Brushes with death and greatness

We start the day in Seattle. My husband and I meet a guy who buys green coffee beans. He's getting on a plane to Uganda in two hours, but has time for a chat that includes a brief discussion of the "magnificent bastards" one sometimes meets in various African countries, the ones who sluice your way to product, to connections, who offer outsize hospitality and big belly laughs, until the talk turns to money, which is when it all comes apart, and you realize you have once again fallen for a magnificent bastard.

I tell the guy, I just read and reviewed Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the actually magnificent book by Katherine Boo, about a slum in Mumbai and the commerce that rages there, the recycling of the tiniest of objects (used tampon applicators, anyone?), the micro-saboteurs, the NGO money that never goes where it's supposed to go, the smiling for the Western cameras. And yet, life goes on, as does death.

Two hours later, we are on our way back to Portland, driving south on the 5 freeway with several hundred pounds of green coffee in the back of the car. We've just picked up drive-thru. I am dumping fries into a bag my husband can easily access while driving when, POP! CRACK CRACK!

"Holy shit, what the fuck?" or something like it comes from our mouths, as does, "What happened?" Though we don't need to ask; the cold air rushing in the window just behind my husband tells us the window has exploded, as does the green glass that continues to shatter and pop.

"That did not come from a rock," says my husband, who does not slow down, who does not swerve. "Someone shot at us."

I undo my seatbelt and scrabble through the glass and coats in the backseat. I tell him, I see no shell...

"It wouldn't have been a bullet because that would have gone out through the opposite window," he says. "It was probably from a pellet gun."

We have no idea what car it came from; we're in the middle lane, cars and trucks passing on the left. But what an incredibly stupid thing, I am thinking, and then, as I look at the fish sandwich in my hand, what if they had shot through the driver's window? What if they had shot my husband in the head? I am not sure what sound I make, but he reaches over and says, "It's okay."

Yes, it is okay. Also, disturbing, to the point where terror is in your throat when you think about it, but what are you going to do?

What I am going to do, ninety minutes after we get back to Portland, is interview Katherine Boo. I had admired her book so much; at the work she did over a three-year period. We all, those of us who practice long-form narrative, have walked into projects with a great deal of gung-ho; sometimes, we falter. Boo did not falter. The opportunities for her to not merely leave, but to flee, were everywhere, as was dying, nearly always brutally, especially among the young. But she stayed, and with her staying, wrote a great book.


Boo approaches the table where I am to interview her. She is a tiny thing, I might easily cup both her hands in mine. As soon as she sits, we are in the thick of talking, of what it can feel like to be in the midst of a story, the trespassing nature of it, the slowness, the small moments of beauty you would never get if you did not stick around, the toll it can take and the push back from authorities, which in Boo's case meant being held by police. Also, the immense gratitude to friends, editors, spouses who say, don't be afraid to do this, and, you must do this.

I check the phone app I am using to record, files from which can be instantly loaded into the cloud for human transcription.

"Maybe in India," Boo says. Maybe. And it might be transcribed by the time I drive home. Not that I am driving tonight, glass still all over the car, and as I will later find, in my shoe.

After the interview, Boo and I hang out in front of her hotel. It's her first reading tonight. I tell her, the butterflies subside by the third or fourth. She asks what I am working on. I tell her, two projects, one for which everyone wants to tell me their stories, the second, about a murder, for which few will, people are afraid, not even the cops will talk to me...

"But they will, you know they will," Boo says, the subtext being, if you stay, if you commit. Standing in the light rain, smiling, she is so little but so big.

I take a cab home, and think what I nearly lost today, and what I was given, and how much I need both.

Nancy Rommelmann is the author of The Queens of Montague Street, which was recently excepted by the New York Times Magazine ("Dazed and Confused," February 5.)

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