The Politics of Twenty Fifth and Madison



15 e 25th St, New York, NY

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

So it began at the dry cleaners, at five past nine, when someone said a plane had hit the World Trade Center, and Chris, the Jamaican tailor, turned from his sewing machine in the front window and said, “Two. Two planes have hit the towers. Both of them.”

The dry cleaner is Le Kang, an Asian name, and the woman who broke the news is the Korean lady who runs the place. She is assisted by an older Asian woman and one or two or sometimes three Latinos, and the bunch of them crawl and glide over and around each other in the small tube of plastic baggy space behind the counter like walruses galumphing with fatty grace over each other to slide from rock to sea.

I walked to the subway in a daze: air traffic control, I thought. Someone fucked up or went crazy and brought those planes in like that – I was preparing myself for the version of the story that we all seem to prefer, that there is a Madman, and the Madman does something Mad, because he’s touched, irrational, worst of all, religious, and always alone, oh yes, that’s the important one, he’s all alone, it’s not a movement, it’s not a trend, it’s not an idea: it’s a Madman.

But there are politics in the world — not the politics of bad talk show appearances and expensive orchestrations of the inane, but actual politics, in which what we do, what the state does, what we as a nation do, matters. Matters even to the degree that others might feel themselves compelled to do something back.

Madison Square Park at 25th is one of those spots in New York that I have long loved (Sixth Avenue around tenth or eleventh was another), where you would turn, arrive, look up, and there they were, previously invisible, suddenly lined up with the avenue and looming, enormous silver matchsticks down at harbor’s edge. They changed in the light, from blue to pink to iron gray.

But now there was only one. I couldn’t really take that fact in. I knew a plane had hit the towers, I knew it was bad, I knew the subways, which had taken me downtown in fits and starts, had finally given out at 34th Street, leaving me a short walk down to Lex and 22nd, where I work. What I didn’t know was that there’d be a tower just missing . The one that was left was engulfed in smoke. All along the park we stunned humans stood, alone or in twos and threes, staring and trying to use our cell phones. After a few moments the smoke kind of lifted in a wind. I will never forget how beautiful a day it was, how blue and cool and filled with a promise of restoration. The smoke lifted and there it was, one tower with a hole of astonishing blackness, jagged and infernal, and my stomach fell away and I thought I would throw up, the bad stomach of a roller coaster ride taken too late in life. Tears came, and for once I let them: slow tears for all that death. Prayers came, small ones, hardly verbal, and I let them too. Then I put my head down and walked. I got to my building, and five minutes later the second tower had gone down.

I kept thinking not of the people who worked in the building, who were unwitting victims, but of the one’s who had chosen to run inside it while it melted and collapsed: the firemen and EMS people and cops. And sure enough, on the television Tuesday night, this would be the issue that most moved me. The mayor, pressed to estimate the dead, would say with extraordinary eloquence, “When we finally know the number, it will be impossible to bear.”

And then the fire commissioner, a man named von Effen who looked, in the plainest way possible, broken, announced that more than 300 of his men were missing.

“How do you feel about that?” a reporter called out.

“How do I feel about it?” he said, quietly. “How do I feel about it?

There are men who have died who gave thirty and forty years to the fire department. How do you think I feel about it?”

He described some of them – a man named Sheehan, and a chaplain named Father Judge. He never raised his voice, he did nothing to dramatize, nothing to embellish. He said, “And there are others, many others, I don’t want to name them. Someday this department will recover but I don’t know how.” Then he turned and walked back to where he’d been standing behind the mayor. My best friend, a reporter, called with his ghoulish humor to say what he’d been thinking all day and knew he could say only to me because no one else would understanding jokes at such a moment. The voice goes Brooklyn-Jewish: “So everybody has to be an architecture critic?” Then he told me that among cops, fire, and emergency, between four and five hundred were thought dead. For a good many years and several papers, he had covered cops, fire, and emergency; he’d covered corrections; now he covered City Hall. He was at the triage center on Greenwich Street, where, notably, there were no survivors to work on. He sounded different, changed. The other unforgettable and moving thing I learned on television Tuesday night was that, of the many people who jumped, prefering flight to immolation, two were lovers – perhaps they’d only been lovers for a few minutes, in circumstances of emotional and spiritual compression that most of us will never understand, but they were lovers nonetheless – and they elected to depart a high floor together, sailing through blue sky and dust holding each other’s hands. I had been reading Dante on the subway, it was my new little fend-off-midlife project, reading Dante on the subway, and before getting out to see the towers I’d read this passage:

“And how it is, when one glories in wealth and acquiring, And then the times make for enormous loss So that he weeps with every thought and fills with despair, So it was with me, when it met me face to face, that beast without peace, and little by little Drove me back to the silence of the sun. “

The Italian for my awkward “beast without peace” is “la bestia senza pace”, which would really read more easily in English as “restless beast,” but all day I kept hearing the words in my head, “la bestia senza pace,” thinking in these terms not about the killers but the killed; thinking, as another friend reminded me, of Malcolm X’s chilling remark, when Kennedy was shot, that “the chickens have come home to roost;” thinking about the United States in the world and how our ease and comfort and ignorance come at a price which, like all colonialists, we prefer others to pay. I kept thinking of being “without peace.” We watched through the evening, my three sons and wife and I, and then I put the boys to bed. Paul, the nine year old, said he would have nightmares. “You very well might,” I said. “I’ll dream that the building next to ours gets hit by a plane, and it falls into our building, and I will be killed but you won’t.” “I don’t like that arrangement,” I said. “You’re much better-looking than I am, so you should live.” “You’d be happy to inherit my Mickey Mantle card though.” “That’s true,” I said. In the morning, he told me that it turned out he’d had some other important dreams and didn’t “have time for the nightmare.”

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