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.)
Took a long walk downtown with a friend after an amazing dinner at Tomoe Sushi, my favorite sushi joint, which is at Thompson and Houston, quite close to Ground Zero. Kept flickering back and forth between sensual pleasures of eating the fish there, and feelings of guilt at how obscene it was to be enjoying anything in that charnel ground atmosphere.
We walked down to Canal Street, through the stores selling their $300 shoes. At Canal and Sixth, there were little candle lit rituals going on in the square there, as there had been, on a much vaster scale, in Union Square earlier that evening. I was moved by the intensity of the mourning … also struck by its vagueness. In Union Square, nationalist symbols and religious ones, American flags, statues, even the architecture of the park were being used in a frantic search for meaning. There was paper and cloth on the floor and people were writing things on it – statements of mourning, peace, anger, hiphop proclamations of war like “Yo Bush! Regulate!” The green spaces of the park were candlelit too.I liked the Canal Street area of mourning best — there were people from everywhere — Chinese, African-American, Caucasian, Asian … everyone had cameras and was snapping away, but everyone was also serious, making sure the candles stayed on fire. After spending much of the year in India, New York suddenly felt very similar to an Indian city. Heiner Muller once said that the only hope for the West was the explosion of the third world within it’s cities. Well, it literally just happened. Welcome to the twenty-first century.
I too was taking photos. The sheer amount of documentation of this event was extraordinary. It made me think that there was certainly a relationship between photography and the sacred, and that it was too easy to dismiss the tourist desire to photograph sacred places. It’s easy to say that photographing something turns it into something kitsch, picturesque. But what if taking a photograph actually was a ritual act? Like everything else we saw that night, there was a sense that people were looking for something, trying to make something, through all the candles, through the camera’s eye. But do they find what they’re looking for this way?
We walked west on Canal Street until we hit the river. The highway was cordoned off so that rescue vehicles and trucks full of debris could pass through on their way to the Frozen zone. Incidentally, at one place, maybe Hudson, you could look down the city, and in the far distance, you could see these curvey volcanic mountains of trash, vaguely illuminated like snow covered mountaintops, by the electric light. A Hispanic couple stood in front of us and took turns to pose for photographs in front of the eery sight.
A food donation center had sprung up on the corner of Canal and the West Side Highway. Posses of male steelworkers, who suddenly didn’t look like the slobs leering at women from lunchtime building sites around the world, stopped by, and strange, lone tanned women in hard hats too. The response was overwhelmingly one of men, at least on the streets, with women mostly on the sidelines, serving food and other services, so it was good to see these tough looking women on the scene. Every time a car went by, or a group of workers, looking exhausted but mostly calm walked by, a cheer went up. A group of children chanted “USA! USA!” Flags were everywhere. I find it hard to deal with displays of national pride, since they tend to involve someone somewhere being stomped on. That may be the case here too, but the mood tonight wasn’t jingoistic. It was about finding symbols of support.
A big guy with an Alsatian sniffer dog, who sniffs for bodies, was standing in front of the gas station, being interviewed by an even taller guy with a note pad. He said the dog had once sniffed a body out in six feet of water. They’d come up from the South, driven 22 hours to the Pentagon, stayed overnight and then come to New York. He works for a private firm, but now the government pro dogs are moving in and he’s going home.
We walked north up the highway, past the porno video stores, the joyful queer chaos of Christopher Street and the piers beyond, which were totally deserted on this Saturday night. On Gansevoort Street even the transvestite hookers were dressed up like secretaries in a Doris Day movie, as though out of respect. There was a general feeling of uncertainty in the air — although once upon a time in the 1970s, it was deserted places like Gansevoort Street where you felt the most vulnerable, the most scared. Now, with talk everywhere of chemical and biological warfare, it is the most populated places, like Grand Central Station, where you look nervously around you, unsure about what is going to happen next.