At the bar, there was a lonely regular named William, who had been in the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City on July 17, 1981, when the skywalks collapsed. One hundred and fourteen people died, and hundreds more were injured. At the time, it was the worst structural disaster in the United States, at least until twenty years later, September 11, 2001, when that other thing happened.
In the summer of 1982, I was twenty-two, newly graduated, and William sat alone at the end of the long, pine bar during the slow, muggy afternoons. I got him beers and chatted him up to pass the summer hours. I didn’t dig for details of his life, I really didn’t. But I’ve always been interested in why people behave as they do—they always have good reasons, even if we don’t think they’re particularly good reasons—but I often fear my interest is misperceived as too intrusive when it’s outside of my office. Still, he opened up to me on his own, splinter by splinter, as if he were peeling bark off a tree.
William’s girlfriend was crushed in the Hyatt collapse, and his back was all busted up. Trapped under the rubble next to her dead body, he self-soothed by stroking her bloody, matted hair like Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Then the automatic fire sprinklers flooded the building, and water rose around him. He feared he’d drown. As a chainsaw worked hard at quick amputations to free potential survivors, William shouted for help and listened to screams, sometimes his own.
William didn’t sleep much after that, and when he did, he had nightmares. So, he came into the bar to “get small,” as we said back then. I didn’t blame him. He wanted to talk about his trauma, but he refused to talk to a therapist. He wouldn’t open up to anybody except me. That often happened to me, even before it occurred to me to become a psychologist.
When I was young, I thought it happened to everyone, and when people didn’t share with me, I was offended because I assumed (incorrectly) that they opened up to everybody except me. Now I know I had an unrecognized gift.
I was happy to listen to William, even though I didn’t know how to help him. If I were a shrink, I’d have some magical thing to say to make it all better for him, I assumed. Of course, at the time, I hadn’t yet been trained to understand the process of how humans heal themselves or how mental-health providers facilitate it. As it was, I liked William opening up; I liked his honesty and vulnerability. Somehow, I was safe for him. In retrospect, it was probably my face, to a degree anyway, that was never as intimidating as I wanted it to be as a young male in a violent world. But it was also my own vulnerability, which I allowed when I, too, felt safe—the same gentle nature that I feared made me weak and soft and wrong when I was young. I was excellent—when I wanted to be—at hiding the seething anger and indignant violence that covered me like my running tan back then. I suppose I acted professional even so, albeit at the time, I only acted like a professional bartender. But it was also the way I gave William a real glass instead of one of those red Solo cups, the care I took for him, and then how I filled the glass to the top with a minimum of foam, the way I did for people I liked, even though he never jumped in on my side of a rumble. You know; the process.
Listening to William reminded me how unfair it was that my life was so good. I’ve never been in an outright disaster. To me, a disaster is something that happens on TV. The closest I got was twenty-three years later, September 2005, when Hurricane Katrina refugees were temporarily housed in Phoenix’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum. I was a volunteer psychologist and saw the refugees carrying everything they owned in plastic bags and sleeping on cots; afterward, I drove home and into a gated community. But my avoidance of disaster could also be due to good luck and good judgment, right? The thing is, I didn’t have the best judgment when I was young. I took stupid chances. In college, I drunkenly swam across a murky lake. A year later, I ran through the worst sections of Washington, DC, in broad daylight. I haven’t been caught—or if caught, I haven’t been punished—for many transgressions, some of which I have delineated in previous pages. There are more to come, but I won’t give a full accounting, because who wants to read a thousand-page book? If I’d been caught and punished (aside from my conscience smarting) for everything I did wrong, I’d be much worse off today. I’d be an unproductive member of society, perhaps even on the streets, in a cage, or in an urn. I’d be unfulfilled—a cautionary tale for unsupervised children and reckless young adults. Please remember that I only wished to be a maniac, but in a good way. Many people overlooked a lot of the crap I pulled. In high school, the frightened man with the long rifle did not shoot the drunken teenage boys, of whom I was one, who were smashing beer bottles in front of his house. At least I’ve learned from my transgressions, and it’s made me more patient and tolerant of others today.
Sometimes, when I’m in the right frame of mind, I wonder if something supernatural has watched over me and protected me even though I didn’t always deserve it. Sometimes I believe in a personal, loving God. Most times, I shrug and say that I just don’t know about all that spiritual stuff, but I really hope it’s true. I hope that someday I reread this and smirk at my ignorance, having by that point become convinced one way or the other, but preferably that there is indeed life after death and that we’ll all be OK. I know that many people reading this are already convinced. I envy you.
Sometimes I hope that karma is real and that’s why my life played out as it has—that karma somehow knew my heart—and other times I hope that it isn’t real because it has some catching up to do on my account. Why do I get to be healthy and happy deep into my fifties? I, too, see the dead babies on TV. I hear the horror stories in my office Monday through Friday. I heard about people going to the Hyatt to get smashed (a tasteless pun at the time). It’s probably my neuroticism, because I still ruminate about past indiscretions, which is not mindful, but I’m working on it. Maybe the regret of my past and dread that it will catch up to me is my punishment. I look at my wife and son and want to deserve them.
William again sat at the end of the bar. I gave him a real glass and just listened. I think intuitively I understood that I could not change the awful facts, but by caring, I could help him better cope with his emotions. It was a process. That’s when I began to wonder if I could do more than just tend bar and run like a mofo.