Rushdie and Me: After the Bombing

Last week I wrote about my experience at Cody’s during the Rushdie Affair in 1989.  It didn’t really end the day the bomb went off. The melodrama continued for months, both in my life and in the  book world.

After the bomb squad detonated the bomb in the store, I hung around for the rest of the day watching the FBI sort through the rubble in their investigation. My wife, Joyce Cole, contacted the media who had been filming all this and told them that my life was in danger and they should block out my face. That night we watched the 6 o’clock news and saw the interview of me with my face looking like a  Picasso in his Cubist Period. Like Rushdie’s fake mustache in Hyde Park, this wasn’t going to fool anyone.

The same day Peter Mayer, the publisher of Penguin Books, called us and offered the services of their security advisory agency. The Satanic Verses had been out of stock at the publisher for a week, and almost no one in the country had it. The chains probably did, but they had taken it off their shelves. Peter said that because of our courage (or whatever  it was),  Penguin was going to overnight our shipment of the next printing, so we would be the only book store on the street  (and probably in the country) selling it. This was a touching expression of gratitude, but one not likely to help me sleep  more peacefully.

 The security consultant provided to us by Penguin had a lot of experience protecting companies against labor unrest, but  I doubt that he understood any more about terrorist bombings than I did. On his advice, my family left our house and settled in at  my friend’s house  for a week. Although I wasn’t aware that the Ayatollah had issued a Fatwa against me, we felt it was the prudent thing to do.

 The next day there was a picture of Cody’s on the front page of The New York Times. I’d been waiting all my life for this moment. Unfortunately, the picture they decided to use was of a guy from the cleaning service sweeping up. I thought that was the end of my fifteen minutes of fame.

But I was advised by the security people to stay out of the news anyway. Though I ate bitter bile, I told the Cody’s folks to deal with all media queries by saying “Mr. Ross is unavailable for comment at this time”. That is what they told  Dan Rather. That is what they told The New York Times. That is what they told McNeill – Lehrer. For all I know, that is what they  told the Pope.

For the next 2 days and nights, I sat at my desk designing a security plan for Cody’s to be implemented when we reopened after the FBI went home. When it was completed, it was a pretty impressive document. But  I knew then, as I know now, that it was something of a formality to make the employees feel more at ease. It was going to cost a lot of money and be a big hassle and wasn’t likely to deter a serious or even a casual terrorist. The plan included specific procedures for dealing with “suspicious ” people, evacuation procedures, inspections at the front door, dealing with media, and metal detectors in the shipping room.

The first scare we had was when we found a letter addressed to me. The bells and whistles went off when we scanned it with a metal detector. We evacuated the building. The police courageously told me to open it myself. It turned out that it was a  cutesy note from Melissa Mytinger, the events manager, with a little smiley face metal foil sticker inside.

We did see a lot of customers with sort of  sinister Middle Eastern looks to them and shifty eyes. I would usually get a warning call from the information desk saying  that they saw “a sort of sinister, middle eastern looking guy with shifty eyes”. It turns out that there were a number Muslim individuals who came into the store looking to buy the book. The shifty eyes may have had to do with the fact that they were doing something naughty. But I don’t know. They also warned me about another suspicious person. It turns out that he was from New Delhi, a Hindu, and a friend from the book business.

One of the most poignant  encounters I had was with a group of Muslim students at UC Berkeley who wanted to express their compassion for Cody’s and to tell me that they were ashamed of all this. As you can imagine, any Muslim in America was getting a very raw deal with the hysteria that was going on. I told them that I wanted to apologize to them for what they must be suffering. I realized something important during that encounter.

We still kept getting calls from the media  who wanted six o’clock news clips of the security measures. For some reason, they all wanted to ask me if we were going to put the book in the window. As if I would risk getting by ass blown to smithereens so they could have a sound bite. I think what they really wanted was for me to get up on a soap box in front of the store facing a thousand cameras  and say: “Ayatollah Khomeini, Read…..my….lips!”

Eventually things settled down. We slowly in stages phased out the security plan. There was a lot of debate about eliminating each measure. The gist of the conversation at each step was something like: “What do you care more about? Human life or money?” But we moved on. We sold over 700 copies of  The Satanic Verses the week after we re-opened. I think that it was more an act of solidarity than an interest in the book. A lot of people told me later that they never read the damn thing.  Some people wanted me to autograph it. I think I demurred. What did they want me to inscribe anyway? “I am Salman Rushdie!”

A few months later, I was called by the National Association of Newspaper Editors and asked if I would be on a panel at the convention to talk about my experiences. I told them that I had been trying to avoid the media. They told me not to worry. It was going to be quite discrete. I can’t imagine how I believed that  a speech in front of every major editor of every newspaper in the country could ever be discrete. So I went there. I was on a panel with Larry McMurtry and Robin Wright, a distinguished journalist covering Iran. I should have known that there was nothing discrete about the meeting when I saw the prime minister of Israel who was giving the presentation before  us, followed later by the Palestinian representative to the UN.

I got there and saw that the whole show was being broadcast on C-SPAN. I told them my “Ayatollah, read my lips” line and got a lot of laughs. Then I went home and watched myself on national TV. As you can see, I lived to tell about it.

The following summer Susan Sontag was invited to give a speech about the whole affair at the American Booksellers Association  Convention. I went there hoping that at last she would acknowledge that Cody’s did something special. She was extremely critical of almost everyone in the book business who refused to stand up and be counted or who didn’t allow their names to be used in full page ads in The New York Times. But she did want to acknowledge the commitment shown by independent bookstores. And she wanted especially to single out  one in Berkeley, California: Black Oak Books.

I guess this just shows that in real life stories don’t always end the way you would like.

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