Sunday, January 27, 2008

Calamity Ben

They say every cloud has a silver lining, but in my case the converse is often true. In a bizarre ongoing trend, a surprising number of vacation trips I've taken have coincided with tragic or calamitous news events unfolding nearby. It's mostly occurred in New York City, where disasters just seem to follow me around (not even including the Yankees' winning the World Series).

It all started in May 1994. Waiting to cross Fifth Avenue at 80th Street en route to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a college buddy and I had to navigate a dense thicket of camera crews and reporters. They were camped ghoulishly outside Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' apartment building as she lay on her deathbed upstairs. Although her quiet passing late in life was not a sudden tragedy, my inadvertently wandering through her death siege while on vacation did set the tone.

Fast-forward to August 1997. After graduating from law school and taking the bar exam, I jumped the pond to unwind, as Dave Eggers might say, in a continental style. Shortly after my path passed through Paris, Princess Diana and others perished there in a high-speed car crash. (On the day of her funeral, I was in Florence, where I couldn't hear her brother's impassioned eulogy behind the loud voiceover translation on Italian television.)

Since I'd left Paris before Diana died, that one was a near miss, as was my family trip to Washington, D.C. two weeks before President Reagan was shot there. Likewise, paying my first visit to New York City the same year the space shuttle Challenger exploded may have been mere coincidence, and the Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez breakup while I was in Australia, not serious enough to count.

However, my latest brushes with unfortunate headlines have been, as it were, dead on. In October 2006 I returned to the Big Apple for the New Yorker Festival, highlighted by an extremely sold-out Borat preview at the Directors Guild of America Auditorium. It was the hottest ticket in town, as the hugely anticipated movie would not be released for another month. Adding a measure of gravitas was the screening's unlikely host, Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker editor David Remnick. The convergence of Remnick and Sagdiyev was, to me, the cultural equivalent of the Yalta Conference.

I also had the good fortune to pay a backstage visit to the Conan show and close a Chelsea bar with three of my favorite comedians (initialed Z.G., M.W., and K.G. for my fellow comedy nerds). Eventually, though, it was time to come home.

As I hailed a taxi on West 48th, New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and a flight instructor embarked on their doomed 12-minute flight from nearby Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. After circling the Statue of Liberty and heading up the East River, they were instantly killed when Lidle's four-seater Cirrus SR20 slammed into a 40-story Upper East Side apartment building. The reported timing of Lidle's flight confirmed that he pretty much flew over my LaGuardia-bound cab in the final moments of his life.

And this week, more of the same. On Tuesday afternoon, after a long weekend in the city, I grabbed a taxi in the West Village and headed southeast for John F. Kennedy Airport. My cab passed through SoHo a block or two from the late Heath Ledger's apartment, where he lay dying as I drove by. His housekeeper discovered his body as my outbound flight sat on the tarmac.

As if that weren't enough, another calamity was simultaneously unfolding in Chicago. A block from my house, a 100-year-old, 36-inch cast-iron water pipe burst beneath Montrose Avenue, sending a four-foot-high wall of water cascading down the street. The pavement collapsed into an 80-foot-long, 15-foot-deep crater that swallowed trees and streetlights. Basements flooded, cars were swamped and a sewer line collapsed. I could easily see the flashing lights of repair trucks from the plane as we approached O'Hare.

See what I mean? Wherever I travel, catastrophe follows. The Ledger/flood double-whammy was a new low, though, even by my standards. Two disasters in one day, my first quinella.

I don't know what to make of apparently being a bringer of death, destruction and mayhem (ladies), but I take heart in that old chestnut from Stats 102: correlation does not imply causation.

Still, as a public service to the celebrities of the world, I will henceforth announce my travel plans in this space, so they can make plans to steer clear. For starters, I'm probably returning to New York in October. I hear the Hamptons are lovely that time of year. Cast of Sex and the City, you are on notice.

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