Thursday, April 06, 2006

From across the void...

The other day, as I was driving home, I heard a recording of a call to 911 from a victim of the 9/11 attack. It really brought me back.

I've told this story a few times but somehow I keep feeling the need to retell it; somehow I don't think I've quite done it justice yet.

In terms of weather, September 11th was about as good a day as it gets in New York. The sky was preternaturally blue, and totally clear in every direction. I lived at that time in "South Williamsburg" Brooklyn, two stops outside Manhattan, right underneath the elevated tracks for the J-M-Z. I'd recently bought a digital camera, and for some reason I had thought of bringing it to work with me that day; in the end, I didn't.

I read novels or the New Yorker on the way to work; I took the J train back into Manhattan briefly, and then caught the F back to DUMBO, (Down Underneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, the stupidest acronym in New York) in Brooklyn. As the train made its way slowly over the Williamsburg Bridge, a woman exclaimed that "that building is on fire." Nobody paid any attention, really. People say lots of things, and the view of the towers is often obscured as you go over that bridge. I looked up long enough to see what she was talking about, and think to myself, isn't that the World Trade Center?

I also remember thinking to myself that the black, gaping hole looked a lot like something I'd seen in a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Specifically, I think, the right panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights.

My commute took me back underground; the question, "Hey, did you see the fire in the WTC?" went on deck for small talk at work. By the time I reached the York St F stop, the second tower had been hit. A column of smoke trailed over DUMBO. A woman said to me as I walked, "Two planes hit those two buildings," and I answered, "No, it was only one!" I imagined a single-propeller plane, far off course, losing control; I also remembered the famous statement about the WTC: that it had been engineered to withstand a plane crash.

There was a clear line of sight from my workplace to the towers; it was just over the east river from them, and there is a famous park there which has views between the two bridges. I saw the two towers smoking from just in front of the entrance, and then went up to the sixth floor. There, I found confusion. No one's cellular phone worked; we had no radio or television (not that it would have helped us, since the antennas were on the towers) and most websites were down. The New York Times frontpage would sporadically load; the best connections seemed to be with IRC servers, far away. The conversation was about the attacks; that was where I heard about the attack on the Pentagon. Also I heard there were five more jets in the air, and that fighters had been launched to intercept them, and many other crazy things. I heard about leaflets dropped from the planes, as well.

Some of my coworkers went up the the roof to get a better view. There was a janitor up there who wouldn't let us on the roof (building policy) but we looked out through the door, which framed the towers against a background of pure blue. We could see things falling from the towers: people jumping. A coworker of mine, Shu Li, brought his camera and recorded it.

Back in the office, more confusion. I remember seeing people leaving Manhattan, walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, from another office suite. We desperately searched for information, and tried to contact our families (who often knew more than we did about what was going on) and it was from one of them that we heard the first tower had fallen. After that the office gathered down on the street to stare at the other tower; it fell as well, with a sound like bricks being thrown into an empy dumpster, and just as loud, even on the other side of the river.

I walked home through Brooklyn that day; a little south of where I lived, the Hasids were giving out water to those who were walking home. At home, my roommates were on the roof. They'd received calls from family telling them what happened while they were asleep -- no jobs. That night, we went out to a Mexican restaurant on Bedford Avenue that was operated "cash only" as a sign proclaimed on the front door. I remember saying that if I were President Bush, I would immediately invade Iraq, regardless of actual causality. Turns out he was thinking the same thing.

For me, and I think for many people who experienced it, even through television, the whole even has been relegated to a strange, surreal part of the mind: the "antipodes," as Aldous Huxley called it. A place that we don't visit very often, because there's no real way to understand it. The recording of that phone call brought me back there, to the time when we were all struggling to understand what was going on and how to react, when a 911 call, even a fire in the World Trade Center, might be business as usual on some level. Stay put and we'll come get you. The implication in the fireman's voice is "we've all got problems," a very New York attitude, I think, and on some level reassuring: they know how to handle this, calm down.

If only it were. It seems to me that what has followed has been worse than what happened. It was a terrible thing, it changed all of our lives, and it changed them for the worse. It has provided an excuse for war that has killed many more than died that day, and a basis for the terrible fear which pervades our society. Yes, some people are exploiting that fear, but that cannot last forever, and I hope that we can see through it soon. Horrible things can happen to anyone at any time, a point which we seem determined to prove. But the way forward is along the path of justice and wisdom, a path from which we have strayed. It seems that many statements beginning with "September 11th changed the way we look at..." often point away from lessons we have spent many years and lives learning.
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