Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Don't talk to me about the towers.

Here's what you'd have seen if you'd been looking over my shoulder as I ate lunch today: my bok choy, Chinese Broccoli, chicken and rice from Ho Yip, and a hopeful pigeon. If you'd looked just beyond that Christmas tree you'd have seen One Liberty Plaza, aka the NASDAQ building, where I used to work. If you'd turned your head to the left you'd have seen a new tower. I don't turn my head that way much. There's a grey emptiness there that doesn't acknowledge the new tower, and my eye shies away from it.

I actually tried to go to work that morning. Can you believe that? The towers were burning, and I was worried about getting in trouble for not checking in at work. There's no better way for me to describe the unreality of that day. The guy at the door said "No, go home." I circled the building, turning back toward the towers, wanting to see if there was any way I could help. I crossed Church Street,  approached a cop standing there a few hundred feet from the south tower, and asked him if there was anything I could do. He said "No, get back!"

I was there. And I don't like talking about how I was there, because I know it will come out sounding like "I'm a New Yorker!" with all the exceptionalism that implies. Even on a good day, New Yorkers are so fucking steeped in unwarranted exceptionalism that it's squirting out of our pores, and that's not who I want to be. I've lived in farming fields, and I've lived in the city, and I know neither place has a monopoly on saints or assholes. I have no interest in cheering or jeering for either tribe.

It's not important that I'm a New Yorker. You shouldn't give a shit that I'm a New Yorker any more than that pigeon does. But I was there. Do you see the difference?

I stood at the western caisson of the Brooklyn Bridge and I saw that first tower fall. I heard the sound that, were it depicted in a comic book, would have almost certainly been written as "KRUMP!!!". I saw Manhattan disappear in a cloud of dust. I saw thousands of people die. I saw it with my own eyes.

One part of my mind knew it was seeing a special effect like so many other special effects I'd seen in television and movies. Another part of my mind knew I was watching people die. That disconnect did something to me, and to a lot of New Yorkers. It's why we don't use cutesy phrases like "Ground Zero" or "Nine-Eleven", and why we don't tend to visit. We saw enough that day. More than enough.

So when you and I are talking, and you show me a picture of a burning tower with a pat phrase slapped over it to "prove" your point, I think you are a fucking monster. You are a leering, bloated horror, squatting to shit in the wreckage, and wiping your ass with the charred, dismembered corpses.

Don't talk to me about the towers. I was there! Don't talk to me about those people. I fucking inhaled those people!

But I don't say that shit. I don't go around talking about how I stood at the western caisson and blah blah blah. I don't go around bragging about how I was there. I say it in my head, but I don't give voice to those thoughts because I possess a modicum of respect, and I'm not sure that I have a right to say it. That cop who told me to get back? That cop sure as shit has that right, though I have no idea whether he's still alive to exercise it. You and I? That's debatable.

Maybe that day broke you in a way that's not entirely dissimilar to the way it did me. Maybe you, sitting there hundreds or thousands of miles away watching it on television, felt even more helpless than I. Maybe you have a loved one in the military. Maybe you're scared in ways that I can never understand.

But you don't own those people who lost everything they were ever going to be that day. You don't own the words they will never get to speak. You don't get to co-opt that wealth of truncated meaning. You don't get to take them and toss them in a meat grinder and then mash what's left into self-serving nuggets of your own meaning. Neither of us do. But I'm the only goddamn one who seems to realize it.

There were people in those towers who would have died before letting anyone torture people in their name. You don't get to desecrate their memories. Not on my time.


Margaret Hasselman said...

My brother was there.
And I was at Virginia Tech.

KJMag said...

I needed to read this. Boy did I need to read this.

Susan Higgins said...

This needed to be said. As some with my own thought and feelings about being there and what I saw, I thank you.

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