Twenty years ago, almost exactly, I moved from California, where I grew up, to New York, on what I have come to call the Pretty Woman model of success: I wanted to either be discovered, or like Julia Roberts’ character in that movie, be saved. Since I figured I had no hand in whether or not I would be saved, and since deep down I knew that I was too competent to be saved and too opinionated to attract saviors, I decided to be an actress. “If I were Julia Roberts,” I think I was actually ridiculous enough to have said out loud. “I could go on David Letterman and people would listen to what I had to say.” I wish I knew what I thought I had to say, but in any case, I did my research, found a good acting teacher, got a job as a waitress, paid more money than I’d spent on a semester’s tuition at Cal for big-hair head shots (oh, the horror!) and signed up for my future of fortune and fame.
My acting teacher, Ron Stetson, is a man who likes to call it like it is, and since I was 25 and still basically just pretending at life, this pretty much always worked to my disadvantage. “You remind me of the princess in the tower,” he said in one of our first classes. “Waiting to be saved.” I wanted to take this as a compliment because until then I was more likely to have been described as having “linebacker shoulders,” than as a princess. But then he added, wadding up a piece of paper and throwing it at me at the same time. “It makes me sick!” Another time Ron told me: “You think you can get by on a good rap and great hair.” He was right, or course. Me Today would have hated Me Then, and I probably wouldn’t have given myself the time of day, but unlike me, Ron cared enough, and had enough faith in the human ability to improve upon itself, to take the time. “That may work where you come from,” he said. “But here—in this city—what you’ll discover is that the people you want to respect you are going to think you’re a twit.”
When the first year ended, I was bewildered and amazed when I got a letter from Ron stating that I was not invited back for the second year of the program. I had gotten into NYU’s master’s program in American Studies and the honors program in the Intellectual History department at U.C. Berkeley and I couldn’t get invited to the second year of an acting class only remotely affiliated with an actual school, which took place in a falling-down loft building in Hell’s Kitchen, when Hell’s Kitchen really lived up to its name??? I called Ron and asked if we could discuss it. He told me, essentially, that he just knew he’d done the right thing, and that someday I would understand.
Eight years later when my nephew came to live with me in New York in order to pursue his dream of being an actor–unlike me, he actually liked acting–I saw Ron again. I didn’t know if he would remember me. “Remember you?” he said. “I’ve thought about you so many times over these years!”
“Why?” I mean, I remembered him, as over the years his words had been almost like guiding lights while I went about saving myself from that tower, and developing something other than a great rap, a version of myself that people could accuse of a lot of things, but not of being a “twit.” But I had to be one of hundreds of students to wander into those four black walls and be put under Ron’s glaring gaze. “When you walked into my class,” he told me. “I thought: She’s Katherine Hepburn with sex appeal. I’m going to make her a star.” I began to feel a slight flush from flattery just then, but this was Ron, and I should have known better. He went on. “But it was quickly apparent to me,” he said. “That you had absolutely no talent. I mean none. I learned a great lesson from you,” he said. “I can teach acting. But I can’t teach talent.”
Ron was also the first one who knew that I was a writer. “If you only had for acting what you have for books,” he said to me once during class as we talked about Love in the Time of Cholera and Hemingway and whatever else we were reading.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“See!? Never mind! You’re just so fucking literal!” Then he threw a pencil at me.
I thought about Ron today, as it is clearly a day for remembering. Plus, every year, he sends out a letter that he wrote on the first anniversary of 9/11, remembering his experience of that day. I’m posting it here. Thanks, Ron, for this letter, and for setting me on the right path, such as it has been.
September 11, 2002
There is a beautiful sky today in NYC. Very much like a year ago. But it’s windy. Eerily windy. It’s just an eerie day in general.
So many things came flooding back from my experience a year ago. I was there you know, as I think I mentioned to some of you before. Although I am almost never in that neighborhood it just so happened that I was on jury duty and was headed to the courthouse to continue deliberations on a drug case the judge had handed us the day before. I just walked out of the #1Train stop at West Broadway and Franklin and was crossing West Broadway toward Centre Street when the first plane hit. I thought the pilot must have had had a stroke or something.
A crowd gathered on my corner and watched the flames. We just shook our heads and said very little. I remember thinking two things; first I thought: ‘well the plane hit pretty high in the building and it’s early, maybe there aren’t too many people up there yet,’ and ‘I better get going so I won’t be late for court.’
I pulled myself out of the daze I was in and started walking toward Centre Street again, slowly, always looking back at the fire when the buildings allowed it. When I got to Church Street I saw a huge fireball come out the side of the second tower. My angle of vision didn’t allow me to see the plane, only the explosion. I thought it must have been an explosion from the first building that was so powerful the second building was hit by it.
By this time sirens were blaring everywhere and fire trucks were flying past me headed south. As the city’s savior arsenal raced by, I thought: ‘well these guys have this under control you better get to court.’
I kept dumbly moving toward 100 Centre Street. By the time I arrived at the courthouse they were evacuating the building. I still didn’t know there had been two planes. The courthouse evacuation irritated me. I wanted to finish the case and get my jury duty over so I could go on with my life. I thought the evacuation was an overreaction.
New York is a funny place in terms of its physical and emotional geography. Unlike any other place I know. Hundreds of people can be standing right near each other and yet not have had the same experience only moments before. Like walking out of a movie theatre in midtown. A few hundred people may be in the theatre watching the same movie, essentially sharing the same emotional experience. Then the movie ends and you exit the theatre and before you have taken more than ten steps, you are surrounded by a sea of people that are so far removed from what you have just experienced they might as well have been on the other side of the country. In that sense, on the courthouse steps, the WTC felt very far away. “Those guys are doing that and we should be doing this,” is what I felt. I still hadn’t grasped the enormity of it, not by a long shot. But there was no trial today so there was nothing for it but to head home and wait till tomorrow.
I started back to the subway station. When I arrived at Church Street the first building fell. It looked as though some unhappy, invisible artist had simply reached out of the sky an erased it.
I knew now that this was a big deal and I had better get the hell out of there.
I was still quite detached from the whole thing; my emotional reaction wouldn’t come for days yet.
I went down in the subway to wait for the #1 Train; fastest way I could think of to get out of there. I waited for quite a while. There were lots of people on the platform. The train obviously never came. Slowly, and I do mean slowly, people began to trickle out of the station. Finally, when there were only about four or five of us left on the platform, an announcement came. The familiarity of it, the ordinariness, was astounding in retrospect. It was a subway PA announcement that all New Yorkers have heard countless times. The location changes but the announcement is always the same: “DUE TO A POLICE ACTION AT THE WORLD TRADE CENTER THERE IS NO UPTOWN SERVICE AT THIS TIME.”
I left the station and emerged onto the intersection of Franklin and West Broadway and watched the second building fall to the ground. I stood and looked at the hole in the sky.
I stood there for a while, detached and numb, wondering how many miles it was to my apartment on the Upper West Side and how long it would take to walk it. When I started thinking of home, my daughter came to mind. She was at school in the 90’s between Broadway and Amsterdam. She was safe. I began to wonder if any of her classmates had parents that worked in the WTC.
By this time people covered in debris had reached my spot. We all started walking north together. Those of us who had just taken a shower and were as clean as the early fall sky and those who had just emerged from a cloud of destruction a few blocks south and were covered, head to toe, in gray dust. Side by side we processed. Like Zombies. No one spoke. No one.
Days later a message came on the Internet, one of those mass e-mails suggesting that everyone go out on the street and light a candle at some specific time. My wife and daughter wanted to do it. I didn’t. I thought it was silly and that we would probably be the only idiots on the street carrying candles. After all, I live on the Upper West Side, the most liberal voting district in all of America, not exactly a bastion of patriotism, more a cauldron of dissent. But my wife and daughter won out and we went outside to light our candles.
The entire neighborhood was there. Hundreds of people with hundreds of candles. Little by little, pulled by some invisible force, we all started moving to the local firehouse on 83rd Street. A one engine firehouse.
The street was closed off and the engine sat proudly in the middle, its lights flashing, no siren. It was covered with flowers and firmly wrapped in the flag. It was beautiful.
The surviving firemen from our humble neighborhood firehouse were standing in the garage greeting the public, accepting flowers and cards and kisses from the old ladies. A photo of the fireman we lost and the wife and three children he left behind was taped to the wall in a makeshift memorial; a scene repeated at firehouses throughout the city. I wasn’t detached any more. We stood there, my wife and daughter and I, along with hundreds of other familiar strangers form our neighborhood, and cried. And cried.
11 September 2002