Burning From the Inside Out
There is a moment from the day after the World Trade Centre bombings that I still recall, though I have never written it down, nor told it to others, for I have yet to establish exactly what it means, even where it might fit in the heart’s old furniture. Some memories are easy—the lone dog that walked across Brooklyn Bridge, the fire hydrant wreathed with flowers, the ash that settled on the windowpane, the supermarket shelves that were empty of eyewash—since they point downtown towards the two burning towers, and carry the logic of loss.
But on Wednesday, Sept 12th, 2001, I was walking along Third Avenue on the east side of the city. Another bright blue day. You could smell the burning towers on the air. Two plumes were visible, merging, from downtown. There was a sense of meaning in every breath. A couple of thousand bodies were aloft in that air, their shirts, their ties, their eyelashes, their fingernails.
At a small restaurant on 74th Street, the outdoor tables were full. People leaned close to one another, whispering. I passed the tables and was suddenly corralled by the simple sight of a woman eating a chocolate mousse with a fork. She speared it quite elegantly and held the fork at her mouth for a long time while staring at her female companion. She ate, turned the fork in her mouth, pulled it out, with the tines upsidedown, and let it linger for a moment on her lips. She cleaned the tines with her tongue and speared the cake again—quick, easy, sensuous.
Even now I find it hard to write about, for it seems so obscenely out of character with any memory I should have of that day. It should belong, rather, to a film clip—something clean, soft-focused, arthouse. But it doesn’t: it happened the day after the WTC bombings, and I have been carrying it around for five years now, silently pocketed away, wondering what, if anything, it meant.
The woman finished the chocolate mousse. I walked away. I wanted to be outraged, indignant, to have her turn and watch the ash settling around her, but strangely enough, the sight of it had gladdened me. It suggested—in a small, unique way—that in all the terror and the grime and the sadness and the thousand other everyday torments that were to follow, that New Yorkers might still be able to live a relatively normal life, to get through all of this, to live normally—even greedily—once again.
So here it is, my New York, five years on—only mine, since I can’t speak for the countless others who were here on that day. I have become cynical now, tired of the soundbites, overwhelmed by the consequences. I have begun to detest the rows of books on the shelves, the ads for the mini-series on television, the bad poems diseased with sentimentality, the political one-upmanship, the clamour for a hundred other ways to describe the word freedom. I am exhausted with the endless grief machine that has risen out of the rubble. And I am disgusted by the manipulation of a genuinely tragic event that turned the rest of the world against the grief-stricken.
If anything, I am pleased that the five-year anniversary is here, since it surely means that it will be the end of anniversaries for a while. 9/11 has grown up and it’s an ugly little kid. Not many are going to be shouting about the sixth anniversary. We will “celebrate” it again when it is ten years old and then there will be ever-longer gaps until we finally understand what it meant.
I find myself increasingly at odds with my earliest memories—those of sadness that the city I love had been attacked and that my children were truly entering the twenty-first century. There was a deep need for heroes. People actually pulled together. For the first few months after the attack there was a genuine sense of human hope. The French newspaper, Figaro, wrote: We are all Americans now. Genuine empathy came from all around the globe. It was possible that this international city could make a gesture that the rest of the world could understand. That’s old news now. Rubble.
9/11 has been stolen and made into a badge of honour. It has become an excuse for further savagery. How quickly we have gone from stunned victim to the torturer with the hoods. The bully in the sandbox cried for a moment and then kicked the living daylights out of the rest of the class, simply because he could.
Like a lot of New Yorkers, I find myself increasingly unable to talk about what actually happened on that day since what happened afterwards is so horrific. And yet, like everyone, I have my story.
In my home on 71st Street, we had waited a long time and my wife’s father was finally back. He had been on the 57th floor of the towers. He was inside Tower One when Tower Two collapsed. He said that, in the dark, it had been difficult to know whether he was alive or not. His feet had sloshed in the water from the sprinklers. Firemen had guided the way. When he emerged, into the half-light, all was utterly changed. He walked up through the city, hair covered in ash. When he made it to the corridor of our apartment building my daughter, Isabella, four years old, ran up and jumped into her beloved grandfather’s arms. Then she backed away and hid.
“Poppy’s burning,” she said.
“No, no,” my wife told her. “It’s just the smoke on his clothes.”
“No, he’s burning,” she said, “from the inside out.”
We were all somehow burning from the inside out. My father-in-law took off his shoes and left them at the door. They were covered in the dust of the World Trade Centre. He could not put them on again. He could not bear it. He could not walk in those shoes. For months afterward he would wake and remember the faces of those policemen and firemen who had gone up the Trade Centre stairs as he was coming down. It ripped him up to think of them. “They were so very young,” he said.
The shoes stayed at the door for many days. They seemed, in a curious way, like a prospect of hope. In them, he had walked out.
And yet, more and more, as time goes on, I end up apologising for this story whenever I tell it. I feel like I am exploiting the aftermath. What was so genuinely good about Oliver Stone’s recent “World Trade Centre” film is that it ignored the aftermath as a conscious artistic decision. It held tight to the pulse of the moment. But while art can do that, life can’t. Simply being alive means understanding what was then in the cauldron of what is now.
I am ashamed. When I walk downtown to the World Trade Centre site, I actually feel sympathy for the vendors who tout photographs and other mementoes on the street. I cringe each time I see an American flag because it has been appropriated as a symbol of revenge, not justice. I find myself physically ill at the sound of George Bush’s voice. I shudder to think that the man behind the curtain is Dick Cheney. I dislike bringing up the notion of 9/11 with anyone but my closest friends, since I know how easily emotions can become short-circuited.
Really, I would like a minute’s silence.
But where do we go for that silence? It’s almost as if the cash registers of memory are finally totalling it all up – and the price is loud. There is not a single media outlet or journalist (myself included), that will not take a weepy, or in some cases, triumphant, look at the aftermath of 9/11 and how the city has changed. The job at hand is the scramble to say anything new. Only a few critics—Noam Chomsky, Eric Weinberger and the late Susan Sontag among them—were able to quickly see that America needed to criticise itself, not fill up its own cup with tears. The heart of democracy is self-examination.
Even today you can read the papers or watch the news and you might think that New York is still the rawest place in the world, weepy and self-conscious. There are stories about 9/11 support groups. Whole TV programs about the making of brass memorials for the firefighters. Vast column inches about the genuinely awful health consequences for those who sifted through the rubble. Editorials devoted to whether or not a bathtub found in the rubble should be put in a 9/11 museum or not. I am not saying that none of this is necessary—much of it is, in fact, vital—but it has become so omnipresent that it is almost numbing.
The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the overexamined life sometimes becomes way too much noise.
And yet in all of this—as in the heart of most things—lies a contradiction, since living in New York means getting on with the day-to-day life.
Things are different, of course. It’s a little tougher to walk down the steps into the subway without thinking of exits too. The queues at the airports are longer. A man in a heavy overcoat on a hot summer’s day draws a little more attention than he used to. A plane across the sky is a vector of memory. There is still a large hole in the landscape of southern Manhattan that goes beyond something physical. And there are times you can still hear stories of mothers wandering out to the Fresh Kills dumping site on Staten Island—where the rubble of the towers was laid, and where they are looking for some rumour of their sons and daughters.
Yet beyond the very real suffering (endlessly recycled in every possible media form), the life of the ordinary New Yorker still stacks up against what it used to be. In its day to day existence, New York still manages to get along and, if not forget, at least push aside. It is still greedy. Unforgiving. Brash. Rude. The taxi drivers still scream at each other. Times Square still blinks like a Disney movie. The subway still stinks. Life goes on. The bartender is still looking for his dollar a drink. And stories still get told.
It is impossible for me to turn away from anyone’s recollection of that day, no matter how guilty I feel for listening. The first person accounts still go to the heart of the matter, and, in truth, they can still, on an individual basis, bring a tear to my eye.
In many ways ordinary New Yorkers have achieved a mighty dignity. There is a sense, on the streets, that the city is just a little more tolerant and decent than ever before. After all, it must be remembered that there were no witch hunts in the city, no anti-Muslim riots, no effigies dragged along. It is true that the foreign taxi drivers put small Star-Spangled Banners on their dashboards in case anybody gets stroppy with them, but just beneath the surface they are uniquely themselves. New York is still a sort of everywhere.
There comes a time in everyone’s life when you must try to clean out the desk drawers of the mind. Five years on. I come around again to that woman on Third Avenue, sitting in the bizarre sunshine the day after the towers came down. I do not see it anymore as callous, uncaring, or selfish that she remained in a restaurant and had dessert while the rest of the city went through the rubble. I refuse to interpret it. It was just a moment. That is all. It lives with me and it lasts.
It seems so simple now to recall it. If only the rest of it were too.