I was running late this morning, after a bad night—plague of planes from JFK, the roar of a neighbor’s ancient air-conditioner (on a cool night yet), and Norbert up to his old tricks, knocking the phone off the desk and overturning the kitchen garbage, looking for pepperoni—but still, there was no conflict about whether or not to go down to the beach for a swim before boarding the A train. Today is the Feast of the Assumption, or Ferragosto, the name day (in Europe) of all people named Mary, and the occasion of a pleasing superstition: if you go into the water today, you will have good health all year. Also, lest we forget, alternate-side parking is suspended on this day, commemorating the Assumption into Heaven of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In parking terms, the Assumption is really the only thing August has going for it, though, like Fourth of July, this year it falls on a Wednesday and doesn’t do anyone much good.
I had time for only a quick dip. There was a calm sea, a negligible amount of seaweed, clams at the high-tide line, and a few piping plovers ranging and cheeping on the beach. I caught a wave of just the right soft exuberance, towelled off, clapped my cap on my head, and was almost on the boardwalk before I realized that I wasn’t wearing my glasses and remembered that I’d stored them in said cap and had felt some obstacle while putting it on . . . I went back to look for them. They are very lightweight glasses, and I was afraid the breeze or a gull might have carried them away, but before I had time to panic I spotted them on the sand. At the deli, where I stopped for takeout coffee, the woman behind the counter said, “Have you been swimming already?” I told her about the traditional August 15th dip, and another customer said, “Oh yeah—the cure.” I felt like an evangelist.
I had to hustle to get the train, but my luck held. “You’ve got time,” said a man at the turnstile. I recognized him from the neighborhood: he has brown dreadlocks gathered into a thick tangled ponytail. “You’ve got two minutes. It comes in at 9:06, this train.” It was 9:04. The A train was late at Broad Channel, however. A storklike black woman did yoga on the platform, balancing on one leg. I finished my coffee and ate a banana.
I was in for a really rich meal on the train: I have reached those chapters in “Decline and Fall” where Gibbon treats the rise of Christianity. Some months ago, I was at the train station at Saxa Rubra, nine miles north of Rome, which, I wrote (rather glibly), was where Constantine defeated Diocletian. Well, it turns out that Diocletian was that rare emperor who abdicated before being murdered (he retired to Dalmatia to plant cabbages), and it was the army of Maxentius that Constantine defeated at Saxa Rubra. “The emperor himself attempted to escape back into the city over the Milvian bridge,  but the crowds which pressed together through that narrow passage forced him into the river, where he was immediately drowned by the weight of his armour. His body, which had sunk very deep into the mud, was found with some difficulty the next day. The sight of his head, when it was exposed to the eyes of the people, convinced them of their deliverance, and admonished them to receive with acclamations of loyalty and gratitude the fortunate Constantine, who thus achieved by his valour and ability the most splendid enterprise of his life.” [Footnote No. 1 (mine, not Gibbon’s or Oliphant Smeaton’s): This is that very same bridge, the Ponte Milvio, where lovers write their names on padlocks, attach them to posts on the bridge, and throw away the key; and where sellers of padlocks are doing a land-office business. There was an article in the Times about it.]
In the thrill of battle, Gibbon failed to mention Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, but that is no doubt because he wanted to give himself a running start. So far, I have read only the early parts about Jews, pagans, and early Christian proselytizers. This morning, I got to a section on the immortality of the soul, in which Gibbon backs up all the way to Moses. Smeaton, too, is pretty excited, and contributes a footnote that takes up an entire page.
While I have been reading these chapters, I have noticed around me on the train people who are reading Hebrew. Sometimes they move their lips while they read. Stealing a look at the pages open in front of them, I am dazzled by the typography and layout. I knew that Hebrew read from right to left and that the books opened from back to front, but I didn’t know that the text was laid out in dipperfuls of prose surrounded by text in columns of varying width, with sidebars and marginalia and footnotes. Gad!
Meanwhile, a woman next to me was carrying a small paperback called "The Art of Lying." She didn’t open it for the whole ride.