The News From Someplace Else

The Paisley Park Cafe was that spot every town has. The place where faces got fixed to the names and all manner of business was conducted. Liz Austin was the proprietor of the bookstore/coffee shop/city hall. A runaway bride from New York City who skipped out on her adulterous stockbroker husband for the wide open road. She left the only city she’d ever known with thirty grand in a savings account, a suitcase and a New York Yankees baseball cap. After retrieving her ’66 midnight blue Mustang convertible out of storage, she left behind a Dear John note in the form of divorce papers and went Sally Ride.

She settled in Vegas, working as a dealer at the Bellagio and almost getting married more times than she was comfortable admitting. She made a small fortune by investing in Apple stock and then doubled down on Microsoft. With her first million in the bank, she went looking for peace of mind and found it in the kitschy little town of Magic Dance, Arizona. It had been ten years to the day that she’d bought a two story brick home in the center of town and converted it into a retail space on the first floor with a living area upstairs.

Every bit as frugal as the college girl who’d dined nightly on Ramen, she was cursing herself for it now as she slapped her Goldstar upside its faux wood paneling and muttered her most crude Japanese when the 13″ inch color television didn’t respond positively.

“Kuso . . .”

“What kind of nonsense you fixing that pretty little head on now?”

It was Chantal Du Bois, the comely middle aged widower whose reputation in Magic Dance was the stuff of legend. She’d made the scene five years earlier, circa a small town in St. Anne Jamaica by the name of Moneague. The forty fifth official resident of the town was also the first black resident in its fifty seven year history. No sooner had her heels touched down than she was rumored to be canoodling with the unhappily married Sheriff, making short work of the failing marriage and thus becoming the unofficial deputy.

“Queen Bee!” Liz smiled. Everyone called Chantal by this sugary royal moniker which spoke to her matronly presence.

“I’m trying to wake up this lazy ass thing,” Liz complained.

“Maybe it’s time to upgrade. What year is that old thing anyways?” Asked David Rockfield, between sips of his Cafe con Leche.

“1983 . . . first thing I bought when I moved away. After which I ignored it while collecting broken hearts,”

“Yours or theirs?”

“It was a close call,” Liz replied.

“Well, age doesn’t do us many favors and I’m fairly certain TV sets share this regrettable shortcoming,” David opined.

“You would think it could accommodate me when there’s news being made someplace else, yanno?”

“What does that mean? Kuso?”

“It means shit in Japanese,”

“Excuse you very much, girlfriend. Ya gonna cut ya mouth on all those sharp words,” Chantal said.

“I know mama, but it’s my home remedy for when the fates conspire to go pee pee on my Oui Oui,”

“Pretty young thing like you cursing? It’s like taking a crayon to da Mona Lisa,”

“Uh, what part of Liz have you been willing to overlook all these years?” David laughed.

“She’s too beautiful for that kinda language . . .” Chantal winked.

“Liz, the goddamned paper!” David whined, pointing to the September 10th date on The Arizona Republic.

“Excuse me, young man?” Chantal frowned.

“Sorry baby, but I like my news to be served up with an umbilical cord, thank you very much,” David said before leaning in for a kiss.

“Oh Sheriff, ya make my knees do the crazy little thing . .”

Chantal’s laugh filled the room with music. Liz often joked that having Chantal as a regular did more for her business than advertising ever could.

“Alright ladies, I’m off to see the Wizard,”

“When you see him, ask him for a new television set for me, will you?” Liz asked.

“So what is this business about something going on someplace else? Honey, there’s a whole lot of something going on someplace else, no mattah where you standing,”

“It was a plane crash in New York, what a horrible thing. It got me thinking about how long it’s been since I left. Eighteen years . . .”

“Well then, you might have to find ya way back. Don’t let dat man be an excuse for not going back,”

“I don’t think he mattered to me. When I left it was kinda like Thomas Wolfe was riding shotgun in my head. I never looked back.” Liz explained.

“You nevah mind that news from someplace else for now okay?” Chantal said as she turned the set off. “And could you bring me some of that magic nectar of yours, sweetness?”

“On it!”

“Darlin, you are a direct line to the stars,”

“You’re my spiritual poetess, you know that?”

Liz shook off the ominous feeling that was working its way into her bones. She delivered a righteous spill to Chantal, fired up the turntable and laid the needle onto some Queen as the morning sun meandered up the walls. She stepped outside for a smoke, her eyes venturing into the cloudless sky above as her mind wandered back home as if by divined by cosmic wings. She closed her eyes and prayed that the day wasn’t as irretrievable as it seemed. And maybe it was the coffee tap dancing on her synapses and maybe it was the nicotine surfing through her blood stream, but her eyes were carrying her now. She flew across that cloudless sky, shouting at the world below to stop running away from her even though she knew it was hopeless. It was gone from her, the world she once knew.

Stolen by the news from someplace else.

 

Heroes Of An Echo’s Strength

 

Pat Tillman

 

And I have nothing to give . . .except this gesture, this thread thrown between your humanity and mine: I want to hold you in my arms and as your soul got shot of its box of flesh to understand, as you have done, the wit of eternity: its gift of unhinged release tearing through the darkness of its knell.

The Dead of September 11th (Toni Morrison)

History books provide lessons, sans the muddy footprints. They present a narrative on the destructive nature of hatred, but only those who live through that history can truly speak to its ghastly dimensions. Eighteen years have removed us from that clear blue sky morning when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center and changed everything. 

We are eighteen years removed from United Airlines Flight 175 banking hard and ramming into the South Tower and providing us with the horrible answer to all our many questions. Eighteen years removed from American Airlines Flight 77 breaching the west wall of the Pentagon. Eighteen years removed from Flight 93 plowing into a field in Pennsylvania as fighter jets raced to intercept its final destination.

The following are but a few of the mighty answers to the evil that men do. I chose stories that I’ve written on and read about, stories that moved me to tears and stories that left me knee deep in thoughts about forever. Stories whose afterglow provides me an eternal warmth.

Betty Ong and Madeline Amy Sweeney were the flight attendants on Flight 11 that morning. In the face of unimaginable horror, these two women managed to contact the airlines and thus provide authorities with crucial information on their attackers. And they stayed on the call from around the time their plane was hijacked until it lost signal moments before the attacks began.

Wherever the city needed him, that’s where you could find Father Mychal Judge. And that Tuesday morning was no different, as he arrived at the Trade Center shortly after the first plane hit. The NYFD Chaplain entered the North Tower with firefighters and rescue personnel, intent on climbing those stairs right along with them. He was killed by an avalanche of debris when the second plane hit.

Welles Crowther was an equities trader who was working on the 104th floor of the South Tower that morning. He called his mother after Flight 175 struck the South Tower to let her know he was okay. A volunteer firefighter, he had designs on joining the FDNY one day. September 11th became that day, as Crowther descended twenty six stories to the sky lobby, where he directed people to the one working staircase and then delivered them to firefighters before heading back up to save more. “The Man in the Red Bandana” is believed to have saved as many as eighteen people. Inside his final moments, he realized his dream so that others might live.

As head of corporate security for Morgan Stanley, Rick Rescorla had warned his company about the security weaknesses at the Trade Center. So when he was told by the Port Authority to keep all employees at their desks, he told them in no uncertain terms to “piss off”. After which he went about saving more than 2,700 people. He made it all the way down to the tenth floor of the South Tower with survivors, before turning around and heading back up for more. His body was never found.

At the Pentagon, Army Spc. Beau Doboszenski was working as a tour guide on the opposite side of the Pentagon when the building was hit. The massive structure is a city unto itself, so Doboszenski didn’t even realize there had been an attack initially. But the former volunteer firefighter and trained EMT sprang to action when a Navy captain asked for anyone with medical training. He ran around the building but was prevented from entering by police, so he gave first aid at a medical triage station. Later, he was part of a six man team that went back in to look for survivors, with the building still in flames.

It was due to the efforts of survivors and first responders that so many of the injured were able to make it outside of the Pentagon. That’s where Lieutenant Colonel Patricia Horoho went to work. Armed with nothing more than a first aid kit initially, Horoho tapped into her experience in burn care and trauma management. She cared for seventy five people that day.

The passengers and crew of Flight 93 knew full well they were not making it to Wednesday. They’d learned of the plot through friends and loved ones, which is when they decided to take matters into their own hands before the hijackers could deliver another wicked payload into another national landmark. And their actions speak not to some politicized t-shirt slogan, but to the better angels in us all.

The better angels are what Luis Alvarez believed in, because to believe otherwise would have been to leave his fallen brothers behind. And it was the fight in him that prevailed over that hopeless pit at Ground Zero for months on end after the attack; a painstaking search for any simple thread of humanity inside that hell on earth. And he would keep on fighting, into the final days of his life, along with Jon Stewart, to invoke that humanity on all the simple minds who prefer to forget.

Pat Tillman refused to forget. The California kid who busted it to get the last remaining football scholarship at Arizona State in 1994, was full of plans that were bigger than his 5’11” frame. And it was destined, really, that he would excel at college ball and get a shot at the NFL. He was picked by the Arizona Cardinals with the 226th pick in the 1998 NFL draft, and he was so thankful for the opportunity they had given him that years later, he turned down a big contract offer from the St. Louis Rams. Out of loyalty. Who does that?

Pat Tillman, that’s who. Because the kid never met a promise he wouldn’t keep, or a cause he wouldn’t stand behind. A gritty, hard nosed linebacker, Tillman was making an NFL life for himself when September 11th happened. And never mind that he was thousands of miles removed and times zones away . . because to Pat, Manhattan and Virginia and Pennsylvania were every bit as much his home as the place he laid his head. And all those people lost, his neighbors.

So the kid from central casting who was busy making bank playing the game he loved, decided to enlist in the Army. And dammit if he missed the fucking memo about athletes being self absorbed jerks. And dammit if the world is not the most unfair thing, because the kid from central casting didn’t make it home. And dammit but those numbers lie, because the casualties did not end at 2,977 on Tuesday, September 11th. Those numbers keep crawling upwards, like a furious rage of ivy into a sleepless sky.

Maybe there is no rectitude to the catechisms. Maybe faith is found inside the footprints of those who prosper the darkness so that we may gain the light.

The Proof In Our Existence

 

Firefighters Todd Heaney and Frankie DiLeo, of Engine 209, c

People are inherently good.

We’re raised to believe this concept from the time we’re old enough to get bored during liturgy and choose sides on the playground. Most kids aren’t concerned with empirical validation when the freedoms they hold most dear are threatened; yanno, stuff like playtime and dessert.

Then there was me.

I questioned everything, no matter how convincing the adults were at selling the points. I wanted to believe people were generally good, but I had myriad reasons to be skeptical. Adding to my distrust of the status quo was the fact that I read, a lot. And I observed, everything.

So it was that I questioned the cross stitched tenets of a happy life, which mandated that you go to school, score a good job and get married. Societal conventions read like a manual, and I knew that spiritual complications navigated through so much more than a simple set of instructions.

In my cross examination, I wondered how it was that Walt Disney and Henry Ford were able to strike it rich since they’d been dropouts. And I argued that Oscar Wilde wrote quite well while being mostly unemployed. And of course I had to ask why it was that marriage was such a great idea when the happiest adult I knew was our family friend George, who I pointed out, wasn’t married.

Questioning the way things had always been was usually met with censure. I was told to shut up, or to finish eating my dinner, or to go to my room. Some kids might have been deterred, but I knew I was onto something.

When I got older I began adding some patina to my simple ideas with Locke and Hobbes and liberal high school girls who wore berets and questioned everything. I struggled mightily with ghosts and found odd comfort in the idea that most people were inherently good, but also selfish. It was comforting because these qualities were intuitive and human and real. The vulnerability of these qualities guaranteed complications, which helped to explain why the best laid plans of school, work and marriage often took a hard right turn at Topeka and sometimes, they never made it back from that stretch of yellow brick road.

It was October of 2001 when I was re-introduced to the question in a pub in New York City. It was closing in on one month since the terror attacks in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania. The rubble at Ground Zero was still on fire and the inhalation of toxic smoke and ash was a much bigger issue than the news outlets were letting on. That’s what brought our small band of volunteers together. Some doctors had helped put together a free clinic for first responders at the Police Academy on East 20th Street and we were part of that effort.

When I think back on that time now, it doesn’t seem possible that seventeen years have come and gone. It feels much closer, because I can still summon that cornflower blanket of a sky that was busy going nowhere fast and taking the world along for the ride. And I can remember that juicy peach of a sun, ripe with best laid plans. And the air possessed the feeling of silk, and winter seemed likely to be canceled on account of the preponderance of this wonderful evidence.

Until the North Tower brought storm clouds and morning became night and the darkest reaches of the human heart strangled the dreams of an endless summer. After which the nation and the world had to try and put itself together again.

That’s what we talked about in the pub all the way back then. Our group weaving in and out of personal conversations, some of which spun larger before getting dismissed in accordance with the particular round of friendlies we were tossing back. And then, one of the volunteers pulled the table together when she confessed that her faith had been damn near shattered, irrevocably. She was sad, confused and downright pissed off at the thought that this hell on earth had extinguished all evidence of a higher power.

And that’s when I assured her she was looking at this horrible event in four evil acts, and forgetting the countless other selfless ones that followed. There were the first responders who rushed to the scene and gave their lives to save thousands more from getting lost inside those towers. There were the cops and firemen, EMT’s and doctors and nurses, and there were the ordinary citizens who rolled up their sleeves and got to work inside the desperate hours.

My take was simply this. God was there on that horrible day, in all those people who showed up and stayed put when we were getting our asses kicked hard from all corners with no end in sight. And when the darkness was unleashed and it felt as if we were at the doorstep to the end of the world, it was no longer a question of whether people were inherently good.

We found proof.