This was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)
This piece was written the day after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York. In whatever the mental state I was in at that moment, I overstated my remarks about the glee of the newscasters, and the pervasive state of denial that I perceived in the final paragraph, and I apologize for that. At the same time, the mechanisms of denial, which are undoubtedly at work, in myself and other people at this time, should be explored. So, rather than simply erasing and rewriting the piece as though it had never existed, I think it’s best to post and read it as a trauma-document, with all the blind-spots that implies, but also the potential for illumination and altered perception that shock brings with it. As I write, the plume of dust and smoke from the site of what used to be the World Trade Center towers is passing directly over my loft in the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. If you scrape your finger over the bonnet of the cars outside, you barely draw a line. It’s milder now than earlier this afternoon when I wandered through downtown Manhattan, unable to see more than three or four blocks ahead because of the musty fog of dust. It’s milder than yesterday afternoon too, when I was hanging out on a stoop in Boerum Hill with some friends. Having safely brought the kids home from school, we drank beer and watched them play, while charred pieces of plastic fell from the sky onto us, and high up above, a steady stream of paper flowed through the sky, driven by the wind. The atmosphere here in New York is not just surreal. It’s unreal. As I walked around Greenwich Village earlier on, college students back for the new semester wandered around, chatting on cell phones (though many cell phone lines are still down), listening to Walkmans, drinking sodas. At sidewalk cafes on Sixth Avenue, tanned customers tuck into plates of tuna carpaccio as ambulances rush by. Mayor Giuliani has suggested that today would be a good day to do some shopping but most of the shops south of 14th Street are shut, so people just wander, as though they can’t think of anything else to do (the multiplex UA cinema at Union Square is having free movies all day – even at midday, there were plenty of takers). Yesterday, when my friend Michele and I picked up her daughter Tallulah from her school on the other side of Brooklyn, roadblocks forced us to park the car miles away from the school and walk. Tallulah’s feet started to blister, and the heat and dust made everyone cranky. We went into a Korean deli on Smith Street and bought Arizona ginseng and honey flavored iced teas and Japanese rice crackers, while above us, the smoke billowed. Maybe this is how it is in wartime: life goes on, however it can, even in the consumer paradise of New York City. But as I write this, about three miles down the road from my Williamsburg [Brooklyn] loft, there are thousands of dead bodies still laying there, under piles of steel and concrete. Of course, there are the EMS volunteers, the doctors, the firemen, the blood donors. The churches too. When my room-mate walked back to Brooklyn across the Williamsburg Bridge yesterday afternoon after work, he was greeted by a group of Hasidim at the Brooklyn end, offering pink lemonade to everyone to refresh their thirst. But Governor Pataki has said on TV that the city doesn’t need any more volunteers. And most people aren’t volunteering. They’re standing in the street, chatting, or at home, in front of the TV. I watched both of the towers go down from the roof here. I first found out yesterday morning around 9 a.m., through Yahoo!, which had a small item about a plane hitting the trade center on the home page. I went to the New York Times web-site, as I usually do in the morning, and there was nothing there. So I shrugged it off: probably some small private plane made a major mistake. Maybe a few deaths. Somehow, not enough for my jaded news-saturated brain to pursue the matter further. Then, about five minutes later I got a call from my sister in London, asking me if I was alright. While I was getting briefed by her on the situation, a call on my other line from a friend in Australia saying “what’s happening there???” I had no idea. So I climbed up onto the roof of the tenement building I live in. My upstairs neighbor Michele was already there. The Puerto Rican pigeon fanciers, with their roof-top coop across the road were there. There was almost nobody else around – all either at work or still asleep. And across the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, beyond the Williamsburg Bridge, over there in Manhattan where none of us artists can afford to live these days, the twin towers were on fire. I went down to get my camera. Michelle got her radio, which didn’t work. You could see the glow of the fire inside the towers. It was awful but it was a building on fire. I’ve been in burning buildings before. This was something that could be comprehended, and so somehow we sat on the roof, watching and taking photos. Then the first tower seemed to sway and then it fell, in a vast cloud of white smoke. We looked at each other in confusion. Still somehow it didn’t sink in. We knew that it was likely the second tower was going to go too. We talked about the terror that those left in the remaining building must be feeling. Still, we just sat and watched, and when the second building went down, our cameras were ready. As the thick cloud of smoke expanded and drifted slowly over towards downtown Brooklyn, those on neighboring rooftops began to descend back into their buildings, as you do at the end of a firework display. From this distance, upwind from the smoke, there was simply nothing to see any more, and so, no reason to be up there any more. I’ve had calls and email from all around the world to make sure I’m alright. Besides my nearest and dearest, hardly a single person from within the United States has contacted me. I don’t think it’s because I’m unpopular round these parts. This place shows all the classic symptoms of trauma. Perhaps it’s every man for himself here while in Europe and Australia, people have the luxury of thinking about others. I find that disturbing. If, as the anchors on Channel 7 so gleefully announce, the nation is rooted to their TVs, it’s because they are desperately trying to create some distance between themselves and the terrible event, to push the still unfolding horrors back into the TV set and turn this situation back into a spectacle, an orchestrated Hollywood rerun in which certain images like those of people jumping from the burning buildings (“Too horrible to watch, so we decided not to show it,” explained the news anchor this morning) are edited out, while others, like the second aircraft striking the tower, are endlessly replayed. Everyone is trying to create some distance between themselves and the terrible event, which is still unfolding as I write. Maybe for those in other parts of the country that’s a possibility. Here, I don’t think it’s going to work.