The other day I got an email forward from a friend, an occurrence that typically happens more often than I brush my teeth in a day. As forwards go, it was all right. It lacked the berserk brilliance of the recent “Every Time You Masturbate God Kills a Kitten” forward, but at least it also lacked the strident grandiosity in the insistence that the Dalai Lama or St. Teresa really wanted me to alienate four or fifteen or forty of my closest friends by sending it along. It did not purport to read my mind, usually a plus.
But that turned out to be exactly the problem with this particular forward. It was a mock article about an “incident” on a plane from Los Angeles to New York. A flight attendant noticed a passenger attempting to light a piece of string protruding from his rectum. He was subdued by the flight crew and later discovered to have his intestines chock full of plastique, C4 to be exact.
The article then detailed the arrest of the passenger, whose name was something like Mohammed el Sharif Mohammed Mohammed Ali Baba. It contained droll “quotes” from the flight attendant: “I just thought he was trying to set his farts on fire, like all the other passengers do…”, the ticket agent: “Well, it did raise a red flag since his name didn’t fit on his ticket….”, and security: “We did have our suspicions; he was walking like he had a stick of dynamite up his ass…” and so on. It ended by coining the term “butt bomb”.
As I deleted the forward I wondered why I found it so unfunny. Certain things I found momentarily well-crafted, or at least pitch-perfect, but overall: nothing. I mean, I have a sense of humor and it doesn’t really veer toward the PC. I like “The Onion”. I laughed out loud at their graphic for 9/11: A map of America, in flames, through cross-hairs, with the tag line “Holy Fucking Shit”. I emailed their “article”: “Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell” and even the less geniusy “Gore Delivers State of the Union Address into Bathroom Mirror”. I read with interest and a kind of sick amusement a straight article on cutting edge teen slang and the effects of 9/11: “Ground Zero: a big mess; as in, ‘My room is, like, totally Ground Zero’; 9/10: passé; as in, ‘That haircut is so 9/10.’” I even laugh at lightbulb jokes. Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: That’s not funny.
But the email, arriving as it did on a day not unlike 9/11 in its warmth and sun and blue sky, just pissed me off. And it pissed me off more that it arrived from out of town. And perhaps it pissed me off because I know now what a real 757 sounds and feels like exploding into a real building; it’s loud and it shakes buildings like mine, two miles away. In fact, I had two opportunities at that experience that morning, once at 8:48 and again at 9:06. And perhaps it wasn’t funny because I live on the corner of Atlantic Avenue, the main Middle Eastern shopping and restaurant district in Brooklyn, and so I saw in the week after 9/11 how the police set up roadblocks all around my house to prevent retaliation against businesses that are older and more established in America than many possible retaliators might be.
An impossible eight months later, the clean up at Ground Zero is almost complete. Groundbreaking for rebuilding WTC 7 is planned. The EPA has backed down and agreed to clean apartments most wrecked by the blast. Con Edison displayed and stopped displaying the twin beams of light (called by many in Brooklyn the “Batcave Signal” for its odd trajectory from here and the optical illusion that there was only one beam. Even odder was that, given the flight patterns from Newark Airport, you could watch airplanes bisect the beam of light, surely not what anybody had in mind).
In other words, life should be going on. And it is, in all the sorts of unpredictable and exhilarating and wonderful and awful ways that it does, before, during, and after even an event of the magnitude of 9/11. But many New Yorkers will tell you, in the midst of all that life going on, 9/11 doesn’t really recede.
And by claiming it the territory of New Yorkers, I don’t mean to diminish the grief of anybody anywhere. The planes that never made it were going from one coast to the other; taken as they were, they left a trail of destruction across the same country they were supposed to traverse. And, self-evidently, the towers were a hub of international business, filled with people young and old who had come here from somewhere else, which is the case, ultimately, with most of America. In fact, I’m a good two degrees of separation from personal loss, and that was a distant cousin of my sister-in-law. This makes me no more connected to the actual death count than a random sampling in Buffalo, Akron, or London might produce.
But still. It doesn’t take much to conjure up a second by second multi-sensory recollection of that day–from my early morning phone calls, to watching the first tower shimmer and crumple like a heat mirage; from the streetlights that came on then because the ash had blotted out the sun to the paper that blew across the river and rained down on Brooklyn Heights for the first twenty-four hours. That day was the beginning of the smell–complex and horrible–that lasted for three months, growing more sporadic and dependent on wind conditions but never really diminishing in its power to bring you back. There were the incessant sirens of the first day, and later, the sound of F16 flyovers, particularly when Bush was in town. And there was the dull knowledge, for a time, that you would be awake until you could finally fall asleep again, and when you woke you would be alert, awake until you could repeat the process the next night–the dullness of grief, however abstracted it might be on the personal level.
For those in New York, it is not too outrageous or sentimental (though New Yorkers specialize in both of these) to say that the grieving continues. There’s an immediacy that can’t be escaped, even as much of the city carries on with the business of being the city, and it’s an immediacy that hits at odd times. It’s there in the shared belief that all the planes are flying too low and the sneaking suspicion that we’ll be the old folks at a picnic somewhere someday, flinching at the sound of a jet. It’s there in the ruined Cortlandt Street station, with its spray-painted “DO NOT STOP”, its buttressed poles, its American flag and the clocks in the empty token booths that no longer tell the time. It’s there, of course, in the gap of skyline, but in smaller ways as well.
The other day I was walking through the neighborhood and there was a flyer on a lamp post, as there are on just about every lamp post. But this one, I could see from almost half a block away, was not about dog walking or guitar playing or someone’s lost Palm Pilot; it had the iconic look of a 9/11 flyer. Illogically, I wondered how it could have survived intact for all this time. Of course, other people have gone missing since 9/11; in fact, the missing flyers of 9/11 were just an exponential and heartbreaking boom of a time honored tradition. But as I got closer I could see the picture of Giovanna “Gennie” Gambale, whose family’s “missing” flyers had thoroughly, exhaustively, covered Brooklyn Heights in the days after 9/11. I sped up toward it, wondering now quite insanely, whether someone was still searching, or whether she’d been found after all, if this wasn’t a neighborly way of letting all who’d wondered about her know that, after all, she was ok. But it was for a memorial service: “A celebration of a life”. These are the things that happen now.
Friends of mine came to New York the other week, stealing a day away from a wedding in Connecticut. We want to see Ground Zero, they said, and so I found myself at the South Street Seaport at noon on a Friday, drinking beer and waiting for our viewing platform time of 3:00. It was strange to be getting buzzed in the early afternoon, while not on vacation, while in my hometown; it was stranger still to be wasting so much time when there was a whole city to see, but Ground Zero had become the focus. When it wasn’t sensible to drink any more beer, we walked across town and around the perimeter of Ground Zero.
The viewing platform, beyond its problematic inception to begin with, is a greater waste of time than drinking flat beer at the Seaport. It looks out over hallowed ground, undoubtedly, but it doesn’t look like hallowed ground. It looks like a construction site with a lot of Porto-Potties, which it also is, and visitors are allowed three minutes to stand there, pray, take photographs, whatever it is they’re moved to do. I was moved to get off it as quickly as possible because, in terms of 9/11, it’s as close as you can get to the difference between experiencing something and watching it on TV. Not sanitized exactly–there’s no sanitizing this–but removed, remote. There’s more force to be felt looking at the Burger King on the corner, still out of business, still spray-painted: “Temporary NYPD HQ”, “Medical Trauma”, “Triage”. And of course, most people are there on the viewing platform because they’ve only seen this on TV, there to pay tribute by experiencing it, which they can’t.
Dissatisfied somehow, I took my friends to “Here Too Is New York”–the impromptu gallery that opened in the wake of 9/11, displaying hundreds of photographs, from professional high-speed shots of the planes hitting to the possibly more powerful homey shots of people looking up, looking across river, looking dazed and stunned and changed–you can see them captured in that split second of becoming different from what they once were.
We watched a few minutes of video there, a documentary of the first twenty-four hours. The part playing when we walked over to it was of the next morning, smoke swirling, a lone rescue worker walking on the rubble, probably eight stories above the ground, but there was no scale to measure anything by. “That’s it,” I told them. “That’s the sound.” And it was, the quiet and the crunch of rubble, even though I didn’t get anywhere near Ground Zero for about two weeks, even though I’d never heard that sound exactly, but like the smell of that day, somehow that became the sound of the experience.
We left shortly after that, walking in silence for a block or so. “I feel like I should take you to Central Park to ride the carousel or something,” I said, finally.
“No, that’s ok,” they said.
One of the things I’ve done before and after 9/11 is teach English Composition at a small business college in midtown. I try to convince students who are majoring in accounting that writing is important, will help them in their business lives, can even be fun. But I’ve been teaching for thirteen years so I’ve long since stopped being a zealot or a therapist about the transcendent power of words.
I read a blurb once that said, “There are stories in here that can save your life…” I remember enjoying the book, whatever it was, but I never felt as though any of the stories could save my life. Chemotherapy, I think, can save your life, penicillin, antibiotics, alternative treatments, even a well-timed phone call from a friend; Demerol can’t save your life, although you believe when you get it that it can. In any case, it’s safe to say that none of stories told so far could have saved any of the 3,000 people who died on 9/11.
But still. I’m contracted to teach the five-paragraph essay in all its assorted rhetorical glory and so for the past couple of terms, for the “process essay” I asked students to recount their experiences on 9/11. It has a built-in focus, no shortage of detail, and they, like everybody I know in New York, will talk about it with an immediacy that can’t be faked. It’s not long now, when I meet people, before we’re talking about 9/11–where were you? What happened? What was your story? This won’t, of course, save our lives, and there’s even a self-consciousness to the subject, a betrayal of damage, of an overly soft heart, obsession–all the things you don’t necessarily want to lead with when meeting someone new.
But I believe in the subject matter as a worthy thing to write about, obviously. This term I had a student I’d had once before, in the quarter right after 9/11, before I was assigning the essay. He’d been absent the second or third week. When he returned the following week, he handed me a xeroxed clipping from “The Daily News”. “I didn’t know who to ask for a note,” he said. “But I was at a memorial service for my brother.” The sheet he handed me was part of the roster of obituaries that appeared in all the papers. He’d carefully highlighted his brother’s with a yellow pen, smudging some of the toner with the force of his strokes. His brother had been a Port Authority Police Officer. He had died when Tower One collapsed.
I adjusted the assignment this term, when my student reappeared on my enrollment sheet. I didn’t want him–or anyone, for that matter–to write about what happened if they really didn’t want to. I gave them two options. When I gave it out, my student raised his hand. “Why?” he said, “is everyone incorporating this into their curriculum like it’s just another good thing to write about?”
I’d figured the alternate assignment would avoid this kind of response. “I’m assigning it because how that day unfolded for you is a process, and like it or not, probably the process that is the most vivid of your life.”
I’d figured he’d do the alternate assignment, but he didn’t. He handed in two pages, a grammatical nightmare of almost unbroken run-on sentences that detailed his ride home from work. It ended, with perfect grammar and, not incidentally, its only moment of conviction: “I resent having to churn out what happened on 9/11 to please teachers who lack the imagination to create another assignment.”
To which I wrote in the margins: “A total cop-out. You had a choice.” Then, the favorite of teachers who lack the imagination to say anything more at the moment, who are suddenly unsure of how their words will be met: “See me.” This was a student I like. He wasn’t the strongest writer in the class, but he showed up, was engaged and engaging, and kidded around easily. I felt bad our relationship had taken this turn.
He came to see me after I handed back the work. “That was a cop-out,” I said.
“I don’t agree,” he said. “I expressed my opinion and you expressed yours, so we’re even.”
If there’s one thing thirteen years of teaching has given me, it’s patience and the ability to resist saying things like, “But I’m the teacher.” So I waited. “You want me to correct it?” he said.
“I want you to rewrite it,” I said. “You can do the other option.”
“Why can’t I do this one?” he said.
“You can,” I said. “But I can’t help what I know, and I know that driving home was not what that day was about for you.” I was about to say more, about needing to get a handle on things, that the most emotional events didn’t necessarily make the best writing, but his eyes had turned red with a swiftness that rattled me and him too, I think. “I understand,” he said and took his folder and went out into the night.
The next week he met me at the door. “I’m dropping the class,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“Just joking,” he said. “No, seriously. I’m rewriting the paper, and I’m writing about that day, but I’m not done.”
“Ok…” I said.
“And it’s five pages so far, instead of the three that the assignment was,” he said. “Is that all right?”
Because I’m a New Yorker, among other things, I said that was all right.
I wish he didn’t have five pages to write, but it’s better, I think, than pretending he doesn’t. I hope there’s a time when cocktail and dinner parties in New York are their awkward ice-breaking selves again, when there’s not the automatic reference point that we can talk and talk and talk about. But I don’t imagine that will happen all that soon as perhaps it has in other quarters. In the meantime, there’s the old legal trick question: “When did you stop beating your wife?” Hard to answer without implication, if indeed guilt exists. It’s a good question to pose about 9/11.