I’m in a cab on the Brooklyn Bridge two days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The traffic is tremendously bad and we’re stuck: boxed in-between rows of cars, horns honking, a general feeling of unease and suspicion in the air.
The radio is on in the car and it’s tuned to a local pop station, one that keeps playing major hit after major hit. I never listen to the radio anymore. If I do, it’s not to stations like this. I’m overwhelmed by how similar each song sounds to the next, all riding along the same jittery, pulsating beat pitched to identical jerky, auto-tuned voices. There’s nothing in them I can find to grab onto. The Hudson is glistening orange from the lights of the city, making the ripples look faintly like splattered flames.
A series of songs ends. The station begins playing the startling recording of a girl whose father died in the 9/11 attack. She’s been (supposedly) recorded every three years since, each time sobbing and telling her father how much she misses him. In the final clip she really hopes he’s proud of her. Is he? she pleads. Does he think she could be a doctor?
My head feels dizzy from exhaustion and anxiety. Trapped in the car, in the traffic, everything clogged up because of potential threats and worry, listening to dramatized and exploitative recordings of fatherless children crying. It feels the most American thing I could possibly be “doing”. Cars are all honking at each other, passengers are sighing, annoyed, sad. We’ve created a situation in which there’s no choice but to sit, inhale the layers and breathe them back out. To not move.
The recording of the girl is inside of my ears. It’s replaying itself as we crawl off the bridge into Manhattan. Her strained, exaggeratedly pained voice is another example of the obsession with the personal: millions of little girls lose their fathers all the time for reasons equally unjust, but this girl, we’re told, is different.
This loss is the work of terror and evil, a different kind of injustice, one that is not just hers but ours, one that has been exacted on all of us as Americans. As victims. We are all that little girl, right? We can feel what she does and we should. Most importantly, though, we can never forget. The radio station repeats that line in a different voice at every commercial break.
The next day the city feels strangely calm and quiet. I’m in Central Park and it’s a perfect fall day, not too warm or humid. Just right. Central Park tumbles, it rolls outward and is peaceful in its simplicity. I love parks in big cities. I love Golden Gate Park, which is far more ornate and windy and mysterious, folded into hills and fog. I love Jardin du Luxemburg, which is also ornate, but small and very contained, filled with the smell of crepes and chocolate. When I lived in Paris, it was my favorite place to go write, on one of the metal chairs outside the Elysée Palace.
I’m making my way into Central Park West. I’m walking on a path lined with the domineering statues of old men, mostly writers. They’re a very dark gray and sturdy and sit atop heavy blocks of stone. Beneath them are vendors and sketch artists, both of whom specialize in drawings of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, the women we must never forget.
Once out of the park, I pass the Dakota. I’ve also always loved the Dakota for its mysteriousness. I saw it for the first time when I was about eleven years old, while in the city with my parents and my middle sister. My dad was so excited when we came upon it.
“John Lennon lived there. There’s gargoyles on the roof,” he told me, his voice lined with glee. “And you know, it’s haunted.”
Five years later, I saw Rosemary’s Baby for the first time, also with my dad. The opening shot is a pan of Manhattan. The camera then zooms down upon the Dakota, which was used as the exterior for the building Rosemary and her husband move into.
The movie effectively frightened me, but not for the reasons I would’ve anticipated. Mia Farrow terrified me, so thin and wan and breakable. She was a little girl, not a woman. Why did she got so hysterical so easily. Why did she listen to her husband and her neighbors–not only despite their evidently nefarious intentions, but when she so evidently knew they had nefarious intentions.
Her reactions to the strangeness, to her pregnancy, were what I couldn’t wrap my head around. I had the sense even then that had she been carrying a “normal” child, pregnancy and motherhood wouldn’t have provoked a much different response from her. Her husband so casually lies and says that he’d had sex with her while she was sleeping–”It was kind of fun for me,” he shrugs. The fact that he’d not slept with her–that she’d actually been fucked and impregnated by Lucifer–seemed preferable knowledge. And she, too, ultimately shrugs it off.
I watched the movie again the next day, wanting to explore the odd feelings the first screening had incited. But I employed one of the special feature options, Polanski’s commentary intersecting the film. He said that he’d wanted the movie to open like a soap opera would, that his intention was for the film to be like a TV drama gone wrong: the young, freshly married couple, moving into a new apartment, beginning their lives in the Big City. That made such perfect sense to me. It still does.
The true horror is not, as I heard a film critic recently state to Teri Gross, in the fact that you spend 90 minutes envisioning the potential appearance and being of devil spawn. It is in the thinness of normalcy. Both Rosemary and the audience distrust her intuition, propelled by our desire to have the couple be happy. Evil feels closer than we thought and thus difficult to locate. The horror is how hard it is for her to acknowledge all that is wrong.
Today is 9/11 proper. Today the sky is completely gray. It’s a Sunday and slow, quiet. I’m in a high rise in Midtown, a beautiful apartment, full of big glass windows that directly overlook the brown water that is the Hudson. Every page I open on the internet is about 9/11. Both Former President Bush and President Obama are here in the city, at Ground Zero. I feel like not leaving–not out of fear, but because of a numbness I don’t want to disturb.
One article online talks about the imminent opening of a 9/11 museum featuring “found artifacts” from Ground Zero, one of which is a pair of mustard colored high-heeled shoes. They’re still coated with some kind of dark, crumbly substance. Blood? Dirt? The shoes make me think of the girl from the radio. The focus of it seems disjointed: high heels and a high school student. I don’t read the rest of the article.
In New York City, the streets are wide. The smallness of things is what I noticed immediately the first time I went to Europe. I had moved to Paris, and there, so much is so narrow. The streets are incredibly clean, the sides of these ancient buildings look scrubbed white. In New York, everything is covered in at least one layer of something, bags of trash bulge on the side of sidewalks. The streets are small in San Francisco, too, barely wide enough for more than one car, which is why I’d scraped the side of mine last year. Big drops appear out of nowhere, and then hills you and your car or you and your feet have to climb up, lip tucked under teeth, afraid of slipping back. NYC expands proudly with its grit, tightly contained by skyscrapers.
In Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin writes:
Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction.
The day after 9/11 I’m in Times Square. Is something happening or is nothing. Or is everything. There’s so much movement that goes nowhere, so many lights illuminating you and each other. And it feels like not being in a real place while simultaneously being in the most honest place there is, especially in America.
In Las Vegas, with its similar whirl of neon lights and flashing signs, the desert is just over there. You know that only several minutes away is sand and dead, open space. But in Times Square, it feels like the whole world is a concrete jungle. You can’t imagine anything outside of it.
Buildings have been man’s companions since primeval times. Many art forms have developed and perished…[b]ut the human need for shelter is lasting. Architecture has never been idle. Its history is more ancient than that of any other art, Benjamin continues.
Buildings as companions, as those which you grow alongside or stand along next to with your head full of thoughts. They define your vantage point. When I think of 9/11 in those terms, as the loss of buildings as companions, as the loss of the two biggest concrete trees, the depth of displacement around the incident makes more sense to me. It is a moment on which to pinpoint the beginning of the eradication of a civilization.
Standing in Time Square, capitalism, industry, is flying in my face in a way that is impossible to ignore. I’m centered in its nexus, my face glowing with the yellow and red of the massive McDonald’s “M” arch high up above. I can’t move, I can’t envision anything beyond what I see. The air smells like so much and so many it smells like nothing. It takes my breath away.