Monday, April 27, 2009

All of the Beer and All of the Cupcakes

Last Friday was my niece Emma’s first birthday. I spent a good portion of it doing one of the favorite Little Rock activities: running errands. But after the party, which was at the park across the street from my parents’ house, where I lived throughout high school, I went to see my friend John Beachboard at his restaurant, Zaza, a salad and wood-oven pizza joint in the Heights, Little Rock’s progressive and old-money enclave.

I first met John at Dunbar Junior High, where we both went but didn’t run in the same crowds. I vaguely knew of him since then, but didn’t hang out with him until college, when I met him again through my best friend and roommate Joe, with whom John’d been in a band in high school. John was overweight then, and his party trick was to flex his glutes and let people to touch his bottom, which, as a result of carrying around his bulk, would be hard as wood when flexed. John could drink copious amounts of beer, and was mostly a gentle giant, but when messed with could fight like grizzly bear.

But it wasn’t until after college, after Fayetteville and Oxford, that I really got to know John, in New York. He and his longtime friend and bandmate David Slade came up to New York around when I did, right after we all graduated from school. I lived in the East Village my first year in the city, and John and David and another guy lived on the northwestern edge of SoHo. Right after they got the apartment, which was a beauty (though small), I was over at their house and we were up on their roof, and John was marveling to me about where he lived.

“All my life I’ve heard about SoHo,” John said, “and now I fucking live here.”

I knew how he felt. Though I hadn’t lusted after New York for much of my life at all—I hadn’t even really thought about it much until my senior year of college, when I was trying to figure out what to do—when I got there I got swept up quick in the romance of it all, a humming city that lived out on the street.

We spent a lot of nights on John’s roof. I came to think of it as John’s roof more than John’s and David’s, since John and I hung out much more. We’d sit out in chairs on the roof and drink beer and smoke cigarettes and look at the Empire State Building, which dominated the northern view. Sometimes we would cook up on the roof, on a little grill John had, and would sit on a piece of cardboard and eat barbecued chicken and get real messy and roll around drunk.

That was a good time. I was working a couple blocks away on Hudson Street and oftentimes I’d come right over after work, in that first late summer, and sit up on the roof with John. After a few beers I’d walk home to the East Village.

Then September 11th happened. While the planes were hitting the Twin Towers, I was in the shower. I walked out onto East 7th Street and turned west, to walk to Hudson Street, when I saw a fleet of emergency vehicles, fire engines, and cop cars scream down First Avenue. I turned south onto First and saw, way down south, smoke way up high. The Towers themselves were obscured by other buildings, but I knew that nothing downtown was that high up, and that it must be the Trade Center. When I got to where I could see the Towers themselves, I saw massive burning holes in both buildings.

I kept walking to work because I didn’t really know what else to do, and my cell phone wouldn’t work, so I wanted to be able to use the landlines at my office, which I figured would be better. So I made my way over southwest, toward SoHo. Near NYU I passed the upper deck running track, which is in full view of the towers, and was shocked to see someone working out, running around the track as if it were just another blue fall Tuesday. I stood at the corner of Thompson and LaGuardia Place and watched as the first tower fell. Everyone in the street was crying, myself included, and some were screaming. Everywhere cars were opened to the street with their radios on, with groups of people gathered around, listening.

After the first tower fell I went on in to work, to see about my co-workers and to use the phones. A few people were there, including my British boss, Martin Dunford, who looked gray-greenish and like he was about to be sick. Martin told us to go home.

So of course I went over to John’s. I didn’t know what else to do, couldn’t imagine being alone at that time, and didn’t know how to get in touch with anyone else. I buzzed the buzzer and John came down, and we went up onto the roof, to see what we could see. While I was in my office, the second tower had fallen, and the southerly view from John’s roof was blocked by other buildings, so there wasn’t much to do but speculate on what had happened and look at the dark plume of smoke that towered toward Brooklyn. We hung out on the roof for a while in the bright sunshine, looking down over the edge of the building onto the street below, when an eighteen-wheeler, like a sparrow blown off course in a tornado, appeared below us, on Charlton Street.

The truck seemed to be stuck, and this caused the nearby cops to freak out and order the driver from the cab at gunpoint, fearing the out-of-place truck to be part of a second wave of attacks, via truck bomb. The driver laid facedown on the pavement and cops swarmed John’s building, guns drawn, telling everyone to get out, which we did, hustling down the stairs and across the street with everyone else, fearful ourselves of a bomb—it seemed like anything could happen that day, as I suppose it did.

We decided we would go over to my apartment in the East Village, because I had a TV where we could see what was happening. We walked over there and got 40-oz. beers along the way. I needed a drink. When we got to my apartment we went inside the cave of a studio room, which I shared with a friend of mine, and turned on the TV. I only had a few channels, on account of no cable service, but we saw that all of the non-news channels had suspended their programming. I remember the Food Network being just being a static screen announcing that programming had been suspended. We clicked to the New York 1 news channel and cracked the beers. But after the first few sips of beer, which normally I never turned down, it began to feel wrong to be drinking, and John agreed. So we decided to leave and go up to Beth Israel to give blood.

But this isn’t about September 11th. It’s more about John, and his leaving New York for Arkansas, and his success now, and my missing him and those days.

More TK (that means "To Be Continued")


Milton said...

I just re-read this, Hunter. I can't imagine. I remember where I was too. Christian's Grandpa had just died and it was fresh on me. I had never really had a grandfather until him and I was really missing him. I was also in the shower when the phone rang. It was Christian telling me to go turn on the TV, that a plane had crashed in the financial district in NYC. It was just before 9 a.m. when I turned the television on. When the news started to sort through and make sense of what was indeed happening, I felt hollow inside and repulsed, yet, I was absolutely glued to the screen and couldn't turn away. I skipped my class to stay there, watching the rest of that day unfold before my eyes on a television screen and I remember feeling helpless. I remember thinking of all those I knew in NYC, even you, and I felt sick inside. My sister, who works for the FBI, was called immediately to NYC. She works with victims. You can imagine the enormity of her task there. We knew more than some, only at first and only because of her, and her stories left me brokenhearted. She nearly cracked up there. She ended up staying in NYC for over a month, trying to help. You and she belong to the same organization ... the 'complete abandon' one, and she confessed near relapse several times during all that. It was then that she started smoking again.

I only remember feeling a combination similar to what I felt the morning of September 11th one other time. I was newly home from Tallinn. I was up in Fayetteville, staying with a friend because I didn't at all know what to do with myself in LR at that time. It had been just a few weeks since Dad. Maybe a month. When I woke up at her place, I put some coffee on and turned on the TV to CNN. I had no idea what I was about to see. It was Columbine in real time before they had a change to edit the more gruesome parts. My friend eventually left for class. I, on the other hand, didn't leave her apartment the rest of the day, I just couldn't. I literally watched non-stop until I felt sick inside and could no longer stand it.

I appreciate your insight into what that day looked like for you. Thanks for sharing that here.

Hunter R. Slaton said...

Wow ... thanks for sharing these stories, Elizabeth. That day affected a lot of people in some seriously intense ways. I didn't know your sis was an agent, either.