Two weeks ago today, I was sitting in the Fort Lauderdale airport, and my biggest concern was whether or not I’d make it home for my son’s Cub Scout sleepover that night.
I was on my computer, in a seat facing the terminal windows, when I heard a rush of screams behind me. I looked over my shoulder and saw flashes of light; I heard 3-4 loud pops, like firecrackers. A TSA agent rushed down the center of the terminal, waving his arms and yelling, ”Get down! Get down!”
I did. I dove behind a podium next to our gate, then scrambled along with a few others into the jetway itself. There were about twenty of us, total strangers clinging to each other out of terror; a few guys took some wheelchairs and blocked off the jetway door.
We talked about escaping through the open plane, inflating that big slide if necessary; some of us cried. I borrowed a co-worker’s phone to call my wife and let her know I was okay. My phone and my wallet and my luggage were all still in the terminal. All I had was this dumb computer…well, that and my life, and my relative safety, and at least a few wits still left.
After about twenty minutes, one of the airline employees opened the door out to the tarmac and we all staggered slowly down, looking frantically upward into the windows to the terminal, in case the shooter had decided to target us. Within mere hours, we’d realize there was no shooter, and continue to wonder exactly what so many of us saw and heard.
In the meantime, we walked quietly along a set of railroad tracks, watching soldiers with assault rifles clear out open fields. A cop with a rifle shouted at us, ”Arms up! Arms up!” as he frisked us in a single file line.
I ended up spending a few hours in the parking lot behind a single-story airport administrative building, then talking to the FBI, and then wandering through the open parts of the airport until an FBI agent had mercy on me and let me back into the terminal to get my wallet so I could get a cab back to my hotel. All the while, I tried to process the day, and failed.
”The Price You Pay” is a tune from Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 album The River. To me, the song is maybe as close to a mission statement as Springsteen has ever come. Prior to last year’s River tour, when he and the E Street Band played the entire album live in sequence, he rarely if ever returned to this song.
It’s a song about inevitability and defiance, about the fact that anything worth having–a loving relationship, a just and righteous country, a decent job–takes something from you. You can’t escape it; as Springsteen himself used to yell in concert, half-joking, as he exhorted his audience to dance, ”You think this is a FREE RIDE?! You want to PLAY, you have to PAY!”
We all feel that squeeze, all the time, and it’s all over Springsteen’s music. Sometimes it’s inevitable that you’ll drink too much Tanqueray and wine, get a gun, and shoot a night clerk. Other times, it’s inevitable that your girlfriend’s yapping mother will drive you crazy while you’re stuck in traffic. It’s the economy, it’s your no-good brother Frankie, it’s the death of your hometown—forces large and small exerting inescapable pressure downward onto the throats of his protagonists.
”You make up your mind; you choose the chance you take…” but the promised land remains just out of reach. You’re going to build the road you’ll ride to your death. Crushing forces, inexorable fate, the hand of God almighty…
…but then you hit the end of the song, and there’s a pivot toward defiance, ignited again in the face of the inevitable.
But just across the county line, a stranger passing through put up a sign
That counts the men fallen away to the price you pay
And girl before the end of the day,
I’m gonna tear it down and throw it away
At 10:00 that night, when I was finally on a bus that would take me to the Port Everglades cruise terminal so I could get a cab to my hotel, I put on Springsteen, and I listened to ”The Price You Pay.”
Fort Lauderdale, and Sandy Hook, and Newtown–this endless list of place names now synonymous with senseless, random death–these are the price we pay. We pay as a country for our inability to regulate guns and properly treat mental illness; we pay with our family and friends. We pay in blood.
And as we watch a bigoted, narcissistic sexual predator take the oath of office and become the President of the United States, we must know we will pay for this, too. Those who traffic in fear and hate are emboldened; we will fight again for basic human rights in a country where such rights seemed assured just months ago. As citizens of America, we will pay for Trump, as we have for no other President. His leadership will claim its own pound of flesh.
”The country we carry in our hearts is waiting,” Springsteen has said. It’s a beautiful sentiment, and it’s brought me a lot of comfort over the past few weeks, and today especially.
But now I think it’s a double-edged blade; it assumes each of us carries roughly the same country within each of our hearts. This past election season has revealed that the country waiting in some of our hearts is a place where to be other than white and male is to be marginalized at best, persecuted and destroyed at worst.
Two weeks ago, I was fortunate to make it to that hotel in Florida, and to fly home to my family the day after. Others there weren’t so fortunate. I have never been more afraid than I was that day, and I will live with the echoes of that fear for the rest of my life.
Today I’m also scared for us, this young, scrappy, hungry country that suddenly feels like it could topple over in a strong wind. I’m scared that our better angels are flying away forever, and that our darkest demons are yet to emerge. I’m scared for my kids.
But I have to hold on to hope. I have to hold tight to my anger. I cannot fall to fear. To do that, I know I will be turning to Springsteen, again and again, over the next four years (or less if we can swing it!).
Because if his music’s about any one thing, it’s about hope in the face of unimaginable fear–about recognizing the worst in us, and continuing to believe in the best in us. I think he acutely feels those forces of economy, of politics, of heartbreak pushing down; I think he understands what keeps us apart and alone; I think he believes it’s never too late to choose another chance, to spit in the face of these badlands, to tear it down and throw it away. I know that we can; I believe that we will.