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New York City, N.Y., USA
Thirty-three Years Later
It wasn’t my beat, it wasn’t my assignment, and it wasn’t my intention to alter reality that morning when my cell phone rang at 7:15 after a night highlighted by too many martinis with Donald, the ex.
Oh, God. Why didn’t we stay away from each other? Again.
We had no future and the past was a decade-old fantasy.
Baghdad, October 5, 2005
Kick-ass war correspondent and bad-boy photojournalist married by army chaplain amidst horrors of war in the lounge of the Palestine Hotel. Many drunken colleagues in attendance.
Or something like that.
Two days after the terribly romantic nuptials and drunken party that followed, the retreating Iraqis gave Donald and me an unforgettable wedding present: A bomb hidden inside a cement-mixer truck was detonated outside the hotel, taking out the lobby. Gucci bags and Fendi fur coats from the high-end lobby shops were blown out of the stores and lay among broken glass and giant hunks of falling plaster.
When the blast hit (we were in bed, of course), Donald jumped up, threw on jeans, and grabbed his cameras. He wasn’t worried about our (my) safety; he was worried about missing the action, i.e., the photos.
Instead of thinking he was a big horse’s ass, I jumped into a tracksuit and we both took the partially collapsed stairs four steps at a time. I too was probably more terrified of missing the action (i.e., the story) than I was about the danger. I should have realized it was a defining moment.
We weren’t allowed back into our hotel to collect our things, so we bunked down with three other journos in the apartment of a friend of a friend.
Donald left early one morning—he was imbedding with the Second Battalion of the Fourth Infantry Regiment. He gave me a perfunctory kiss, but I grabbed him tight and pulled him close. “Be careful,” I said.
He put his big hands around my face and kissed me as though we were alone. “I’m too mean to get hurt,” he said.
About two hours later Donald was riding shotgun in a jeep when another roadside bomb exploded, throwing him thirty feet, breaking his femur and a few ribs.
When I finally got to him in the makeshift army hospital, I kissed his head and said, “Time to get outta Dodge, baby,” trying for sardonic and missing completely.
I made arrangements for us to get back to NYC, where I nursed his cranky self back to health and got my first and only Pulitzer nomination from the New York Post, who’d employed me at the time.
Our crazy wartime marriage was hot and dangerous. We couldn’t get enough of each other—and even though he was a giant pain in the ass when he was busted up, the broken-femur sex was sensational. Who knew?
I—we—were very happy, happy enough, in fact, for me to start thinking about maybe having a baby. Yikes.
Donald said he didn’t think a baby was a great idea, because a family would keep me tied at home when he knew I’d be desperate to get to the next war/murder/scandal/whatever. I pouted for three months straight.
Finally, one night when he was well enough to hit the road again—he was off to cover the wildfires in Texas—he turned to me with a dopey grin and said, “Okay, whatever you want.”
“You’re acting like I want to get a dog,” I said.
“Not a bad idea—maybe test-drive the mother thing with a nice German shepherd for a few years first?” he teased, and we fell onto the bed laughing.
Somehow, though, it—a pregnancy—never happened. Great sex doesn’t always lead to greater things.
Two years later we ended as abruptly as we had started, although not as dramatically.
It was a fast and clean break to a messy marriage, which involved much sex and even more fighting. Kiss-and-make-up is only fun in the movies.
One Monday morning Donald and I were off to cover different assignments—he back to Iraq, me to cover the presidential campaigns.
As I got out of the cab at JFK, he kissed me hard and simply said, “Time to get outta Dodge, baby.” I knew he wasn’t talking about leaving the country. He was talking about leaving the marriage.
And that was that.
I knew he was right. He liked gambling on sports, staying up all night, and hanging out in strip clubs in disease-riddled cities with names that weren’t composed of letters in the English alphabet. He was a horrible dancer who made duck lips when he was really feeling it.
I like sports that I play myself, getting into bed early with a good book or, better yet, a bad boy, and going dancing with my gay men friends who never make duck lips no matter how much they’re feeling the music.
Donald and I had nothing in common other than that we were both agnostics, preferred fast stick shifts to fancy SUVs, and would risk everything for a story.
He was resentful that I’d been nominated for a Pulitzer for covering the same war at the same time, while his newsweekly, U.S. News, hadn’t nominated him. And he’d taken one for the Gipper, while I’d come home in one piece.
Me? I was jealous that I never got sent back to a war zone again. Weird? Sure.
But I took his leaving me like a bullet to my heart anyway. I cried for a month straight, drank too much with my friend Dona and my hairdresser pals, hardened my heart, and threw myself into my work.
A decade after we’d said “I do,” however, we still couldn’t say “I won’t.”
And so I found myself—all those years later—faced with a ringing phone. Since it is for reporters a genetic impossibility to ignore a ringing phone, I reached for it.
I sincerely wished he wouldn’t call the morning after the night before. (Big lie.) Better yet, I wished we wouldn’t ever have a night before again. (Truth.)
Be careful what you wish for.
I picked it up without bothering to look at the caller ID. “Go away, Donald,” I said.
“Alessandra?” I heard a copy kid at the other end say. Oops.
“It’s the City Desk. Can you hold for Dickie Smalls?” As if holding for Dickie Smalls were an option. I knew it would take about fourteen seconds for the whole newsroom to know I’d slept with Donald. Damn!
Mildly surprised, I held on, of course, knowing that it was usually not good when a call came through from Dickie early in the morning: It always meant something unexpected—an assignment that would send me to the Bronx or Queens or, worse, complaints about a story I’d filed the night before.
Bleary and hung over, I nonetheless held on for Managing Editor Dickie Smalls, a man who devoted his life to overcoming his name. His job was second only to that of editor in chief—the only one to whom Smalls ever spoke with any respect.
“Russo? Dickie,” Dickie yelled into my headache. Dickie, who usually didn’t have his first drink until at least 11:00 A.M, was probably still sober, I realized.
“You got the TV on? Put on New York One,” he continued yelling without expecting an answer.
I obliged by reaching for the remote on the nightstand, and flicked to NY1. They were showing a helicopter view of my neighborhood, the United Nations area of Manhattan, while the voice of Simon Franks, one of their top reporters, clearly trying to keep his voice controlled, was announcing, “I’m looking down on this massive sea of humanity, the likes of which I certainly have never seen! The crowd, the mob—whatever you can call such a thing—stretches along the Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza park over onto Forty-seventh Street and First Avenue, up and down First Avenue from Forty-second Street to Fifty-seventh Street, and the cross streets from Forty-fourth through Forty-seventh as far west as Madison Avenue!
“Seriously folks, this city has never experienced a sight like this before!”
And he was right about that. Today was the start of the terror trial—tribunal, actually—of terrorist Demiel ben Yusef.
While a tribunal like this one would normally have been held at The Hague, the World Court building had sustained huge damage in a terrorist bombing several months earlier and was still uninhabitable. The perpetrators had never been caught. So, no, while most New Yorkers were not happy to have this mess of a security risk in our town, we reporters were thrilled.
You could hear it in Franks’s voice:
“And I venture to say,” he continued, not missing a beat, “that every person down there is desperate to catch even the tiniest glimpse of Demiel ben Yusef, who goes on trial today—perhaps as soon as a couple of hours from now!”
I am a jaded reporter. I have reported on everything from 9/11 to war to Hurricanes Katrina and Anthony, the earthquake in Haiti, and many of the increasingly now-commonplace natural disasters of incalculable suffering around the planet.
This was different. Something, indeed something I didn’t really understand—maybe it was blind faith or deep hatred—had driven hundreds of thousands of folks out of their homes, jobs, and schools. They’d wheeled, walked, and traveled from their apartments, condos, houses, hospitals, nursing homes, churches, synagogues, mosques, banks, and government offices to protest, to ogle, to see in person the most vicious criminal of our time.
Even I was shocked by the size of the crowds.
“You watching? You understand what’s going on here?” Dickie said.
“Of course I do,” I said, trying not to let my excitement show.
My heart started pounding. What did Dickie really want?
Please let this be the break I need. I swear this time I’ll do it their way. Please tell me something good. Tell me I’m gonna cover …
All Dickie would give me, though, was, “Un-freakin’-believable!”
The man all these people had come to see was Demiel ben Yusef, a known terrorist who was believed by most of the reasonable people on the planet, as well as a worldwide coalition of governments who’d hunted him and finally captured him, to be the one responsible for terrorist bombings around the world. These terrorist acts had left death and mayhem from capital cities to historic and religious sites—with thousands of people dead or maimed not just from the bombings themselves but from the violence and turmoil that too often followed.
Today would mark the opening day of the trial of the millennium, the ben Yusef terrorist tribunal.
On the other side of the law (and not necessarily the world any longer, since his believers were multiplying) were those who had been burning up the Internet with bullshit about how ben Yusef was actually a great prophet, a man they believed was—yes—the second Son of God.
Or maybe even the Second Coming of Jesus Christ himself. The U.S. government, the CIA, MI5, the Russian FSB, Mossad, the UN, the Vatican, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, the oil companies, al-Qaeda—you name it and they were the ones who had really committed the atrocities.
Everyone but Demiel ben Yusef was responsible for the massive death and destruction. Sure.
Conspiracy-theory Web sites posted daily warnings and updates. None of them, however, ever explained how all of these governments and all of these people—who hadn’t gotten along for thousands of years—were suddenly all allied for the sole purpose of destroying one ragtag prophet / alleged terrorist.
The conspiracy theorists postulated that all the terrorist attacks were carefully planned (pick any of the above) simply to generate hatred of Demiel ben Yusef.
Yes, they said that this international cabal backed by the United Nations was actually responsible for blowing up buildings, marketplaces, houses of worship, nightclubs, passenger planes, and even cruise ships filled with innocent people—simply to make one man look bad.
Thousands of videos and postings portrayed ben Yusef as a prince of peace. They’d show him preaching to the masses, very Jesus-like. If you watched the videos as carefully as I had, and as many times as I had, you could, of course, begin to have your doubts.
Yes, he was a very compelling speaker, and no, he never preached violence. His voice was at once soothing and fiery, if that makes sense. His accent was universal—not American, not European, not Middle Eastern.
“Everyone is the Son of God,” he famously said in his “Perfect Order” sermon given on a hill to thousands of followers somewhere in Israel two years earlier. All that was missing were some loaves and fishes.
The universe is in perfect order. Everything, everyone, is simply a part of God’s whole. The moon directs the tides; the earthworms in the Amazon aerate the ground so that we all have oxygen. Every creature is as important as every other to that perfect order. The only time the order is disrupted, upended, thrown into chaos is when human beings—the only creatures on earth with free will—step in. Other creatures do not kill just for the bloodlust love of killing.
But every religion that preaches that they are the only ones who know the true words of God, demands just this of their followers: “Kill in His name,” they say. I say, “Do not kill in God’s name. Or my name. Or anyone’s name. Defy those leaders who urge you to kill to preserve what you have.” What they mean is “Kill to preserve what I have.” They are false prophets, false leaders.
Ben Yusef was, if you watched often enough, incredibly charismatic—for an unattractive, skinny guy, that is; for someone who preached peace and practiced terrorism, that is.
Ben Yusef had become the rock star of terrorists.
Second Coming, my ass.
“This is some mess,” Dickie yelled, pulling me out of my reverie. Without waiting for my response he blared, “You got credentialed in case—right?”
I, along with half the staff at The New York Standard, had indeed been “credentialed” by the United Nations Press Office earlier in the week, by submitting birth certificates, passports, and NYPD press credentials in person. We were fingerprinted and interviewed. No electronic applications were accepted because of the volatility of the situation.
“Yeah, a week ago,” I answered. I had already been assigned backup in case the first string—the macho male columnists who were treated like gods by guys like little Dickie Smalls—couldn’t for some reason (which never happened) show up. I knew, or believed at any rate, that there would be no screwups today, because, after all, this was nothing less than the most important trial of the millennium. The current millennium, that is.
“Good,” he screeched. “Frankie, that putz, is stuck in traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s at a standstill.” So the impossible had happened after all.
“Get your ass outta bed, Russo.…”
“I’m not in bed,” I lied, my heart racing like I’d been shot up with adrenaline. I was back in the game!
“Whatever. Get your ass outta bed, and get over to the UN. It’s right outside your door, so make it fast. You caught the winning lotto number.”
You mean the one dropped by Frankie, that putz, I wanted to say, but didn’t. Frankie was golden, and I was still—what?—tarnished. At forty-two, I was, yes, a known front-page-breaking reporter, but one who had a real talent for running afoul of the powers-that-be wherever I worked. Rebel or maybe just too bullheaded to play the boys’ game, I always bucked whenever they wanted to saddle me, tame me, and teach me to behave.
I’d been given a second chance at The Standard when they hired me following nine long months of unemployment. I’d been “laid off” at my last job—a political Web site—after uncovering the fact that the editor’s best pal, a supermarket mogul slash movie producer, had a penchant for Filipino midget hookers. The mogul, in addition to supping once a month at Rao’s with the publisher, had also been, up to that point, the Web site’s biggest advertiser. Oops.
Editorial differences, they called it.
Bottom line: I wouldn’t protect the editor’s friends when it came to voicing my opinion, and they didn’t protect me when I stood my ground.
So when I was offered the gig at The Standard, I grabbed it in hopes of one day getting a column again. I was back to general assignment reporting, and I’d been behaving.
“The kid whazzizname is already at the UN Press Office making the switch,” Dickie continued. “We want you to file throughout the day and final copy half hour after the close. Got it? Good.”
“Do I get to column on it?” I asked.
“Depends on what you get,” he said, and with that he hung up—and I found myself out of bed and under a hot shower in less than sixty seconds.
A column possibility on the biggest story of the decade? Oh, baby! I said a quick prayer to whatever god might be listening at that moment that I’d somehow score an exclusive “get” despite being a pool reporter heading into a venue that was as tightly orchestrated as any in recorded history.
I had been out of work two years earlier when taxicab bombs had detonated simultaneously outside St. Pat’s, the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, the Synagogue Adath Israel in Riverdale, the Light of God Tabernacle on Staten Island, and the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center Benevolent Foundation in Jamaica, Queens. The terrorist attacks, dubbed the “Unholy Day Bombings,” killed almost two hundred innocent people. I started a blog, but it was just one of thousands, perhaps millions of blogs out there. It wasn’t the same; it was too crowded. Cyberspace had evolved into a worldwide public-announcement system for ill-informed windbags with too little knowledge and too much time on their hands.
And now? If I had believed in God I would have prayed for a break like this—a chance to not just cover but possibly voice my opinion on the ben Yusef tribunal for a mainstream news outlet. Yes, I was unprepared, bleary-eyed, and retaining water. But still …
I hadn’t done serious prep work, because I’d been told earlier in the week that I was to cover “color” only—getting reactions from local parish priests, imams, and rabbis.
But I was never better than when I was under pressure.
I picked up the same white T-shirt that had looked so good when it was still clean the night before. I sniffed it. Clean enough. I pulled on a pair of black jeans, my beat-up brown leather jacket, and Frye boots. Then I looked down. Damn! Dead center on the T was a moderate-to-terrible chicken-scarpiello stain from the night before. With no time to change, I grabbed the white gauze Gap scarf hanging on my doorknob, looped it long around my neck, and—voilà—instant stain repair. Good enough.
I hauled my red leather satchel that held my iPad holographic tablet, cell phone, four reporter’s pads (I still take notes the old-fashioned way), pens, wallet, keys, lipstick, and under-eye concealer, which I buy by the kilo, onto my shoulder and started out of my apartment.
A quick look in the mirror revealed that my formerly chic bob had frizzed and I now looked like I’d stolen Eleanor Roosevelt’s head.
I hung my press credentials—three plastic cards with my photo—on a cheap hardware-store drain chain around my neck and checked that my passport was in the zipper compartment of my bag for backup ID just in case. Then I took the elevator down the twenty-four flights and walked out of my apartment building into the gorgeous spring day and into the end of my life as I knew it.
Copyright © 2013 by Linda Stasi