“Although I would have liked to have taken a photograph, my camera was full, and they’d already walked away toward a shop with a sign advertising Calzones.”
Editor’s Note: The following is an essay previously unpublished for the past decade that was written in response to the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks.
akistan was far away, and Maria was living in Lahore while her husband studied accounting at the University of Central Punjab. She and I were supposed to be pen-pals and talk about shorba soup and how we danced to different music. She told me about her five-year-old son and how her husband slept in his office most nights. Two weeks later she wrote to me again explaining that she wanted to come to my country and that her husband could work hard.
Ten years had passed since a little boy kneeled on a carpet of alphabet soup to gaze past windows with finger paintings waiting for his father to come and fetch him. At an impromptu moment of silence that afternoon, I bowed my head among the other boys with neatly combed hair to mutter with puzzlement, uncomfortable inquisition, “I Say Yes, my Lord.” At the kitchen table that night, I asked my father why Arthur hadn’t come on at four o’clock and why Theo wasn’t allowed outside. He told me “some people did some bad things.” It’s not so much a story of men in helmets with axes, those we regard as heroes for posters in a doctor’s office. It’s a story of a generation that, in its short stretch of existence, has observed a decade that altered American life while leaving it recognizable but most certainly different.
The flag that I keep on the porch beside the wicker chair had fallen over and was a bit muddy. I ought to wash it or at least drop it in one of those metal containers that look like a mailbox but are painted red and say “Flags Only.” They’re run by the American Legion, and the veterans must have to draw straws to decide who has to drive to the box twice a year to see if anyone’s put anything inside.
The anniversary of September 11 draws upon the resolve of a nation to stare expressionless into the rimmed faces of those who sought to take it all away. Some of the calendars now print the name “Patriot Day.” As I ran my finger along the train schedules, I first saw the color red flash across the bottom of the television screen, warning of a terror threat for New York planned to coincide with the observance of a decade that existed beneath the tumult of fear. They wanted to keep us apart, separated again. As we grew up amid digital information and fewer ice cream trucks, they, those men, whomever they were, sought to scare us away from solidarity—to again squelch the searching eyes of that little boy who skipped his homework to hear stories from a man who’d been in the parking garage of the World Trade Center in 1993, the year before he was born.
It’s an era that disregards individual privacy with the PATRIOT Act and strip searches. Again, there is a disconnect between enduring ideals and modern survival. Not all courage and surely not all evil are essential to history. Much of it is forgotten in favor of dusting baseboards and the dichotomous concept of what we seek to attain. They tell us, the children, that ideals are greater than flesh: that ideals are not necessarily stronger or more easily defined, but they are somehow unmistakably more valuable. Ideals do not seesaw with our transient judgments of consequence, and they do not transform when it may be convenient or when distraught men demand it of them. They do not crumble with broken glass, fire trucks that arrive a few minutes too late, or within an hour of composting the lilies that divided the casket from the altar. But, rather, they transcend the fragility of our physical existence, the stringent certainty that permanence is unattainable. That’s what the old men with beards wrote in the books, but they’re already dead.
We were not created to submit to fear; we will take off our sweaters and stand alone. Then again, it’s easy to make brave claims when the flames are imaginary, the tablecloths are clean, and it’s not the kitchen of Windows on the World.
“Tonight, I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened.” We all liked Bush that night. “We will not be confined by fear, and we will certainly not doubt that our military is justified in their retaliation against Al Qaeda.” I think that’s what was said one night during an argument over the telephone. It hadn’t begun as an argument—just a misunderstanding. I had intended only to explain to a friend that Maria had been forced to marry at fourteen and that as dangerous as the fundamentalists might be, taking orders from the fear of death is even more lethal—the bomb threats that keep us from leaning our arms over the railing at Battery Park, where the old men play basketball with their socks at their knees and the passenger boats carry the tourists back and forth from Ellis Island.
The dead are dead, yet the living lug the obligation to honor an essence of sorts—not an essence of inhuman, fantastical courage. Rather, we recognize that the dead were real people crushed beneath steel. They were men and women who did what people do and wanted what people want. America is intangible. The idea of a nation founded on the basis of freedom is abstract and elusive. It’s a concept to deal blame, to curse, to seek refuge in, and to wear a uniform with brass buttons to die for. That’s why we cherish America, like a child it is impressionable; it has yet to realize the limitations of its ambitions, and it assumes the form of what we want it to become, the unique manner by which we each define it. It can be dominating or dispensable, essential or adscititious, but it is present and confining. Much like ourselves, we love and hate it simultaneously, yet when threatened, we reluctantly, proudly rise to defend it. After all, we all have questions to ponder and words we claim to live by. It’s not all about patriotism, nor all about America, and only partially about God.
Inspired by those who braved the dust and left their cheap hotel pens on the tables at Seven World Trade Center, we paced the floorboards and nodded until we were tired. Then we forgot about it. We dropped our earrings into the metal tin in the doctor’s hand. The clock still needs batteries. Perhaps we would watch a documentary on the History Channel until the game came on. Everyone was whimpering distantly, and another boy, who wore sandals, said he didn’t want to hear “all that crying bullshit.”
Terrorism will not define our generation. We will define it ourselves by the concerts that we scalp tickets to and the silk screens that we print for custom-made T-Shirts. We will conquer that doubt, the doubt that proclaims our essence as the fear of physical death, the fear of “being blown up” that a drunken Faulkner described on the day he won his Nobel Prize. There is an indelible vagueness that trudges on among dorm windows that are stuck shut, evening conversations on birthright citizenship around a coffee table that jostles with each dropped soup spoon, debates on whether or not respecting another culture goes so far as to excuse the fact that women such as Maria are denied education on account of their gender, and more tepid, tired calls to arms. If I ever return to Lower Manhattan, I won’t take my photographs in black and white or even notice the sign printed in blue marker that says “Jews control America,” as the cops just lean against the fence and don’t pay much attention to any of us.
Most of us, the children in the schools with finger paintings on the windows, hadn’t known anyone who worked in the towers, who had on their desks graduation photographs of their nieces and nephews and a tape dispenser in the shape of Winnie-the-Pooh. We were just observers to another experiment in evil. Although reality remains littered with hazards and there’s no shame in avoiding them, the terrorists must not win and preach fear among the young, the dreamers, the boys in first grade classrooms who still smell of soap and talk of life on Mars. How difficult it is to explain the clash between a people unified by uncertainty and fragmented by the desire to become the man on the new $0.55 stamp, that urge to attain sufficient prominence to warrant a voicemail from a personal secretary with a reminder to stop for a haircut prior to the long flight to Abu Dhabi. If anything, we are bound by the realization that there are few answers: There are only questions and muddy sneakers from walking in the wet grass too long looking for them. Technology will stagger forward, news shows will shift their focus to more fashionable happenings, and people will find a more recent tragedy for which to remove their hats at the ballgame. Like an America overshadowed by frivolous lawsuits and fraudulent insurance claims, the memory of September 11th will slide away from its ideological base. But most of all, I wanted to find that fleeting answer that I doubted actually existed as I drove home with the radio low. Productivity mustn’t always be measured in miles from home, and the victims are everywhere, abashed by the things they should have done.
Although the schedule, which I’d left on the kitchen table, had coffee spilled on it, I was able to read enough of it to choose the earliest train to New York, and I hoped that it wouldn’t be too crowded. I was only going to pay my respects, but before I went to sleep, I hung my camera bag from the doorknob so I wouldn’t forget it. There would likely be something worth photographing. Matt Rainey from the Newark Star-Ledger had won a Pulitzer and $7,500 for his photographs of two badly burned college students from the Seton Hall dorm fire. The New York Times printed the photograph of a chef from Windows on the World during his fall from the 106th floor of the North Tower before he hit the ground and died. There has always been a delicate balance between art and voyeurism, but time for such musings is a luxury for when the refrigerator is full, the national terror alert is on green, and $7,500 dollars isn’t due for the next semester’s tuition payment.
As I walked past Trinity Church and that prosaic green sign that says “Wall Street,” I remembered the Japanese tourists who were mobbing a police car with cameras when I’d last been in New York. I’d gone to see a girl, and that morning, there had been no threats of car bombs in Times Square, and the Swamp white oaks, which lose their leaves each November, had not yet been planted at Ground Zero. But on this anniversary, a little boy in a striped button-down shirt stood at the podium with the names of the dead engraved in the wall behind him and told his father, a man who’d died just days before he was born, that he loved him. That morning a couple of years before, I’d taken the E Train downtown to World Trade Center, just to see it, before calling her from in front of that orange di Suvero statue because there was no reception in the subways.
Before leaving the station on the way back, the train just sat idling for about ten minutes with its doors open as a black family from the Midwest carrying a guidebook asked me if I knew when the train was leaving. The escalators weren’t long enough to give me vertigo, and as a father and daughter sitting beside me began to speak to each other in Ukranian, I put my earphones back in. Things are easier that way. Back uptown, I watched the girl I’d come to see cross 31st street on a red light. The Borders Books with the ledge, where I sat alone late that night wondering why they kept the lights on in the skyscrapers even after everybody had gone home, had gone out of business, and the homeless men, who wore jackets even on warm summer nights, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge again, dodging bicycles until morning.
There is no point to be stated, argued, and defended. The feelings are as fleeting and erratic as what we call understanding, as the idea of a nation or of a uniquely American identity. Too often we claim to base our love in ideals, anchored in our estimation of what is just, but more often, we cling because of personal significance, that exhausted link to happiness. The happiness we once knew, and now it’s too far away like an early memory of waving a dollar store flag at the picnic where the men played horseshoes until their jeans slid down and they were embarrassed.
It’s all of the things I wanted to tell her, the girl with her feet in the fountain, with her feet in the fire.
I got on the train, and as I looked through the window wondering why they still called it the Meadowlands when the meadows had long been built over, I was again left to ask if, at the end of a man’s life, is he worth more than the sum of his trips to the grocery store to buy bread and all of those New Jersey Transit schedules that got him to work on time each morning? Or if that same man were killed one night in an accident during his drive home, would he be reduced to nothing more than a traffic report advising the listeners of 1010 AM to avoid the Cross Bronx Expressway for the rest of the hour?
The German Shepherds nuzzled through Penn Station, where they sold warm water bottles and were stingy with napkins. I snuck a photograph of a New York City police officer leaning his boot against a barricade. The flag outside Trinity Church had finally been lowered to half-staff, and an American soldier wrapped his arm around the bare shoulder of a Buddhist monk. Although I would have liked to have taken a photograph, my camera was full, and they’d already walked away toward a shop with a sign advertising Calzones.
Maria wasn’t even American but, at the bottom of her letter, she wrote, “god bless new york.” It was in lower case letters, and, for some reason, it meant more than any of it, more than the pontification, Paul Simon, or the American flag poster in the Brooks Brothers’ window that overlooked Zuccotti Park.
Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief of Merion West.