Just a little east of Middle.

May 4, 2011

Tuesdays with Ossie

 (Or, my eulogy for the funeral of Osama bin Laden)

New York, September

I was first introduced to Osama on a Tuesday.
It was my senior year of college, and with only one week of school under my belt, I was setting out extra-early for my 9 am class.
It was a local election day, and about ten minutes into my walk, I remember seeing people running out of buildings and screaming in some kind of excitement and thinking, “Who says Americans are apathetic about politics?  Look at how invested we are.”  

It was 8:47 am.

Forty seconds later, a pastry chef jumped out of his little Italian bakery and yelled out to the street, “They just bombed the World Trade Center!”
But people yelled things like this all the time east of Union Square.

In class, one girl had brought a portable radio with her, and students crowded around her at the windows, as my curmudgeonly, ascot-laden Anthropology teacher grumbled, “What, you’ve never seen a little fire before?”  None of us quite understood what had happened at that point:  Accidental plane crash?  Bombs?  Terrorist hi-jacking?  All these and more were being discussed, both on the news and amongst ourselves.
Then, suddenly, just as class officially began, we saw a horrifying reflection in the windows of the building across from ours.  The image of the street turned to liquid, with hundreds of people streaming out and just running, running.  It looked at first like all of them were headed toward Washington Square Park, though thinking back on it, this seems hard to imagine.  But they were definitely moving.  Fast. 

The second plane had hit.

After class, I wandered toward my next period; when I arrived, I was told the towers had fallen, and that I should go home.  So after sitting alone for awhile in a small library I loved, I headed to my theatre studio to see if everyone was alright.

As soon as I walked in, one of the faculty grabbed me and said, “We need a favor.  If you can calm her down…” My former teacher introduced me to a freshman girl who had apparently been sobbing non-stop for the last 2.5 hours.  It took awhile, but eventually I got her to relax, breathe, and even talk a little.  Then another staff member escorted her back to her dorm.

The afternoon wore on, and we heard about the Pentagon and Pennsylvania.  Several of us sat around in half-silence for a bit, and one of the younger instructors, W., and I kept sneaking out of the room to—first tentatively, then with a bit more gusto—crack jokes.  It felt good and wrong to laugh, to begin to identify the lines that could and could not be crossed.  And if you are judging, then—and I say this respectfully, as one New Yorker to another, because, of course, we were all New Yorkers on that day—fuck you.  Because you probably weren’t there.  Even though you’ll probably tell your kids that you were.

I finally walked home around 2 pm, still numb.

A few hours after I returned, the phone lines, which had been overloaded all day, began to clear up, and we were able to reach friends and family. 
One friend came over and told us he was going to enlist.  We talked him out of doing it right away.  We all hugged and cried and locked our eyes on the TV: all news shows interspersed with promos for Kiefer Sutherland’s “24,” or vice versa.  We stayed in our living room, barely moving, and didn’t leave our apartment again until the following night, when a friend let us know that the movie theatre on 13th and 3rd was showing movies for free.  My roommate L. and I made the brilliant decision of seeing Apocalypse Now Redux (which neither of us knew anything about), and sat for 20 minutes hyperventilating and trying to stave off anxiety attacks after the movie ended and the theatre emptied.

As we got off the escalator to exit, we wondered what they were handing out flyers for at the door.  We got closer, and realized that the flyers were napkins meant to cover our mouths and eyes, as the wind had changed, and in the 3 hours we had been in the movie theatre, all of the ash had begun blowing uptown. 
The air was black.  The streets were empty.  We walked hard, stomping to try to make our lone footsteps ring out over the whistle-moan of the sooty wind.

Trying not to think about what was in that wind.  Trying.

We could not hear each others’ voices.  We could not see each others’ faces.  But we held each others’ arms with one hand and Loew’s movie theatre napkins over our faces with the other.  And we pushed forward.

 After about seven minutes, we ducked under an awning somewhere on 13th Street and realized we were not going to be able to make it the full eight blocks to our apartment, so, covered in ash and tattered napkin, we ducked into a small piano bar on the north side of the street and stared at each other over pints of Guinness.  

Osama, it seems hard to believe that just 48 hours before, we hadn’t known of your existence.  We had not been making hourly phone calls begging downtown centers to take our blood, our food, anything, just so we could find a way to help, just so we could feel like we were contributing something.
Only two days ago, we had had no idea what a huge part of our lives you would become.
How you would bestow years of reporters with an easy fallback story.  How you would grace headlines leading to two wars and through two presidential campaigns.  How you would provide douchebags with a whole new synecdochical racial epithet.  You surprised us all.[1]  

And, whatever we may have thought of you in those first few days, I think we can all agree that by mid-October, most of us deeply hated one particular freedom:  the freedom to wear and sell American flag pins.

I’m Not Osama.

My next memorable encounter with Ossie happened about a year and a half later, as I was working towards a Masters in cloudy, passive-aggressive England.  

Our department hosted a weekly lecture series with notables in the field of Jewish and Oriental Studies, and, as there were hors d’oeuvres provided, the administration would zealously hound attendees from the university to sign in.
After close to a decade of working with Non-Profit organizations, I am now deeply appreciative of the importance of the sign-in sheet for grant and budgetary justification, record-keeping, etc.  However, at that point, I was unversed in the ways of 501(c)(3), and didn’t like the Big Brothery feeling of those sheets.
Still, as they appeared to be a necessary evil, I would occasionally have a little fun with various “attendees” who came to certain lectures.

Two days after one of these lectures, I received a phone call from my department’s registrar.
“Could you come by the office please?”
“Sure…um…what is this regarding?”
“We have a few questions for you, but I’d rather discuss it in person.”

 Walking to the main office, I could not for the life of me figure out what I had (possibly) done, and remained confused until H., the registrar pulled out a binder filled with the hated sign-in sheets and flipped to the most recent one.
She pointed at Osama’s signature and said:
 “Now, we all appreciate a good joke, but there is a certain line….Tell me, is this you?”
I smiled, assuming she was messing with me. 
“Are you asking if I am Osama bin Laden?  Or if I signed his name?”
“You know, this is a very sensitive time, and we have to be careful of who we let on site for security purposes, and…”
“H., I’m the one who wrote it.  I’m sorry.  Osama wasn’t actually here.  You know that, right?  There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Yes, of course, I…well, we just need to know for sure.”
“I am sure.  It was me.  I don’t know him, he didn’t attend the lecture, and it’s pretty unlikely that he’s in England.”
“I know it sounds like we’re being sensitive, but last year we had a situation where a girl started dating an Arab boy who seemed very nice, but he actually wasn’t really interested in her.  He was just interested in getting onto the property.[2]  So we have to follow up on people coming onto our site very seriously.”

It felt odd to say the same thing over and over, but in Britain, I’d found that sometimes, you just had to state your claim as clearly as possible and keep repeating it until it was understood.

“H., I’m…not dating Osama bin Laden.   Again let me reiterate that he wasn’t actually on-campus.  I signed his name on the sign-in sheet.  As a joke.  I’m sorry.”
“It’s not a problem.  We just had to make sure it was someone pretending to be him.”

I started to bring up the fact that I had also signed in—that same night, on that same sheet, in fact, fourteen lines down—as beloved 12th century sage and teacher Rashi, who also wore a sizeable head covering, yet no one was complaining to me about that.  But I was no longer 21 and angry and confused, so I decided to keep that interesting observation to myself.
I apologized again, and I think I might have had to sign something saying that I and not Osama bin Laden had attended the weekly lecture, but it’s all a little blurry now.


This one was the most convoluted, but so many of us bought into it in those unsure years after September 11, 2001, that no bin Laden history is complete without it:  invading Iraq under pretense of finding Osama.

Okay, so he wasn’t technically involved or at fault, but if he hadn’t done a number of things that made it easier for liars to manipulate his reputation to suit their whims, I would like to think that our population’s bullshit-meter would have been better-calibrated, or that those in our government who had their meters properly zeroed (rather than Ground-Zeroed) would have felt less in danger of losing their next election if they spoke out.  So, Ossie, as we tell our students in the alternative school system, “Some of your prior actions made it easier for us to believe that you’d be involved in something like this.  So whether or not you did it, as soon as your name came up, we had to acknowledge a possible connection.  Does that make sense?  You can be angry.  You have a right to be angry.  But we have a duty to protect our other students.  Why don’t you write down your version of events.  Yes, of course you can have a milk.  One sec.  Judy?  Are there milks left over from lunch?  No, 2%.  Thanks.”
Okay, maybe just the first part.

We were sitting in the common room of the graduate dorms--my German freshly-ex boyfriend (now a Cambridge instructor and good friend…which he lists in descending order of importance) and I--tearing up as we heard the news of the invasion.  It hurt.  How could so many be buying this, we tried to understand.
We watched night after night as bombs exploded, people screamed, and irreplaceable antiquities—and even more irreplaceable lives--were destroyed.  And we sobbed.  Like, actual gaspy sounds--sounds like that freshman girl at studio made back in 2001.  And I think I speak for both of us when I say that those tears weren’t because I figured I wouldn’t be getting laid again before I received my Masters.

The hunt for Osama took a backseat for years as the hunt for the dear-secular-dictator-friend-he-had-never-met began.  And as the Iraqi insurgency grew, the capture of Saddam was touted as the guaranteed panacea, which, as all in Babylon joyously sing about each Thank You America Day, fixed every issue facing the newly “liberated” country.

Certainly, I was no fan of the late Mr. Hussein.  But even years later, I can remember the awful feeling in my stomach when they hung Saddam, especially after one military observer did his cyber-duty by uploading a cell-phone video. 
I do not agree with public killings.  I do not think they actually contribute to healing.  I do not believe we reinforce a message of, “Taking another’s life is crappy,” by pairing that independent clause with, “so if you do, we’ll kill you.”

Perhaps it is my long-term exposure to Jewish guilt, or a love of Westley’s vengeance speech thesis in “The Princess Bride,”[3] but I think that dictators and those who have destroyed—or severely altered for the worse—the lives of large numbers of other people, should have to not only stand trial, but should be the lucky recipients of a long life in a confined area where they are daily confronted with the ills they have committed. 
If I had my way, both Ossie and Saddam would be kept in cells with a window facing a sitting room and one-way speakers, so at any time of night or day, anyone directly affected could show up and tell them about how his/her life was changed by acts that they had committed or encouraged.  In fact, any American of tax-paying age, any foreign national affected by the resulting visa policies, hell, anyone who had to dispose of their nail-clipper or Swiss Army knife before they got on a plane, would be allowed to make an appointment.  And they would all be allowed to bring in liquids.[4]

Saying Good-bye

Last night, as I sat enjoying some soup and beer with a new roommate, M., I got a text from another freshly-ex boyfriend reading, “obama about to announce that bin laden is dead and the us has the body.”  My texted response was a measured and eloquent, “Holy fuck WHAT?!”  I told M. about the text, and she looked at me shocked.  “I feel a little disgusted,” she said.  “Like, I want him to have to stand trial.”  “Me too.”  I had a familiar, sick feeling in my stomach, and not just because I didn’t know if I’d get laid again before I left Chicago.  We paid the check and hurried home to watch Obama’s speech live.  I messaged friends in the Middle East with a link to some lower-traffic sites to watch the live stream, just in case they were awake.  We looked at pictures of Osama, and tried to remember exactly how old he was.  Fifty-four.  But we agreed he didn’t look a day over 43.  And what a resume!

 I went to bed about an hour after the speech, and woke up 3 hours later, thinking that Osama and I could grab a few last moments together, and maybe begin to process these past ten years, in the relative peace of Chicago’s morning darkness.  And, since we couldn’t talk, I began to write.

Yes, all these memories of my time with Osama are very personal.  And I know—we all know--that he affected so many outside of the small circle gathered here today.  But funerals are never for the deceased.  They’re for the rest of us.  Those who are staying behind to pick up the pieces.

Osama, it’s hard to believe that we’ll never see another videoed rant from an anonymous cave.  That we’ll never enter another country or village, nor okay another civilian-friendly airstrike, with the aim of seeing if you were hanging out nearby.  Of course, in your later years, much as we didn’t want to acknowledge it, the rules of the game had changed.  It wasn’t about you so much anymore.  Your followers had taken on more of the burden of the ideology and actions you helped to fund and popularize.  But we never forgot you.  Never.  You were always periodically on our minds as long as our houses weren’t in foreclosure or we weren’t able to find a foot specialist through work’s HMO.  Occasionally, even in the midst of all of that, our eyes would turn again toward you, as toward Mecca, or Jerusalem, or the Lady Gaga video where she wears a telephone on her head. We didn’t know if or when we’d see you again, but we did know that you had irrevocably changed us all.  Ah, Ossie…I just wish you could have stuck around long enough to hear from everyone in the world exactly what you meant to them.  I just wish we could know that you really got it, you know?

Because even though right now, people may be celebrating your demise, the truth is, you were taken from us too soon.  There are still so many loose ends that have not been tied.  And, as much as this may be read as a victory, another door has been closed on the closure of the real victims.  You got off too easy.

Hope you enjoy the raisins.[5]

[1] Almost all.  A few in Washington who were privy to some unimportant memos may have had an inkling.

[2] Okay, can I just say that while the details of H.’s tale of warning were sketchy and unproven, if there indeed had been a wannabe-martyr who decided the best way he could serve his chosen cause was to seduce a passable-looking graduate student in order to take a meandering bus ride followed by a 10-minute walk just to set foot on the hallowed ground of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, we were dealing with the budding “terrorist” equivalent of a paparazzi photographer who risks life, limb and violation of privacy laws for an out-of-focus picture of Brad and Angelina look-alikes buying a family-size carton of Eden Soymilk.

[3] Westley:  Wrong. Your ears you keep and I'll tell you why. So that every shriek of every child at seeing your hideousness will be yours to cherish. Every babe that weeps at your approach, every woman who cries out, "Dear God! What is that thing," will echo in your perfect ears. That is what to the pain means. It means I leave you in anguish, wallowing in freakish misery forever.”

[4] In addition, Osama would be required to watch every single homemade 9-11 youtube “tribute” montage, preferably set to Coldplay or Sarah McLachlan.  He would also have to repeatedly view Cloverfield.
And he would never be allowed to comment on IMDB.

[5] The concept of 72 “virgins” is a likely mistranslation of 72 “white raisins.”  But, much like virgins, the raisins will probably also not know what to do with bin Laden’s ghost-penis.


  1. You should write everything I read.

  2. Flip--Thanks so much!
    Mags--It was your comment that night that actually inspired the piece...so gracias, lady!