A Visit From The Red Cross, and Abc, Nbc, Cnn…

by

02/17/2002

church st & white st, new york, ny 10013

Neighborhood: Tribeca

During the past few weeks, representatives from Red Cross have been going around to people who live below Canal St (in Tribeca, oddly enough, not Chinatown) offering them financial compensation whether they needed it or deserved it, or not. They came to my door. After they left,I wrote about the experience.

It was an innocent act. That is, writing the piece. Taking the money was an instinctive act.

The next day a reporter from a local newspaper called and said that she’d like to interview me for a piece she was writing. Apparently, controversy was raging, word had spread uptown, Tribeca was aflutter. I said yes, not having had much experience with the press (although, as a sometimes journalist, I guess I’m one of them’) and to avoid working on my novel. When the reporter arrived with a photographer, I told her that I just wanted it to be clear in the article that I was as culpable as the Red Cross because I took the money. In other words, please don’t make me look like an asshole, I said.

“Oh, of course not,” she said.

“Really. I mean it,” I said, “Because I’ve written this stuff and I know how easy it is to make someone look stupid.”

She looked offended.

I bought the paper the next morning. The story had made the second page. There was a big picture of me with a leering grin. No, it was more like a greedy, almost venal grin. The story went on to say I had been in a “moral quandary” about accepting the money.. Moral quandary’ is not an expression I would ever use. On the brighter side, they got the amount of money that I’d received wrong, reporting only half the actual amount, so I didn’t look quite as self-serving. That was a relief. There was also a quote from another resident, an outraged resident: “I would never take the money!” Said outraged resident is the owner of many profitable eating and drinking establishments in the neighborhood bought—it is alleged— with the sizable profits of his former trade (a trade involving the buying and selling of substances that purportedly kill brain cells, substances that parents try to keep away from their children—sorry, can’t divulge my sources).

To each his own.

The phone began to ring. ABC local news wanted to come over and interview me. Again I said yes. God knows why, perhaps I thought I could redeem myself, perhaps I am a masochist. By the time ABC had arrived ( a blonde female newscaster and a mildly annoyed cameraman breathing heavily–there’s a lot of rickety stairs up to my loft) NBC Nightly News had called and said they were ‘thinking about doing a story, they would get back to me,’ and CNN had called and said they’d be there at 1:30. By now I was feeling a bit punchy, thinking, Gee, the nightly news! Wow, maybe the Red Cross will have to reconsider their distribution methods, or maybe I’ll be famous and my publisher will reconsider releasing my novel as a paperback.

Indeed, the ABC newscaster told me that the Red Cross had backpedaled instantly. They’d already changed their rules; now residents had to show that they’d been displaced or that they’d suffered financially. Well, that’s good, I thought, at least something worthwhile came of this. Then I began beseeching the newscaster to make sure the audience at home would be aware that I was no angel, that I was as complicit because yes I took the money. Again, I said, Please do not make me look like an asshole.

“Of course not,” she said.

In no time I was prancing around the loft fielding questions, giddy on the outside but feeling more and more like Jonathan Franzen on the inside with each and every incriminating syllable.

As the ABC people were leaving, NBC woman #2 called. She said the crew was in the neighborhood. Could they stop by?

“But the man from CNN is due in a half hour,” I said. “You never got back to me so I thought…”

I thought wrong and she was pissed. Within moments I received a call from NBC woman #1 who first chastised me and then barked at me to tell the CNN guy to come a half hour later. Dutifully, I called the CNN guy who was also pissed but complied graciously.

Then my parents called. My mother was worried the Red Cross was going to hunt me down and arrest me; my father said I was a crook and belonged in jail.

I settled in to wait for NBC. A soul searching half hour went by. Then another soul searching half hour went by. Now I was in a state beyond soul searching, a state called panic, worrying about the guy from CNN, who, under the circumstances, had been gracious. So I called the NBC woman #1, the one who’d barked at me. The crew was on their way, she said. Another half hour crawled by. I called the crew.

“We’ll be there shortly.”

“What does shortly mean?”

Silly me. “Shortly” meant another soul searching half hour, precisely five minutes after the CNN man was due to arrive. Another blond female newscaster and two severely pissed off cameramen arrived. (National news organizations have a lot more equipment to carry.) I was almost as pissed off as the cameramen, from the waiting and the soul searching—not to mention the worrying about the CNN guy. By now I was ready to call the police, put my hands up and surrender.

The blond newscaster informed me the Red Cross wanted my case number so they could ‘investigate’ my case. They were downstairs waiting to be filmed walking around the neighborhood. I don’t think that’s a good idea, she said. I said I didn’t either.

The phone rang. It was the CNN guy. He was no longer so gracious; he was downstairs downright pissed, more pissed off than those of us upstairs put together. He began to scream at me over the phone. I apologized profusely although I wasn’t entirely sure it was my fault. I asked the blond newscaster to talk to him. She declined. The CNN guy agreed to wait another half hour.

I was no longer capable of prancing so the NBC people had to prop me up on the sofa. I looked like a whipped puppy. The blonde newscaster tried to cajole me into saying how much I’d suffered and how I really deserved the money. No dice. We got into some politics. I started into a tirade about our beloved president, Frat Boy. She winced. The cameramen were egging me on behind her. She grimaced.

By the time the NBC group left, I felt as despicable as Ken Lay (not quite as despicable as his wife, however) and was preparing to take the Fifth. When the CNN man arrived (who was not blonde but was a half hour late) with his relatively cheerful cameramen I was practically crawling on my hands and knees, ready to beg special forgiveness from the Pope, or whatever you do. I went directly into my ‘I’m as terrible as They are, please don’t make me look bad’ schtick and the CNN man looked at me like I was nuts.

“You seem conflicted about taking the money,” he said. “Are you guilty?”

I told him it had been a long day.

The CNN crew experienced a series of technical difficulties during the interview so by the time we’d repeated it three times, the newscaster and I became bosom buddies. As they prepared for departure, I asked him if the networks were going to make me look like an asshole.

“Probably,” he said.

I watched the ABC local news. Funny, I’d never noticed that I looked like a cross between the Wicked Witch of the West and a 65 year old crackhead before. There was one particularly gruesome shot, a close-up, again with that inopportune leering grin, saying, “Four thousand dollars!!” and then breaking into a spasm of hysteria. The NBC piece did not, thankfully, run. And I did not stick around for the CNN.

This week there was a piece in the New York Times telling the brave tales of stalwart Tribecans who did not take the money. The Red Cross was quoted as saying that, according to their statistics, half the people canvassed did not take the money. Not according to my statistics. Every person I talked to (mostly artists, writers and other self employed types) took the money, including the artist who said pleadingly, “They made me take it!”

Did they hold a gun to his head? I wondered. They didn’t hold a gun to mine.

There was a piece in The New Yorker describing hordes of Tribecans filling out forms at a table set up by the Red Cross on some Tribeca corner. The Red Cross was quoted as saying “If people take our money and they don’t need it, well, shame on them!”

Shame, shame, shame, as Evelyn Champagne King once sang.

I’m no longer in a moral quandary. As for my tainted dollars, they’re already back in the mail, on their merry way to the Internal Revenue Service in the form of quarterly income taxes. I can only hope the IRS will take the money. And hope—and pray, of course—that Frat Boy will do the right thing, too.

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