I left the office just in time to get to Penn Station, find my track and hop onto my train. We pulled out into an afternoon grey and heavy with rain.
This was our first U.S. event for Granta 116: Ten Years Later– an issue themed to how the world has changed since the events of 11 September, 2001. The event was to be a panel discussion with a journalist who has a piece in the magazine and a scholar whose field of expertise pertains to the issue’s theme. Given that the journalist was a veteran of the war in Iraq and that the scholar was a scholar, I had my work cut out for me. I’d been prepping for days, reading what they’d published and formulating questions that would – fingers crossed – generate some fruitful discussion.
In New Haven, I switched to a train bound for Madison, Connecticut. In Madison, I stepped out onto a platform that was little more than an elevated, concrete slab with a cover. Rain pinged against the tracks and pooled in the parking lot, which was filled with cars (commuters’, I assumed) but otherwise deserted. On an information sheet screwed into a half-wall and protected by Plexiglass, I found the number for a cab service. There was no answer. Fortunately, before leaving New York I’d scribbled onto my hand the number for the bookstore where the event was to be held. I dialed it and asked if they could call a different cab service for me.
‘There’s just the one,’ the woman said. ‘If they don’t answer, they must be busy. The store manager will come and get you; it’s no problem at all.’
Before long, the manager of R. J. Julia Booksellers arrived in her black SUV She was an extremely pleasant person, down-to-earth, easy to talk to. She told me she was a little worried about the turnout for our event because the weather was so bad, and because the town had just gotten its electricity back that very morning, a week and a half after being pounded by Hurricane Irene.
R. J. Julia is a gem of a place – exactly what you want in an independent bookstore: humongous stock, rooms opening onto rooms, comfortable chairs, artwork on the walls, and a quaint little cafe in the back. I was starving, wet. They brought me dinner and coffee. I’d managed to arrive early, so after I finished eating I sat in the cafe with my notepad, tweaking my questions for the event.
A short while later, the manager approached my table. ‘David just called,’ she told me. David was the scholar – one of my two panellists. ‘He has water damage in his house and can’t make it tonight.’
A wholly understandable reason not to attend, but I glanced down at my notes and saw half of what I’d planned for the evening evaporate. That left only me and Elliott Woods, the young journalist and Iraq veteran who was, at that moment, in his car on his way from Pennsylvania.
‘Okay,’ I said with a toss of my hands. ‘I’ll roll with it!’
‘Try one of our cupcakes,’ the manager said. ‘Best in Connecticut.’
After pillaging my notes and excising all questions meant for the scholar, I was confident I could make this work with just me and Elliott. He was the one with the hands-on experience, both in having served a tour of duty in Iraq and in having extensively interviewed veterans about their service, their homecoming, and their thoughts on the last ten years of war. People, I reminded myself, would be at the event to hear the panellists – or, in this case, panellist – not me. I just needed to do what a good moderator does: get the panel talking, and keep it talking.
Twenty minutes later, the manager of R. J. Julia once again approached my table. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘your day just keeps getting more interesting.’ She informed me that Elliott had just called the store to say that he was stuck in traffic in southern Connecticut and was going to be ‘very late, if he can make it at all.’
Very late. If he can make it at all. Translation: Isn’t going to show up. Not unlike Woody Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors when he finds out his sister has been defecated on by a blind date, I yanked my glasses off my head and rubbed a hand over my face. ‘Oh, my god…’ I said, and then struggled to compose myself. ‘Okay! I’ll improvise. Somehow.’
‘You’ll be fine,’ she said. ‘Roxanne – the owner – wants to be on the panel with you. She loves this stuff.’
Was everyone in Connecticut nice?, I wondered.
My cell phone buzzed. It was Elliott. ‘I’m really sorry about this,’ he said. I could hear honking in the background. I could hear the rain smacking against his car even more clearly than I could hear it pelting the window next to my table. ‘Traffic’s been moving at twenty-miles-an-hour, if it’s been moving at all. I’ll try to make it there by eight.’
The event was to start at 7 p.m. and be over by 8 p.m. I told him not to worry about it, to drive safely and try not to hydroplane. ‘And don’t speed,’ I added.
‘Speeding isn’t an option,’ he replied.
A recent hurricane, mass power-outages, and a subsequent downpour is not the best combination for getting anyone to come to a bookstore for an event with two writers they might not be familiar with. Still, about a dozen people showed up – all eager and holding dripping umbrellas.
Clearly, this would not be a panel discussion (there were no panellists!). But it could still be a discussion. Everyone had thoughts to share about 9/11 and the events that have followed. Damn the notes; I decided we’d have a town hall meeting. We sat in a semi-circle. Roxanne, the charming and affable owner of R. J. Julia, introduced me. I talked about the history of the magazine, the new issue, the contributors. Ha, ha, I told the small crowd, the authors can’t be here – though one of them is, at this very moment, trying to be here – so let’s just have a discussion about the issue’s theme. Roxanne was right with me, stepping up to the plate and being the first to contribute, once I’d finished my opening remarks. As she spoke, it became clear to me that she knew everyone in the room by name; they were all regular customers. She talked about how she’d reacted to the global news that trickled in following the attacks of 9/11, how she felt about the U.S invasion of Baghdad. ‘Bill,’ she said, pointing to someone in the audience, ‘you came into the store on 9/11 and spent the whole day here. What did you imagine would be the repercussions of what had happened?’
Bill spoke about what he’d expected, and about how he’d reacted to certain global turn-of-events over the past decade. He spoke about fear and ignorance, about how they shape a national consciousness, and about how being constantly lied to only serves to keep us all confused. From the other side of the room, Sarah pitched in. So did Frank and Elizabeth. I offered my own thoughts whenever there was a lull – and eventually realized that I wasn’t filling lulls at all; I was participating, like the rest of them. We were sitting in a circle in a little room on the top floor of bookstore in Madison, CT, in the middle of a rainstorm, having a public discussion about the theme of the issue. Success! I thought. Salvation by group effort. Community spirit. All that, and more.
A few minutes shy of 8 p.m., a young man appeared in the doorway. He was strong-jawed, straight-backed, holding a copy of Granta 116 in one hand and a dripping umbrella in the other.
Elliott Woods, ladies and gentlemen!
Elliott Woods, whose name you will know (if you don’t already) because he’s such an obvious and earnest talent. Elliott, whose essay ‘Veterans of a Foreign War’ you should read (if you haven’t already). Elliott, who had just driven six hours through inclement weather to be there with us.
I introduced him and asked him a few questions that got him talking to the small crowd. He took over with ease, becoming part of the conversation that was already underway. And before long – too soon, really, for I couldn’t have been more charmed by the venue and the unexpected way the evening had unfolded – I had to leave to catch my train back to New York. I apologized to the audience, thanked Roxanne and the R. J. Julia and everyone in the room, and asked the manager if she would call me a cab.
The rain was coming down harder than ever. I needed to get not to the tiny train depot in Madison but all the way to New Haven (the trains from Madison to New Haven had stopped running for the night). The cab arrived, and I dashed out to it and climbed into the back seat.
‘Fuck!’ the driver snapped, throwing down her cell phone. ‘Slit my wrists in a warm bath!’
I had, I thought, found the one un-nice person in Connecticut.
‘I’m serious,’ she said, glancing at me in the rear view mirror. ‘Slit my wrists in a warm bath.’
I tried to chuckle. ‘Not until you drive me to New Haven.’
Her phone rang just after we got underway. ‘Fuck!’ she yelled again, then said, ‘Hello? Where do you need to go? When? It’s not gonna happen fast. I’ve got to get this man to New Haven, then I’ll come for you. Don’t make me wait; I’m hell-a busy.’
‘Why did I offer to work today?’ she asked me after hanging up. ‘It’s been insane! I’m so tired!’
I told her I was sorry to hear it. We were on the highway now, the wipers creaking back and forth and the water sheeting across the blacktop. She drove with one hand, texted with the other.
‘Guess what I have?’ she said.
‘A friend who got bitten by a tick and now the bite has a red ring around it. He wants me to drive him to the hospital tonight after I get off work. Tonight! And not the hospital in town but the one two towns over! I just want him to wait till morning because I’m so tired. Do you think it’s okay to wait till morning?’
I was, by now, fully-clicked into improvisational mode. ‘Surrre,’ I said. ‘They’ll just start him on antibiotics. What difference will eight or ten hours make?’
‘Right?’ she asked.
We fell silent for a moment. The matter seemed settled far too easily; I began to fear for her friend’s health. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘I don’t really know what I’m talking about’.
‘Are you a pharmacist?’ she asked.
‘No! I’m a writer. An editor. Nothing to do with medicine.’
‘You’re a pharmacist’, she told me. Still driving with one hand, she dialled her friend. ‘Listen, Nate, it’s me. I’ve got a pharmacist in the cab right now, and he just told me it’ll make no difference if you go to the hospital tonight or tomorrow. Nothing’s going to change in the next ten hours. So I’ll pick you up in the morning, all right? All right.’
She hung up, dropped the phone onto the seat next to her and turned up the windshield wipers. ‘How was that for a performance?’ she asked, smiling at me in the mirror.
‘Excellent,’ I said. We would make it to New Haven in time for my train. The evening had gone well, despite the hurdles. Nate – fingers crossed – would not contract Lyme disease in his sleep.
Excellent is, maybe, too strong a word for the state of things. Not bad may be more accurate. But I was tired, out of the rain, and happy.