monday evening, rob, jess, jessica and i drove downtown to see salman rushdie give a reading at the alley theatre. i have not read anything salman rushdie has written, but i’d heard things good and bad and interesting and was curious. we parked at the police station and walked over bridges and under overpasses to get to the theatre, where we waited outside in a long line that snaked around outside the building. as we popped our gum and tried on each other’s sunglasses, a small, thin man walked the length of the queue, passed out yellow pieces of paper. they were protest fliers, condemning the creative writing department at the university of houston, asking them to cancel the reading and make a public apology.
i took the flier from him and watched as he finished handing them out and rejoined his cluster of protestors. they were standing at the corner of smith and texas, holding printed cardboard signs up to passing cars.
“hell is thirsty for salman rushdie”
“satanic verses versus one billion hearts”
“houston will not tolerate salman rushdie the apostate”
“freedom of expression ends where vilification of facts starts”
“creative vulgarity is rushdie’s specialty”
“no civilized society can condone offensive material disguised as literature”
“cancer of the human race! rushdie we must eliminate”
i thought some of the signs a little lengthy and complicated for the average driver of a moving car to read. but as we got our tickets and walked up the stairs to wait in the lobby, a few hundred angry, shouting people arrived. their signs were much more brief and explicit, but i didn’t get a chance to read them before we were ushered inside to sit down. as we waited for the reading to start, rob and i talked about the protestors outside, about how it was the most hate-filled thing we’d seen in a long while, about how strange we thought it was that there was virtually no security at the building. any one of us could have a gun right now, rob said, and could use it.
salman rushdie is brilliant. he read for perhaps an hour, and i didn’t miss a word. i didn’t even look away. he has a way of writing that makes me want desperately to write more and, simultaneously, makes me think i should never, ever write again. he was funny, insightful, spontaneous even as he read, and there was more truth in his fiction in the space of an hour than i think i’ve ever seen in one place at one time. he answered questions and talked generally about his book for a bit as well. it was impressive, inspiring.
when we walked outside after it was over, the protestors and their signs were gone, the end of the evening anticlimactic at best. my car was still in the police station parking lot, we drove home safely, and i spent the rest of the evening at notsuoh studying with shaun, finally going to sleep at five-thirty a.m.
i don’t remember where i was when rob called me three hours later, at eight-thirty tuesday morning. when i heard the phone ring, i don’t know if i was awake in the study or asleep in bed. which is really strange since the study and bedroom are farthest away from one another in my apartment, and the phone is between them, so one would think i would remember a) if i ran through the kitchen from the study or through the living room from the bedroom to get the phone, and b) if i was conscious or unconscious. but i don’t. i remember hearing the phone ring, deciding not to answer the phone, answering it mid-message when i heard what rob was saying, and then turning on the television and staring, mouth agape, listening to rob’s voice telling me that he had imagined it happening before it did. ear to the phone, i watched through smooth glass and wires as both towers collapsed.
later i went to school, where everyone sat listless and glazed-over through lectures, talking in the hallways between classes, yelling into cellular phones. and then there was lunch and class and learning that salman rushdie couldn’t fly out, is stuck here, harbored by the creative writing department. locking my keys in the car and crawling on pavement on my hands and knees, fumbling alone in the burning black heat. and artiste, trying to study but not even coming close, and valhalla, sitting atop a slab of granite staring at the sky, carefully not talking about it and not even coming close until a plane flew overhead, disguised as a blinking star.
i want everyone i know to be here with me. it’s hard to have to read about the anguish of people i care about through smooth glass and wires. i have never been to new york, and there isn’t a thing i can think of to say that wouldn’t ring hollow, seem a clichÈ, or cheapen everything.
we are all made of paper.