American Airlines flight 574 bound for the Dominican Republic came apart in the air and crashed to the ground in Far Rockaway.
Many of the firefighter’s who had lost their lives in the WTC collapse lived in Far Rockaway. This happened at about 9:15 in the morning. Far Rock is 17 miles from my apartment‹too far to hear the crash, and I was awoken by a series of frantic phone calls. It was how 9/11 had started.
Everyone who lives in New York, and has friends and relatives living somewhere else, knows the 9/11 call; I got the same ones you did, from many of the same people‹My dad in the Berkshires, my sister in Europe, my old college professor in Massachusetts, my estranged best friend from high school, now a professional busboy in Illinois. With everything turned upside down, it was good to hear familiar voices.
But a strange thing happened as the day went on. Instead of tapering off, the calls came more and more frequently, from people I knew less and less. Acquaintances and not-quite acquaintances, people I hadn’t spoken to in years, people whose numbers I didn’t have and wouldn’t know how to get. What was strange about these calls and the people making them was that, as the day went on, the sighs of relief at finding a voice at the other end of the line seemed to sound less genuine. A note of annoyance started creeping in. What we’d been up to alive (and, in my case, there wasn’t much chance I wouldn’t be‹the closest I’ve come to seeing downtown in the morning is walking around Tribeca at dawn) wasn’t nearly as exciting as the story of our deaths would have been.
I don’t mean to sound melodramatic or cruel– I understand the impulse. A horrible thing had happened, and we needed desperately to understand it, or at least absorb it. I’d watched the second tower collapse from my rooftop, then rushed downstairs to turn on the television and make sure I’d seen what I’d seen. I know a couple of firemen, and a dozen or so people who work on Wall Street‹all of them came home that night. But there’s a basic need to connect to and personalize tragedy, and what could you do when even the fliers that started appearing in the Village the next afternoon seemed unreal to you? The world split into those that needed to see for themselves (that Friday, I ran into a food critic who’d spent the week trying to get a press pass to ground zero), and those that didn’t want to. There was a layer of ash everywhere, the stench of burning plastic, thousands dead. Models walking around Soho with gas masks slung over their shoulders. Bike messengers with nowhere to go. Normally loquacious New York Post sportswriters struck dumb, or as close as they come to it:
It is terribly difficult to write a column today about why the Giants’ formidable Front Four could not lay a glove on Brian Griese Monday night in the 31-20 loss to the Broncos.
It is terribly difficult to tar and feather cornerback Dave Thomas for being victimized on touchdown passes to Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith, or rookie William Peterson, thrown to the wolves because Jason Sehorn’s knee wouldn’t let him play.
It is terribly difficult to write a column about how the Giants damn better realize that their magical 2000 season is over, that the rest of the National Football League doesn’t care that they represented the NFC in the Super Bowl, that all the swagger in the world doesn’t mean the other team will swoon or faint at the mere sight of your blue-and-white jerseys.
Talking heads in Washington and California have been urging us to go back to normal. What else are we supposed to do? The rent’s come due, and due again. But still, there’s a need to connect.
For me, it’s the children‹forty thousand are said to have lost a parent, or have a single parent who’s lost their only source of income. I lived with a single parent, my mother, until I was seven. When she died, I lived with another single parent, my father. A few times during the past few weeks, I’ve taken photographs of the first parent out and spread them out on the coffee table. I remember her about as well as you could expect me to, which is to say, not very. No voice, no laugh‹just motion, really. A blur of body parts, set into motion from fear of congealing. The photographs don’t tell me much more. If I had films‹if I could set all the pictures in order, fill in the blanks‹I could bring her back to life. As in film, where light creates a sense of movement, so in her, I think, movement created life, and beauty. But there’s no film, and not much memory, and in twenty years, thousands of kids across the city are going to know exactly what I mean. I’m not suggesting you compare tragedies, except to say that maybe the only way to understand someone else’s tragedy is to compare it to your own. There’s plenty to go around.
The tragedy seems terribly new, but there has to be a sense in which, because all tragedies are unfathomable, all tragedies are the same. “There’s nothing now/We can’t expect to happen!” the Greek poet Archilochus wrote three thousand years ago:
Anything at all, you can bet, Is ready to jump out at us. No need to wonder over it. Father Zeus has turned Noon to night, blotting out The sunshine utterly, Putting cold terror At the back of the throat. Let’s believe all we hear. Even that dolphins and cows Change places, porpoises and goats, Rams booming along in the offing, Mackarel nibbling in the hill pastures, I wouldn’t be surprised, I wouldn’t be surprised.
(translation by Guy Davenport)