A corridor of the Times Square subway station may not seem to be the ideal spot to conduct a carefully controlled psychological experiment.
For one thing, the soundproofing is entirely inadequate. The confluence of a dozen subway lines creates constantly shifting sonic interference, ranging from mild to deafening, that an overlay of Peruvian panpipe ensembles serves to heighten rather than mask. Moreover, the place is often in a state of open field pedestrian stampede that would daunt a star high school halfback.
But there, at the underground crossroads of the world, an army of people who call themselves testers had set up the tools of their trade: a pair of hollow metal bars hooked to a simple electrical meter, and stacks of a paperback book.
They were volunteers from the Church of Scientology, and for the last six months, they had been stationed at red-clothed tables in Times Square and several other subway hubs, measuring the baseline stress levels in the brains of all passers-by willing to sit still for a minute and hold the metal bars.
In addition to using their “e-meters” to compute the electrical resistance caused by traumatic thoughts, the Scientologists offered, for a “suggested donation” of $8, copies of their textbook, “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.”
Last night, however, the Scientologists experienced a high-stress event themselves. Plainclothes detectives determined that the books were being sold, not given in exchange for donations, in violation of New York City Transit rules against unlicensed vending, said Paul J. Browne, the deputy commissioner for public information for the Police Department.
The detectives issued six people $50 summonses and ejected them from the Times Square station, Mr. Browne said.
“There had been an agreement that they could stay there as long as they did not get in people’s way, and did not sell the material,” Mr. Browne said. “They did not live up to the agreement.”
– Justice Anderson, Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia, quoted at What judges have to say about Scientology
Until yesterday, the Scientologists’ claim that they were soliciting donations, not selling books, had been buttressed in practice by the legions of police officers who had left them alone.
“In no way is it a commercial operation,” said the Rev. John Carmichael, president of the Church of Scientology of New York.
“We’ve helped so many people here,” Peter Davis, a 20-year-old volunteer from Louisiana, said yesterday afternoon, a few hours before the evictions. Mr. Davis, who like many of his colleagues wore a bright red parka emblazoned with “Get it. Read it. Dianetics,” said that distractions like the ecstatic-looking woman playing a musical saw 20 feet away did not contaminate the results of the stress test. “What we’re testing,” he said, “is what’s going on inside the guy’s head.”
To be sure, most straphangers who raced by the table in recent days did not even glance over. But several curious people who did stop to take the free stress test did not seem bothered by the book pitch.
Indra Seurattan, a customs broker visiting New York from Trinidad and Tobago, sat down opposite a volunteer named Kiersten, who asked her to hold the metal bars and focus on something that was troubling her. Ms. Seurattan, 42, thought about her job, which has become so demanding that she has not had a good night’s sleep for more than a year.
The needle on the e-meter slammed to the right. The diagnosis: definitely stressed. Kiersten explained that Dianetics could help her tackle all her problems.
Ms. Seurattan was impressed. “I told her: ‘I’m waiting on my friend and I don’t have enough money. Maybe if I did I’d buy the book.’ “
A 17-year-old who gave his name only as Brandon told his tester about a quandary involving competing offers from two potential girlfriends.
“She said, ‘It’s understandable that you might be stressed out,’ ” Brandon said.
Brandon, too, said that if he had any money, “I would have bought the book. It seemed like it could help.”
Scientology, founded 50 years ago by the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986, claims to be one of the world’s fastest-growing religions despite accusations that it is a controlling cult. Its many evangelical adherents include Hollywood luminaries like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson.
Dianetics, the discipline underlying Scientology, posits that if people identify the unconscious thoughts and associations that are upsetting them, they can defuse them.
Mr. Carmichael said that during the course of the subway campaign, the Scientology tables had become “part of Times Square, and part of New York.”
In fact, one of the posters sold last year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the subway system was a cartoon of Times Square with many references to Scientology, including the stress-test table.
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the parent agency of New York City Transit, told The Daily News last October that the poster simply depicted “the actuality of Times Square and what is going on here.”
But New York City Transit appeared to have decided that what is going on is a violation of its rules.
On March 11, the agency’s lawyers wrote a letter advising Mr. Carmichael that while its rules allowed “solicitation for religious or political causes,” solicitation was different from selling, which is not allowed without the authority’s permission.
Mr. Carmichael said that the $8 donation was not a requirement. Indeed, a sign sometimes displayed on the table near the books says “suggested donation: $8.”
But when a reporter presenting himself as a stressed-out New Yorker took the test and suggested a donation of considerably less than $8 for the book, the tester, a young man in a striped tie, balked.
“It’s a fixed donation,” the man said. “The money is just to recover the cost of producing the books.”
A saleswoman at a major paperback-book printer in the Midwest, who asked that her firm not be identified, provided an estimate for a book with similar specifications to “Dianetics,” which has 700 pages, a black-and-white photo insert and a four-color cover. The price: $1.58 per copy for 50,000 copies, not including. distribution and delivery. The church says it has published more than 20 million copies of the book.
Charles F. Seaton, director of public affairs at New York City Transit, expressed puzzlement at the church’s book distribution policy.
“A fixed donation,” he said slowly. “Yeah, right.”
Shortly after the reporter asked the police about paying for the book, the detectives made their visit to the testers, Mr. Browne said.
Mr. Carmichael said last night that he was talking with the police, and said that the Scientologists were protected by the United States Constitution. Mr. Davis, the tester in the red parka, said that in any case, moving copies of “Dianetics” was not the church’s primary mission.
“Even if the guy doesn’t buy a book, we’ve gotten him to take a look at his life and see what’s troubling him,” Mr. Davis said. “That’s a service in itself. “We’ve had guys sit down who are thinking of committing suicide. I’ve had people who killed other people. Just by doing the stress test they realize, ‘Hey, this is something I need to handle.’ “
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