is proud to present the adventures of Ben
Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster,
and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone Magazine. This
guy's our hero! Ben was a featured character in the movie "Almost
Famous," the Oscar and Golden Globe-winning film by Cameron
midtown fire station remembers.
first morning in New York City, early in May, a headline in the
Times read: Post-9/11 Pain Found to Linger in Young Minds.
mind the young. The pain is still everywhere you go in and around
Manhattan. I was there with Dianne, on a makeup trip. We'd originally
planned to visit around her birthday late last September. Now, we'd
be celebrating our 26th wedding anniversary by going to the big,
were there to see friends and to have fun, and we had plenty. We
were also there to pay tribute to the city and its people.
other cities I've visited recently - Los Angeles, San Diego, Austin
- one sees flags in storefronts and in windows of cars, homes and
public buildings. In New York, flags, written signs, and memorials
As I said, we
did have fun. We stayed at the apartment of a friend, a friend so
wealthy he bought an apartment in the Upper West Side with a 20th
floor view of the glorious Manhattan skyline, with Central Park
just below; this expansive, contemporary space used to be occupied
by the actress Faye Dunaway. A friend so thoughtful that after treating
us to dinner at Daniel, one of New York City's finest, our first
night in, he left town, so we had the run of the apartment for four
were filled with more great dinners. One of the best was at Babbo,
Mario Batali's showcase. As we arrived, Mario, on the eve of receiving
the James Beard award as the best chef in New York City, was chatting
with customers on the sidewalk. Another high point was Tabla, one
of the jewels in Danny Meyer's collection of hot dining spots.
Tan, Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark run over a song at
night, the Rock Bottom Remainders, the glitterati rock band fronted
by Amy Tan, Stephen King, Scott Turow and Dave Barry, performed
a benefit concert, and they invited me to join in on backup vocals.
The evening before, Amy and husband Lou DeMattei hosted the band
at their loft in Soho. Having never sung with the Remainders, I
was looking forward to their rehearsal Saturday morning. But at
the dinner, Lou asked if I wanted to join him at Yankee Stadium
for a game against the Mariners. How could I turn down a chance
to see that fabled ballpark? Besides, as Amy said, "The less we
rehearse, the better we'll be."
So, with Lou,
John Tan (Amy's bro) and his wife Pamela, I subwayed it out to the
Bronx and soaked in the sun, the game, and the unending emotion
that attends the seventh-inning stretch, which now includes the
playing of "God Bless America."
fine dinner, this time at the Italian restaurant, Beppe, I hit the
stage at Webster Hall, with no clue about what I was supposed to
do. Fortunately, it didn't matter much, since the audience of 2,000
or so were there for the stars. They expected to laugh at this garage
band of authors, but wound up cheering and dancing through most
of the two-hour set of oldies. The laughs came for Amy Tan's dominatrix
act on "These Boots Are Made for Walking," for Mitch (Tuesdays With
Morrie) Albom's Elvis/Jailhouse Rock getup, and for Roy Blount's
band introductions (sample, for Stephen King: "He proved that you
can run him over, but you can't stop the music." For me: "He may
be 'Almost Famous,' but tonight should put him over the top.").
King killed the crowd with his post-accident cult hit, "Stand By
Me," and the creepy "Teen Angel."
Dave (Book of Bad Songs) Barry on stage at Webster
At one point,
while thriller-writer Ridley Pearson sang "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere,"
the guitar-wielding Dave Barry turned around and yelled at me: "I
love this song. Dylan's a genius with the simple songs!" I loved
all the songs and had a blast catching up with the real backup singers
on tunes like "Wild Thing," "Nadine," "Mustang Sally" and "Gloria."
After two hours of remarkably capable music, the band filed backstage,
and the crowd clapped for more. After only about 30 seconds, Barry
yelled, "Let's get back on stage before they stop."
In New York,
you never stop. Dianne and I got in some serious shopping on Fifth
Avenue, and on other days, while she shopped elsewhere and saw friends,
I checked out the big Book Expo at the Javits Center and a book
party on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building; I visited
friends at Rolling Stone and MTV, had coffee with Lia Chang, the
writer-actor-photographer (see her work elsewhere on AsianConnections)
and a drink with Arista, the actor-director I met when we did a
panel together for the Asian Pacific Law Students Association at
Harvard a couple years back.
I had barbeque
with the New York staffers of my company, Collabrys, Inc., dropped
in for a chat with the managing editor of Parade magazine, saw the
awesome "Baseball As America" exhibit at the Museum of Natural History,
and checked out Winnie's in Chinatown, where they go karaoke-crazy
What I did not
do was go to Ground Zero. I simply didn't feel the need to. In New
York, Ground Zero is pretty much wherever you go, and "9/11" isn't
a date, but a constant presence, from the first sign you see at
the airport indicating Manhattan, depicting its skyline, with ribbons
emblazoned over the twin towers, to the flags fronting almost every
apartment building on the Upper West Side. Asked how long it took
for New Yorkers to get back to some semblance of "normal," friends
would say that it's an ongoing process. Their memories are still
vivid. Several reminded me that the last time they saw me at a book
reading, it was at Borders on the ground level of the World Trade
Center, in late 1999.
Chinatown, words of gratitude for the FDNY
On this visit,
I went to a bookstore in midtown. The first books on September 11
are out now, including Portraits, a collection of the New York Times'
finely etched sketches of the victims, originally published as "Portraits
of Grief." Any one of them can break your heart, and I'm not sure
I could bear to read them again.
Two young women
were browsing and came upon a display for Portraits. "Wait," said
one. "My friend's in here. Prince." She lifted one of the heavy
volumes and leafed through, looking for the name. "Ah, here she
is," she said, pointing to a photograph of a 30 year-old woman.
She stayed with the page for a moment, then closed the book and
put it back.
On the eve of
Asian American Heritage Month, I spoke at the University of San
Diego. Sponsored by the Asian Students Association, my talk began
something like this: "This is a celebration that came to be 25 years
ago, and it is, indeed, a celebration. We've come a long way since
1763, when the first Filipinos established a community in the Bayous
of Louisiana, before this was even the United States. A long way
since the 1830s, when Chinese were in New York and Hawaii. A long
way since 1843, when the first Japanese immigrated to the U.S.
it does seem like we haven't traveled all that far since the anti-Chinese
riots and the Exclusion Act; since the internment camps of World
War II. We think of Vincent Chin in Detroit; we remember the post-Rodney
King plundering of Korean businesses in Los Angeles; we consider
the Wen Ho Lee case. We read, with dismay, about a survey that finds
that 25 percent of fellow Americans hold "very negative feelings"
toward Chinese and Asian Americans. And this is not a poll taken
in 1970. This was from a cross-section of people throughout the
country almost exactly one year ago.
"What to do
about this? Among other things, like education and outreach, I say
we celebrate. We take pride in ourselves and in each other. We raise
our profiles and increase our activities in the community, in politics,
in media and in the arts."
Thanks to the
board of the Asian Students Association for having me, and, especially,
for taking us to dinner and karaoke afterwards. We did celebrate.