Ten Years On


I entered New York City for the first time through the Port Authority.  I was full of dread--being a San Diego boy, I had no concept of Noo Yawk aside from "Taxi Driver," "The Warriors," "Escape from New York," "Mean Streets."  Although my mother was a New Yorker, and a firm New York addict who entered the distant and impossible dream of her great city via the weekly arrival of the New Yorker, through the 25 cent old issues of the New York Times Book Review you could buy in the used bookstore downtown, she had failed to convince me that New York was not a festering hotbed of slaughter and mutation.  The Port Authority, when I finally got there in the 1980s, didn't disappoint.  The scene in the men's room was apocalyptic enough for me.

I thought of myself as a hipster. I was living in the Boston area, teaching Expos at Harvard.  Proud of being the only Tijuana loco in the program.  I was fully involved in rights for the poor--having just left the world of "relief work" and missionaries to work at Harvard.  But I also considered myself a patriot--though my Tea Party amigos would deny that a liberal could be anything but a traitor today, I'm afraid.  I loved the USA.

I was in NYC for a book festival, where I'd be hanging out with such luminaries as Ernesto Cardenal and his Sandinista associates.  Near the booth I sat at was the North American Shining Path rebel booth.  Those guys wore bullets on choke chains around their necks, and had a banner that said:  VIVA EL .44.  Magnum power, baby.  One of the Sandinistas said, "If anyone here looks like CIA, it's because they are."  I wanted to turn in my Clash buttons because this seemed like the lamest revolutionary posturing.  Kill 'em all...after a hot dog at Washington Square.  For all that blood-lust and revolt, it seems quaint now.  Imagine that kind of event in New York this year.

In September of 2001, I was settling into a new life with Little, Brown.  I was teaching in Chicago, at University of Illinois.  We had a new baby onboard.  I was insta-dad, with two step-kids, and we had just moved from the far west side to the suburbs.  Traded cement for trees.

I was working on the investigation into The Devil's Highway.  That terrible death-ritual had just occurred in May.  Up until I was dragged into the desert to sift through the remains of the Yuma 14, I had been trying to decipher the hideous slaughter of women happening in Juarez.  A series of killings so monumental in size and outright evil that I thought the world would stop and shout.  It didn't.  many people still don't know a thing about it--and frankly, the femicides have been overwhelmed by the outright national massacre of the narco wars.  Imagine, hundreds--some think upwards of 700--women abducted and tortured across the fence from El Paso.  This was where I was starting to focus when The Yuma 14 took over my mind and heart.  This was the death I was steeped in when the towers fell.

50,000 people have been consumed by this ritual so far.  The gods of the Aztecs are stirring.  So much blood, so many hearts.

On September 10th, I called my editor, Geoff Shandler.  He was out of the office--it was after closing time.  I had begun my relationship with Little, Brown without an agent.  Just Geoff and me, talking abut the border deaths. He had urged me to get representation, since I was negotiating a contract with a corporation much larger than I was.  Good advice.  And I had gotten an agent, finally.  I called and left a message that was accidentally prophetic.  I thought I was being smart.  It was funny--on September 10th.  I said, "Put on your helmet.  The war begins tomorrow."

On September 11th, like New York, Chicago was in a bright perfect Tuesday morning.  The bigger kids were off to school and Cinderella was fussing with our baby girl.  I headed off to work.  Another ENG class of sleepy undergrads.  I enjoyed listening to Mancow--his outrageousness was offensive in a refreshing way.  "Mancow's Morning Madhouse."  They were not above tasteless jokes and pranks--tastelessness was their bread and butter.   So when Mancow said, "swear to God," there was a plane stuck in one of the Twin Towers, I ignored it.  But he insited.  He said it looked like a Swcharzenegger movie.

Then they started screaming.

I called Cinderella and told her to turn on the Today show.  Right now.  She said something like "Oh my God."

Now, there is no astounding eye-witness to history story to tell here.  No personal drama.  I just drove to work to send my students home.  But by the time I had gone the 35 miles from burbs to citadel, fighter jets were already circling the Sears tower.  I went in, and there were two or three semi-stoned dudes lounging in the seats.  "Who bombed what? one of them said when I told them to get out.  In that time, black SUVs had driven onto campus and had blocked off the entrance to the administration building.  Since then, thanks to friends I have made, I know these were FBI vehicles.

This was the moment--aside from Mancow fretting on air about whether he should flee or not.  The AV department had put up TV monitors near my classroom.  I was astonished to see the destruction for the first time then.  And the Pentagon.  Flames and smoke.  Students stod there staring.  Among them, a small group of Middle Eastern undergrads.  Several women wearing the hijab.  Silently watching at the back of the crowd.  Already, people were saying "Muslim terrorists."  Here was the moment that gave me hope, and that still gives me hope.

A white student turned to the Middle Eastern kids and said, softly, "You'd better get home before it gets unsafe for you."  I will never forget that human moment.  It was so tender, so pure.

Get home.  How simple that sounded.  How it echoes for me--through the horrors of that day, through the endless wars, through the financial downfalls and the narco wars and the corpses scattered in the Juarez wastes and the walkers dying in the Arizona heat as they try to feed their children.  Get home.  Get home.  But we cannot seem to find the way. But it lies somewhere there, not in guns, not in armies, not in bombs or torture or massacre.  It lies in one of us, turning to the other, and offering a moment of grace.

Grace is tiny and silly and even twee.  But Neal Cassady told Kerouac, "Grace beats karma." Home--we need an invitation, and a guide, and one hand to help us take the step.

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Book club members have been some of my most enthusiastic and careful readers. I’m thrilled to share my work with you, answer your questions and tell you some of the stories behind the stories. This is our spot, just for us. Here, we can chat:  If I’m nearby, I’ll come and visit your club. Otherwise, we can Skype, talk over the phone or email. Sometimes, I’ll send surprises or hold contests.

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