Realcity has already covered its share of Family Radio propaganda, but we still had to see for ourselves whether the end was indeed here. After he’d worked a long brunch shift, Jeff and I took a gamble by heading to Times Square in search of expectant Rapturites. Arriving with 10 minutes left until the 6 p.m. Apocalypse deadline, we quickly scanned the crowd for any signs of commotion. Like any weekend evening, the streets were thick with humidity, tourists, promoters and tension. Cops paced around and a group of street punks (one shirtless with a combat helmet) strolled down the street carrying a hastily scrawled “End is Nigh” sign. We considered following them, but thankfully stumbled upon a throng of reporters surrounding an old man instead.
We shouldered our way through the mob to get a closer look. Amid the frenzy of electronics — cell phones, news cameras, voice recorders, handheld mics and more — we secured a spot directly next to the interviewee. His drab trench coat, nondescript round glasses, unkempt patch of gray hair and grim narrow face seemed more suited to nocturnal living than intense media attention. Despite this, and the crowd’s fervor, he was incredibly calm, turning to answer each question as quickly as he could process it.
“What happens if the Rapture doesn’t happen at 6 o’clock?” asked a reporter.
“There would never be any question in my mind that it wouldn’t happen,” he replied.
Robert Fitzpatrick, a retired MTA worker, had devoted numerous years and thousands of dollars to spreading the news. In addition to the standard street pamphleteering, he’d also written The Doomsday Code, a book about numbers in the Bible, and spent $140,000 on ads to publicize its message. With only minutes left, his work was effectively over. A Family Radio sign proclaiming Judgment Day hung limply off his messenger bag by a piece of string. The final minutes were a blur of heckled taunts and half-hearted interview prompts, but we did our best to keep track of what he had to say. Some people with poorly calibrated cell phones started crying foul throughout the crowd as their clocks struck six, their shouts only egging the others on. The trademark Pirates of the Caribbean skull leered overhead as a news ticker repeatedly scrolled “Apocalypse Now?: Is ‘Rapture 2011’ Really The End?” What had only moments ago been an uncomfortably bright sky had suddenly turned dark gray.
Looking out at the vast carpeting of people, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is where it would end. Were the streets to open up beneath us, Times Square may have been the worst possible location for survival. Bringing my focus back to the situation, I noticed that Jeff had caught Fitzpatrick’s ear and was asking him to clarify the biblical math that he’d used in coming to his conclusion. Before he could fully finish, a short, squat Latina women directly behind us screamed: “It’s 6 o’clock; we’re still alive!” Cries of celebration and a recurring “we still here” erupted from the crowd. Holding his Bible in search of a quote to answer Jeff’s question, Fitzpatrick’s look changed from an expectant stare to the faintest sneer of incredulity. Something had gone wrong and everyone wanted to know why.
The continued “we still here” affirmation was coming from a middle-aged man on my left. With clothes as saggy as his cheeks, the mustachioed Greg Packer had come from Huntington, New York specifically to witness the event. “If it was my time to go, at least I go out with a million other people too,” he said. When I asked whether it was possible that none of us in the crowd had been called up he only briefly acknowledged the possibility before returning to his chants. After the media excitement died down he planned on watching the Mets-Yankees game. Next to me, Jeff had Fitzpatrick’s ear again and asked which book of the Bible made him feel closest to God. With almost no hesitation he paged to Philippians 4 and read lines 5-8. The most telling line, “Be careful for nothing” did not go unnoticed.
“Thank you, Mr. Fitzpatrick. You’re not a careful man.” Jeff said.
“Right,” he said in a daze.
Across the circle, a black guy with jagged teeth and a “Times Square Comedy” hat seized Fitzpatrick’s attention to yell about spending people’s money. “That’s just ig’nant!” he ranted. Bringing a more calming presence to the crowd, a young guy with a full bushy brown beard, long hair and glasses made his way up to Fitzpatrick. “Come on. It’s time, let’s go,” he said, gently placing a hand on Fitzpatrick’s shoulder. Apparently Jesus had arrived as a late-20s hipster. He ignored any attempts at further incitement by other crowd members. Jesus was only here in peace. “We’re gonna figure this out; we’re gonna make our way through all the mumbo jumbo,” he said with assurance.
Six o’clock had come and gone, but the crowd had only grown larger. Passersby had hoisted children onto their shoulders for a better view and late reporters kept jostling their way into the mix. “So I guess I’ll see you around,” said one with an awkward handshake. “OK, perhaps,” replied Fitzpatrick. “I don’t know what happens next. I’m surprised that nothing has happened.” From the purposely inflammatory (“Do you love America?”) to the non-questions (“A lot of people are mad at you right now.”) the reporters could barely hide their contempt. Jeff’s question of why Fitzpatrick had chosen to spend the day here rather than with family elicited a more thoughtful response: “This is where I could do the most good, so as many people would hear God’s word. And God tells us that he saves by his word.” During this conversation, Packer was too busy commenting on a nearby police horse’s whinnying to consider the idea.
Most of the opportunistic hecklers had finally gone on their way, leaving Fitzpatrick at the full mercy of reporters. The most aggressive was Darla Miles from Channel 7, who busted onto the scene in a low-cut blouse and tight blazer to immediately capture everyone’s attention. While she meant business — and proved it by shutting Jesus down so hard that he left — her questions were just as routine. Jeff interrupted her interview for a few minutes with some questions of his own, but she quickly brought Fitzpatrick back for the one joke he’d make all evening:
“Do you have any money left?” asked Miles.
“Yes, I do. I can live, I have enough to live on…I’m not accepting donations,” he said with a full grin.
Even in light of falsely predicting the Rapture, putting himself on public display in order to prove otherwise and then being subjected to endless questions, Fitzpatrick had kept his composure. Only when Miles made her ignorance of his beliefs clear did he become flustered. At first she referred to Family Radio leader Harold Camping as a reverend, and then a pastor, neither of which are correct. “He’s not a pastor; there’s no church. This is all outside the churches. Churches don’t understand these things…” Fitzpatrick began to trail off. As he considered his next words, the implications of this rendered him momentarily cross-eyed. “We apparently didn’t fully understand it either or understand why nothing has happened…The churches are…God isn’t saving anyone in the churches anymore.”
God may not be saving anyone in the churches, but he wasn’t saving Fitzpatrick either. Even as rain drove him under the nearby ESPN overhang, the crowd continued to dog his every step. Keeping an eye out for any further excitement, but done with the same repetitive side show, Jeff and I stepped off to the side. All around us, Times Square had powered through uninhibited. Poncho-clad tourists still braved the open decks of their tour buses, charcoal-tinged meat smoke clung acridly in the air, taxis honked as obnoxiously as ever and the billboard screens played their light shows. By the time we finished taping a few test segments for our new series Do You Give A Shit?, Fitzpatrick had begun inching further down the sidewalk. We offered to buy him coffee, but he was expected in Staten Island. A small group of what appeared to be supporters had appeared to solemnly walk him away from the whole affair.
Even hours later when Jeff and I were sifting through our notes, the event still seemed unreal. Out of pure luck we’d found a man just in time to witness his most crushing disappointment. Aside from Channel 7, many local news outlets didn’t even bother sending a reporter, but we had access the entire time. That night on 7’s 11 o’clock broadcast, the anchor seemed to take the entire situation as a joke. Watching this any other time I may have agreed, but seeing ourselves directly behind Fitzpatrick in every shot made me feel otherwise. This man had the conviction to put himself on display in our city’s most populous plaza for triumph or failure. The reality shift he experienced at 6:01 isn’t so different from the moment someone realizes their acting career is over, or the restaurant has to close. New Yorkers are all about being careful for nothing, consequences be damned. Most of us just don’t dream in such apocalyptic proportions.
Fitzpatrick’s Favorite Bible Passage
4Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.
5Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.
6Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.
7And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
8Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.