y insomniac aunt once relied on talk radio to escort her through the unkind Brooklyn night. “Loneliness is an insidious disease,” she’d tell me, bemoaning life alone while delighting in rage of complaint aloneness offered. She was least lonely between midnight 5 a.m. thanks to the garrulous harmonics of chain-smoking radio hosts who knew the lunatic fringed kicked in after working parents went asleep. They spoke mostly to impressionable cabbies and sleep-deprived aunts.
My aunt was how I learned that a team of Cubans disguised as Bible salesmen, and not Lee Harvey Oswald, had assassinated John Kennedy. It was also how I discovered the details of the moon-landing hoax and how Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was in fact a Soviet agent masquerading as a rightist. I was also tipped off that the Watergate scandal had been set in motion by a gathering of Jewish media moguls in tenuous cahoots with rogue Catholic cardinals (the Vatican owned a part of the Watergate complex). I later learned that the Italian leftist terrorist group known as the Red Brigades was actually working for criminal underworld bosses who divided their time between Sicily and Las Vegas. As for vanished teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, he was where he’d always been, in his Paraguay mansion.
Though my aunt never believed much of what she heard, the nightly howling eroded the thin barrier between passion and paranoia. Conspiracies oozed the intrigue that facts lacked — and facts were by nature devious, like the government. The after-midnight circus kept moody and mopey listeners alert and distracted, lest they fall back into feeling sorry for themselves and devise lines like “loneliness is an insidious disease.” Talk show hosts usually took fairly average news and spiked it with madcap assumptions that soon took on a life of their own. Then came the critical pronoun “they” — “What they don’t want you to know!” — which made even the half-baked ring truer than true, particularly if delivered by a combative voice. Suddenly a pork chop was made to taste like Peking duck even though it remained a pork chop. At night, those disposed to falling, fell. Falling was a way through the darkness. Few carried the nocturnal spew into the “real world,” at least not openly. More to the point, the 3 a.m. crowd was not a society’s worker bees let alone those guiding the ship of state. Conspiracy theories mostly belonged to an insider tribe that repeated its details to others of their ilk, with both sides rejoicing at “the truth.” But it ended there.
My aunt mostly left out what she heard about aliens, believing no visitors would be foolish enough to land on earth, let alone want to possess it. “They’d probably take one look and say, ‘Who needs it?'”
What those same passing aliens would say some 50 years later, now that the late night circus of talk radio has mated with what is called news is anyone’s guess. Maybe they’d see a credulous planet ripe for domination. Or perhaps they’d finally come fetch Hoffa from his Paraguayan exile. Even he might want out.
My aunt at least knew that she was in on a joke. Seeking distraction, she found people who sold it. Along with her teeth, she placed disbelief on the nightstand and turned up the volume. She was smart enough to know when to be gullible and when to wake from it .
But those smarts are now in short supply. Some no longer even bother waking from the latest fiction. Instead, they point to a mothership no one else sees with landing instructions. And scream at everyone else to get out of the way.