At the corner of Madison and 43rd Street, a businessman stops in his tracks and beseeches the sky, “What do you want?” More supplication than inquiry, was this cry addressed to the hijackers or to God? In either case, there is no response.
Of course, back on the box, cameras forever trained on the war room, the dialogue was more self-assured, full of short, clipped sentences. Artless talk of crusades, declarations of Dodge City-style dead-or-alive fatwas smoothed to steely resolve. People could think what they wanted, but Bush was the president, and the way he saw it, a president’s job was to be deadly certain, unconditional, and to know, in his heart, that in a war between freedom and terror “God is not neutral.”
Out here, though, on the streets, things are not so clear. Even the peace ticket is teetering. On the Brooklyn Promenade, a lady carries a sign saying REVENGE IS NOT THE ANSWER! Oh, yeah? What is the answer, then? “To work for peace and eliminate poverty.” Sure, but what about bin Laden and his flight-school zombie crew? “Put him on trial. The rule of law must be maintained.” Right, but what about when he’s convicted – can we put his head on a plate then? “I’m against the death penalty.” Yeah, but … Look across the river, why don’t you? The smoke is still rising; it is a vast crematorium.
Then come the tears, because we are all shocked, jolted beyond preconceptions, past the standard raps. “I would hope,” the peace lady says, “I would hope our justice system was evolved enough, that we were civilized enough … oh … I don’t know. It is so big.”
Walking around the big city these fateful days, numbly staring at the missing posters (stuck on a hundred street lamps, some faces are familiar by now: Davis G. Sevna, a.k.a. “Deeg”; Kimberly Bowers, with the yin-yang tattoo on herlower back; Angel “Chic” Pabon, from the 104th floor), one gets the feeling the planes did more than shatter Sheetrock and steel. They punched a hole in rationality, punctured consensus realities. Everyone talks about politics and economics, yet these temporalities have been transcended. A zone has opened, shadowy, inchoate. Wily old Pat Robertson knew Falwell would get whacked for saying the ACLU and the gays were responsible for tempting God’s wrath, but tonally, Jerry caught the spirit.
Suddenly we are a city of seekers. It is a Maurice Blanchot grope, a gigantic self-psychoanalysis project. Sound-bite TV punditry has become obsolete, replaced by three-by-five cards stuck to plate-glass windows. PEOPLE SAY GOD HATES US. WHAT WILL YOU DO? it says down at Canal and Varick. Beside that, in succession, cards read BE HUMAN; HEY MOHAMMAD, FUCK YOU; BIN LADEN AIN’T BIN LAIDENED LATELY; MY REAL HERO STRANGLED HITLER IN HIS CRADLE, BUT THE FIREMEN WILL DO FOR NOW; and THEY HATE THE MODERN WORLD, SO DO I, LET’S KILL THEM ANYWAY. At Washington Square Park, a commentary-crammed canvas encircles the arch. Pinned to it is a kid’s drawing of the Twin Towers and the oncoming plane. TURN AROUND AND GO BACK, IT SAYS IN CRAYON. GO BACK TO THE AIRPORT AND LET THOSE PEOPLE OUT. A NICE LADY IS WAITING FOR YOU AT THE AIRPORT AND SHE WILL GIVE YOU A KISS.
By the 42nd Street library is one of the many impromptu folk-art shrines that have popped up around the city – candles, flowers, missing posters, poems pleading for peace and understanding. Someone has left, like a giant turd, a four-foot-high sign with a swastika and a screed about “the angel of death.”
“The way people are dealing with it, you don’t want it to end. Then you think of the dead.”
“This is disgusting,” a woman complains to a cop. “Take it down.” “No,” replies another woman.”Everyone expresses themselves about the WTC in the way they need.” The cop, Officer Torcone, not taking sides, says he’ll ask his supervisor what do about “this Nazi thing.”
The new normality unfolds. The stock market loses money, the Mets win in their NYPD hats. All day long, people pour into Union Square, where the anarchists once made speeches, pushers sold Valium. Candle wax covers the sidewalks, spreading since Tuesday. Nothing has been seen like this since the hippie days. A woman dressed like the Statue of Liberty, her hair and face dyed green, declares tearfully, “I feel I’ve been waiting my entire life for this moment.” Through the throng of Christers, 911-fixated numerologists, Hare Krishnas, and Scientologists comes a Rasta man with a video camera: What are your revenge fantasies? he wants to know. At midnight, a giant roll of paper is unfurled like a hundred-foot-long runner. It is immediately set upon by people with Magic Markers, who write their most recent inner feelings. In a half-hour, the paper is almost filled.
The new Dylan record, typically enough, came out on September 11, and the song “High Water” (“High water everywhere … things are breaking up out there”) makes good mood music as one walks south. It is the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The East 6th Street congregation reads from Genesis 22:1-24, the story of how, on God’s command, Abraham took Isaac to Moriah, to sacrifice him. Things being as they are, the blind faith Yahweh demands offers little solace.
A note taped to a fence says come to an apartment on 13th Street to share your thoughts and feelings about the tragedy. “This planet isn’t big enough to live on along with medieval, feudalistic religious fanatics,” says a businessman who spends a lot of time in Italy. “What bothered me most,” says a teacher from the South Bronx, “was the kids in the school said it was no big deal because all that got killed were bad white people.”
Mostly, we are guilty, everyone agrees, guilty about doing anything normal. A flight attendant says she went to the movies, to see Rock Star,leaving before the middle. “I just flipped out,” she says. “I was escaping. I don’t want to escape.” Everyone agreed when the Vietnam veteran said he was “just exhilarated” about how everyone had come together in the city, how beautiful it was. But there was guilt in that too. “Because,” he said, “the way people are dealing with it, you don’t want it to end. You want it to go on like this forever. But then you think about the dead.”
This seemed true. Last week, I was down at ground zero, a couple of hours after the collapse. I’ve got one pair of fancy shoes, and I happened to be wearing them. Now those shoes sit in the shed behind my house, still covered with that dried gray mud. I don’t plan on wearing them again, nor will I throw them out.
And so you come back to the scene. Three nights this week, I’ve found myself down there, as if imprinted on the vapor-lit billow of smoke, the way Richard Dreyfuss made his mashed potatoes into a model of Devils Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Twin Towers might have been unloved while they lived, but now their ghosts lure like a Jungian power vector, phantom tuning forks playing a siren song, drawing you like a magnet.
I was sitting on a wall watching themoving silhouettes of the giant cranes when this guy asked me if I knew what time “the public transportation” stopped running. “Never,” I said, with a blush of civic pride.”That’s why they call it New York.”
Turned out he was a Navy guy, Aaron Austin, a graduate of Annapolis who had flown up that day from the base in Jacksonville, Florida. Formerly a boat pilot doing drug interdiction off the coast of Mississippi, he was learning to fly a P-3 Charlie spy plane and decided to come up to see if he could help in the rescue and/or cleanup. It was too late to do anything now, and he was wondering how to get to a hostel on 103rd Street he’d found in his Lonely Planet guide. If that place was full, he had a bedroll of sorts and figured maybe he could crash in a park for a couple of hours.
Well, if that was the case, he might as well try Union Square; there were a lot of people up there. Rudy was too busy being heroic to roust everyone.
“They aren’t going to be singing ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ are they?” Aaron asked. Military all the way, son of an Air Force officer, veteran of Desert Fox, he said he wasn’t “super gung ho” but thought he’d ask.
Not exactly, I said, but if he wanted to go look, I’d walk with him. On the way up, Aaron said if war came, he’d be called to fight in it. He wasn’t fond of the war-room TV rhetoric. But he was a soldier, and he would do what he was called upon to do. If we were going to hit the Taliban, most of that would be done by F-15s and F-16s refueled in mid-air by KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, Aaron said. More likely he’d be stationed in the Persian Gulf, doing surveillance. But you never knew. If the war was going to turn into a full-scale assault against world terror, like Bush said, you never knew what might happen to you.
It was after midnight, but Union Square was still hopping. A man was standing by a sign that said free hugs, but the free-hug people had gone home. He’d have to come back tomorrow. It was a zoo, so I called my wife and asked if there was any problem with Aaron’s sleeping at our house.
“He’s a sailor who came up here on his own money to volunteer to help New York? You have to invite him,” she said, adding, “as long as he’s not a nut.” I asked Aaron if he was a nut. No, he was not a nut, Aaron said, pulling out his U.S. Navy I.D., which for now seemed certainty enough. I hope he slept well, because more than likely he’s going to need it, dodging those bullets. That much was for sure.