9/11, Derek Jeter, & the Memory of Time.

The 9/11 Memorial (Photo by Steve Villano)

It’s one of life’s oddly poetic moments to be back to NYC for the 20th Anniversary commemoration of 9/11, in the very same week Derek Jeter got inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the very same weekend the Yankees were playing the Mets in a subway series.   It was Jeter, after all, and the Yankees, who picked up many of us New Yorkers,  after we were numbed by the death and destruction of 9/11. 

The Yankees were having a banner year in 2001, headed for another World Series after beating the Mets the Year before, and the promise of a 4th Consecutive World Championship was on our minds.  Twenty years ago,  on the night before 9/11,  I was at Yankee Stadium with my college friend Phil Cantor, and my son, Matt , and a few of his friends. We were there to see Roger Clemens pitch against his former team, the Boston Red Sox, and–we hoped–win his 20th game of the season.  Our spirits were soaring; everything was within our reach.

It poured for hours that night, and before we headed into the Stadium, Phil and I stayed dry by having pastrami and corned beef sandwiches in the Bronx’ famous Court Delicatessen, a landmark for Yankee Fans. The “Court” as we called it–just down the block from the Bronx Courthouse, was not its usual jam-packed self that night, the driving rain keeping most sane folks away. We lingered in a booth for over an hour, talking about little things and big things, and simply enjoying being with a friend I’d known from when we were both 19 years old.

The rain was still coming down in sheets when we dodged under covered doorways and under the El Train to get to the old Yankee Stadium.  We found my son and a group of his friends, sitting in a rain-sheltered section of reserved seats. Several generations of friends, each traveling different paths, were brought together by the prospect of seeing Clemens pitch, watching Jeter hit, and ragging against Boston—a national pastime for New Yorkers.

We talked and ate and drank for another hour or so, watching the rain form little rivers in the tarp on the field, laughing, and basking in the joy of each others’ company. It was a timeless moment, endless youth relived and shared with my son, and I wanted it to last forever. The game was cancelled, but we didn’t care; we celebrated life with each other for hours.  World without end, Amen.


The rain finally stopped that night, long after we left the Stadium, and the following morning, September 11, the sun was sparkling on a crisp and perfect September morning in New York.  Then time stopped, and the world, we once knew, ended.

Twenty years later, I was reminded how blue the sky was over New York City, when we awakened early on the morning of September 11, 2001.  Only this time, it wasn’t a violent storm that cleared the air, and brought such sparkling clarity. 

This time, it was one single wall at the 9/11 Memorial, on the site of where, 57 floors higher, I lived much of my life, working in Tower 2, now referred to as the South Tower.  The underground wall encased a massive tomb, holding the remnants of hundreds of souls who perished in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

On the exterior of the wall was a quotation from Virgil, etched in fragments of steel from the mighty towers that, impossibly, fell that day:  “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time.”

The quote, coupled with the thought of human remains behind it, was staggering, transporting me back to Jerusalem, to the moment I first witnessed the Yad Vashem Memorial.   It was the wall, the tomb, the letters made of  crumpled World Trade Center steel, but most of all, it was the patches of blue squares–of varying shades of blue, really–which made me gasp.  

Each square patch of blue—one for every human being taken from us on 9/11—was a different tone, a different color, a different thought, representing all the individual, and collective memories we shared on the final morning of our youth, when Derek Jeter still represented our dreams of what was possible. 

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Growing The Gratitude Tree.

The Gratitude Tree.

Not too long ago, I gave my oldest granddaughter a “Gratitude Tree.”

It resembled a punch-out, paper doll tree and came with many little, paper green leaves, each no bigger than a thumb-print, on which notes of gratitude could be written, to remind us of what we can be thankful for each day.

I promised my granddaughter that she would earn a dollar for each “gratitude” leaf she completed. She asked if she could enlist the help of her younger sister, age 10, and if they could split the proceeds. I loved the idea of their collaboration and said, “Of course!”

I simply wanted them to stop and take a moment — a deep breath, really — to think about all they have to appreciate, even during the most daunting of times.

The Gratitude Tree sat quietly in its dark, slender box for a few months, while the two girls finished school and dealt with a some significant changes going on in their lives. I knew that asking a 12 and 10-year old to pause for a few minutes, and step off of the quickly spinning merry-go-round of everyday life was asking a lot, so I didn’t put any deadline on the activity. It was a process I wanted to last a lifetime.

“When you get to it, you get to it,” I said. Gratitude shouldn’t be forced, even though I believe it should be positively reinforced.

Finally, in the middle of the summer of 2021, they set up “The Tree” on my oldest granddaughter’s dresser. A few of the delicate, laser-cut paper branches broke off, but that didn’t deter them.

“A few of the branches broke, Grampy,” my oldest granddaughter told me when I noticed The Gratitude Tree atop her dresser. “But we did the leaves, anyway.”

I was delighted by their determination to carry out the task, and devote, even a nano-second of their precious, fleeting time to think about these things. The results were both revealing and remarkable.

They wrote on each leaf some of the obvious sources of things they were thankful for: “Sisters, (including their almost 6-year old youngest)” “Dad”, “Mom,” “Cats,” “Friends”, “Family,” “Our Planet,” “Food”, and their “Guinea Pigs,” but other entries blew me away.

“Joe Biden,” said one; “AOC,” another, harking back to their pre-COVID summer visit to AOC’s Washington, DC. Congressional Office. These girls are very aware of the world around them, and they LOVE having female she-roes.

“Pride,” one wrote; “Loyalty,” “Kindness,” “Honesty” and “Love.” “Maia,” wrote another, referring to an Oakland-raised pop star named MXMtoon, and “Liv” — a reference to the star of “High School Musical,” Olivia Rodrigo. One proudly wrote “Entrapta,” the non-binary cartoon character who also happens to be Autistic.

“Everyone is Equal” one leaf read; “Doctors,” “The Moon & the Stars,” “Water,” “Trees,” “Birds,” and “Hamilton,” read several others. Lin Manual-Miranda would be grateful to make it in such sublime company.

Rather than curse the darkness of a year of distance learning, my granddaughters gravitated to the light, expressing gratitude for, “Zoom,” “Prodigy,” “Tech,” and “I-Message.” Extraordinary. No time for negativity.

“Books,” and “School,” also made their Tree of Gratitude, as did, “Teachers,” “Dad’s Friends,” and “Bees” — even though they panic when yellow-jackets buzz too close for comfort. They get the bigger picture.

I rewarded them for their beautiful green leaves of Gratitude, but my reward, of being privy to their thoughts, and dreams and the inner workings of their hearts, and being part of their lives was much, much greater. For that, I’m grateful for being alive to watch them grow.

If Only We Hadn’t Had A War.

Photo by Steve Villano, taken in Assisi, Italy at a Peace & Reconciliation Conference.

When I am at a loss for words, or reasons why things did or did not happen, I seek out solace or guidance, or both, from authors whose work has slapped me across the face, or broken my heart. One such writer is Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Sympathizer.

During the final days of the United States 20-year War in Afghanistan, I turned to Nguyen’s book “The Refugees,” to deepen my understanding and feeling of what thousands of Afghani refugees were experiencing, desperate to escape their country now back under Taliban rule, 20 years after the True Faithful, blinded by Sharia Law, had been driven out of power, not for how they brutalized women and tortured their fellow countrymen, but for harboring terrorists who slaughtered civilians in the West.

I turned to “The Refugees,” Nguyen’s collection of vignettes of Vietnamese refugees, who fled their country after the North Vietnamese drove out American forces following an excruciating 11-year War. An eerie quote from a women, I took to be Nguyen’s mother, jumped out at me:

“If we hadn’t had a war, we’d be like the Koreans now. Saigon would be Seoul, your father alive, you married with children, me a retired housewife, not a manicurist.”

The feeling of intimate wistfulness, the power of hope, was familiar to me. Yes, it echoed my own mother’s sentiments that those of us who grew up poor in America “lived in hopes and died in despair, “ but there was something else about it that I knew.

It sent me scurrying for my copy of Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and to a remarkable passage toward the end of his book, which, each time I read it, takes my breath away. The long paragraph runs across pages 353 and 354 of the paperback version of the book, over 40 lines, is punctuated by semi-colons, and populated heavily by a set of “ifs.” The super sentence suggests how different the world, and his character’s life, would have been, “If” only certain events had or had not happened:

“…if history’s ship had taken a different tack, if I had become an accountant…if we forgot our resentment, if we forget revenge; if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play, if we had not fought a war against each other; if some of us had not called ourselves nationalists or communists or capitalists or realists…”

I first read Nguyen’s haunting language during the early summer of the American Presidential campaign of 2016, and repeated the “if” sequence dozens of times during the campaign’s closing days, when I traveled around North Carolina observing Barack & Michelle Obama, and Elizabeth Warren try mightily to win that important swing state for Hillary Clinton.

I interviewed dozens of voters, entered historic African-American churches constructed since before slavery was dismantled, and listened to the rhythm of the voices of the citizens with whom I spoke, quietly warning me of the dark times to come by the cadence of their language. I composed what they said into a song reminiscent of Nguyen’s work:

“If history had taken a quicker turn toward the arc of justice, if everyone’s skin color were the same; if furniture were still being made in North Carolina’s factories, and clothing in it’s mills; if I had become an attorney or a diplomat and moved away; if my Jesus could sit down and have a beer with yours, and pick ribs clean together; if I was not frightened by the darkness of your skin and the bright, bold hope in your eyes, and if you did not resent my very existence on the same street where you lived as a sign of your own failure…”

Now, that relentless imprinting of Nguyen’s “IF” paragraph from The Sympathizer seized me again, drumming home that a few changes here or there, over the course of 20 years, might have altered, for the better, tens of thousands of Afghani and American lives. And so, I attempted to change some lives, and history, with some slight revisions of my own, following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, and the deaths of many more Afghani civilians, and 13 more American soldiers young enough to be my grandchildren:

“They were good students, just like me. They learned their lessons well, and so have I…if I had fallen in love with the right woman, if I had been a more virtuous lover, if my mother had been less of a mother, if my father had gone to save souls in Iraq, instead of here…if we forgot resentment, if we forgot revenge, if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play…if the Americans hadn’t come to save us from ourselves, if we had not bought what they sold, if the Soviets had never called us comrades…if the Taliban had not been so self-righteous and unbending and so sexually repressed, like the religious fundamentalists of America, and if native Aghanis had simply said, Hell No, on first seeing the white man, if our tribes and mullahs had not clashed among themselves, if the Koran had never been written, if history had never happened, neither as farce nor as tragedy, if I had never been born, and if I saw no more of these visions, please, could you please just let me sleep?

Peace, perhaps, if only things were different.

We Should Have Listened to Tony Kushner About Kabul.

I woke up this morning in August, 2021, in Kabul — or, more precisely inside the powerful, prescient play, “Homebody, Kabul” at the New York Theatre Workshop, 20 years ago — surrounded by Tony Kushner and Roma Torre and Carol Villano, and I knew I had been here before.

Barely a few months after the World Trade Center Towers, where I spent 6 years of my life, were destroyed, and nearly 3,000 humans slaughtered in the attack, we ventured back to Broadway, or, Off-Broadway to be exact.

It was only because a new play from the brilliant Tony Kushner was opening — his first play since “Angels in America”. Kushner wrote and rewrote “Homebody, Kabul,” for several years before 9/11, eerily warning us about the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1998 and 1999, and their appetite for brutality, inhumanity and Jihadism.

I went to see it at the recommendation of Roma Torre, then NY 1’s Theatre Critic, with whom I became friends a decade earlier, when both of us worked at News 12 Long Island. We sat in the old East 4th Street theatre for the next 4 hours, mesmerized by an opening 45 minute monologue by the actress Linda Emond, playing a lonely English woman who dreamed of the romance of old Kabul for decades.

When she lived out her dream and went to Kabul in Act 2, and her family followed to search for her, the Taliban were in-control, arresting women because of their gender, selling them off into sexual slavery, and beheading anyone who disagreed with them.

Kushner’s words, wisdom and uncompromising loyalty to telling the truth hit me like an anvil — just as “Angels” did earlier, and now, 20 years later, his words jolted me out of my sleep, when I learned that the Taliban, more violent, unforgiving and determined than ever, had, once-again, entered the gates of Kabul after thousands of deaths — American and otherwise — and billions of dollars spent battling them, across four US Administrations: two Republican, and two Democratic.

We were warned again and again about these fundamentalist terrorists, and for a whole host of reasons — some humanitarian (like preventing the repression and annihilation of women), some geopolitical (like defeating foreign terrorism) some military, and some based on pure arrogance and pride — we persisted in pursuing a doomed policy.

Now, theTaliban have come home…and so have we, and it’s unlikely that lonely English ladies will long for the long-ago romance of Kabul ever again.

If only we paid closer attention to what Tony Kushner labored mightily to tell us about Kabul.

No, Andrew; Our Italian-American Culture Didn’t Make You Do It.

No, Andrew; Our Italian-American Culture Didn’t Make You Do It.

By Steve Villano

Andrew Cuomo hired me to work in New York State government—in the Administration of his father, Mario M. Cuomo—37 years ago.   Now, it’s time for Andrew to leave the service of the State he has long loved, and to which he and his family devoted their lives to for over four decades.

I am both sad and infuriated that he has put himself—and many of us who have admired and supported his ability to get good things done—in this terrible position. I am pained for his mother, the magnificent Matilda Cuomo, his three daughters and his three sisters to be forced to read about the sordid, sexist, sophomoric, and potentially illegal actions of the Cuomo who beat back COVID, and could have been President. 

And, I am filled with outrage for the scars Andrew afflicted on the 11 brave women who stepped forward, under oath, to testify to Cuomo’s unwanted touching, his untethered teenaged testosterone with which he tormented them, and their fear of losing their jobs, and harming their public service careers, if they spoke up.  Like New York State Attorney General Lettitia James, “I believe these 11 women.”

I watched the New York Attorney General’s full press conference, where her team of highly qualified, non-partisan investigators laid out, in devastating detail, the “Report of Investigation Into Allegations of Sexual Harassment by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.”   Then, I read the full 165-page report myself, and wept while I read in anger what he was charged with doing to these courageous women, and was dumbfounded at his unbridled arrogance, misogyny and abject stupidity.   I thought I knew from experience how arrogant and insensitive Andrew could be, but I never took him for being so politically dumb.

 I watched and listened carefully to Andrew Cuomo as he aired a pre-taped “commercial” defending his awful, possibly unlawful actions, by splicing in photos and videos of himself hugging and kissing lots of men and women, to normalize his behavior, claiming that he was so affectionate because of his “generational and cultural perspectives” that may be different.   He was ignoring the “toxic” harassment-filled workplace culture he created, and blaming it instead on his own Italian-American culture and background. No, Andrew; our loving, humanitarian Italian-American culture didn’t make you do it.  You alone did it.

As an Italian-American male nine-years older than Andrew Cuomo, I found his pathetic attempt to pin the blame for his abominable behavior on his loving, affectionate Italian family background particularly enraging.  To argue that he couldn’t control his libido because he was Italian, is like saying Italian’s can’t control their family’s association with organized crime, or that Black men cannot control their sexual desire because they are, well… Black men.   Despicable.  I wrote an entire book (Tightrope:  Balancing A Life Between Mario Cuomo and My Brother, Heliotrope Books, NY,) to offer eyewitness testimony against such cultural slurs.

Still, as Cuomo requested, I read the 26-page  “Statement of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo Concerning the Sexual Harassment Allegations Made Against Him,” by his attorney and former Federal Prosecutor, Rita M. Glavin, which was, in fact, almost as juvenile and embarrassing as legal filings from the Trump team.

Contrary to what Cuomo said in his pre-recorded statement, his lawyer’s “brief” did NOT counter every accusation, being completely silent on perhaps the most serious allegation made against him, under oath, by a female State Trooper.  The Trooper—identified as Trooper # 1, who was transferred to Cuomo’s personal security unit despite not having the 3-year service qualifications– detailed how Cuomo touched her spine from her neck to the middle of her back, how he placed his hand on her stomach and moved it from her belly-button to her gun-toting hip, and how he invited her to go up to the second floor of the Executive Mansion in Albany, which contained the Governor’s bedroom.  Not one single word addressed the Trooper’s under-oath statements in Cuomo’s legal rebuttal.  Not one single word.

Andrew M. Cuomo can save his family, his beloved State, and Democrats across the nation much agita and further embarassment, by resigning immediately.   NYS Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, a Brooklyn Democrat, stated that Cuomo has “lost the confidence of the Democratic Majority in the Assembly (106 out of 150 seats), and “can no longer remain in office.”  

Yet, if Cuomo’s past political behavior is prologue, he’ll follow the playbook of his self-professed political hero, Bill Clinton—something I found incomprehensible since he had Mario Cuomo as his father:  a far, far better role model & human being.  

Clinton, guilty of an abuse of power, sexual harassment and lying under oath for which he was impeached, selfishly decided to tough it out, and not resign, preventing his Vice President Al Gore from running for election in 2000 as an incumbent president, which may have changed the course of this nation’s history—or at least the history of the U.S. Supreme Court.

If Andrew Cuomo doesn’t resign—whether he runs for re-election or not—he’ll put New York, and national Democrats at a disadvantage in 2022, when the self-inflicted wounds of a Democratic celebrity, could not only cost New York Democrats the Governorship, but House Democrats the majority.  It’s no wonder that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden have already called for Cuomo’s resignation.

If he stubbornly refuses, Andrew Cuomo will finally prove something he’s been striving to show for his entire life.  He’s not his father.

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Harry Chapin & JFK, Jr: 38 Years of Inspiration; Lives Worthy of Imitation.

Harry Chapin & JFK, Jr:  38 years of Inspiration; Lives Worthy of Imitation.

By Steve Villano,

Chapter 4,

Copyright, 2021.

They were always there, right in front of me: Harry Chapin, and John F. Kennedy, Jr., linked in death on the same exact date — July 16.

They died 18 years apart, their age difference, when they were both killed in terrible accidents at 38 years old.

 Chapin’s brief, shooting-star-of-a-life ended in the fiery crash of a small car on the Long Island Expressway; JFK, Jr.’s, in the crash of a small aircraft, somewhere off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.

They were brothers in death, but their families — guided by strong women — and their mutual lust for life were intertwined in ways that one of Harry Chapin’s five children, Jason, would come to experience first-hand, in his work directly with JFK, Jr. and his “Reaching Up” non-profit organization.

 The son of President John F. Kennedy founded “Reaching Up” in 1989—eight years after Harry Chapin died– to give greater access to higher education and training to healthcare givers working with individuals with disabilities. 

The organization’s work not only enlarged the scope of the Special Olympics founded by JFK, Jr’s Aunt Eunice Shriver, but it also shared the compassion and common sense of the life-saving work done by a national non-profit co-founded by singer/songwriter Harry Chapin at the peak of his fame — WhyHunger — still tackling food insecurity in local communities 46 years after it was formed, as well as providing job skills to lift people out of poverty. Chapin and Kennedy were answering similar calls to serve others.

Jason Chapin, who worked with Governor Mario M. Cuomo and was elected to two, four-year terms on the New Castle Town Council in Westchester, County, NY, has, along with his four siblings, carried on his father’s work for WhyHunger and local food banks since 1975. He is the only Chapin to know JFK, Jr., and work with the “Reaching Up” organization and its City University of New York partner (CUNY) from 1995 to 2001.

“John was extremely passionate and dedicated to the organization, “ Jason Chapin said. “ I will always remember our Board Meetings which John chaired. He politely greeted everyone in the room when he arrived. He attended all of the annual Reaching Up Kennedy Fellows Convocations and was very friendly with the Fellows.”

It was precisely the same way JFK, Jr., greeted me at an early 1996 non-profit breakfast at New York’s Plaza Hotel which I attended as a guest of Jason Chapin’s. I was representing Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, and wearing a “We Believe in Brooklyn” button to boost Brooklyn’s visibility among the Manhattan political and media elite. JFK, Jr., who sat a few seats away from me at the circular table, spotted my button as soon as we got seated. He leaned over to me and whispered.

“My family believes in Brooklyn, too,” JFK, Jr. said. “We believe deeply in the Bed Stuy Redevelopment Project,” an important initiative started during the too short Senate term of his uncle, Robert F. Kennedy, when he was NY’s U.S. Senator, from 1965–68.

 What JFK, Jr., may not have known then was how important Jason Chapin’s grandfather, John Cashmore, was to his own father’s election as President of the United States in 1960. Cashmore, Brooklyn Borough President from 1940–1961, delivered 66% of Kings County’s vote to JFK, helping him beat Nixon in New York State by five percent, and win NY’s 45 electoral votes, giving Kennedy the 303 Electoral votes he needed to win the Presidency.

I told JFK, Jr. how important the BedStuy project was to Central Brooklyn, the community served by our public hospital, and how important his own father’s example of public service was to me in guiding my life’s work.

“You probably get tired of hearing that from so many people of my generation,” I said to JFK, Jr.

“I never get tired of hearing it,” he said. “It makes me proud to see how many people my father inspired.”

Over the more than three decades I’ve known Jason Chapin, I’ve heard him say, with unending politeness and grace, the exact same words about his father, when people tell him Harry Chapin inspired them to commit their lives to fighting poverty, or improving public health, or helping refugees find access to food or shelter.

“I’m always amazed by how many people my father reached, how many lives he touched,” Jason says again and again.

Harry Chapin, like the Kennedys, was not content to sit still, and unafraid to use his celebrity to do good, performing 2000 concerts during his 10-year music career, with half of them as benefits, raising more than $6 million to fight hunger, and millions more on his radio “Hungerthons” with WhyHunger co-founder Bill Ayres, a former Catholic priest who Marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963—to pressure JFK, Jr’s father to pass Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation.

As with JFK, Jr., Chapin was encouraged to take his activism, courage and compassion full-time to Washington, and run for the U.S. Senate from New York.

Harry recognized, as JFK, Jr., did with the creation of “Reaching Up” in 1989, that his name attached to any project could attract politicians, the media, the public and funding to the cause. 

His crusade against hunger and poverty, and his successful campaign to create a Presidential Hunger Commission with the help of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT.) and President Jimmy Carter, exhibited the same instincts that propelled JFK, Jr., to launch “Reaching Up” and George Magazine: they both knew that politics and pop culture had merged, and that those in a position to use their fame to improve human existence, and to demonstrate their love for life, had a responsibility to do so.

Now,  40 years after Harry Chapin’s death and 22 years after JFK, Jr’s—both on July 16—their lessons of lending their celebrity, and  giving their lives, to improving the lives of others, are more crucial than ever before.  We need more public-spirited, fearless human beings like Harry Chapin and JFK, Jr., and to turn their inspiration into action.

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