Tom remembers MacDonald from his childhood. The novelist would come to visit Mack Kantor from time to time; the two men had remained friends, despite lingering resentments never quite resolved.
On those visits, MacDonald would bring Travis McGee-themed trinkets for the grandkids—pencils and other promotional knickknacks. The books were huge by then, and MacDonald was rolling in dough. But by then MacKinlay Kantor had begun a decline; his ornamented writing style was fast going out of fashion.
But Kantor couldn't give up his perception of himself as a famous writer, one who could mint money on the onionskin paper he fed through his typewriter. In his view, shortages were always temporary, so he continued his grand style of picking up checks at fancy restaurants and booking first-class cabins on cruises to Europe, eventually mortgaging his house on ten acres of beachfront so he could keep up the show. Then his body, abused by drink, began to give way. His publishers stopped returning calls. MacDonald helped him out with some cash and tried, unsuccessfully, to get him writing gigs.
When MacKinlay Kantor died on October 11, 1977, he was deeply in debt and largely forgotten. When John D. MacDonald died on December 28, 1986, his obit was atop the network news.
What does it mean that a man who died on The Day knew the child who would become the man who would help pick the day? Nothing but coincidence, obviously, except in the way it speaks to degrees of separation, and our common suspicion that the deeper you drill into anything, the more eerily intertwined things become. We are more connected—to one another, and perhaps even to any single point in time—than we know.
In the course of reporting this book, I spoke to one man—the son of the drummer of the Grateful Dead—about Jerry Garcia, whose experience on the day was significant. When we were done with the interview, we compared times and places and realized that he and his dad and Garcia, when they were in Washington, D.C., had often stayed in the house of a friend of theirs, and that it happened to be the man from whom, years later, I bought my house. Same house. I looked around in awe. Jerry slept here.
For this book, not much has gone as easily as I'd hoped. Some people I needed to talk to are dead. Some who are alive expressed no wish to relive the things that happened to them on December 28, 1986. Some promising newspaper stories from The Day have proven, upon further review, to have been 97 percent wrong.
At the perigee of my reporting, in desperation for reliable detail, however humble, I reached three of the people featured in a 60 Minutes report about HSAM, or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. They are said to have in their minds virtual blueprints of their entire lives, day to day, hour to hour, available for instant upload; their feats of memory, on camera, were eye-popping. On the phone with me, about December 28, 1986, all three basically drew a blank.
There have been good developments, too, and some extraordinary surprises.
Researching The Day, I have so far seen and done things I never could have imagined. I exchanged emails with a famous man, not knowing he was in the hospital, neither of us suspecting he would be dead within days. I watched a man in a mask hold in his hands a beating human heart. I watched as a man with one eye, no hands, and a face that has terrified children in the streets—a man who almost died on The Day at the age of one—somehow type thirty-five words a minute with his stumps. One story line that was to be about hatred and savagery became, with deeper research, an epic narrative about love and forgiveness.
There were unexpected gifts of reporting, large and small.
In inner-city Washington, D.C., less than a mile from the U.S. Capitol, there is a barbershop called Brice's. On the window glass is painted, with great flourish if dubious grammar, It Pays to Look Well. Brice's Barber Shop is where I get my hair cut because I like the prices and I like the ambiance—Bibles and free condoms in the waiting room—and because I like the barber, whose name is Sheila Knox.
Sheila wears her own hair in a crew cut, under a baseball cap. She has more opinions than anyone else in the room and she is generous in sharing them, which works out well because her opinions are righteous and mighty. She is not big on homeschooling, or male Geminis, who are "needy and clingy." She disdains husbands who take for granted doormat wives. ("If you come home late, you should have ate.") She's got no patience for handsome but indolent men. ("I'll get me a good baby, then send him on his way.") She is deeply suspicious of authority, convinced the Illuminati run the world, along with the Bushes and the Rockefellers.
She talks like she was brought up hard, but you sense an underlying tenderness. And she's simply great with hair. At Brice's there are two barbers, sometimes three, but even with empty chairs, customers often wait for Sheila. I do.
Brice's oozes funk. The chairs are fifties-era green metal with orange leather seats. On the wall is Dogs Playing Poker, and a gauzy velvet American eagle shedding a tear over 9/11, and yellowed, sepia pictures of amusingly vintage hairstyles. Think Angela Davis, circa 1968.
One day I mentioned the book I was working on, and when I told Sheila the exact date, she stilled her scissors for a moment, squinted into a mirror. and said triumphantly, "I know exactly where I was that day."