The City rebuilds itself on its own ashes,
like Troy on sixteen other Troys—
this burned out hulk where cop and fireman died
herding the innocents in downward flight
no different from the scorched ruins
left beneath centuries
of building and rebuilding in Anatolia.
with no Homer to name their names,
assign their metaphorical attributes,
and send them in perpetuity
with their doomed engines of salvation
to the high smoking towers,
who will know them fifty, a hundred,
two thousand years hence?
Already we forget the names—if we ever knew them—
of the soldiers new fallen in Assyria’s sands
by the waters of Babylon,
the half million citizens
dead of our retribution
against a city that stole nothing
No bells toll
so read the names,
but intone them all, linking dead with dead:
Agamemnon, Father Mike, Hector;
the Myrmidons, Spartans, Amazons,
Luis Moreno, Allen Greka, Linda Jimenez (the new dead of Akkadia);
the cops, the firemen, the EMTs,
Uhuru Houston, two Angelini, Yamel Merino;
the lawyers, brokers, office workers
of Cantor Fitzgerald, a whole company erased;
Helen and Cassandra, Hecuba,
mothers, wives, and sisters
of busboys, janitors, CEOs, salesmen; and after,
the searchers, sifters, dismantlers
still choking on the dust and ash.
Even the rescue dogs, exhausted, sad, and footsore,
finding no one alive.
All that’s missing is the gods.
The City rebuilds itself on its own ashes,
So it's ten years ago today, as the media has been pounding home to us for at least a month. I know everyone has been thinking about it though, regardless of the media. Decades seem to have a special significance for us. Me, I'm avoiding all the commemorations like the plague. Not because I'm indifferent, but because this still bothers me a lot more than I thought it would, ten years later, and I don't like sobbing in public with strangers. So I'll stay home and write about it, instead.
In the early days just after Ten Years Ago, the first thing I would do in the morning is open the curtains wide and pull up the shades to let in the light. The weather was glorious: mild and sunny and dry and the breeze carried the smell of burning electrical systems and worse things over the river and into my top floor apartment. My windows faced east and west then, so I couldn't see the smoke, but that didn't keep it out of my apartment. Ten years later, I wonder how many toxins I absorbed then, and how much of other people's DNA ended up in my lungs. Not enough to make me sick, like many of the people who worked at the site without respirators or even masks afterwards, but enough to make me, all of us who breathed that in, funerary vessels.
Letting in the light seemed so important to me that I was almost frantic to do so every morning. I think I knew even then we were heading for some dark times. Bush and Cheney et al were still unknown quantities, but the bumbled reaction and instant jingoism didn't bode well. Already there were stories of people beating up anyone who looked like they might be Muslim. I'd read enough history by then to know that the first thing people do in this kind of situation is look for scapegoats and someone to blame. And the more people to blame, the better. So hating Muslims was suddenly "in." All those windows in the Towers shattering suddenly sounded like a Kristallnacht for Muslims.
When I called my folks and let them know I was all right, my dad answered in a voice I seldom heard him use, unless he was telling unhappy war stories, the ones that didn't involve bars and Herman Caretta, his drinking buddy. I think he'd seen the handbasket arrive, too. Mom felt sure this was a preview of the Apocalypse and I had to be ready for it. I remember yelling at her, "You can't prepare for anything like this!" And you can't. Even if you know, rationally, that it might happen, that doesn't prepare you for the emotional response to it. Nothing can. It's purely visceral, glandular, the reactions of the lizard brain.
All you can do is search for the light, afterwards.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of darkness. Not just the knee-jerk bigotry, but an unscrupulous grab for unprecedented power by a few people in the government and trampled civil liberties: warrantless wiretapping, an attempt to get booksellers and librarians to spy on their customers and patrons, the other dangerous absurdities of the grossly misnamed Patriot Act, and worse. Guantanamo Bay. Extraordinary rendition. Water-boarding. Flouting the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. The U.S. sliding slowly into Fascism and hate. The invasion of a whole nation in a hunt for one man. Not to mention blind support for an ill-conceived war undertaken under false pretenses. That we started. We started a war.
Ten years later, we finally got the great thinker behind the act. And the terrorists have decided they'd like to mark the anniversary with another attack, so there are armed soldiers and police everywhere. But the "War on Terror" has become a permanent fixture, with no end in sight. The new normal. This all seems strangely familiar to a child who grew up in the 60s with a father working for the military.
What's missing this time around seems to be the outrage. At first, fear kept many of us going along with the government, doing exactly what Benjamin Franklin warned against when he said, "They who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Cops and firemen and Cantor Fitzgerald didn't die so the government could take away our rights to free speech, protest, assembly, and privacy. Why are we not more angry about that? Dissent is not treason or unpatriotic. Lack of dissent is. Blind patriotism is the tool of dictators.
Not only did our civil rights come under attack so a small group of ideologues could expand their powers, but those same ideologues outright lied to New Yorkers about the health risks of the aftermath. I was working at an environmental consulting firm (who later wrote the environmental impact statement for the rebuilding of the Towers), and by then I knew enough about what goes into buildings to know that air couldn't possibly be safe to breathe. The first thing our company did was hand out the respirators and masks we had to workers down at the Pile. The buildings were full of asbestos and dioxin. Even the concrete particulates in the dust was dangerous in such concentration. Here's how Scott Simon describes the air down there in his report for NPR:
The air downtown: thick, stinging, gritty, and filled with fragments of life still floating from the world as it was shortly before 9 a.m. on 9/11. Atomized smithereens of bricks, glass and steel, office papers, coffee cup lids, half-bagels with a schmear, Yankee hats, wedding bands, sugar packets, shoes and human slivers in a stinging, silvery vapor that made you cough and cry.
New documents are still surfacing that show the federal response to monitoring was disingenuous at best, and completely false at worst. You can search the original documents here, thanks to Pro Publica. Mother Jones points out that,
Within days of the twin towers' collapse, when the air was heaviest with asbestos and dioxin, a warning that office workers in New York's Financial District might be at risk if they returned to their workplaces was removed from public statements at the request of the Council on Environmental Quality.
Better to keep up a good image and hurt your own people than admit that the terrorists really fucked us over. This is something that dictatorships often do: they, like the Wizard of Oz, want to make the rest of the world think that they're infallible and all-powerful and they've got everything under control, even in a disaster. China and North Korea both do this on a regular basis. There, I suspect it's more about losing face as leaders than here, where it is an attempt to whitewash incompetency (cf. Hurricane Katrina). Before analyses could even be completed, Christie Whitman, then head of the EPA, was telling us the air was fine. Hard to backtrack later and say, "Whoops, we were wrong. You all inhaled a significant amount of toxins, carcinogens, and biological debris."
And we're still, despite having ushered in a new, more liberal president, illegally kidnapping, detaining, torturing, and in some cases, barring from returning home American citizens. You thought extraordinary rendition ended? Now we have "rendition lite." It's still American citizens being detained on foreign soil without access to lawyers, which ought to scare you. Because if our government can imprison any American citizen without cause, they can imprison all of us, for any reason, or none at all. You, too, can be "disappeared."
So is there any light?
There's always light. One of the most beautiful things that happened during 9/11 was the outpouring of sympathy and support from around the world. We've large spent that goodwill now, but it was fantastic while it lasted. Also beautiful, and somehow more heartening, was the way New Yorkers responded to each other: with compassion and kindness, with hard work and an overwhelming generosity. It didn't last at that initial intensity, as such things don't, but I think it made others look at us differently, and I think it made New Yorkers see each other a little differently. When the rest of the country was calling for an invasion of Afghanistan, the anti-war voice was loud here. We'd had a brief taste of what war was like and wanted none of it for anyone else, even our enemies. We wanted justice, not the slaughter of more innocents. I won't say it made us kinder or gentler—as a guy I conversed with on the bus Friday said, "We're not cold, we're busy." We're always going to be busy because that's what the city's like. But we're a little more forgiving, I think. A little calmer. And a little more proud of ourselves.
One thing that New York does, by and large, is get along. We've had some stupid moments over the last ten years, like the completely artificial brouhaha kicked up about the Ground Zero mosque that isn't a mosque or even on Ground Zero. (And I want to say to some of the victims' families: it is not always about you. This was a national tragedy, not just your personal tragedy. You don't have sole rights to framing it or interpreting it. Nobody does.) One of my first conscious reactions to the attack was to join the Southern Poverty Law Center's organization, Teaching Tolerance, which I continue to support. And a couple of years after the attacks, I moved from my largely Puerto Rican block in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to a neighborhood in the Bronx that's full of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and Afghans. Not by design; it just happened that way. But I'm glad it did. Some are Hindu, but most are Muslims. There are women wearing the full black burqa and girls in just the hijab, and men in the long tunics and pants as well as western dress. There's an African Muslim center a couple of blocks away, near the synagogue and on the same street as the Baptist church. They're unfailingly nice people. But I see some wariness in their eyes that saddens me too, and makes videos like this necessary:
I don't know if 9/11 and the attacks elsewhere in the world have made us more aware of our foreign policy. I think it definitely made us feel less invulnerable, and that's never a bad thing. Invicibility leads to arrogance, and there's enough of that in the world. On the other hand, maybe our resilience, our insistence on plugging along with participatory democracy, as imperfect as it is, on continuing to voice our displeasure at our elected officials in the face of the drift toward fascism has given new urgency and heart to others. I'm excited by the Arab Spring. The hard work is still ahead, but so much of it was accomplished non-violently that that gives me hope too. It's a little light in the darkness too, when people start to take their governance into their own hands, and start thinking about human rights. There are going to be huge bumps in the road, maybe even some detours, but they've started on the journey to a more perfect union. We need to rethink the road we're on, too.
In the end, what it all boils down to is Kurt Vonnegut's words: "There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind." None of this shit would ever have happened if we were all kind to each other. If we learned nothing else from this event, it should be the need for unconditional love and compassion.
On today of all days, people, love your neighbors. And your enemies.
is go on,
perhaps not just as we were
all the fallen
and who they loved,
not just the heroes,
because there are no heroes
in need of rescue,
and all of them
just ordinary people
until that moment.
So much of that
Get up ten minutes late
and the maelstrom
as though there were blood
on your doorposts—
but wipes out your
job, your company,
your colleagues, strangers,
more punctual than you.
Where you might have stood
the air fills with the dust
of the dead and destroyed,
crystalline and ash at once,
poisoning the future.
Who you pray to
if you pray
did not protect you.
The flames that descended
from heaven that day
were not holy, but
made by someone
who just wants to watch
the world burn.
–Sept. 11, 2010, Da Bronx
© Lee Kottner, 2010
Odd conversation today with a friend from Michigan. I'm making a second stab at getting my visa for China and she suggested just calling her if they reject me again and she will put me on the line with someone on her end who could speak to the person I was dealing with at the consulate. Which sounds great, except that there are no cell phones allowed in the consulate. "Well do they take them away?" she asks. Well, no, they don't, but I'm thinking, (a) I'm on foreign soil, and I should probably obey the rules of the country I'm in as flouting them is not going to endear me to anybody, (b) there are American security guards and they do more than just x-ray your bag, and (c) I say, "they do come over and hassle you if you're using one, because they did when I was there the other day. Security people are all kinda jumpy here," I sez. "Jumpy? Why?" sez friend. "You know, 9/11 and all that?" I reply. "9/11? Really? Cuz we're kinda over that here," sez friend.
And I'm thinking, that's because it didn't happen to you, it happened to us. People in my Michigan home town were rushing to the pumps to hoard gasoline while we were watching our city burn and counting our dead. And there are still people here who would like to blow parts of our city up.
And I'm reminded once again that the midwest is another world, and how much things have changed here since 9/11 that haven't touched other parts of the country.
Been a while since I've blogged here, for various reasons. I've been teaching, grading, working on Bronx Voices, mentoring a student in poetry, reading fiction for other writers, doing some editing, baking, cooking, wasting time on Facebook, hanging out with friends who've missed me and basically having a very busy social life. I'm catching up on "Babylon 5" with Eva and Vinnie, and took myself off to see the new X-Men movie on Thursday, and have a date for the new Star Trek movie with Gretl some time this week too. I finally saw Emilie for the first time in three years (since I left AKRF, and I can hardly believe it's been that long). And I have still more catching up with friends new and old to do.
But I feel like I'm missing something essential, however much I love my friends (and I do!). I'm missing time to write, time to make things, time to post here. I haven't written anything for this blog, or Blogorrhea, or Cocktail Party Physics in far too long. I haven't written any fiction, fan- or otherwise in what feels like ages. I have, however, written a pile of poetry, i.e., one a day for the month of April, which I'm now going back and editing and parceling out to various collections. I'm itchy and anxious and wanting to get back to my own work this summer. My grades are due on the 18th, and between then and now, I have a mountain of grading to do.
But today, I took a me day and went off to the greenmarket at Union Square for the first time in ages, at least when the whole complement of booths is there. It was jam packed, full of flowers, people, early greens, bread, cheese, new potatoes, rhubarb, and winter apples. I bought ramps, and asparagus, and pomegranate ginger lamb sausage, and eggs and fresh pasta and spinach, and at the Garden of Eden up the street, Asiago cheese, morels, and grape tomatoes. Oh, and these:
The market was full of lilacs today, and I've been drunk on their scent since I got there at noon. I bought a big bunch of dark purple ones and carried them around with me as I walked up Broadway through the first street fair I've been to in ages (which was crammed with all kinds of food too: burritos, crepes, Italian sausage, smoothies, corn fritters, funnel cakes, gyros), through Madison Square Park, where the line for the Shake Shack was absurdly long, like a movie premiere, and over to Third Avenue to Oren's to buy another pound of Celebes Kalossi beans for my coffee-drinking friends. I got an iced cappuccino because I was flagging a bit by then and staggered into the subway at 33rd St, all the while smelling the lilacs. Now they're sitting on my work table beside me, filling the room with heavenly scent. The only thing comparable is lavender. The odd thing about them is that you can't really smell them if you bury your face in them, but the smell diffuses throughout the room. It smells like spring, like hope, like renewal.
I came home and cooked scrambled eggs with ramps, asparagus, and morels. Tomorrow I'm going to make risotto with ramps, sausage and asparagus. And the morels I'm going to eat all by themselves. It's been years since I had them, and though it galls me to pay $45/lb. for them when I used to get them for free, I bought an ounce of them (which is quite a lot, since they're hollow) because I've been craving them. I'm over my rhubarb craving, and the asparagus craving is running out. Now I want peas.
And time. But in the meanwhile, back to grading, editing, etc. until the 18th.
Okay, I've had enough. Here's what I sent off to my state senator and to the senator representing most of my students at CNR and here are their email addresses if you'd like to do the same:
You can find your senator here.
Dear Senators Diaz and Serrano,
I'm currently an adjunct professor at the College of New Rochelle's South Bronx Campus. I live in Parkchester and commute by bus or subway three or four times a week to the campus at 149th Street and 3rd Avenue in the Bronx. I'm writing to you both about the looming MTA fare hike, but not just because it will increase my costs in the face of the meager pay that adjuncts make. I'm writing you both on behalf of my students, who live in your districts.
Many of my students are on public assistance. Some of them have overcome enormous obstacles to attend college: abusive relationships, drug addiction, extreme poverty, homelessness, alcoholism, AIDS, deaths in their families. Many of them are still confronted with these problems and keep coming to school anyway, because they know getting an education is a stepping stone to a better life. The thing that impresses me most about my students is their deep desire to improve themselves, to become contributing members of society, rather than victims of circumstance. They work so hard, juggling exhausting, low-paying work, the demands of children, and their school work. I admire them immensely.
Many of our college's classes meet once a week to minimize the amount students have to spend on transportation. If the MTA raises their fare as much as threatened, a large number of my students will not be able to afford to make the trip to school even once a week. This will short-circuit innumerable efforts by hard-working people to make something of themselves. The working poor have enough obstacles in their way. Please work with your fellow senators to keep the MTA fare hike from being another one. This is no time for dithering. Peoples' dreams are in your hands.
Ann E. Kottner
This one was almost too easy: write about a landmark. What else does one write about post-9/11 as a New Yorker? I suppose someday we'll get past that but it's still way too fresh. That surprises me, and it surprised me how easily this one came out. I read the prompt this morning, thought about it for maybe two minutes and had the first and last lines in mind within minutes. I actually thought about writing about the Chrysler building for minute, but there aren't any grinding edges that spring immediately to mind as they do for the World Trade Center.
For months, I turned my face away
refusing to look
as the train rumbled over the Manhattan Bridge,
aiming for the border between
safety and war zone.
The gap was too appalling,
the scorched skyline still dark
and smoking, even in the rain.
I looked north and inland
not out to sea where even
Liberty had turned her back.
The lights came on gradually
but one spot remained dark,
an absence, unmarked.
Finally, I left Brooklyn,
decamped to the Bronx
where the passage over water
is barely noticed,
just a stride
of the elevated train
and not a leap over
fast currents on faith.
I still miss that view:
the Brooklyn Bridge lined with tail lights,
the Watchtower sign ticking time
and temperature in Fahrenheit and centigrade,
barges creeping upriver,
South Street Seaport’s
tourist glitter, the harbor
criss-crossed with ferries, all
evidence of the living city.
Something new is rising to fill the gap
and I don’t know that I can bear
to see it either.
No one knows what to call it—
Freedom Tower, One World Trade Center,
© Lee Kottner, 2009
Necessity is the mother of invention and hard times bring out people's creativity. I was heading down to Whole Paycheck yesterday (I've got to stop shopping there; I can't afford it), when I spotted this guy (below) and his beastie, just hanging out on the corner of 14th St. and Union Sq. West. The cat seemed quite comfortable and pretty friendly. Whenever someone took a picture, the guy asked for a buck or two, which seemed fair. It's his cat, his image, his time. I gave him two; one for him, one for the cat. That seemed a small price to pay for the amusement value. He looked and sounded like a typical construction worker/blue collar kind of guy, who was apparently out of work. The cat, he said, was about two years old and looked well-fed and cared-for. A woman standing next to me claimed that she saw Parisians walking around with the cats on their shoulders all the time. I can't say I noticed that when I was there, but it was August and any self-respecting Parisian had left town. Is it true?
I took the No. 6 down to 86th St. to go to Staples for new toner and paper around noon today. The car was pretty empty; there were four or five of us: me, a middle aged Hispanic man, a youngish black woman, and across from me, a late middle aged white businessman with short hair, a dark suit, a long, black wool coat and a briefcase, nice looking but with a sad face. Around 116th a young couple got on with their chubby-faced little boy in a stroller. Dad was in scuffed Timberlands that looked like they'd been on a construction site, jeans, a light jacket. Mom was in jeans and boots too, and just a long-sleeved T-shirt, though their son was bundled up well. He started the pitch: they'd lost their house, he'd lost his job, couldn't get public assistance yet, never thought they'd be living in a shelter. He wanted work and a chance to go to college and instead they were asking for anything we could give them. It wasn't like the usual pitches. These two people were proud and embarrassed to be asking for money. Every single person in the car gave them something, including me. Afterwards, we all kind of looked at each other in a way New Yorkers on a train normally don't, shaking our heads, eyes a little too bright. The guy across from me in the suit really looked stricken and muttered something that sounded sympathetic and disgusted, not with them but with the situation. He'd given them several dollars.
Four people I know have lost jobs within the past couple of weeks. Another friend just lost one today. The safety net is frayed. And a neocon on Facebook tells me that capping the salaries of financial moguls whose companies take bailout money will somehow only hurt the economy more. All I can think is that those fuckers are lucky they still have jobs and it'll do their kids good to endure a couple of years in a public school and miss their skiing vacations. Let them sell their country houses.
Eat the rich, baby.
Not to Mention Spidey-Sense
Woman #1: So, how are you holding up?
Woman #2: You know, doing the best I can, using the five senses.
Woman #1: There's six senses.
Woman #2: No there's five: walking, talking, breathing, reading and writing.
Woman #1: What about seeing?
Woman #2: Well yeah, there's also fire, wood, air, and water; but I don't know why they don't count those.
Jayzus on toast.
Overheard in New York [hat tip to deadcat vagrant over on LJ]
Sorry, this is all I'm capable of right now. I've got a cold and have been snuffling around all day after not sleeping last night. I'll be a better blogger soon, I promise.
A while back, I went to see the mammoth Turner exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of my favorites in the city and one of my favorite painters. The last time I saw any Turners was at the Tate Gallery in London (now the Tate Britain; the Tate Modern did not yet exist then), a million years ago where I was completely flabbergasted by them and the Pre-Raphaelites. I met a friend I hadn't seen in several years at the Met and we had a lot of catching up and yakking to do, but still managed to spend 4 hours wandering amongst the the jaw-dropping depictions of sky and water, encompassing selections from his entire career. The man was incredibly prolific and churned out literally hundreds of oil paintings, not to mentions his watercolors and drawings, so even a selection is a lot of art to walk through. The friend I was with is an amateur artist herself, currently taking classes at the Getty and elsewhere, and turning out some very competent stuff, so we were both in art appreciation mode, despite our animated conversation.
The Turners make me extraordinarily happy. His palette is generally the cool blues and greens of daylit ocean or warm and bright sunset colors. Nobody paints water and sky like Turner did and reproductions just can't capture it.
My extremely talented friend Peri Lyons is singing again! If you're in NYC around the end of August/early September, catch her show, Famous in France, at the Metropolitan Room. Peri is an amazing singer/songwriter/performer who does songs that are not your typical cabaret. She's funny, smart, beautiful, has a great voice and can play your emotions like a piano with her songs. And as Peri says, "Besides, what other cabaret show is going to bring you songs sung from the viewpoint of the Marquis de Sade's wife?" Don't miss her.