(This is an updated version of a diary I posted on December 8, 2006)
There are places I remember . . .
Twenty-nine years ago tonight, I was scraping and painting my fireplace mantle. I was living in an apartment in New York, right off Fifth Avenue, above a hamburger joint, across the street from St. Patrick's Cathedral. I had found the apartment in the typical New York way: someone had died, and the mother of one of my mother's former second grade students had called me about the vacancy. The rent was approximately fifty percent of what I was then earning as a news clerk at the newspaper at which I was then working.
The main "salon" of said apartment (living room, dining room, bedroom, conservatory - I was a dreamer) was approximately 18 shoeboxes long by 12 shoeboxes wide, with a very high ceiling. There was one window -- in the far right-hand corner -- which overlooked the exhaust fan from the hamburger joint and the dirty backs of the closely-surrounding buildings. I had painted the whole room red and had hung curtains from floor to ceiling across the back wall to give the idea of a bank of wonderful windows, of the possibility of a view. There was no air-conditioning, and on hot nights in NYC there was no air, either, and it was insufferable. (I took a lot of cold showers for less than nefarious purposes.) There was a tiny foyer (painted yellow) which had a table and a mirror. There was also a pullman kitchen (for those too young to remember: this was a waist-high one-unit kitchen appliance against a wall that featured a tiny stove, sink and half-refrigerator) and a bathroom. In each of these latter "rooms," the choice of movement was this: in or out. When my Dad first came to visit me in my new apartment, I served him a drink while he was sitting on my pull-out couch in the living room/dining room/bedroom/conservatory and he said: "This is great! Where is the bedroom?" And I said: "You're sitting on it."
I loved living there.
I do not remember why I had decided to scrape and paint the fireplace mantle that night. I knew that it was supposedly a working fireplace (and it was gigantic -- easily a third of the space on the far wall), but I was deeply suspicious. One neighbor, a lovely and very quiet Pakistani gentleman down the hall, did all of his cooking in his fireplace, so it appeared that the chimneys were sound. But other neighbors -- including a nascent opera singer who worked all night as a paralegal and practiced scales beginning at 6 am, and a professional trombonist who supported himself with bit parts in porn movies -- did not use their fireplaces, so I was never sanguine about burning wood in mine. In any event, the cute firefighters from the fire station down the street had never been called and, having lived there for almost a year, I had decided to at least make the fireplace presentable.
I was in jeans and a t-shirt as I scraped, and I paused to wipe my hands and turn on my tiny portable black-and-white television because it was the night that the tree in Rockefeller Plaza would be lit. That tree was basically across the street from where I lived, but I could not scrape and paint and be there simultaneously. And so I scraped and painted and then, suddenly, WNBC interrupted its broadcast and said there had been a shooting at the Dakota.
The Dakota, an essential ingredient of the New York skyline on Central Park West, was by then already nearly 100 years old. The exterior had been featured in Roman Polanski's creepy New York movie, Rosemary's Baby. It was also the home of many New York celebrities, including Lauren Bacall and Leonard Bernstein. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Minutes later, WNBC said that the apparent victim was John Lennon. I shut off the TV, threw a sweater on over my t-shirt, grabbed a coat and and ran down Fifth Avenue -- and then west on 43rd Street -- to the newsroom. I did not stop to look at the lovely tree in Rockefeller Center, or at the glittering trumpeting angels that lead to it.
By the time I got to the paper, others were streaming in. I went first to the burnt orange metal printer next to the City Desk that spewed out reports of crime from the NYPD on rolls of newsprint, with a carbon. Emergencies were accompanied by a ringing bell. The bell was ringing. I ripped off the bulletin, announcing John Lennon's shooting. I still have the carbon.
The newsroom -- which is roughly the size of a NY City block -- was awash in hushed chaos. The phones were ringing and huge numbers of people were talking and writing and meeting; others were still arriving. But there was a weird hum of disbelief that I had never observed before and never heard again. It was also the only time I ever saw numerous reporters and editors weeping as they worked.
The City Edition had closed at about the same time the first bulletins had come in. In less than an hour, we stripped out two inside pages (it could have been more -- my memory is fuzzy) and remade the front page. By midnight or so (the Late City Edition then closed at 11:45 p.m., but I don't remember whether it was on time), the building had shaken as the presses had started and the paper was new and horrifying. By midnight or so, we knew that John Lennon had died, and the shooting and his death were on the front page. Then, advance obituaries were recorded on early versions of computer tape -- yards and yards of punched out dots and rectangles on one-inch ribbons of paper, rolled onto reels, secured with some extra blank tape and a rubberband. Only a few very senior editors had keys to the vault that held them. But it didn't matter that night, because no one had imagined that an advance obituary of John Lennon, then only 40 years old, would be necessary. And so it was written afresh. I helped with many details, from memory, occasionally running upstairs to the paneled 10th floor library to gather books and to the morgue for old clippings.
As a child, and throughout high school, I had been a Beatles fanatic. I knew all their personal histories and dates and wives and children, all the lyrics. As a senior, I had taught a course on "special course day" on the history of the Beatles. I had been a member of the official Beatles fan club and had the album with all of their annual Christmas songs on it. I had blinded myself one winter day at a Beatles film festival, where I saw A Hard Day's Night, Help, Yellow Submarine and Let it Be in order, with no breaks. I had been devastated on April 10, 1971 when, while doing early morning homework, I had heard on the radio that Paul had quit and that the Beatles were no more. One of the nicest gifts I ever got from anyone was a Christmas greeting and lovely drawing John had scribbled on a prescription pad, for me!, at the office of his dentist, who was the father of a high school friend of mine.
And I had always loved John best. I loved his iconoclasm, his search for peace, his relentlessness. I loved the poetry of his lyrics. I had admired him so long and he had been such a huge part of all of my life. I had been so thrilled with the Imagine album. I was beside myself with the news that, finally, a new album was in the works.
Dead? Shot in the entranceway of a lovely historic New York building? How could this have happened?
There was, by the time I left the paper at dawn the next morning, the gray, pink and orange light of a new day in New York City. I read the paper that I had helped put together, but it didn't seem real.
And it seemed so damn unfair. And now that I've gotten to live twelve years longer than John had the chance to, it seems even more unfair. I recall a letter I received not too long afterwards from Gloria Emerson, one of my heroines, in which she lamented the fact that John had so recently experienced calm and happiness: a loving wife, an adored child, a gathering together of everything important.
And then that senseless end.
On this 29th anniversay of that murder, which I will never understand, peace to John's soul. Peace to Julian and Sean. Peace to Yoko.
And in John's honor, peace to the world.