Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part II. FIVE STEPS
I’d mainly known Bianca Gilchrist through her answering machine messages. They were short, shrill, and sharp. She was strictly business-class. Her world revolved around her position and responsibilities as a publicist in the country music industry. So she’d call offering me an interview with Johnny Cash or Dolly Parton, and usually I’d take her up on those offers, because I liked the people she worked with.
I never would have guessed that each yes was to her a sign not just of a successful work call and a faithful execution of her responsibility to a client, but of a deepening connection to me, until, without even meeting me, she began to grow attracted to this black-ink byline in the New York Times. Unfortunately, I had a rule never to sleep with anyone in the music business—not out of any personal morality, but because I’d failed in all my previous attempts and it was just embarrassing.
So three days before the millennium, Bianca called.
“D’ya wanna go to the White House with Trisha and me?”
By Trisha, she meant country singer Trisha Yearwood, whose record label, MCA, she’d recently been hired to work at. “When would that be, exactly?” I asked.
“For that Millennium Concert at the Lincoln Memorial. There’s a party at the White House after and all.” She always talked like she was chewing gum between words. “They’re flying us there in a private jet. Ya don’t need to write about it. Just come as Trisha’s guest. It’ll be fun.”
“Shit, I’m supposed to go ice-skating with some guys who think the world’s going to end. Give me a day to figure things out and I’ll get right back to you.”
“Okay, but ya better hurry. I can invite anyone I want, y’know.”
And so began twenty-four hours of mental agony, because each option appealed to a different part of my personality. My philosophy on life is that until I see it proven otherwise, I only have one to live. Even if there’s a heaven or there’s reincarnation or our energy exists forever, there’s no telling whether our memories or our conscious mind will survive the trip. So I want to pack as much into this lifetime as I can. As big as the world is, I want to see it, do it, learn it, experience it all—as long as it doesn’t hurt me too much or others at all. And since I would only get to experience one millennial New Year’s Eve in this lifetime, I needed to decide whether I wanted to spend it in the seat of American power in Washington, DC or the seat of American paranoia in Huntsville.
Either way, if anything did happen, I couldn’t imagine two safer places to be.
In the end, I chose power over paranoia. The only complication was that, in the meantime, I’d realized Bianca wasn’t inviting me because she wanted press coverage. She wanted me. Accepting her invitation meant making a prostitute of myself.
And I didn’t have a problem doing that.
I rented a tuxedo and filled my suitcase with the provisions I’d originally bought for Huntsville: flashlight, granola bars, beef jerky, and, of course, the Holy Bible. For some reason I also packed a pair of binoculars. A good soldier is always prepared.
On the morning of December 30, Bianca picked me up and drove me to a private airstrip. She was short, heavyset, and slightly freckled, with stringy blond hair. Like many in the industry, she had a brittleness to her, as if in order to succeed in a man’s world she had to sacrifice some of the softness and submission that serve as honey to men on a date but as weakness in an office.
We parked on the tarmac alongside the plane and walked onboard with our bags to find Yearwood in a foul mood because her boyfriend, Garth Brooks, wasn’t coming. When we arrived in DC, a limousine picked us up at the airport, dropped our bags at the Madison Hotel, and then took us to rehearsal at the Lincoln Memorial, where an enormous stage had been erected.
The main event was still a day away, and black-suited Secret Service men were already posted everywhere. Backstage, agents mingled with Luther Vandross, Tom Jones, Will Smith, Quincy Jones, Slash, and other celebrities. Several hundred feet above, sharpshooters perched atop the memorial aimed their weapons at us.
Watching the elaborate security procedures, it seemed like there was little difference between the fringe lunatics and the men in power. Each was fueled by paranoia about the other. While the radicals bunkered up in fear of the government, the government bunkered up in fear of the radicals.
“We’re wondering right now if the Y2K bug has already hit,” a White House employee told Yearwood. “The security clearance cards we use weren’t working today. And I heard the computers at one of the newspapers here crashed, and they had to lay it out by hand.”
“I think that’s a separate issue,” a voice interrupted. I looked over to see John McCain, who was running at the time for the Republican nomination in the 2000 presidential election. He was trailed by an eager, just-out-of-college assistant. Easily ingratiating himself into the conversation, McCain seemed more cavalier about the millennium than any of us. However, he had played his own part in the panic, introducing a bill to restrict lawsuits against technology companies for Y2K problems.
The longer the celebrities and politicians talked, the more they admitted their fears: of losing phone reception, of being trapped in DC, of being cut off from food and heat. Because they’d made no preparations, these mainstream role models were actually more nervous about a millennial apocalypse than the sham prophets and cult members, who had at least accepted their potential fate.
Though few people know it, America was founded with the apocalypse in mind. Christopher Columbus wasn’t just searching for gold or spices or a new trade route to Asia when he discovered the continent. He believed the world was about to end, and his mission was to save as many souls as he could before the clock ran out.
In his letters to the king and queen of Spain soliciting funds for his next and final expedition, Columbus wrote that “only 155 years remain of the 7,000 years in which … the world must come to an end.” According to his interpretation of biblical prophecy, his voyages to the New World were the first step toward the liberation of the holy land of Jerusalem from Muslim domination—which would be followed, he wrote, by “the end of the religion of Mohammad and the coming of the Antichrist.”
So from the day it was discovered, North America was a portent of doom—a catalyst for a coming apocalyptic war pitting Christians against Muslims. Two centuries later, John Winthrop led the Puritans to America not just for religious freedom but because he was running from a supposed apocalypse. In his case, he believed God was going to destroy England.
Thus, our founders were actually cut from the same cloth as zealots like Yisrayl Hawkins and Bob Rutz. Even more disturbing, this zealotry still dominates the country today. According to a recent CNN poll, 57 percent of Christians in America believe that the prophecies in the Book of Revelations will literally come true—and one in five of those believes it will happen in their lifetime.
As I thought about America’s unceasing obsession with fire and brimstone, I wandered out of the backstage area, awkward around the politicians, stars, and sycophants, to watch the stage crew. Several workers were in the process of hurling curses at an artificial sun that refused to illuminate. They’d evidently spent three weeks and $3 million in taxpayer money building it. Onstage, Will Smith rehearsed the song he’d written to exploit the millennium:
What’s gonna happen? Don’t nobody know.
We’ll see when the clock gets to 12-0-0.
Chaos, the cops gonna block the street.
Man, who the hell cares? Just don’t stop the beat.
The Secret Service, however, wanted to stop the beat. When I returned backstage, Yearwood was in a heated argument with several dark-suited men. She had planned to open the show with a snippet of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but they told her the song was inappropriate and refused to explain why. Later, I asked one of the show’s producers about it.
“They thought the lyrics were a bomb reference,” he explained.
Only in Washington would a song that had been the anthem of the peace movement for thirty years be interpreted as a terrorist plot.
The closer we moved toward the millennial moment, the more ridiculous people seemed to be getting. But this was politics after all. And with great power comes great fear of losing it.