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Tap-dancing to tragedy

Finally, after 15 painfully embarrassing minutes, the teacher cut the lesson short and told us to go home to our families, or to return to watching CNN. I guess she could sense that tap-dancing to the apocalypse was ridiculous and, in a way, too celebratory.

To think I spent even part of that infamous morning tap-dancing shames me now. It wasn't by choice. Between college graduation and I stood a few elusive physical education credits, the kind of ridiculous requirement that begs for procrastination. I'd separated my shoulder in judo class and was forced into tapping, oblivious that my classmates would be borderline clickety-clack professionals. Joining the class late, I couldn't afford to miss a single session, but for some reason I could never go back.

My tapping career commenced and ended on the morning of 9/11. The day only got weirder from there.

I guess one high point of a national gut-punch is that it burns itself into your mind, makes for better storytelling. How can you not recall the point at which your personal life is juxtaposed with news so horrible it alters world affairs? Pearl Harbor, Kennedy, massive airliners thrust into American icons, reduced to atoms. We carry with us the singed memories of hearing such news.

So I shed my tap-dancing shoes and headed home, to the apartment I shared with my best friend. His father had called after dawn and told us the news. We sat for hours on old furniture until I had to oblige another ridiculous duty: My job as a steakhouse waiter.

Even in Indiana, in a city where detonating an atomic bomb would fry more pickup trucks than citizens, there was a pervading sense of danger, as if leaving the home was being susceptible. By late afternoon, gas prices had shot to a ludicrous $5 per gallon in that city, and drivers fearing a shortage crammed onto gas station lots. I'll never forget watching a poor clerk use an extendable wand to officially raise gas prices on the highway sign. People exited their cars and berated this poor kid. I sat at a stoplight and watched them literally scream at him. Mob mentality.

A few minutes into our shifts at the steakhouse, we realized that along with chest-beating pride and a pervading sense of security the terrorists had also thieved America's appetite. The joint was dead. We were glued to the boxy televisions in the waiting room and bar, making $2 per hour. The customers who did come ate little and drank much. More than one waiter said they couldn't wait to go home and cry.

One morose waitress kept telling me again and again that this was her birthday, that this would always be her birthday, and look what those bastards had done to it.

I remember taking an extended break in a smoky back room where the waitstaff wolfed free salads between customers. The room was packed, but nobody said much. Another waiter, who moonlighted as the singer in a rock band, joined us. He put into words what we all instinctually felt, gave song to the hard truth we would all be swallowing.

"It's the end of the world as we know it," the waiter sang through a sneer, echoing REM. "It's the end of the world as we know it."

And, really, it was.

Josh Green covers crime and courts for the Daily Post. Email him at josh.green@gwinnettdailypost.com.