Barbara’s mother, but it successfully reformed Barbara into a prostitute.

Long story short – Barbara and two of her customers decided to rob Mabel. They did not find the jewels but were promptly caught and executed. Barbara was 31. That’s when she said it, about the good people, always being so sure. I wonder if she thought about God or salvation as the guards led her into the gas chamber…

And whether what she really meant was “fuck you.” Would she still make the history books and what would the good people have thought if she did say it?

It is hard to predict what the good people would think, but I have seen what they could do. They, for example, once planted a few dozen of wooden white crosses, each about a foot high, in the yard of a prominent Baptist church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee right across from my high school. So I walked into my US History classroom in the morning and boom, there they were, stark white, practically sparkling, like candles on a birthday cake.

Each white wooden cross represented an aborted baby. Hands on approach to US history, one could argue.

It is because of all these aborted babies that I failed my AP Physics test that day, due to never making it to AP Physics, on the account of spending that hour in the girls bathroom with my friend Amy, who was crying uncontrollably while I was standing next to her, awkwardly stroking her hair, not knowing whether my touch was helping or making it worse.

“I am going hell,” Amy cried.

I was completely lost. I was not prepared to address the topic of eternal damnation. Cheating boyfriend, sure, best places to smoke pot without leaving the school campus, you bet, horrific wardrobe choices of our chemistry teacher, with pleasure, but hell was not my forte.

“I got a scholarship to Chapel Hill… My parents would have killed me if they found out. What would I do with a baby?” Amy cried.

Amy’s parents put her on birth control. But the thing about birth control is you have to remember to take it otherwise there is not much control.

‘Maybe… maybe… maybe there is no hell?” I said.

But instead of making Amy feel better I only made her cry harder. I could not understand why.

That night someone drove a pickup truck all over the church yard. The next day the good people took down the crosses or what was left of them.


I googled Sikhism as soon as I got to work. Wikipedia said that it was a monotheistic religion; Sikhs were a minority and were prosecuted, by the good people, I assume. That, along with the fact that Sikhs wear turbans, I already knew. I wanted to know more.

Wikipedia also said that Sikhs were all about finding salvation, the route to which lay through personal meditation on the name and message of God. There was no concept of heaven or hell. But Sikhs were expected to control their internal vices and work on their virtues, like faith and justice. For a complete list of included virtues, Sikhs could consult a sacred text or an enlightened guru. They were also expected to defend the rights of all those who are wrongfully oppressed, regardless of religion or color. The latter sounded good and had nothing to do with God.

Wikipedia told me nothing about Sikh’s view on Christmas trees or how to make sense of it all: three little girls, Mabel the widow, Barbara Graham, crosses in the church yard… Either the good people did not write Wikipedia or I was typing in the wrong search words.

Did Barbara Graham even have a Christmas tree growing up? Did she believe in Santa and was she disappointed when it turned out that he did not exist?


The cab driver pulled up to the curb and unlocked the door to let me out.

“They took down the big tree at the Rockefeller Center, you know miss?”

“That’s a shame,” I said. “It was really pretty.”