The New York–Baghdad Connection

by

03/28/2003

Greenwich Ave. & Jane St., ny, ny 10014

Neighborhood: Manhattan

Day three

1,300 cruise missiles and bombs hit Baghdad.

At work I have to use the freight elevator to bring my bicycle into the office. The elevator’s operated by an older Eastern European man with a deeply lined face and thinning hair. He dresses in the company uniform and a pair of beaten Air Jordans. It’s always seemed to me like a pretty useless job considering that there’s technology now that lets the layman operate elevators. But the guy’s probably happy because he’s got a job at least, and he’s reconciled himself to the fact that it’s monotonous and thankless. I’ve seen him almost everyday for a year and he’s never once spoken to me. He doesn’t say hi when I say hi and he doesn’t say bye when I say bye. And I always say hi and bye with immense gratitude because for some reason I feel I need to overcompensate for the meaningless service he’s providing me. It’s like we’re playing roles, where I pretend to be impressed and he pretends to be impressive. One morning in early March I came into the elevator covered in snow and he suddenly asked me, “Big snow?” It was very sympathetic sounding, and it gave us a chance to bond a bit over the awful weather we’d been having, commiserating in broken English, shaking our heads. But that was all. Silence again for several weeks.

Then today, day three, he decided to try his luck again and he asked me with deep concern, “What’s going on over there?” It struck me that he had the quality of a prisoner who is buried away in his elevator cell and relies on passengers from the outside to bring him news of the world.

“They’re killing a lot of people,” I said, shaking my head. “That’s what’s going on.”

“Who?!” He demanded. “Who’s killing?!”

“America,” I said. “America’s killing a lot of people.”

“Oh,” he relaxed. “Good! Good! Kill them all!” And then counting them off with his fingers: “Today, we kill Saddam. And then, we kill Arafat.”

He pissed me off.

“Your country’s next,” I said, having no idea what country his country was, just hoping to draw him into a general argument about American aggression so I could yell at him.

He seemed surprised by my lack of solidarity. “My country?” He chuckled shyly. “Ha ha. No. Russia very strong.”

Russia! I had hit the jackpot.

“I’ll see you in three years.” I said. I chose three years arbitrarily, but my voice rose with conviction. “We’ll see what you’re saying when America’s got your country surrounded.”

“My country very strong.” His voice rose to meet mine. He was boasting—and not very well. Considering the evidence, after all. Though it was interesting that he chose to celebrate Russia’s strength vis-à-vis America and not their friendship. It’s only strength in the end that will save you—we all know that.

He opened the door to the ninth floor.

“You’re next,” I said again. I was smug now. I felt like a Mafia don. “I’ll see you in three years.”

I realized I had created a very potent logical weapon and it felt strange for me to use it. But it was also deeply satisfying. I was playing America’s power—which he had been championing a moment ago—against his own country. Now I was the one championing America’s power in order to prove a point.

I got off the elevator. I didn’t say goodbye. He closed the door.

Day four

800 bombing missions are flown.

On Greenwich Avenue I’m almost run over by a cab while riding my bicycle to work. I catch up to it at the red light and tap on the door. The driver’s Middle Eastern and he rolls down the window without hesitation.

“Do me a favor,” I say to him calmly, friendly almost, the way one does when they have the moral upperhand, “next time give me a bit more space when you pass by.”

“Don’t be crying,” he snaps.

I’m taken aback. I wasn’t expecting aggression.

“Look, just give me some space. That’s all I’m asking for. Some space. It’s not easy out here riding a bicycle.”

“That’s what you get when you ride in the middle of street. What do you want? I drive in the other lane?”

I had been wrong?

A couple of people stopped to observe the dialogue. I decided to throw away my moral upperhand.

“Give me some fucking space out here, man! Some fucking space!”

“You crying like baby.”

I had thought my sudden urban tantrum would have made him remorseful, or at least have caused him to drive off in fear of a crazy New Yorker. It had done neither. Now I found myself at a loss. To continue yelling would only prove the inadequacy of my argument and I wanted my argument to be sound and my victimization to be acknowledged. Then some words presented themselves to my mind. I was ashamed and I recoiled from them, but I was tempted by their ability to redeem myself.

Go back to your own country.

I held the words in check. But they were tasty and they pushed at my lips. They had entered my consciousness and I needed to release them. It was a good final argument, too. A win-an-argument card that you can redeem every once in a while. “Go back to your own country,” in essence meant that no matter how wrong I was or would ever be, I would never be more wrong than he was.

The driver waited. The passers-by waited. I waited.

Then I swallowed and rode off.

Day five

900 bombing missions flown.

From our windows at work we can see a warship from the Netherlands slowly passing back and forth along the Hudson River, and this has caused my co-workers’ bubbliness to turn to nervous speculation about possible terrorist attacks. I find it irritating that as the government carpet bombs a country thousands of miles away my co-workers’ immediate concern is with their own safety. But I have begun to wonder if a Poe-like guilt is at work. We cannot admit the crime, but underneath us there is a constant thumping awareness that the bombs that are dropping in Iraq are in fact murdering people. Nevermind the sanitized versions of the war that the news presents, we all know that the dead in Iraq, soldiers and civilians alike, will number in the tens of thousands and that those tens of thousands will never be fully accounted for or acknowledged or mourned by us—and that ultimately we have contributed to them. And so in our waking moments, to rectify the situation we reverse it: we imagine that we are the victims, and that those bombs dropping are dropping on us.

But there is another way to look at it, too that in my more inclusive moments I prefer. And that is, after September 11th the reality of war can no longer be held as an abstraction for New Yorkers. It’s not the video game that it once was and that it still remains for most Americans. New Yorkers have had a small taste of war and now have an inkling of what it must be like for these bombs to fall on a defenseless people. That experience has given us an unarticulated understanding and kinship with Iraqis. They are, after all, living through something that both mirrors and dwarfs September 11th. We know this, we New Yorkers do. We don’t like to say it aloud, but we know they are us, and our hearts are mourning for them.

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