Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

by Stephanie Block

Where were you on 9/11? I know where I was- on a secret trip to NYC. It didn’t stay secret very long…

Crack, crack. Boom, boom. The pyrotechnic canons exploding to Slash’s guitar solo at the 30th Anniversary Michael Jackson concert at Madison Square Gardens? Actually, sadly, the onomatopoetic explanation detailed, to the best of his disoriented ability, by a tattered eyewitness accosted by media hounds covering the Attack on America. Not exactly the encore I was screaming for on Monday night, September 10th, 2001.

I wasn’t drawn to New York City because I’m psychic, or because I’m an ambulance-chasing journalist. No, I went to see Michael, who loves me. Yes, Michael Jackson loves me. He declared it about every five minutes in that soft voice of his, “I love you!” And we, by the tens of thousands, screamed back, “I love you, too!”

I couldn’t wait to brag about this mother of all concerts at my Sutter Street office on Tuesday, September 11th. I pictured myself tossing around moon-walking anecdotes like change to my begging cubicle-mates, dropping all kinds of names: Lil’ Romeo and Master P, all five Jacksons reuniting and it felt so good, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, and Usher, just to get them started. Because I thought history was made Monday night.

Boy, was I wrong.

Instead of strutting around San Francisco, I was stuck for nearly a week in a hotel room on West 49th Street, room 911. I kid you not. First it was just three of us Left Coast refugees, then three turned to six, and soon engorged hotels were purging their numbers, who were somehow winding up on our floor. Yet we were thankful, somehow. Thankful not to have been westbound out of Newark on Tuesday morning’s fateful flight. Relieved that we weren’t stumbling beneath the WTC around nine a.m. after the clubs downtown kicked us out, still whacked out on Michael Jackson energy, that raw dose of nostalgia that brought us to tears when he donned the sequin glove as the first bars of “Beat It” echoed through the arena.

What did I do all week? I shopped. And I know how callous that sounds, but Marissa and I didn’t have any luggage, thinking we were doing a sneaky twenty-four hour turn-around that no one would notice. It had all started at dawn’s tail end that woozy Monday morning while Marissa and I were waiting for my one-bedroom to stop spinning long enough for us to crash out. My cell phone rang: “I have two tickets to the Michael Jackson concert tonight. How fast can you get here?” Marissa and I took one look at each other, called in sick, and jumped on a plane out of SFO covered in faux ostrich feathers and pleather.

That was three million years ago. Now, as I lay in bed waiting for Princess Pea to vacate our hotel room shower, I was finally put through to an American Airlines ticket agent. I uttered the question again, gripping the phone cord like my stepmother was driving: had tomorrow’s eight a.m. flight out of La Guardia been cancelled? The answer, of course, was yes.

Ten flights a day, every day; it didn’t matter. They were all cancelled.

I looked across the bed at Marissa, who was indicating to me that we didn’t have any more weed. I indicated back to her that we didn’t have a flight out either. Our scapegoat emerged from the bathroom.

Princess Pea had a towel wrapped around her head and another two around her body. Quick calculations revealed that she had taken the last of our clean towels. Call housekeeping, you say? Sure, on a normal day. We would tell them to take the trash out and there Pea would go. But our hotel staff, mostly from off the island to avoid Manhattan rents, was tired. They’d been on duty for at least twenty hours straight, and since all the bridges and tunnels were locked down, they couldn’t get out and their replacements couldn’t get in. They didn’t give a shit about our towel situation.

I turned to Marissa. “ How do you suppose that Michael got out of here? And Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor? Surely they’re not suffering our fate?”

“No,” she said. “I’m sure Michael is long gone.”

“Then why didn’t he take me? After all, he loves me.”

“He still loves you. He just loves you from somewhere else now.”

I sat quietly on the bed for a moment, considering my options. We were stuck here, Marissa and I, for yet another night. I had a thought. “Do you suppose we’ll be getting any apocalyptic sex out of this?”

“Any what?”

“You know, apocalyptic sex- like when you think the world’s about to end, you go out and have sex with random people. I bet it’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.”

We both showered and wiped down our naked bodies with the towels that had swabbed them yesterday. I noticed that my eyeliner was gone. I stalked out to the front room of our suite stepping over all the randoms riveted to the TV and found Princess Pea presenting me with a serious biohazard.

“Eeuw! Pea, you’re getting your eyeball germs all over my frickin’ eyeliner. You didn’t even ask to borrow it.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Do you want it back?”

“Hell no, Pea. Buy me another one.”

“The shops are still closed. I was out earlier.”

“Oh,” I said, clutching the dirty towel that was the only barrier between my private parts and a bunch of people I didn’t know. They were too busy with the tube to notice the boob. “Well, is it hot or cold out?”

“Both,” she replied. I rolled my eyes and slunk back into my lair so Marissa and I could rip her apart like the caged animals we were. We only had one outfit anyways, so I guess it didn’t really matter what the weather was like.

A beefy band of men greeted us as we stepped into the surprisingly warm, not cold, beautiful day. There were five of them, all in Bermuda shorts and all carrying open Heineken containers. We smiled at them and they leered at us, offering this explanation: well, the way we figure it, the police have more better things to do then bust us, right? Right we agreed, suddenly not in the mood for apocalyptic sex anymore.

Luckily, a midtown souvenir shop was open. Me in my new, “I Heart New York” shirt and Marissa in her new NYPD shirt wandered the weird streets of New York, the most urban ghost town in the world. We added flowers to the memorial in front of the firehouse on Eighth Street. Suddenly, a great roar seared the air and we hit the deck behind the firetrucks.

“It’s okay,” one of the firemen told us, “it’s the FA-18’s. They’re on our side.”

“Where are they coming from?” I gasped.

“The USS George Washington calls us home now. It’s nuclear and has a pretty dozen of these babies. Don’t you girls worry.” Nuclear? Who was worried?

Marissa and I took deep breaths and continued down the dead street. “Hey girls,” called the fireman after us, “you might wanna pick up some masks. The wind’s changed- that cloud downtown’s headed this way.”

We had nothing to do and nowhere to go. It was pretty much the same at night. The city that never sleeps was at home watching it over and over again. Add nightlife to the list of casualties, we thought, cruising by empty bars and eating at empty diners. We turned the corner up towards 50th, careful to landmark dodge the Empire State Building that sat like a lightning rod in the middle of the skyline. We found ourselves in the midst of a police barricade and crowds of people milling around.

“What’s going on?” I asked a balding man in a suit, one of the brave locals shaking out his old life and putting it on again.

“Building’s been evacuated. There’s a bomb threat.”

Marissa and I, not wanting to go to pieces mentally or physically, decided it was naptime. We headed back to The Time Hotel, encountering three more evacuated buildings on our way.
In our hotel room, sprawled on my side of the bed on all my stuff, was Pea, hysterically screaming into the phone. “Get out,” she yelled, “GET OUT OF THERE!

“What’s up, Pea?”

“The Empire State Building has a bomb!”

“Relax, Pea,” Marissa told her, “it’s probably just a false alarm. There’s like a million buildings evacuated all over the place.”

“No, Ajay, GET OUT OF THERE! I mean it!”

On TV, an announcer was saying that the dog had sat down. This was news? “This means,” he continued, “that there is no bomb.”
The dog’s handler interrupted the newscaster. “Actually, the dog’s just plain tired. This is her fifth bomb scare this hour. She’s just plain tired.” The announcer paused to consider this and slowly backed away from the building. The dog still sat, her tongue hanging out of her mouth. “DON’T LISTEN TO THAT MUTT!” cried Pea into the phone.

Soon the newscaster announced again, with certainty, that there was no bomb in the Empire State Building. Pea was relieved and made ten phone calls. Then she slammed the phone down. “You know, no one is picking up their phones!”

“Well Pea, you bullied everyone into fleeing the building.”

“But they could at least pick up their phones first,” she snapped.

Marissa and I held another powwow. We noticed that Princess Pea’s make-up bag was still in our bathroom. Which was odd, because she lived down on 12th Street. She said she was too scared to stay down there alone, which was equally odd because she had two roommates. But she was our friend’s brother’s fiancé, as in, the friend who gave us the concert tickets and the suite in the first place. The city was locked down below 14th, so once she crossed the line, there was no way our friend could go with her. She had chosen him as her personal guardian angel and not the room service man, who had dared to bring her a club sandwich with mayonnaise, which she had specifically asked them to hold.

Our fathers called us daughters from Texas and Nevada, these pillars in our lives, trying to explain without scaring us that another attack was imminent, and that Marissa and I better get out fast. On the fifth day of our captivity, a rainy Friday, my dad managed to locate one of the last rental cars in the Tri-State area- a little Gallant in Newark. But there was no way to get to Newark. The bridges and tunnels were still empty except for the Brooklyners walking home, and no taxi was going to take us out of the City because once they left, they wouldn’t be able to get back in. These were desperate times, however, and Marissa and I approached the situation like the taxi drivers were bouncers at the world’s hottest club. What would Paris Hilton do? We had a hundred dollars cash between us, and we hoped a driver would motivate for the Benjamin. It’s not like they were needed in the theater district, so it was pretty easy to grab one. A recording of the Rockettes advised us to buckle up for safety. If only it were that easy. Marissa was in charge of our elegant luggage- a paper Bloomies bag filled with pleather and feathers.

Where to? I wanted to go to Chicago for corn-fed men and 4 a.m. last calls, but our brave fathers were one step ahead of us. Chicago was a mess; Cincinnati was a mess. St. Louis, they urged. That was the ticket. Where they had reserved us tickets. As in airline tickets. As in we would have to fly the fearsome skies. So at a Radio Shack in a New Jersey mall, we picked up the faxed-by-father Mapquest driving directions, disappointed as we looked around for big hair and acrylic nails. Folks just weren’t out.

Our itinerary took us through the lovely states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and so on. Marissa was excited to see the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and I was jazzed about Amish country. The call of the open road was undeniable. We felt our powers returning. We were no longer at the mercy of American Airlines, the FAA, Princess Pea, or anyone. It was just us, alive and bare-bottomed as we waited for our undies to dry in the back seat.

We flashed truckers along Interstate 70, but only the ones with American flags on them. They honked their big horns and chased us, but we were too fast for them. Sleep? Didn’t need it. Our fuel was McDonalds and Coca-Cola. The roads sung and swung through the throat of the nation. We passed a bus of Amish people, men with long beards and women in woven bonnets. I love you, I called to them, the way Michael Jackson had taught me, wondering where their buggies and horses were. Were they improvising like the rest of us?

At the next pit stop, we bought cowboy hats and giant American flags specially made to hang in our car windows, wondering what company could have possibly come out with and distributed all these stick-on flags so fast. They were the latest in cross-country chic, an accoutrement found in every gas station you came to. Well, what was more American than that? We merged back onto the highway. With scarcely a foot left, a great big caddy lumbered across our lane, cutting us off entirely. I slammed on the brakes and slid into the gravel, in no mood for highway terrorism. I chased the offenders down, screaming and honking at them, the little Gallant puttering along. Marissa had all her middle fingers out the window. Undaunted, the senior citizens fought back, cutting across our lane and then braking. I almost flew into them but managed to stop the car in time. Furious, we sped up to them and hurled empty McDonald’s soda cups, Red Bull cans, and soon, our wet panties at their car. The panties stuck on their front windshield. The elders were forced to pull over to pick them off. We cruised by them shouting obscenities and they shook their fists at us.

Maybe you’re appalled by our behavior. Maybe we are too. But it was like punching the wall when you were a teen-ager. Or like the little earthquakes we have along the San Andreas. We burned off steam across the middle states. In St. Louis, we found scores of other West Coasters who had driven halfway home- Seattlans, Portlanders, San Diegoans. All of us leery of those jets on the tarmac. There were about fifteen of us in the entire airport, and about three other people on our plane. The jets roared to life.

No cracks. No booms.

We were the lucky ones. Our world was ripped apart the night after Michael Jackson reminded us what a thriller he could be. Maybe 9/11 made us want to be starting something. Or to tell them once and for all to beat it. But we don’t want to stoop to their level by becoming smooth criminals. We can start by looking at that person in the mirror. I love you.

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