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Einstein At The Skirball


David Rothman

      As you gaze into the falling sun of another passing day, you coax your automobile through rush-hour gridlock.  Although your car is surrounded by turmoil, you don’t hear the revving engines and squealing brakes just beyond your open windows, you don’t smell the acrid exhaust fumes filling the air, and you don’t see the countless office workers hurrying from tall glass buildings that line Ventura Boulevard.  You have driven this road home a thousand times, daydreaming, unaware of the background.

    This evening, your reverie evaporates, and you see the picture of an older man in a sweater and slacks, riding a bicycle, his curly hair standing out from his head as if charged with electricity. As you stare at the familiar image printed on a banner, one of many that hang from light poles along the boulevard, traffic comes to a halt, and you automatically slam your brakes, stopping your Volvo just before it crashes into the silver Mercedes stopped in traffic. 

     You again look up at the banner and read: “Einstein At the Skirball,” and you remember a spring day long ago, when you were sitting at an outdoor table with three- or was it four? - friends in the lunch area of  grammar school. 

     Little Chris Costanis says, “Cobb stole more bases than Willie Mays, and -”  

     “Who cares about baseball players. Football’s more interesting,” Randy Sardell says as he shoves Chris.   

     “How did you guys do on the spelling test?”  Richard Taxi says.  

     As usual you all talked at once, loudly, rarely staying on one topic.  “My mother makes the greatest peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Who wants to trade for half?” you said        

     You hear Richard Taxi’s soft voice among the racket.  Richard has a long neck, which makes him appear taller than he was, and the top button of his shirt is closed so you see his bobbing Adam’s apple move his shirt collar up and down while he talks.

     Richard certainly isn’t considering trading any of his mother’s gourmet egg salad and tomato on wheat bread, but he says, “Everything in every sandwich is made of atoms and─”

     The driver in the huge Hummer SUV behind you blows his horn. Automatically, you gently place your foot on the accelerator and your car creeps along with the flow of traffic, while you continue to think about the discussion in the lunch area of your elementary school.   

     “Atoms, what are atoms?” you scream.  Everyone at the lunch table becomes silent.

     “My dad says they’re so small you can’t see them.  If you could cut a sandwich up into smaller and smaller pieces you would get tiny particles that you can’t see, even with a microscope,” Richard says. “Those particles are atoms.”

    Randy Sardell says, “You’re crazy Richey.”

    You had never heard of an atom. You’d never seriously thought about what a sandwich would become if it were sliced into the smallest pieces imaginable.     After school that day you went home and asked your father about atoms.  “Bobby, I don’t know what they are.  All I know is we exploded a couple of Atom bombs in Japan to end the War. It was horrible.  Tens of thousands were killed, but it ended the war,” he told you.

     When traffic stops, you instinctively ease your foot on the brake, and your car slows to a stop while you talk to yourself, silently.  Every weekday morning I get up before dawn and drive to work so I can be stressed out by customers screaming for their orders, complaining about our screw ups, leaving us for competitors, abandoning us for a dime.  

     Ruthless competition and demanding customers can make life miserable, but the corporate office is no better, constantly on your back:  “You’re over budget.  Sales are way under projections.  If you can’t manage your sales force, we’ll have to . . .”  On and on they go.  

     And your private life is no better.  Your wife is bored, wants to move to a better house. You scramble to pay the bills, put money away for retirement, put your son through law school, and pay for your daughter’s wedding.  How can Lisa marry that lazy bum, Arthur? 

     Then, as if you don’t have enough to irritate your ulcer and raise your blood pressure, you are punished with this stop-and-go mess every evening.  The light changes and the guy in the Hummer behind you leans on his horn.

   You hunch your shoulders and your face heats.  You look in your rear-view mirror to meet the glaring eyes of the bearded driver.   As you point to an Einstein banner, you see the driver’s mouth opening and closing rapidly, like an enraged German Shepard’s, and his eyes look like they are shooting flames.  He continues to lean on his horn.  You continue pointing at the banner, moving your arm back and forth.   He gives you the finger and guns his engine.  More horns blow. 

     You quickly move your foot to the gas pedal and your car jumps forward.   After accelerating for a few seconds, you catch the car ahead.  You’re bumper to bumper again, boxed in, Mr. Hornblower on your tail, all lanes creeping forward like lines of caterpillars.  What is Hornblower’s rush?

    Perhaps it is the poster of Einstein that causes you to remember the speed of light is the top speed in the universe.  Nothing can go faster.  Furthermore, time slows down for things as they approach the speed of light.  According to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity strange things happen.  Yes, you were once interested in all this. 

   You remember studying diagrams of people in trains, rocket ships, and elevators.  The diagrams attempted to explain how light moves at the same speed wherever its origin, whether from a source on the front of a rocket traveling near the speed of light or from a car stopped in traffic.   And you were told that time slows down as a thing accelerates.  If you were on a spaceship approaching the speed of light you could take a trip lasting twenty earth years and come back younger than the friends you left behind. 

     Your intuition tells you a beam of light coming from a speeding rocket should move faster than a beam from a stationary car, just as a ball thrown from a moving truck would move faster that a ball thrown on a baseball field.  And, intuitively, time can’t slow down.  Apparently, your intuition isn’t worth much.

     The car ahead of you stops abruptly. You slam on your breaks.  You hear the screech of tires all around you. The “mad dog” in the Hummer turns his bright lights on and off, on and off, on and off, while shaking his fist. His wide open mouth and wildly nodding head are reflected from your rear view mirror, and you can hear him screaming as you turn your head towards the cars in the lane beside you.  When you see the drivers staring, you lean your head on your steering wheel and you squeeze it tightly with both hands.

     Bathed in flashing lights, surrounded by people looking at you, you feel like an actor on stage, the audience waiting for your performance.  You get out of your car and stand, facing the crazy driver who has put you in the spotlight.  Adrenaline causes your entire six-foot, overweight body to become tense, and you feel light-headed, weak kneed, a condition you haven’t experienced since you stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building.  You cup your mouth with both hands:  “Turn off the damn lights!”

   His headlights stop flashing, while you stand on the boulevard, a silent audience watching you, your arms hanging to your sides with clenched fists.   While your heart pumps furiously and your knees shake, you are ready to fight for the first time since you were a kid.  Time seems to stand still.

     Mr. Hornblower remains in his SUV, his eyes wide, his mouth shut.  The driver ahead of you guns her engine and begins to move, signaling you to return to your car and follow.  Traffic in all lanes resumes.  Hornblower, remains a courteous car length behind, and although your knees are still shaking from all the turmoil, you slowly return to your quiet space.


    “How was work today, honey,” your wife, Marilyn, says, when you walk into the family room. 

    “Same as usual.  But some crazy driver almost gave me a heart attack.”

    “Robert, I’m getting bored.  Let’s do something different this weekend.”

    “Why wait,” you say.  “I’ll call in sick tomorrow. Einstein is at the Skirball.  Let’s catch lunch there and see the exhibit.”

     You think you may find answers at the Skirball.  Einstein’s soul may rub off on you.  You may see documents he actually wrote, be close to things he touched, and feel his presence. Maybe you’ll understand how the Universe works and everything about life and the world will become clear and meaningful.    Maybe your trip to the Skirball will be the equivalent of the faithful going to Jerusalem or Mecca.

     Marilyn comes close to you and tilts up her head.  “What’s going on, Robert,” she says.

   You grab her around the waist and pull her close.  “Come on honey.  We need a break,” you say.  “I’ve heard the Skirball is beautiful and their café serves a wonderful lunch.” 

The End

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