Ten Years After – My Slate Diaries in the wake of 9/11

In the days before everyone’s grandmother had a blog, the Slate Diaries were one of the internet’s greatest outlets for interesting writing from widely disparate voices. I was asked by Slate to be a weekly diarist a month before 9/11, and when I scheduled my week for early October, I couldn’t have anticipated that America and the world would be in such a soul-searching and somber mood.

Writer and filmmaker Turk Pipkin looks back at some of his writing in the wake of 9/11 when he was the weekly diarist on Slate.com.

Turk Pipkin: In the days before everyone’s grandmother had a blog, the Slate Diaries were one of the internet’s greatest outlets for interesting writing from widely disparate voices. I was asked by Slate to be a weekly diarist a month before 9/11, and when I scheduled my week for early October, I couldn’t have anticipated that America and the world would be in such a soul-searching and somber mood. Rereading this story is a great reminder of the life I used to live, of the lives many of us lived in the decade before 9/11 when the economy was fairly good and the worst thing the fine members of America’s Congress could imagine was a blow job.

A decade later, we’ve blown three trillion dollars in two lost wars, bailed out billionaires with government money while hard-working men and women discovered that the hardest thing about work is finding it. For a few weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, we had the whole world with us, but we blew it all away with hubris, lies and a ten-year battle without end that has destroyed far too many lives and has fractured America into groups that are unable to recognize their common ground because of the massive focus placed on their differences.

 Frustrated at America’s response to 9/11, my wife and I ended up founding The Nobelity Project and, like so many people who care about a better way ahead, are trying our best to be a positive force in a world that needs us all. Here’s my Slate diary from October 8, 2010.

 

It was a beautiful weekend. There was a chill in the air, and the monarch butterflies were winging their way to Mexico. I set all my writing aside, left my computer at home, and drove with my wife and kids to the Texas Hill Country, where I’ve been building a cabin overlooking the Llano River. Every trip I make to the river is a pilgrimage, for I spent much of my childhood at my grandmother’s ranch on the river’s headwaters—wading, swimming, and fishing in the cold spring water that eventually runs over the granite outcroppings at the property we now own. My family lost my grandmother’s ranch when I was in high school, and I spent the next 30 years trying to figure out how to get back a piece of the river.

But as a comedian, then a free-lance writer of books and television, the price of waterfront land was always just out of my reach. Whenever I started to make more money, the prices went up. Then on Valentine’s Day, 2000, while I was writing a magazine story in Belize, my wife sent me an e-mail saying her mammogram had shown something suspicious. I came home to a diagnosis of DCIS—Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. We went from doctor to doctor and the word “mastectomy” kept hitting us like a hammer. Eighteen months later, I still couldn’t say which one of us was more scared.

Running from what we could not escape, one day we dropped the kids at school and headed for the river, driving on back-country roads till we came to a low-water crossing built by German settlers in the 19th century. In the space of one day, we fell in love with the land overlooking that crossing, learned it was for sale, and made an offer to buy it. Eighteen months later—with my wife having beaten her breast cancer and having begun teaching yoga for a living—the river has become a central part of our lives.

We have no television or radio at the cabin; it’s too good here for all that. This weekend, with the wind blowing cool out of the north, we built a campfire in the late afternoon, then grilled steaks and vegetables by the light of an orange and violet sunset. Within an hour, the sky was brilliant with stars, the Milky Way shining bright from horizon to horizon. Just before bedtime, my daughters and I looked up and all saw the same shooting star.

It’s never easy for me to escape my work. People tell me they envy my carefree life as a writer, but they don’t have any idea how hard I have to work to keep from having a job. To cobble together one real income, I write for television, film, magazines, and try to turn out a book every couple of years. That means long, butt-throbbing hours at my desk and very short nights in bed. It’ll be a miracle if I get any writing done this week. A one-hour episode I wrote for a great new Showtime series—Going to California—will be filming in Austin, and I’m hoping to see as much of the action as possible. I’ll also be working on a documentary on Willie Nelson for American Masters on PBS, and I’m moderating panels and hosting events at one of my favorite events of the year, the Austin Film Festival.

At last year’s festival, I chaired a panel with David Chase, the creator and executive producer of HBO’s hit, The Sopranos. Before the panel, we talked a bit about my experiences in Italy interviewing lawyers and hitmen for the ‘Ndrangetta, the fearful Calabrian mafia. When the panel started, David was looking at me kind of funny, and I thought I must have said something wrong. Far from it—a couple of days later, the casting director of The Sopranos called to see if I’d videotape an audition for the show. The role was a total hoot—the born-again, narcoleptic boyfriend of Tony’s sister Janice. They faxed the script, I sent back a tape, and a couple of weeks later I was in Queens falling asleep on Tony Soprano’s shoulder and having him bounce walnuts off my sleeping noggin at the Sopranos’ Thanksgiving dinner.

For a writer whose future depends to a great extent on a larger audience discovering his work, this tiny brush with fame was a dream come true. All the better when the show brought me back for a couple more episodes, giving me some fun scenes with Aida Turturro, a wonderful actress who makes Janice one of The Sopranos‘ most memorable characters. When Aida was nominated for an Emmy for her work this year, I felt sure I’d soon be in front of the TV watching her accept her award.

NYC skyline and sunset from La Guardia just before 9/11

Then came Sept. 11. The week after the bombings, I could not look away from the television. I had to know everything, had to e-mail everyone I knew. For some reason, I felt a compulsion to be a reassuring voice, to tell my friends and family that somehow everything would be OK. A lot of nice words came back for my efforts, but I also got the worst possible news from too many friends whose family members, business associates, and college buddies had been in the Trade Centers. On one of my trips to film The Sopranos, I’d taken my 10-year-old daughter to the top of the World Trade Center. Now she wanted to know about the people we’d seen there, and what would happen to the children of those people who’d died. My voice began to sound less and less reassuring. And our refuge at the river began to seem more and more important.

It was still cool this morning when we hiked down the granite point to the river’s edge. It was a little late in the year for a swim, but I waded in till my knees were wet, decided it was too cold, and turned back to shore. Then I slipped on the slick rock, and the river gave me my baptism anyway. Once I was wet, I went ahead a paddled around in what turned out to be the best swim of the year. And then I headed back to Austin to watch Aida win her award.

It was a beautiful weekend, but then I turned on the TV. America Strikes Back was a harsh return to reality. The awards, of course, were pushed from our concerns, and the war had started without me. Now I find myself trying to remember my long-ago friends, David and Lynn Angell, who died on American Flight 11; find myself trying to imagine rushing to the rescue of innocent men, women, and children, knowing you might never return, or what it must be like to be under bombs and missiles raining down from the sky. I try to think of all the things we need to think of when our country is at war, but instead my mind keeps returning to the monarchs, their orange and black wings brilliant in the sun as they fly unknowing across the borders of man in their ancient pilgrimage of life.

And the week is just beginning.

Learn more about The Nobelity Project and watch the trailer for Building Hope at: www.nobelity.org

I’ll try to update some of the other diaries this week, but in the meantime, all five of my daily posts from the week are archived at: http://www.slate.com/id/116912/entry/116920/

 

 

The Blood of Eden

Pollock's "The Deep"

I caught sight of my reflection
I caught it in the window
I saw the darkness in my heart
I saw the signs of my undoing
They had been there from the start

So many American bodies are sprayed with blood, their own, their lover’s, their mother’s and father’s, their brother’s and sister’s. Oh we are so certain of our innocence, but we are a nation tattooed in crimson, eyes to belly, with Jackson Pollock’s The Deep.

We called it a New World then carved a Trail of Tears for those who knew it to be ancient: the Choctaw, the Cherokee, the Seminole. And now we walk that Trail ourselves, lost and tormented, crying for Gabrielle Giffords, U.S. Judge John Roll and the other victims of the Tucson shootings.

The “Rawhide Orator,” Choctaw Chief George Washington Harkins, in 1831 wrote to the American people before leaving for the Trail of Tears:

I could cheerfully hope, that those of another age and generation may not feel the effects of those oppressive measures that have been so illiberally dealt out to us; and that peace and happiness may be their reward.

A cheerful hope, and one unfulfilled, as the ghosts of dead immigrants whisper to us from the Arizona desert.

Continue reading “The Blood of Eden”

For “Shower Customer Number Nine”

Photo by Elena Jefferies Whatley

You can almost hear the collective sigh. It’s the day after Christmas, and it’s Sunday, and it’s quiet.

Christmas is a funny holiday. Pegged to the old pagan winter solstice celebrations, it’s on the calendar now as the time Jesus was born. For the record, if I’d been a Wise Man I’d of brought the baby Jesus a Howlin’ Wolf record. Anyway, to his followers the word “pagan” is now a pejorative with satanic overtones. The world just goes ‘round and ‘round.

Yes it does, and no matter what our pretentious, self-important selves do or say, we don’t stop time or the earth’s orbit either and this remains the time of year our northern hemisphere is tilted furthest from the sun.

As we’ve done for years, we spent time at our friends’ farm outside Brenham, Texas. Then it’s on to Houston for more friends; a few small living- room hoedowns (yours truly pictured above, be-hatted, and I bet a lot of you had just such scenes); a Christmas Eve family reunion that has gone on since just after World War II.

Continue reading “For “Shower Customer Number Nine””

Requiem for Reality

Emerson said, “…wise men pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things.” It’s in his essay, “Nature,” and he was talking about the sacrifice of sacred truth to profane ambitions:

When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise,–and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections.

Oh how I wish America had listened. The reality of visible things is in retreat, and in its place we have Glenn Beck, Drudge et al, masters of the art of replacing simplicity and truth with duplicity and falsehood.

It’s no idle worry. When that infamous Bush aide scoffed at the idea of a “reality-based community,” he meant it. Nearly 20 percent of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim, more, probably, than know what a Muslim is. For many, the villain is not unemployment. The villains are the unemployed. Bush didn’t wreck the economy, Obama did. Health insurance companies aren’t the problem, government is the problem.

Cry, baby, cry, for reality is in retreat, driven back by the power-mad and the impossibly irresponsible. Reality’s assailants do not realize that once they’ve virtualized the earth, they too will float free of its blue assurance, vulnerable to the next big illusion. Gravity needs mass, and right now American politics is massless.

Continue reading “Requiem for Reality”

Reach for the Sky

It was four or five obsessions ago—before film noir, before the Iraq War, before Enron and the Italian neorealists and vegetarian cooking the Army-McCarthy hearings—that I really plunged into the gunmen of the Old West. It lasted a while, a year or two in any case, and in that time I bored certain people silly (Gary, Kathy, Cay—are you still out there?) with the exploits of such forgotten men as John Selman, King Fisher, and Outlaw Bass. For instance, there was the handsome train robber Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum,

Read more at Tom Blog.

Harder Than It Looks: The Quest for the Bell

“Now remember, don’t say “Hi y’all’,” Bernice, the head hostess told me.  “This is a classy place.  We always say ‘good evening'”.  It was my first week on the job at the Old San Francisco and Bernie, the grand dame of the steakhouse was training me on front-of-house etiquette.  In her seventies, she had worked for the establishment for decades, from waitress to manager to running the host stand in her semi-retirement.  She wore a long black gown, lots of costume jewelry and a fabulous auburn wig over her snow white hair.  She had begun her career at the original San Antonio location and had been at the Austin OSF from the day it opened.  She often joked that when she died, they would have her stuffed and mounted in the lobby, her “good evening” smile in place forever.

“Good evening, folks. Welcome,” she said with flair to a party of four as they came in.  She filled out a seating card for them and handed it to me.  “Miss Dawn will seat you now,” she gestured and I gathered up four tasseled menus and a faux-leather covered wine list and lead them into the main dining room, swishing along in my own gown, a floor length red number with a bustle and a black feather boa.  It was still early evening and the dinner rush had not yet begun.  Many weekend nights saw a 2 hour wait for a table and people would pack the lobby and hall way, nibbling the cheese trays laid out for them and sipping complimentary wine.  I seated the party, pulling out chairs and placing menus meticulously as I’d been instructed. Before the customers had even sat down, water glasses were being filled and a fourteen pound block of Wisconsin Swiss cheese–one of the many things the OSF was known for–had appeared on their table, along with hot loaves of sourdough and onion bread. I handed the seating card off to their waiter who stood at the ready, tray in hand, a starched white napkin over his arm. Onstage, two piano players in 1890’s garb played a Scot Joplin rag in tandem and candles twinkled from every table as I made my way across the room.  A classy place indeed.

Stage right corner of the "red room" dining room

Suddenly the lights over the stage came on and I stopped in my tracks.  “Ladies and Gentlemen!” one of the pianists sang out. “The Old San Francisco now proudly proudly presents Miss Gwen, the lovely Girl On The Red Velvet Swing!”  The small early evening crowd cheered heartily, myself included as Gwen, an angel-faced blond with a smile as big as Texas took the stage. With a few running steps she pulled herself gracefully up onto the swing as the dual pianos rolled out a rollicking version of Deep In The Heart Of Texas. Gwen was barely past eighteen but she had been on the swing literally since before she was born.  Her mother, now the general manager had been a swinger twenty years earlier when the Austin location was first opened.  Right now, Gwen was my idol.  She sailed through the air in ever-widening arcs, toes pointed, legs posed just so, closer and closer to the cowbell that hung from the ceiling, making it all look effortless.  I knew from my recent first practice sessions that it was anything but.

At the moment of truth, as Gwen’s high heels neared the bell at the ceiling, the pianos began to roll.  The audience held still and silent until–CLANG!!! as she kicked the bell and everyone burst into cheers.  Gwen herself gave an exuberant rebel yell and kicked it several more times.  This was what the manager had meant when he’d told me they would let me swing in front of an audience when I could kick the bell.  The kicking of the bell would seem to be the main point of the show since its clanging always drew applause.  But a seasoned swinger could do a whole lot more than that, and just now Gwen proceeded to show her stuff.  She pivoted her legs out toward the audience then spun around, twisting the the ropes around each other.  As she reached the top of the arc over the pianos she reached out with her right hand, and smacked the second bell, a dangerous feat as it required the swinger to let go of the ropes with one had and lean way over at just the right moment.  She then swooped across to the first bell and gave it a hearty smacking, all the while twisting and turning back and forth across the stage, inches away from the heavy wooden mantle that framed the back wall.  For swingers in training, smashing into that mantle was a rather unavoidable rite of passage.

I was holding my breath at this point as I knew what was coming next: The Flip. The pinnacle of all Swing tricks, it always elicited a gasp from the crowd along with a smattering of “did you see that?!”  It happened so fast that if you were looking down, at your dinner say, for those two and a half seconds, you’d miss it. I kept my eyes glued to Gwen as she swooped toward the ceiling, maneuvering so she was traveling backwards.  She seemed to pause in mid-air at the top of the arc, twenty feet off the stage, then tucked her legs under the swing and simultaneously threw her weight over her right shoulder.  She somersaulted 360 degrees around, her long blond hair streaming momentarily toward the floor before the swing slammed down straight, the ropes untangling and Gwen perfectly balanced and sitting pretty. The pianos glided into an elegant rendition of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and Gwen eased up on her velocity, doing some graceful twirls and blowing kisses to the crowd as the swing slowed down.  Finally she let her legs dangle straight down, the seat resting against her lower back.  She balanced all her weight on her hands on the ropes, and in one fluid movement she flipped backward off the swing, landing squarely on the narrow stage in her high heels as the crowd applauded.  She curtsied graciously then gestured to the piano players and applauded them as well.  The entire routine took about seven minutes, was physically exhausting and was repeated several times an hour throughout the evening.  Lately I could think of nothing except the day that I would be able to rule that swing the way Gwen did.  Considering I hadn’t been able to kick the bell yet, it was a long way away.

I took the long way back to the host stand, crossing into the bar.  Like every other area of the steakhouse, it contained plenty of vintage memorabilia and kitsch to look at, including a large glass case containing photos and articles about the historical origin of its main attraction. The original Girl On The Red Velvet Swing was Evelyn Nesbit who came to fame as a chorus girl turned model in New York

Evelyn Nesbit circa 1902

City at the turn of the 20th century.  Evelyn was just 16 when she became involved with the renowned architect–and sugar daddy–Stanford White, whom she coyly dubbed “Stanny Claus”.  They spent many a passionate evening ensconced in the tower of White’s crown jewel–the original Madison Square Garden at Madison Avenue and 23rd Street.  The great architect is said to have designed about half of Manhattan and he built himself numerous love nests along the way. One of these, on West 24th Street, is said to have contained the dimly lit room that held the illustrious red velvet swing, which the young Evelyn often rode naked. During one of these rides, she swung so high that her foot pierced a paper parasol hanging from the ceiling.  From then on, spiking the parasol became the goal of the swing and Stanny was happy to supply an endless line of delicate paper confections for Evelyn–and his many other young paramours–to massacre with their high kicking feet.  The original owner of the steakhouse had been wise to change the parasol to a cowbell.  It’s clanging made a far bigger impression, and drew everyone’s attention, no matter how good your steak was.

Unfortunately, the story of Evelyn and her Stanny Claus ended in tragic spectacle, with Evelyn’s husband Harry Thaw shooting White point blank in the face on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden in front of a thousand witnesses in the middle of a musical revue.  At the moment of the shooting, the chorus was performing a song, aptly titled I Could Love A Million Girls. The murder was dubbed “The Crime Of The Century” and the sensational press coverage of the event and the ensuing trail scandalized early 20th century readers, sparing no detail of Evelyn and White’s personal relationship, not the least of which was the notorious swing.  (An interesting side note: in 1994 this author attended the New York City acting conservatory The American Academy of Dramatic Arts.  Located at 120 Madison Avenue, it is just blocks from the location of the old Madison Square Garden (demolished in 1925).  The building that houses the Academy was designed by Stanford White himself and was originally built as The Colony Club, the first NYC social club for young women….)

After the last tables had cleared  and most of the staff had gone home for the night, I changed into my sweats and high heeled Mary Jane shoes and headed to the stage for swing practice. Compared to Gwen’s charming and nimble performance, I was a wheezing, grunting novice.  Whatever you knew about swinging on playground swings went out the window when you mounted the big Red Velvet.  In order to get some momentum going, you had to swing in a diagonal pattern, otherwise you’d be there all night.  Diagonally meant toward the mirrored wall, and it was drilled into my head by Sherri, the assistant manager/swing trainer to always look over your left shoulder to make sure you didn’t smash into the mirror or the mantle framing it– both of which I did numerous times before getting the hang of it.  When you were about halfway to the bell you had to straighten out,using your legs as a rudder.  Then the real work began.  In order to get the height needed to reach the bell, the swinger must whip their legs skyward and pull their torso up parallel to the ropes at the same time.  It’s an ab-ripping move of puke-inducing proportions, and when you’re new to it, it makes you grunt like a boxer.  I began to wonder if half the reason the pianos played during the show was to cover the unladylike sounds of the straining swing girl.

The author circa 2002

“Pull!!!” Sherri would holler at me from the floor far below.  I swung, and I pulled until I was dizzy and wheezing.  I came in early to practice and stayed after hours to practice.  I got tips and advice from current swingers, past swingers and even many of the waiters–men and women– who had all taken a crack at Red Velvet at one point, and still the bell remained a few maddening inches beyond the reach of my Mary Jane’s.  In the meantime, I performed the Can-Can with several other girls a few times a night and sang my small repertoire of  jazz standards with the pianists in between swing shows.  If nothing else, I was slowly getting more comfortable being on the OSF stage.

After nearly a month of practice, I still hadn’t been able to kick the damned bell.  “It’s a lot harder than it looks,” Julie, the Saturday night swinger told me.  No kidding.  Julie was a marathon runner and triathlete, a tiny mite of a girl with a head of wild blond curls.  She was not an actress and was all business on the swing, but she clearly loved the job, not least of all because of the great workout it provided.  “It’s really a psychological thing,” she told me during a lull one evening.  “You have to visualize your foot touching the bell.  You have to see it clearly in your mind’s eye and tell yourself it’s easy.”

That was something I hadn’t thought of.  I had the next two days off and spent them visualizing myself into a bell-kicking frenzy, feeling my foot touching its cold metal side over and over.  Before my next shift I showed up extra early and marched up to the swing with a gleam in my eye.  I pulled, I grunted, I flipped my legs and feet toward the ceiling panels with reckless abandon.  I saw it, I felt it, and then suddenly……CLANG!!!

Note: for further information on Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White and the Crime of the Century, this author highly recommends Paula Uruburu’s excellent book “American Eve” published by Riverhead Books, 2008.