Ashes

by

10/30/2001

Sackett St & Court St, Brooklyn, NY 11231

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Carroll Gardens

My first inkling of an attack on the Twin Towers came from the Fed Ex man delivering a packet. He rang the doorbell around 9:15, and when I started to sign for it, he said, shaken: “Did you hear what happened? A plane crashed into the World Trade Center. You can see the black smoke from here.”

Indeed, looking down Sackett Street toward the river on that infamously sunny day, I did see a plume of grayish black cloud at the end of my block. My first response was So what? Planes do crash. I went inside, the phone rang and it was my mother-in-law, telling me to turn on the television. My mother-in-law is something of TV addict, especially if bad weather threatens; she’ll keep the tube on day and night to track a rainstorm.

I had been looking forward to writing all day, now that my seven-year-old daughter Lily was back in school, and so I said rather testily that I couldn’t turn the television on now, and hung up.

But something urgent in her voice disturbed me, and so, against my practice, I did put on the television, and saw the footage of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center. Now I was gripped, shocked, queasy, realized something unprecedented was happening. Still, I wandered by habit over to my desktop computer, and tried to punch in a few sentences for my book about the New York waterfront. Maybe because I have been so fixated on this subject, I began to think this horrifying event was directly connected to the geography of the waterfront: Manhattan’s slender, lozenge shape, surrounded by rivers, made it easier for the hijacking pilots to hug the shore and spot the towers. My concentration, needless to say, was poor, but I resisted giving myself up entirely to this (so it yet seemed) public event. I am the kind of person who can write, and does, as a consoling escape from anxiety, in the midst of carpenters or other distractions. Around 10:30 I had the television turned on in my office when my wife Cheryl called me from Lily’s Montessori class and said she was sticking around the school, in case they decided to close it. I replied–the resolve had suddenly formed in me, I needed to be out in the streets–that I was going for a walk down by the waterfront, to see what I could. “Why don’t you stop by the school afterwards, and look in on us?” she asked. I said I doubted I would, not adding that suddenly I felt a sharp urge to be alone.

The tragedy had registered on me, exactly the same way as after my mother had died: a pain in the gut, the urge to walk and walk through the city, and a don’t-touch-me reflex, noli me tangere. I made my way down to Columbia Street, which feeds into the Brooklyn Promenade: the closer I got to the waterfront, the harder it was to breathe. The smoke was blowing directly across the East River, into Brooklyn. There were not many people on Columbia Street, but most of those I passed had surgical masks on (I wondered if they got them from nearby Long island Community Hospital). I was choking, without a mask. Cinders and poisonous-smelling smoke thickened the air, and ash fell like snowflakes on the parked cars and on one’s clothing, constantly.

It was exactly what I had imagined war to be like. An Arabic-looking delivery man had pulled over and was talking worriedly into a cell-phone. It was two hours after the attack, and you could no longer make out the Manhattan skyline, all you could see was a billowing black cloud. Later, my wife told me she had actually glimpsed the top of one of the Twin Towers in flames. I found myself envying everyone who had actually witnessed the buildings on fire or collapsing. Of course I had no one to blame but myself, having secreted myself indoors for the first few hours. I can’t imagine running into Manhattan to get a closer look, but I should have gone up to my roof and looked. At the moment it didn’t occur to me; I was terrified. Now I saw thousands of people on foot crossing over the bridges into downtown Brooklyn. When I reached Atlantic Avenue I turned east, away from the water, and began to encounter hordes of office workers, released early from their jobs. Not all of them seemed upset; there was a sort of holiday mood, in patches, of unexpected free time. Some younger people behind me, two men and a woman in their twenties, were even laughing as they recounted to each other the morning’s events, how they had been stopped on their way out of the subway. The middle-aged and elderly, on the other hand, seemed profoundly disturbed. They had not expected anything so terrible as an attack on America to happen in the last quarter of their lives. Just as there is something unseemly when a young person dies, so the natural order of things seems wronged when the elderly, braced for their own diminishment, illness and death, must absorb the bitter, shocking knowledge of how vulnerable and perishable their society is–the world they had expected to outlast them. I myself felt, at only fifty-eight, that the attack was a personal affront to one’s proper autobiographical arc, as though a messy and unnecessarily complicated subplot had been introduced too late in the narrative.

I went by the Arab shops and cafes on Atlantic Avenue, wondering foolishly if I would detect any mood of celebration. In fact, many of the Arab-owned stores had taken the precaution to close for the day; in several of the shops left open, the proprietors had retreated to the back room. To the degree that expressions among the Brooklyn-Islamic community could be made out, they looked grim, no one was wreathed in smiles, though I did not rule out the possibility that some were rejoicing inwardly. All at once, I wanted to be with my family. My cocoa-colored shirt was flecked with white ash, like residual bird shit, when I turned into the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School. The lobby was crowded with parents, many picking up their children to take them home. School seemed as safe a place for Lily to be as our house; I saw no reason to take her out prematurely. My wife, Cheryl, was standing by the door of the multi-purpose room, waiting for Lily to exit with her class. They were on their way to or from dance. Lily seemed happily surprised to see me in mid-day; I hugged her. She trooped off to her next activity. Cheryl milled around with the mothers and some of the fathers returning from the financial district; they were all comparing accounts, and engaging in that compulsively repetitious dialogue by which an enormity is made real.

A few days later, my wife reproached me for having shown up with ash-laden clothing, the shirttails left outside my pants; she said I could have frightened the children. I said I did not think anyone noticed me. But on some level, her reproach was justified: I was indulging the fantasy that I was invisible, not being a team player. Some sort of communal bonding was taking place, foreign to me, beautiful in many respects, scary in others.

My wife and I both felt anguished all week, but it was an anguish we could not share. The fault was mine: selfishly, I wanted to nurse my grief at what had been done to my city. I mistrusted any attempt to co-opt me into group-think, even conjugal-think.

Later that day, I went with two friends to give blood. These two gentlemen, Kent Jones and James Harvey, both fine film critics who live in my neighborhood, met me on the corner of Sackett and Henry Streets and we walked toward the hospital together. James Harvey is in his seventies, a veteran of World War II, and I expected him to have a special insight into the attack, to compare it to Pearl Harbor, say, but he just shook his head and said this was different. When we arrived at the blood donor station we were turned away; apparently so many people had volunteered that the medical technicians had run out of blood bags. (As the city learned in the days that followed, we had been optimistic in thinking that that many wounded could be pulled from the wreckage and would need transfusions.) Kent, James and I repaired to the Harvest Café, which was unusually crowded with diners. The owner and waiters seemed harried, forgetting to give us silverware. The TV was on, the volume turned so loud that it was difficult to talk. Normally, when these friends and I get together, the conversation flows, we have endless things to say; but this time we could derive no nourishment from each other’s company.

Our language had dried up. Embarrassed, being writers, to say the obvious, we said little. Kent kept consulting his cell phone. James held his head and stared at the floor. I turned around and looked up at the self-same television which I resented being on in the first place, yet was hypnotized by.

When I got home, my wife was glued to the television. Uneasy about joining her in this electronic vigil, yet feeling I had no choice, nothing else mattered, I joined her. Our daughter said, “Why do you keep watching that? They just keep saying the same things. We know that already. Two planes crashed into the building.” Blasé, not at all traumatized, Lily, the customary center of our universe, was annoyed that her parents were not paying attention to her. She was right: there was something punitive about the same information, the same pictures, over and over. I realize that this has become our modern therapy in catastrophic events, the hope that by immersing ourselves in the news media, its thoughtful anchor-persons and interviews with pundits, by the numbing effect of repetition if nothing else, we will work through our grief. But for me it doesn’t work: I get a kind of sugar buzz and feel nauseous afterwards.

The first day there was a bit more unexpected quality, especially shots of people running away from the explosion, stampeding, the camera flailing about. The footage’s amateurism seemed to signal its authenticity. In succeeding days, I felt sickened by the slick, unending interviews with relatives of missing persons and back-stories about the victims, the same technique used for coverage of the Olympics, now applied to this Olympics of Thanatos. We must not forget the politicians’ parade, their eloquence and competence inversely proportionate to their office. Most impressive was the local mayor, Rudy Giuliani, who seemed always to know what he was talking about; then came New York State’s Governor Pataki, who graciously deferred to the mayor; Senator Hilary Clinton, who blustered unconvincingly, all the way up to President Bush, whose bellicosity and syntactical tentativeness embarrassed all educated liberals like myself. Most incredible were the efforts of the President to say kind things about New York, a city which he and the country at large have so often mistrusted and disliked.

That this was primarily an attack on New York I had no doubt. I feel so identified with my native city that it took a mental wrenching to understand all of America considered itself a target. I knew the Pentagon had been hit as well, but the attack on a low-rise, suburban military complex did not seem as significant, as humanly interesting. Urbanism, density, verticality, secular humanism, skepticism, popular culture, mass transit, commerce, these were the threatened values, in my view. The American flags that started appearing everywhere seemed to me entirely fitting, especially if they were taken to honor the heroic local firemen and police who died trying to rescue victims. But if they were a nationalistic statement about America as the greatest nation, then, no, I could not join that sentiment. The only banner I wanted to fly from our brownstone window was the orange, green and white flag of New York City, with its clumsy Dutchman and beaver.

All the talk in the media that we were attacked because we were a free nation, and the terrorists who went after us hated freedom, frankly disgusted me. Why could we not accept that an awful thing had happened to us, without patting ourselves on the back and asserting it was a sign of our superior virtue? Awful things happened in the Iran-Iraq war, terrorist attacks, germ warfare, and neither county was a beacon of freedom. Awful things happened to Afghanistan.

It was quickly established that the plane hijackings had been done by Osama bin Laden’s followers, and were intended in part as chastisement for the United States’ support of Israel. As a Jew, I felt hot, exposed, implicated, frightened by the re-approach of anti-Semitism; I felt angry at the fundamentalist Muslim terrorists, even as I knew the majority of Moslems would condemn the slaughter; I felt angry at the Israeli government for all their past rigidities and missed opportunities, and especially at the Sharon-Netanyahu faction for having the audacity to gloat, “Now you know the pain we live under;” I felt angry at Arafat and the Palestinian people for not having accepted the concessions offered by Ehud Barat, however inadequate, and gone on to build something better from there; and I felt angry at the United States for having supported and grown bin Laden, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein as anti-Communist forces. Confused and chagrined as my thinking was, the one thing I felt sure, with thousands of innocent people blown apart, was that I did not want to hear the old argument of my radical Left friends: “When you are an oppressed people fighting a hegemonic power like the United States, you have to use the means at your disposal, and ‘terrorism’ is merely a label the American Empire applies to its opponents.”

To be honest, we did not hear that argument, though one of my friends smugly quoted Malcolm X: “The chickens have come home to roost.” People claim that New York will be changed forever by this attack. It is easy to say that, less easy to understand exactly how. A few days after September 11th, I noticed subway riders being unnaturally polite to each other, whether out of greater communal solidarity and respect for human life, or more wariness of the Other’s potential rage, I am unable to say. No New Yorker expects the rest of America’s warm feelings toward the city to last very long; it is like getting licked by a large, forgetful St. Bernard dog.

Meanwhile, the towers that had anchored lower Manhattan are gone, pfft. I ask myself how I will be changed personally. On the morning of September 12th I awoke and remembered immediately what had happened, like a murderer returning to the horror of his altered moral life. I sensed I would never be the same. I have never bought the idea that suffering ennobles people. Rather, I expect that this dreadful experience will add to the scar tissue left by other atrocities of life, like the death of one’s parents, the illness of one’s children, or the shame of one’s nation (My Lai), sorrows over which one has no control but that cause, for all that, the deepest regrets.

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