When he asked me if I wanted a nuclear weapon with my chicken burrito, I sensed this was no ordinary fast food worker. Did he know what I did for a living? How did he know? I brushed such concerns aside and looked him straight in the eye. I said I preferred a world without weapons of mass destruction. Then I paused.
Was it possible to order the burrito and hold the nuclear warhead?
The dude shrugged. Sure, he said. You want the nuke stored or dismantled?
Dismantled, I said. Preferably in a transparent, verifiable and irreversible manner. I paused. Actually, I added, can I change my order?
He lifted an eyebrow. Who am I to argue with free will, he said.
Make it 23,000 burritos. One for every nuclear weapon on the planet.
No problem, he answered. But you only have to order one burrito. As long as it's a Chicken
Colita ®, you can dismantle as many nuclear weapons as you like.
This guy held his poker face throughout. He was hardcase.
I told him he might get the Peace Prize for this. What we were talking about was complete nuclear disarmament. A straight-up deal -- nukes for fast food. It would be known through the ages as the Taco Nobel.
He ignored me. He keyed in what I imagined was the nuclear disarmament value combo meal bonus. You want a comprehensive nuclear weapons test ban with that? He said.
The line of people behind me grew restless.
Throw it in, I said smiling. Pour quois pas?
Then I caught the hungry, predatory look in his eye. I also noticed that either the guy had a really bad case of sunburn or his pigmentation was extremely ruddy. My eyes flitted down and caught the name on his tag.
It said: Seitan.
Everybody asks, he said.
He leaned over and wrote out two syllables on the back of a napkin. Say-tahn. He broke his first smile. Pretty freaky, huh? You can call me Wheat Meat if you prefer.
I want macrobiotic I don't come to a taco joint, said a gentleman in the line behind me. Between his shorts and his shirt, he displayed an unintentional peek-a-boo hairy midriff. He indicated he was not part of the slow food movement and would appreciate a little service.
Seitan sent a placating wave to the guy. Let's talk about this on my break, he said and looked past me to the next customer.
I moved away without ordering anything. I had lost my appetite. For burritos anyway. I went across the street and got some sushi.
& & &
After noshing on a salmon and avocado roll avec ginger and wasabi, I emerged and glanced back at the taco place.
Out front, under the arch of the faux adobe facade, Seitan sat at a beat-up, bolted-down table. He waved me over, using a pair of red tortilla La Bomba ® Burritos as semaphore batons. Funny guy.
When I arrived, he pushed one of the burritos at me. Sliding it across the table.
No thanks, I said.
He nodded knowingly. I understand, he said. You're a Chicken Colita ® guy and you want to save the planet. Well, listen to me, the nuclear-weapons-abolition bonus applies equally to La Bomba ®
burritos. All you have to do is take one bite, and you got yourself a nuclear weapons-free world.
Sensing the tiniest hint of pejorative irony, I explained that I worked for a non-profit, non-partisan organization that was devoted to ridding the world of the most immediate catastrophic threat to humankind.
This wasn't a joke to me. It was my work.
Non-effective, he said.
Non-partisan, non-profit and non-effective.
I told him it was easy to criticize from the outside.
He told me to sit down, take the chip off my shoulder and relax. Then he recited my favorite quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:
"It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it."
Seitan told me that I had taped it on the cubicle wall above my office desk in 36 pt Times Roman type. The only problem, he continued, was that I didn't really believe in the quote. Or myself. The quote was like much of my life, a exhortation built on a rationalization -- some nice rhetoric that balanced guilt, idealism, hope and the fantasy idea that what I did mattered in the larger scheme of things. Mostly, he said, the quote and my focus on it did little but help me feel less of a fraud as a role model for my children.
Am I close? he said.
A direct hit was more like it. I felt mortified -- as if I had been morally undressed by this ruddy-skinned stranger and found to be a mound of spiritual flab sensa backbone. I did not immediately respond.
Here, he said, backing a dump truck through the conversational opening. Here are the guts of the deal:
On the down side, he admitted that eternity was a long time to suffer skewered on a human-sized rotisserie over never-ceasing flames. But what a good cause. And think of the legacy to the planet after I left. There is little doubt that such an achievement would make peace leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King look like rank amateurs.
It took some time for me to recover my equilibrium. The epic nature of the offer could not be denied even if its connection to reality seemed awfully tenuous. But to be honest, Seitan had a credibility that everyday reality often lacked. And, to be even more honest, I couldn't help but fantasize a little. If they had trading cards for peace heroes like they did for baseball, I would be a shoe-in.
I felt the tingling go up and down my spine as I opened up -- just a little -- to the possibility that Seitan might be selling more than heart disease in a tortilla.
I told him it was a disarming proposition.
He shrugged and said he tried to mix it up a little, personalize his promotional opportunities. It was a loss leader, yeah. But business was slow. And the publicity that would come with this particular deal could spur demand for centuries.
I still had reservations. I made the point that selling my soul for nuclear weapons abolition could well be unnecessary. The world was changing. President Obama not only had a brain, he was an internationalist. And in Prague a couple years back, he had already set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons.
Seitan smiled. How do you think he got to be President?
People power, I suggested.
And the Peace Prize goes to a President actively involved in two major military conflicts?
A vote of confidence?
Next you're going to tell me that Afghanistan is a good war.
He guffawed. You kill me. I wish I had Obama as a client. But whether or not I happen to be the chosen social networking vehicle for change is irrelevant here. The point is this: good doesn't get done without some sort-of tailor-made, customized, negotiate-to-fit solution. Life is complex. Speaking of compromise, what about Jesus? The guy got snuffed in his prime in what was obviously a set-up. Talk about a deal.
I brought the conversation back to temporal concerns.
What about my wife and kids?
Don't worry, said Seitan. On earth, they're going to have long lives. And so will you. You will not lack for comfort or sustenance. Your cup will runneth over big-time.
Come on, he said. Ask not what you can do for one burrito. Ask what one burrito can do for mankind.
I waited a moment -- not long considering it was my soul at stake.
Then ... well, sometimes, you just feel it.
I picked up the La Bomba ® burrito, added Lengua de Fuego ® Salsa and took a chomp on the biggest nuclear weapons news story since Manhattan moved to New Mexico.
Seitan looked smug.
I cleared my throat. A little respect for a guy who just sacrificed himself to bring peace to humankind, I told him.
He smiled like a cat. Self-satisfied. Superior.
We didn't say anything about peace, he said. We didn't say anything about the next generation of WMD either, he added. They should be ready for testing around 2019 -- if I remember correctly. They're far more powerful than nuclear weapons. Revolutionary new way to kill people, apparently. Whole new arms race.
He looked at me and watched. Like any grifter, he enjoyed the moment when the greedy mark understands just how deeply he has been duped.
But then, I was enjoying the moment, too.
I took another bite of the burrito and asked for the promised combo. I feel like celebrating, I said. You hungry?
These new weapons will make nukes look like kiddie firecrackers, he said. He looked at me as if I hadn't understood.
Seitan, I said. Seitan, Seitan, Seitan. I sighed in the friendliest way I could while still offering an unstinting amount of condescension. (It's not every day when you get to dis the Prince of Darkness.)
Let me read you my other favorite quote. I took a worn piece of paper from my wallet.
"Problems will always torment us because all important problems are insoluble; that is why they are important. The good comes from the continuing struggle to try and solve them, not from the vain hope of their solution."
Arthur Schlesinger, I said. Junior. Look, Seitan, I know there will always be weapons in this world. But let's get things in context here. It's rare that humanity can address something like this head on. Think about it. The examples are few. State-sanctioned slavery, lack of women's rights ... and now the abolition of nuclear weapons. Even if it's temporary, this will give hope to many people. In spite of future weapon developments. 2019 or whatever.
I stopped for a second and offered the unchewed end of my burrito. You want a bite?
But hey, forget the planet for a second, I said. Think about yourself. This has major image makeover potential for you, big fella. Talk about a comeback story. Fallen Angel Fends Off Fallout Forever. It's got
redemption written all over it.
I told him I had a funny feeling that the publicity that would come with this particular deal could spur individual acts of courage and good deeds for centuries.
He told me to shut my sanctimonious mouth and not to think that hell's fires would pain me any less just because I was a smart-ass. (To be honest, he was losing his temper. Not cool. Especially with a mortal.)
You are going to fry forever, he shouted. You won't be so sanguine and sassy when your flesh get char-broiled till it hangs off your bones.
Just then the manager of the taco joint poked his head out. But he wasn't shushing us. He was excited. Said something about the news just on TV -- there had just been a breakthrough at Geneva and it looked like they were going to get rid of all nukes. All nukes.
Just like that, he said. Everybody's in. Even the Israelis. They're singing Kumbayah with the Palestinians, for Chrissake. The Iranians say nuclear weapons are a sin against Islam. And everybody says it's for good. International inspectors. Verifiable. They say it's a reprieve for
the planet. The manager shook his head, his smile full of wonderment.
I thought maybe Seitan would erupt, but instead he shut down. Guess he didn't want to blow his cover. I took advantage, getting so close I could whisper.
You're problem, I told him, quoting Oscar Wilde this time, is that you can resist anything but temptation. On the supply side, I mean. And yes, I have my pathetic, frail, deeply ironic moments and you are a supernatural being and all. But guess what, there's a little sucker in all of us. Now I'm destined to be a martyr for peace, the world's lease has a little longer date, and faith has temporarily skyrocketed in humanity's ability to deal with its own problems. I call it the Reverse Doktor Faustus Effect. New urban legend. I'm blogging and tweeting about it tonight.
So, yes I'll burn in hell, but you were right. It's a bargain. Thanks, Seitan. You're a sport.
Follow Steven Crandell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stevencrandell