Going Back

9-11

“There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside them.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

When they reopened my office in lower Manhattan on Tuesday, September 18, 2001, I rode back into the city on my usual morning bus. All through the Lincoln Tunnel, a mile and a half under the Hudson, I gripped the armrests with white knuckles, certain that a bomb was going to go off. Nothing happened, just like nothing had happened during the previous week when I’d awaken in the middle of the night weeping, sweating, terrified. Then I’d check each window and door of our three-story house in the Jersey suburbs, making sure they were bolted. No terrorists out there. Back to bed, but not to sleep.

So after an eternity I made it through the tunnel, out of the bus station, up the escalator to the corner of 40th and 8th. At the entrance to Port Authority, on every wall, pillar, window, column were little 8½ x 11 posters. Each one was homemade, and said much the same thing: have you seen this person? The name, the family’s contact information, and a big picture of someone. Happy pictures of people on vacation, or at a birthday party. In those early confused days, some held onto the belief that missing relatives might be in local hospitals, disoriented or unconscious. Suddenly seeing those hundreds of smiling faces, and their little messages of love and grief, like candles held out to me in outstretched palms, the pain almost felled me to my knees. I felt stunned, like a man who’s been punched in the stomach. I stood there for a long time with them all watching me, not turning away, just feeling it.

The subway ride downtown. The World Trade Center had been a major transportation hub, and with it gone, there were fewer trains. What trains there were in service were all half empty this morning. Now normally on the train, people bury themselves in the paper or their iPods or sit with their eyes shut. You learn to avoid eye contact in a big city; it’s safer. But this morning, and for several days after, everyone looked right at you. Not just at you but into you, the way a lover looks into you sometimes, with a probing, delicate curiosity and defenselessness. A look you might flinch from, especially from a stranger. But our egos had crumbled to rubble and now we knew that looking away wasn’t going to make us any safer. Far, far from it. We had nothing left to hide from each other. Our faces all spoke the same holy, unspeakable thing.

Out of the subway and up the stairs to downtown, where everything was as silent and white as after a snowfall. Every surface still covered with the ashes of the World Trade Center. No color anywhere, it seemed — only the green camouflage of the soldiers who stood on every corner of the twisted little streets of lower Manhattan. The soldiers were all young men, huge GI Joe types with hulking V-shaped torsos and biceps like hams. God knows where they’d been shipped in from; nothing like that grows in New York. Their faces, at least, were not open. Each stood stock-still and expressionless at a wooden barricade with a huge semiautomatic weapon strapped over his shoulders. On guard just like I had been at my house, against a threat that wasn’t coming anymore because the most terrible thing that could happen already had.

The other thing about downtown was the smell. A week earlier, it hadn’t been so bad. Running to the water, I had given the rag that was covering my face to someone else, so I had breathed in the smoke and ash—but I didn’t recall anything like this. A burning smell, but not a sweet burning smell. A big white-noise charnel house smell that entered not just your nostrils but your pores. In it you could detect traces of plastic, rubber, wood, metal, and maybe something else. It’s the worst odor you can imagine, and if there’s a Hell, that’s how it smells. An elegantly dressed woman on the street next to me cried out something wordlessly about it… a sound I’ve never heard before or since. An animal moan of revulsion and sadness and protest.

Later, people put flowers and other memorials on the sidewalks, but for now there were just a few signs in windows: little makeshift printouts of flags, or pictures of the towers with the date. As if to just say “we were here,” the way miners trapped in a shaft might scrawl it on a wall. The merchandising hadn’t begun, nor the bickering over what to build at Ground Zero, nor the lies about how the air was perfectly safe to breathe—only the first of so many lies. In the blasted silence of downtown, with the smoke still belching from its enormous wound, there was only a terrible, stricken kind of humility and awe that had its own special… what?

Beauty, I guess.

The beauty of finally seeing, and knowing, the worst.

Photo of Ground Zero by Eddie Selover, September 2001.

Seven Factors, Five Hindrances

From the Buddhist who led my meditation class this morning:

7 Factors of Enlightenment

* Mindfulness: to be aware and mindful in all activities and movements both physical and mental
* Joy or rapture
* Investigation into the universal laws of nature
* Concentration
* Relaxation or tranquility of both body and mind
* Energy
* Equanimity: to be able to face life in all its vicissitudes with calm of mind and tranquility, without disturbance

5 Hindrances to Enlightenment

In Buddhism, the five hindrances are negative mental states that impede success with meditation and lead away from enlightenment.

* Sensual desire: Craving for pleasure to the senses
* Anger or ill-will: Feelings of malice directed toward others
* Sloth, torpor or boredom: Half-hearted action with little or no concentration
* Restlessness or worry: The inability to calm the mind
* Doubt: Lack of conviction or trust

My Life in Bond Movies

Bonds-Clean-DI-to-CW

In honor of Quantum of Solace, here’s a short history of my life, measured out in Bond movies.

Goldfinger. Wow, a toy car that has guns and an ejector seat! I am a little kid and nothing could possibly be cooler. Not even robots.

Thunderball. It’s all about the Aston Martin. Even the producers know it, because it makes an appearance in scene one, bizarrely shooting water out of its exhaust pipes. I am seven now and this is cool, cool, cool. But the movie is long, long, and half underwater. I fall asleep.

You Only Live Twice. Takeme takeme takeme! No? Why the hell not? I fume with impotent rage in the backseat of our Chevy Impala as we drive past the theater. Aw Daddy, doncha love your little Eddie?

Dr. No/From Russia With Love. Reissued with Goldfinger. Mom and Dad dump me at the Saturday matinee… undoubtedly to get rid of me for six hours. Excellent plan. It’s a win-win.

OHMSS. Doesn’t have Connery, so who cares? It’s the end of the 60s. We have all the time in the world.

Diamonds are Forever. Connery is back; this is big. Now I’m 13, and my father takes the whole family. But it’s Easter Sunday and I am sitting next to my grandmother, who is also a minister. Awkward. You know something? Dad can be kind of passive aggressive.

Live and Let Die/The Man with the Golden Gun. Watergate, the weary end of Vietnam, cutesy ragtime music on the radio, and Roger Moore as James Bond. Nobody who lived through the 70s will ever be nostalgic about it.

The Spy Who Loved Me. Wow, a submarine Lotus. I’m a jaded teen now, but this is hot. Ditto Barbara Bach in her black dress. Plus I am old enough to drive myself and my friends to the movies. Things are looking up.

Moonraker. I see this on my first big travels alone, in a grimy grindhouse on a drizzly, icy summer day in San Francisco. The audience is 90% homeless and drunk and happy to be indoors, even watching this gawdawful movie.

For Your Eyes Only. Bonding with Sean MacFalls, who I meet working a loading dock and who is as big a fan as I am. Around this time I see Thunderball on TV while stoned and notice how badly made it is.

Octopussy. Roger Moore is assuming the leathery appearance of an old satchel. Sean MacFalls calls the movie an All Time Low. Little do we know that next up will be…

A View to A Kill. I am married now. Rebecca yells rude things at the screen about Roger Moore’s lack of sex appeal. That’s my girl.

The Living Daylights. Tim Dalton is a breath of fresh air. The new Aston Martin has some cool gadgets… The Pretenders song at the end is terrific. Things are looking up again.

License to Kill. I’m a dad now. Can’t be bothered, except to note that Dalton looks shamefaced about being in this crappy movie. The violence is sickening; the sex is non-existent. Oh, right, it’s the Reagan era.

Goldeneye. Six years have passed. We’ve moved to New Jersey. My coworker does a hilarious impression of Tina Turner growling out the title song. She also imitates Connery’s lascivious Bond. I have a pretty big crush on my coworker. But I skip the movie.

Tomorrow’s World is Not Enough and Dies… whatever those Brosnan movies were called. As a martini drinker, I notice Pierce orders them wrong. I realize I am more sophisticated than the man playing James Bond. And that’s just not right.

Die Another Day. It’s cold and rainy outside the theater. Manhattan is a bleak, sad, empty place after 9/11. Tough room… but then, every single man in the audience groans in unison as Halle Berry wades out of the Cuban surf. And we feel better.

Casino Royale. As played by Daniel Craig, James Bond is battered, vulnerable, and at long last a real man. This is the first Bond movie that Rebecca actually likes. Afterwards she asks me to make her a Vesper. Once you’ve tasted it, that’s all you want to drink.

Studs

Have you read anything by Studs Terkel? He was the epitome of a Chicago writer — a stogie chomping, whiskey drinking tough guy, with the bullshit detector always on. Looking the hard truth right in the eye without fear and with quiet, steady, understated outrage.

“I never met a picket line or a petition I didn’t like,” he once said. Like the great lyricist E.Y. Harburg, he was a lifelong, unapologetic left-winger, and his politics was driven not by either idealism or grievance, but by intimate knowledge of how real people actually live, and how government policy actually affects them.

And the best, most beautiful thing about Studs was that he went out and talked to those real people, interviewing them with great love and patience until they had given up their “gold,” as he put it… and then he used his own writer’s gifts to edit and shape their words to reveal their eloquence. He once commented that Americans have a natural intelligence and wit, which is true, but it takes a shrewd man to see that, and a great man to put his own gifts in the service of it.

When Studs was 89, about seven years ago, a young journalist went to talk to him — and found him halfway through a cigar at 10 a.m. Studs offered him a glass of scotch because, he said, it was too early for martinis. They talked about the art of turning an interview, with its garbled syntax and false starts, into readable prose. Among other things, Studs said this:

“A guy stopped me once—I did Working, and had all kinds of portraits, and one is the portrait of a waitress, Dolores Dante, she used to work at the Erie Cafe, when it was an expense-account joint. She was great. She talked about the day of a waitress. So one day this guy stops me on the street, and he corners me, on Michigan Boulevard Bridge—you know, people stop me now and then, not celebrity, just me, you know, they know me. He says listen, I want to tell ya—since I read about that woman Dolores in your book Working, I’ll never again talk to a waitress the way I have in the past. I’ll never again. Well that’s pretty good. That means I’ve touched him.”

I love ya, Studs. Rest in peace.