Hello Old Friend, RIP

By Gill Pringle

Hello old friend,

Hard to believe thirty-some years have passed since we first met as cub reporters in the newsrooms of Britain’s infamous Fleet Street when it was still home to most of the country’s newspapers; a place of intrigue, scandal and career-making, government-toppling scoops.

A few years later, you left to launch your career in New York as a foreign correspondent for all our favourite British titles while I did the same in Los Angeles – both of us reporting on the peculiarities of American life.

I had the car chases, celebrities, earthquakes and OJ Simpson while you had 9/11. Watching the twin towers topple from the safety of our LA kitchen with my husband and two daughters, you – my crazy and courageous friend – ran towards the flaming twisted heap of metal.

It took 24 hours to finally get you on the phone, so relieved you weren’t among the victims. You spent the next year getting to know all those brave firefighters and their families, grieving alongside the widows like they were your own family, sharing their stories across a swathe of publications ensuring the world would never forget them.

You worked 18 hour days for the first few months, so much passion and dedication, clambering in your heels over rubble while the smoke still filled the sky. You won fancy awards and grew your business. Every news editor in Britain wanted you as their Manhattan correspondent. Timid new reporters would arrive in the city; a meeting with you top among their priorities.

And then you got breast cancer.

Look, we’re both reporters, so you don’t need me to go into all the statistics about the high incidence of cancer in NYC post 9/11, countless brave public servants escaping 9/11 only to pass away from mutant malignancies.

But you beat the cancer like a champion. I still giggle remembering how when I visited you during chemotherapy, you had two wigs – one for smoking and the other to be kept fragrant and pristine for hospital visits.

One day you got them muddled up and told your oncologist that you’d burned your toast. I doubt he was buying it.

And all you non-smokers out there, please don’t judge. Old hacks like us thrived on a blend of nicotine, booze and deadlines. Maybe that’s where the term “hacking cough” comes from? Casting my mind back on 9/11, it really was terrifying. Few of us had even heard of Al Qaeda, let alone Osama bin Laden back then. Who were these people who pirated our planes and wanted to blow us all up? The airports across America closed and you didn’t need to live in NYC to be frightened; uncertain of what lay ahead.

I was wondering if Coronavirus would be my 9/11 but, so far, I’ve been out on one lousy job for Britain’s Daily Mail to the California city of Corona – yes, haha – to write about how the average U.S. town is preparing for the pandemic. Fifty miles outside Los Angeles, turns out the Coronians are readying like many other Americans. Guns and toilet paper blah blah. Or, as many of the lawn placards and car decals declared: “Trump 2020: God, guns and country.”

So I guess the only thing Coronavirus shares in common with 9/11 is that the enemy is unseen. The 2,996 9/11 fatalities was a big number to wrap our heads around at the time but this is already a much bigger scary number.

With no obvious enemy, it’s like Russian roulette. Perhaps you’ll get the virus from that friendly check-out lady at Trader Joes, the one who sweetly promised to put aside a bag of flour for our daughter’s 20th birthday. She’s home indefinitely from university and so bored. I want to do something to cheer her up.

Or perhaps, the droplets of moisture as a man jogs by as I walk the dog?

My neighbour emailed us all, suggesting we give blood because the local blood banks are so drained that nurses are donating. I thought about it. For a second. Don’t want to be near any hospitals right now, unless its a serious emergency. But I would gladly hang my arm out the window – Rapunzel style – and let the medics insert a needle from a distance. Thoughts?

House Party, What’sApp, Zoom and FaceTime have become our new friends but its the shorthand of our old friendship that brings most comfort.

Last time we spoke on the phone, you were so envious of the fact that LA’s “essential businesses” include pharmacies that also just happen to sell alcohol. Thank you CVS for providing vodka alongside Tylenol – even if you don’t have any toilet paper. But archaic New York laws prevent you from mixing your margaritas with Motrin. Although that might be a handy combo – look how American we’ve both become, incorporating the slang of “combo” into our conversations.

You’ll notice I’m writing this like a proper letter. Old school. Reminds me of when we both wrote our copy on typewriters, thick wads of carbonated paper. Seven pages deep, I think? One for legal, one for the subs, one for the editor, one for back-up. Where did the other pages go? I honestly can’t remember. Can you?

Then, of course, all of us were packed off at some time or another for computer-training courses in Manchester. Why Manchester? Here we learned how to operate the “new media” as they laughably called it back then. Mostly, we discovered the local watering holes between learning how to format and “send” our copy electronically. Brave new world.

I wish I could switch back time, just like we turn our clocks back and forth twice a year.

Even if it was only a few weeks, at least I’d still have you in my life. You beat 9/11 so magnificently I never imagined this virus had a chance against you. My heart is broken. RIP dear friend.

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