I recorded this short 5-minute song, this morning. It seems most fitting right now and speaks to our time.
“Summer’s End” by the late John Prine.
Since his passing, I’ve become even more of a fan of John Prine and his music. Released in 2018 on “The Tree of Forgiveness” album, “Summer’s End” was a wonderfully moving song written about the opioid addiction crisis. But John Prine’s comforting message of loss and hope could apply to any and all of us in our own times of confusion and conflict. I’m posting my first cover here on YouTube, with special thanks to David Huckfelt & Over The Rhine (Etown Radio) for being my “backing band.” I hope you enjoy it as much as I take away sharing it with you.
“Summer’s end came faster than we wanted….”
That says it all, really. A more brilliant nor more poignant lyric has not been written.
Introduction: It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly two decades. Today marks the 19th anniversary of 9/11, a fitting time to look back and remember the World Trade Center before they collapsed on that terrible day. Marieta and I visited the World Trade Center a few times. We even went to the top of one of the towers about a year before the tragedy. Today’s essay includes some photos which were taken during those visits. These photos are all that remains.
The twin towers. So utterly unremarkable in design, yet so grandiose by sheer size and scope, weren’t just windows to the world. They were extensions of our national character and pillars of America’s unequivocal stature as a global superpower.
Within sight of those two towers, the Statue of Liberty is often said to symbolize our national identity. But the unruffled lady bearing a flaming torch is more of an idea, really. Perhaps even a myth, given where we are and what we’ve become. Rooted squarely within the planet’s financial epicenter, the World Trade Center arose as the true manifestation of a nation, an economy, and a people — imposing, bold, excessive, and unapologetic for it all.
Which is precisely why they were such inviting targets on that fateful day no one saw coming.
I took this photo about a year before it happened.
The view from the top of the towers looking east towards Brooklyn was breathtaking.
Visitors rode express elevators from the ground floor to the observation decks. One was inside. Another was on the rooftop, outside.
That’s Marieta off to the right of the frame.
Here’s another angle, of the view looking east, but angled more towards the south. If you look carefully, you can see the tip of Manhattan Island starting to curve around, there off to the right side. The World Trade Center was only a block or so away from the shore. In fact, a landfill was added to part of the outer perimeter which allowed traffic to move more easily. A park was also added near the waterfront. Of course, that’s all gone now, or at least it’s been transformed.
When we stepped inside Windows on the World, the famous restaurant perched on the 106th and 107th floor of the North Tower, this was the view looking out towards Hudson Bay. There in the center of the photo where the golden sunset radiates off the water is Liberty Island, which provides the base of the Statue of Liberty. You can barely see her proudly standing there in the glow of the sunshine.
The twin towers standing so close side by side meant you could sometimes see people over in the other building. Those working in offices were on display, but if you fear heights, like me, the view was dizzying. Company executives with corner offices who by the very definition of where they worked had “made it.” All strangers. But in a very real sense, they were our friends and our family, too.
Watching someone over in the other tower, catching their eye, and waving was pretty amazing. Seeing them wave back was a real joy.
I wonder what happened to some of those nice people who waved. I wonder how many survived, and how many did not.
The first thing that hits you when you step outside onto the observation deck at the World Trade Center is — the wind.
Not like a breeze. Not even gusts. It just blows…..hard….all the time.
We went outside on a perfect day. I can’t even imagine the difficulty of what it must have been like to do construction or maintenance work on the roof of these buildings. The wind was brutal.
Here’s the view from the outer observation deck looking directly north, uptown on Manhattan Island. Oddly enough, when being up this high it’s so far up one might lose any fear of heights. It’s almost like flying.
Just about everyone connected in any way to the events of 9/11 had an opinion on what to do with the now-sacred site. In the end, rich and powerful financiers do what they always do, which is to tear it all down, haul it away, and rebuild again. The land beneath the bodies and rubble was far too valuable to be left simply, as is, which would have been the most appropriate tribute.
At the very least, part of the iconic outer skeleton of the World Trade Center should have been left intact, and then other buildings could have been built around it. Something, at least, should have remained of those fallen towers, to remind us. Something tangible. Something people can see, and touch, and remember.
Now that those two platforms of such wonderfully unique perception are gone, we can no longer gaze out, reflect, and enjoy. The purgatory between earth and sky stands no more.
Writer’s Note: Back in January 2017, I penned this article after seeing Al Pacino interviewed onstage in a two-hour career retrospective. I’m publishing it here for the first time on the occasion of Pacino’s 80th birthday — April 25, 2020.
Few can command a room just by being inside it. Al Pacino is such a man, with an undeniable command presence.
That was my instant takeaway the moment when the spotlight hit the iconic film actor who was introduced to a Saturday night crowd of about 800 loyal fans at the Opaline Theatre inside the Palazzo.
Pacino had arrived in Las Vegas for an exclusive one-hight-only, one-man engagement. Think Pacino unplugged. Aside from the somewhat nameless and faceless interviewer who tossed Pacino plenty of softballs to smash out of the theatre, this was Pacino totally in the raw, mostly unrehearsed and unscripted. While some of the questions asked were repetitive and maybe even a few of the answers were orchestrated for maximum impact, the intimate setting was also loaded with plenty of spontaneous moments and edge-of-your-seat recollections for classic movie lovers. Most satisfying of all, Pacino seemed to sincerely enjoy the trip down memory lane, with pit-stops where you’d expect them on his 50-year-career. He was a much better storyteller than one might have anticipated.
Indeed, Pacino personifies what it means to be a movie star. He made the Godfather’s fictional character Michael Corleone into someone who’s real to millions, forever embalmed into cinema’s collective consciousness. When we hear Serpico, we think of Pacino. Sonny, the bisexual bank robber based on a real incident, is Pacino. Scarface. Dick Tracy. Frank Slade. Carlito. Lefty Ruggiero. Shylock. Richard III. Phil Spector. He even played Dr. Kevorkian.
I was surprised by my own reaction, that Pacino’s best moments weren’t the highlights of his superstardom, but rather the low moments and the struggles, both personally and career-wise. We can forgive but he can’t forget, and Pacino carries the burdens of pain from his childhood, though no amount of talking about his early life could quite remove the lingering sting of loss all these years later.
He talked about growing up in East Harlem (and later the Bronx), born into a lower-class household, raised by a single mother at a time when single mothers were widely viewed social outcasts, especially in Italian-American culture.. Pacino’s father abandoned the family when Al was 2. Interesting factoid from the show: Pacino was mostly raised by his grandparents who were immigrants from….Corleone, Italy.
Pacino seemed the most unlikely heir of what was to become his ultimate destiny. He worked as a messenger, busboy, janitor, and postal clerk in between acting jobs consisting mostly of small roles in stage productions. There was even a period when he was unemployed and homeless. Sometimes he slept on the street, in theaters, or at a friend’s house.
In the 1960s, leading men cast in movies did not look and talk like Pacino. Smallish. Way too New York. And way, way too ethnic. By age 30, even though he’d studied at the famed Actors Studio under the tutelage of mentor Lee Strasberg (who would later play the legendary role of Hyman Roth in Godfather II), his acting career was going nowhere.
However, everything was about to change, including public tastes and mass audiences’ demands for authenticity combined with Hollywood’s own methods of casting prompted by a new age of writers and directors. New movies would need smallish actors, with New York accents, who were genuinely ethnic.
Pacino’s role, playing a heroin addict in his first film The Panic in Needle Park (1971) caught the attention of movie director Francis Ford Coppola, who had just won an Oscar for screenwriting Best Picture winner, Patton. Coppola took a big risk and cast Pacino as Michael Corleone in what became a blockbuster film, The Godfather (1972). Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, and even Robert De Niro tried out for the part, but Coppola insisted on Pacino, to the dismay of studio executives who wanted someone better known.
The stories of phone calls between Pacino and Coppola during the tense negotiations were told here, presumably, versions heard by the public for the first time. Neither knew of the monumental tidal wave that was to come engulfing both of their lives, totally reshaping the careers of both men. Now, Pacino remained every bit as appreciative of that loyalty, noting that no other film director would have gone to bat with such steely determination, especially given that Coppola was also relatively young and didn’t have total control of casting decisions.
As one would expect, there wasn’t nearly enough time to tell all the stories. Even Pacino’s most obscure film roles elicited some hysterical recollections about on-the-set disasters and even the actor’s own missteps.
Pacino had clearly done this before, and his experience as an amiable storyteller showed onstage. Yet, the actor’s occasional gaffes were among the most endearing moments. When absorbed in stories, he’d often get excited and would sometimes even ramble off on tangents. A few times, the moderator had to steer Pacino back on track. This wasn’t annoying at all. It gave the presentation a genuine sense of spontaneity, that we were privileged to be sitting in an audience sharing Pacino’s recollections of what happened when the cameras weren’t rolling. I should add that not having any film clips, props, or other supporting materials actually helped the format. Midway into the retrospective, everyone in the audience seemed to feel what a special moment this was and we were lucky to share it.
Las Vegas might be known for gambling, but it usually leaves nothing to chance. The odds are known. Most shows are the same, night after night, year after year. Pacino’s recollections, though imperfect and incomplete, was in a sense the acrobat performing without the net — no notes and no script. While other celebrities have done one-person stage shows, with mixed results, most of those efforts look way too contrived, even manipulative. Not so, with Pacino.
Pacino has crafted a reputation based on playing tough guys in movies. But his first love is stage acting and theatre. After taking about 25 minutes of questions from the audience (most of which were terrible — thankfully, Pacino was gracious and answered questions he’s undoubtedly been asked hundreds of times and anyone with access to IMDB can lookup), the legend paid homage to Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neil, and Noel Coward. It seemed Pacino wanted to talk more about stagecraft. Unfortunately, the interviewer cut off some of the evening’s most passionate thoughts from Pacino.
The final few minutes included a short glimpse of what was then Pacino’s next major upcoming film project. That night, he’d recently signed a deal to play Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.
Was it enough? Was it worth paying $80 to listen to a film icon talk about his life and career? Was this a show to recommend?
Midnight Express is a mesmerizing 1978 film based on the true story of an American college student who gets arrested and then convicted of drug charges who is summarily forced to endure the unspeakable horrors of the Turkish prison system.
After I watched the movie — its screenplay penned by Oliver Stone based in the captivating book by Billy Hayes who wrote of his experiences — like so many viewers I came away with a deep hatred for Turkey and its people. It was impossible to watch that movie and see the way Turks were portrayed and not be jaded by the cruel hyperbolic depiction.
I wasn’t sympathetic to drug use nor smuggling, mind you. However, the injustices of the Turkish legal system and the way such a relatively minor crime was punished left a lasting impression. For many who saw it, Midnight Express was the only thing we knew about Turkey.
But life does twist us in ways we cannot predict and turn us onto paths we do not foresee. Fifteen years after Midnight Express infuriated tens of millions of moviegoers, I ended up working for the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey in Washington D.C. I was an employee of the Turkish Government for seven years, between 1993 and 2000.
During my employment with the Turks, I gradually came not only to admire the fascinating history and rich culture of Turkey, and before them, the Ottomans. Working with people with very different attitudes opened my eyes to another perspective of the world — one that was not always consistent with my own perspectives, opinions, and values that I thought to be unshakable. Visiting Turkey four times during my tenure with the Embassy broadened my experiences even further. The photo (posted above) was taken during one of those visits, while in Istanbul.
However, one thing I couldn’t shake was the terrible memory of Midnight Express and the constant reminders of how Billy Hayes was treated by the system I now supported with my own labor. His book and the movie came up frequently among the Turks while I worked there. It was often the first thing Americans thought of when they were asked what they associate with Turkey. I even came to share the Turks’ resentment of the distorted portrayal. I began to posture defensively about it in conversations with Americans.
Fuck Billy Hayes. He was a drug smuggler. He did the crime, so he should have done the time! He got what he deserved!
Nonetheless, I couldn’t refute his very real story of a grave injustice at the hands of a government that was essentially run by a military dictatorship (in the 1970s). I couldn’t defend a corrupt system where an admittedly guilty man gets convicted, serves most of his sentence, and then just a few months before being released gets *retried* again for the same crime and subsequently is given life imprisonment. Imagine that for a shocker. Life imprisonment!
Sometime around 1997, while still in the employ of the Turks, it occurred to me I’d never actually read Billy Hayes’ book, Midnight Express, which was the first-person account. Reading it with an open mind seemed way overdue.
The text of Midnight Express, penned by a college graduate who once aspired to be a journalist and commanded a mastery of both language and expressing his own emotions, recalibrated every thought I had about the story, the book, and even the movie (which took extraordinary artistic liberties and even added incidents that didn’t really happen). As I closed the book following the final paragraph, guided by Billy Hayes’ narrative, I was a changed man, or at least I saw things differently than before. There was no genesis of opinion, nor even a definitive finality to that story. All of life’s experiences and the way we look upon them — good and bad — contribute to the rolling assembly line of evolutionary thought.
Billy Hayes and Midnight Express had once again affected me in ways I didn’t expect. His story made me think of things differently, and in a very tangible sense had also broadened my horizons at looking at subjects in a more existential way — that there can be contrasting even contradictory truths which depend on where we are in time and who we interact with, some by intent and others purely by chance. The truth we believe today might be the falsehood of tomorrow.
Perhaps I felt closer to Billy Hayes and his story solely because I spent all that time also influenced by Turkish people, which was a clash of perceptions. This all happened more than twenty years ago. Occasionally, I wondered what happened to Billy Hayes?
I wondered: Did he disappear? Did he try to forget about his years in Turkey? Was he even still alive?
Between 1997 and 2020, Midnight Express appeared on television sporadically and like a firefly to the flame, I felt the magnetic pull of curiosity tugging at my soul. I watched the movie a few more times, each viewing a chasm driven deeper into the divide between illusion and reality.
Then, about three weeks ago, something remarkable happened.
A local magazine was sitting on my living room table. I don’t even recall how it got there. The front cover showed a photo of Billy Hayes. Was that the same Billy Hayes who wrote Midnight Express?
It was. What was he doing on the cover of a publication about Las Vegas? He was sitting in a pose a Red Rock, seemingly at peace with himself. Wait — Billy Hayes was now in Las Vegas?
I was about to explore….and discover so much more.
On the night of October 7, 1970, an American college student named Billy Hayes duct-tapped four pounds of hashish to his torso and attempted to clear customs as he was about to depart Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. He made it successfully past the initial terminal search, then boarded a transport bus that shuttled international passengers to a waiting airplane out on the tarmac. It seemed he was home free.
But just as the bus pulled up to the jetway, Hayes was confronted with a horrific sight. Turkish Army soldiers were lined up waiting to search passengers for a second time. Recent terrorist attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization put Istanbul and other airports on a heightened state of alert. Hayes had just made the biggest mistake of his life. His life was about to change in ways no one could have predicted.
Yet, Hayes later said his arrest, trial, conviction, and five-years spent inside a hellish Turkish prison turned out to be one of the very best things that could have happened. Watch the video clip here, which runs about three minutes. It’s a short, but thorough account of Billy Hayes and the factual background story of what became the incendiary 1978 movie, Midnight Express.
So — almost fifty years later — what was Billy Hayes now doing in Las Vegas?
I read the well-written expose on Billy Hayes that focused on what he’d done in the four-plus decades since his escape from imprisonment in Turkey when in 1975 he paddled 17 miles in a storm across the Marmara Sea and crossed the heavily fortified border into Greece and on to freedom back home. Turns out, Billy Hayes had moved to Las Vegas.
Now 73 (his birthday was last week), Hayes has made peace not only with himself but with his once-hostile captors — the Turks. Hayes was invited to return to Turkey as an official guest of the government, actually the TNP (Turkish National Police). He openly spoke of his experiences and even expressed love and admiration for the country and especially its people. It seemed such an unlikely, even an impossible reconciliation, but Hayes had never *hated” Turkey or the Turks despite his imprisonment and brutal treatment.
What I remember was Billy Hayes’ book and the movie destroying Turkey’s tourism industry and jading an entire generation as to how it perceived a proud culture and people. Certainly, this had not been his intent. In fact, he’s been trying to correct the record and make amends, ever since. These noble efforts speak to the remarkable qualities of a man I somehow thought of as a friend, with so many kindred interests — experiences with Turkey (indeed very different), deep love and background in writing, a free-spirited outlook on life — but who I’d never actually met.
None of us is ever likely to be locked up inside a Turkish prison, nor understand the fear and nightmare of what it’s like to face a life sentence for drug possession (later changed to drug smuggling). Nonetheless, his remarkable story resonates with all who have read it, and who can now hear it, thanks to Hayes’ doing what amounts to a one-man show of his life and experiences. He has written other books, directed a movie, and even appeared as the hired assassin in a Charles Bronson movie, Assassination.
When our lives return to normal after the CV-19 crisis, I hope to go see Billy Hayes’ show. I expect there are many more things I can learn, not just bout him and bygone days in Turkey, but about myself. His story is a rebirth and a revelation.
Last week, Billy Hayes and I became Facebook friends. This is one of the many unanticipated benefits of social distancing and isolation, which is to create of our time what we want to make of it. Hayes doesn’t know I’m writing this, but I expect he’ll read it. If so, I have some words for him:
Thank you for sharing your story and for your gifts as a writer and for your courage to self-examine through intense introspection and for being fully human and for enduring and for moving to Las Vegas and now being one with us on social media.
Midnight Express, which factors in the title of Billy Hayes multiple narratives, refers to an uncharted labyrinth of escape from captivity. In a sense, we all remain captive to all of our outmoded perceptions, those old ideas, destructively archaic thoughts, and paralyzing fears. Yes, each of us remains in perpetual pursuit of truth’s liberation, of finding our own Midnight Express.