Some years back, I called to see the Scientologists in Florida. Lovely people. Here’s my diary from that experience:
I’m getting truly sick of all these eighty-mile round trips to Tampa. It’s good for the novelty of the thing, but the American road-laws become harder and harder to understand. Where are all these cops they told us about? A guy told me the other day that traffic fines are one of the biggest sources of State funding, and maybe that’s so but what do the cops say about eighteen-wheel Mack trucks that ride your back bumper at 90 mph?
Enough. We come to what must be the high point of anyone’s holiday. This is what makes travel worthwhile. I jump in the car and head for Clearwater, hoping to find the Scientologists. Along the way, I pass the newly-opened Planet Bubba, about which there’s been a lot of stuff in the press. Seems they have this talk-radio guy here called Bubba the Love Sponge. (Don’t ask. I don’t know, all right?) Anyway, Bubba decides to open a club of some sort and all the locals object because they have enough of this particular sort of club in the area. I don’t know. Genuinely, I just don’t have that information. Maybe it’s a gym.
Guess what? I hardly go twenty miles wrong before spotting it: Dianetics. That’s all it says on the sign. Dianetics. I have found the Scientologists. My head spins with excitement as I drive past it the wrong way. Of course, I realise that this is only one of many buildings the Scientologists own in Clearwater, and also it’s important to make a distinction. Clearwater is their spiritual headquarters, not the administrative HQ, which is in California. If you ask me, this is the better choice. You can almost feel the spiritual power throbbing in the very bricks of this city. What a sensation! I’m speechless with excitement as I perform an illegal U-turn and head for Dianetics.
As I pull into the car-park (sorry, parking lot) the air fills with the whirr of a hundred security cameras, all focussing on me. Jesus, I think, what a wonderful bunch of guys. Aren’t they just so caring? Even their security cameras love-bomb you. It’s great to feel wanted. One thing worries me though: I’m wearing a T-shirt with a large cigar-chewing Poker Alice on it, I have knee-length baggy shorts and filthy old trainers. Whatever will they think?
I needn’t fret. The lobby is cool and discreet, literature strewn everywhere, invitingly, and there’s a few shelves with books (which they must, regretfully, charge for, to cover costs). I meet a great guy called Decker, who’s no slouch when it comes to accents.
Ireland, right? says Decker. I hope he’s not about to roll up his sleeve and show me a leprechaun tattoo.
Right, I confirm, giving little away.
Where you from?
I’m not quite ready to sign up for Scientology yet, so I lie to him. Dublin.
Great, he says, and moves on.
What a great guy.
I’m picking up all sorts of free glossy brochures. I have an armful of free literature and I’m about to move off when Jennifer appears. It turns out one of the brochures isn’t free. You have to pay for it, but how can you tell the difference? Maybe it’s part of the test . . . Jennifer eyes me shrewdly. Jennifer is small and maybe too young to remember eighties power-dressing, yet she has these padded shoulders and a snappy dark business suit. A suit that says I know what I’m talking about. At least, in New York that’s what the suit would be saying. Here in Florida, where the air temperature is eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit, the suit says Christ, I’m dying. I bet this suit gets down on its knees every night and gives thanks to L. Ron Hubbard, the inventor of air-conditioning. Another great, great guy, Ron. I’ll get to him.
Jennifer wants to get my name in the visitor book, but I stall. Who wants to be in the Scientology database? That’s for later, when I reach a new level of consciousness. Who knows? Maybe it’s where old Scientologists go, sucked into a computer. We joust a little, Jennifer and I. Wouldn’t I like to stay and see the L. Ron video? It’s just awesome. I agree with Jennifer: it must be awesome, but, see, I’ve abandoned the kids in a fun-park and if I don’t go now I’ll be arrested for neglect. Jennifer isn’t put off that easily. When can I make it? If I call ahead, they’ll show the video specially for me.
Can you believe it? Just for me? I’m astonished by all this kindness and a little sickened by my own lack of principles as I give Jennifer a false name and leave. It’s not that I have anything against Jennifer as a person. It’s just that, well, I’d like a chance to review some of this literature before going on their mailing list. Anyway, I feel a little sorry for Jennifer so, as I depart, I promise to come back tomorrow morning and see the video. Who can tell? With all this power that Ron has revealed to them, perhaps it’ll happen.
Driving out of the parking-lot, I get a strange feeling. What did Decker say to Jennifer?
Get out there, check that guy. Yeah, the one in the Poker Alice T-shirt. The one trying to steal our books.
I don’t want to stare, or anything, but it’s hard to shake off the thought: what happens next? As the door closes behind you, do they drop all pretence? Do the smiles melt away? Do their arms drop uselessly by their sides? Even now, as I pull onto the highway and gun the engine, are they gathered in the lobby, watching me go? Thirty, forty, a hundred of them, all squashed up against each other and watching through the smoked glass?
I get a mild attack of the heebie-jeebies and start watching out for strange cars. Just to be certain, I do two or three U-turns to keep them off the scent, and it seems to work. A strange thing though: on the way back to Water Planet, or whatever they call it, at least three cop-cars fall in behind me at various times. Can this be coincidence? You decide.
L. Ron Hubbard. What a name. L. Ron Hubbard, with a little initial up there in front, like a fucking periscope. I can feel it watching me. What did his friends call him? How’s it goin’, L? The nice people at Dianetics gave me a questionnaire for a free personality test and I’m having a glance through it, thinking, God, these people really are interested in me. How great!
Question 31: could you agree to strict discipline?
Hmmm! Maybe this is a job for Bubba the Love Sponge. I should call him up – he might come over.
Hey Bubba, remember me? Yeah, the night of the party. Maybe you could help out here. Bubba, am I ever disturbed by the noise of the wind? No? Good. How about muscles, Bubba? Do my muscles twitch? Come on, Bubba, there’s no need for that kind of talk. All right, I know you’re only kidding. Listen Bubba, would you consider me a slow eater?
It goes on like that for two hundred questions and they ask you the same thing in twenty different ways. Why? Can’t they read?
Do other people interest you very much?
Of course they do.
Are you readily interested in other people’s conversation?
I thought I just answered that. I can’t believe this fucking shit. They have this thing called an E-METER © invented, naturally, by L. Ron. There seems to be no end to this man’s genius. Very impressive piece of kit, the E-METER ©, with a needle that moves over a dial and what seems to be two or three digital watches built into it. You hold a pair of shiny electrodes, one in each hand, and that’s all they need to analyse your inmost feelings. Remember those machines outside the shops? How sexy are you? That’s exactly what the E-METER © is, except you pay the Church of Scientology about a grillion dollars for it. Just fantastic.
I must sign up right away.