12 September 2011
On September 12, 2001, I wrote a thing about the day before. (Though I was living in Brooklyn at the time, that week I just happened to be in Los Angeles.) Here it is with some pictures I took when I returned to New York.
Remains of the Day
The thing to remember in the face of death is that it is a moment when we who live through it are the most alive. We notice the same things. Reality comes into focus.
This morning, you freeze up when you hear the news and drop a handful of change on your hardwood floor: three nickels, four dimes, six pennies, one quarter. You wonder where on Earth the news photographers are going to get their awful negatives developed and their pictures processed. You decide to take up smoking again, and the brown-skinned clerk at the 7-Eleven where you buy them is upset because a customer came in this morning to make hateful accusations. Calls arrive from everyone you know, but there‘s little to say, so these conversations are brief. You want to cleave to ex-lovers, because the problems you had seem minor now. As you drive to work, you look pedestrians in the eye and share a moment. You open a door on a co-worker, and he recoils and squints his eyes. “A little jumpy today,” he says. There is a common understanding.
“We’ve given up a little of our freedom today,” a police chief says on the radio. But it‘d be wrong to give that up. We will give blood instead. “It’s one thing you can do,” says the Red Cross spokesperson whose job it is to make us aware that our bodies are part of a network, each of us a node. The media, to which we are intimately connected, reflect our paralysis in the midst of this horror. The Web slows to a halt. It‘s all the searching we’re doing. “If you are looking for news, you will find the most current information on TV or radio,” reads the Google.com home page. “Many online news services are not available, because of extremely high demand.” You try again and again and again to reach family and friends on the East Coast, but the phones drop all your calls to New York. I hear my old neighborhood in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, is drowning in smoke.
News reports come over the Web and the wires. They read like post-traumatic haiku. The Associated Press: “The election was called off. The airports were closed. The United Nations building was evacuated. Offices throughout Manhattan closed. Children were kept in their schools because their parents could not get to them.” E-mail still works, and a list normally devoted to music switches to paranoid talk: “Both twins are gone . . . a second plane has crashed into the Pentagon . . . they are reporting in London that there are as many as 11 hijacked planes circling the East Coast.”
As the day unfolds, we realize it’s quite horrible, but not quite as horrible as all that. The sky is more peaceful than we’ve ever seen it. All those droning planes have been grounded. Some say they’re all flying north, fleeing to Canada, like some perverse echo from an earlier war. I wonder if parents will shut up now about the character-building effects of war, grant us a special dispensation from combat, and let this be our generation’s Pearl Harbor, our Tet Offensive.
Come afternoon, you dare to take a drive, and find the streets are ghostly, clear of traffic. At the Federal Building at 11000 Wilshire Blvd., there are reporters and police and FBI agents. No one‘s thought to fly the 14 American flags at half-mast yet. The agents wear suits and sunglasses and eat candy bars, or they wear navy-blue bulletproof vests over white T-shirts and hold submachine guns with their muzzles pointed at the ground. There are a few passersby. A fat, white-haired Caucasian man walks by the front of the building with a Farsi newspaper inexplicably stuffed in his back pocket. “I think they should just drop a bomb on the whole Middle East,” another passerby says to a cop. The cop nods: “I agree, I agree.” Idiots.
Parked near the building on Veteran Avenue, a sky-blue Cheyenne truck has a ragged red, white and blue bandanna wrapped around its rearview mirror next to a cross; in its open cab, another flag just hangs, attached at the top by duct tape, weighted down at the bottom by binder clips. At the base of the flag is a model of New York City’s former skyline; the Twin Towers look like they were carved from two tall silver bricks. And what of our own skyline?
At 75 stories and 1,017 feet tall, the Library Tower in downtown Los Angeles is the West Coast‘s tallest building and most obvious target. It was closed first thing this morning. Only a few security guards remain. “Out of the Flames, Into the Sky” reads the headline on a placard behind the tower. It tells the story of its construction, and the tower’s place in the history of Bunker Hill: “What stimulated much of the interest in reviving the area was a tragedy…” The placard goes on to discuss the destruction of the aging Central Library in the wake of a series of arson fires in 1986. And because in Los Angeles we live our lives, in part, through the stories we create here, the placard includes two boxed-off sidebars about films shot nearby — 1995’s Heat, 1998’s City of Angels and one other, final film. Included is its synopsis and an image of the building in a halo of fire: “The aliens are coming and their goal is to invade and destroy. On July 3rd, the aliens all but obliterate New York, Los Angeles and Washington. Here the Library Tower building is destroyed in Independence Day, 1996.”
You tell yourself it‘s just a fiction, but know we must give today a name.
Soon enough, it would be back to business as usual.
Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis