Thursday, September 07, 2006

For Monday

Anniversaries are arbitrary moments for reflection. Why is today different than yesterday, why yesterday different than tomorrow? We add even greater significance to anniversaries divisble by 5. Arbitrary, perhaps even irrrational, or silly. And yet, and so, at least in the culture we swim in, a Fifth Anniversary is granted power. I don't feel like fighting all of American culture, at least not today.

The sense of smell, we know, is the one most powerfully linked to memory. As I write this, I can smell what the air downtown smelled like That Day. Tinny, acrid, otherworldy. That same air, lurking in the lungs of the men and women who ran into those buildings while others ran out, and in those who volunteered to separate the steel from the flesh, now kills them, slowly. It was safe, we were told, by those who knew better.

There are many ways to look back. Here's one -- words I wrote that afternoon, not prophetic, precisely, for I was merely reading what I thought to be inevitable, given the state of the political world then:

4 PM. The lighted traffic sign above the Queensborough bridge reads simply, I am told, Manhattan Closed. In fact, the whole United States is closed. By whom we do not know, though the names of the usual suspects are already being whispered.

There is an incomprehensibility about it. So much rubble and burnt flesh. How many people right now are engaged in a frantic struggle to find alive their husbands, mothers, lovers, sisters, neighbors. Mine are found, are safe. But the loss for others will reverberate like a bell, will sound a sadness that is now slowly creeping into empty spaces where once were men and women whom we loved, or whom we did not know. Into that hollow soft space will soon enough creep rage. And that terrifies me. Put the culprits before me, and I would happily, with hands only, ope them up and pull from them their hearts, such as they are. But what acts will we, not as people, but as a nation, perpetuate with these most barbaric blows as reason? What craters will we make in which cities, what slaughter of other men and women and others sons and fathers? And what slow narrowing of already narrowed liberties here at home will we justify, saying but now we have no choice, now we must, for now it is a new world.

Or, with more measured, more recent, more reasoned reflection, we have architecture critic Paul Goldberger, from the New Yorker

Amid all the squabbles and revisions, it’s unsurprising that so many people who once cared passionately about Ground Zero have simply lost track of the developments there and have stopped caring. This summer, the success of the first movies about 9/11, and acclaim for a clutch of important novels dealing with the subject, showed that the public is still hungry to make sense of the tragedy and what it means for America. But they are no longer looking to architects, contractors, and developers for answers. By the end of the day on September 11, 2001, it was clear that the terrorists’ act had enormous symbolic power in the eyes of the world, and, in the months that followed, a consensus arose that whatever happened at Ground Zero should make a powerful symbolic statement of our own—of the values that America, and New York, stand for. Five years after the terrorist attacks, the saddest thing about all the many absurdities surrounding the rebuilding—the personal wrangles and group rivalries that have obscured any sense of commonality, the pious statements masking an utter lack of conviction, the maxed-out budgets and cut corners—is that they may say a lot more about us than we’d like to think.

Lastly, while we're here, for those of you with access to iTunes, let me suggest a 99-cent investment, Lucy Kaplansky's song "Land of the Living," on the album entitled These Times We're Living In: A Red House Anthology. Lyrics below, but it's the whole song that's so powerful, so haunting, and, for me anyway, so evocative of what it felt like to be in New York on That Day, and the days after.

Land of the Living
(Lyrics by Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Litvin,
Music by Lucy Kaplansky)

Late afternoon back in New York town
Waking up as the wheels touch down
Pick up my guitar and walk away
Wish I was going home to stay

Line of taxis, I wait my turn
Tar and asphalt, exhaust and fumes
Beside the road on a patch of ground
Taxi drivers are kneeling down

Beneath the concrete sky I watch them pray
While the people of the world hurry on their way
I think they're praying for us all today
And the stories that fell from the sky that day

This is the land of the living
This is the land that's mine
She still watches over Manhattan
She's still holding onto that torch for life

Back home fire's still burning, I can see it in the air
Pictures of faces posted everywhere
They say hazel eyes, chestnut hair
Mother of two missing down there;

I pass the firemen on duty tonight
Carpets of flowers in candlelight
And thank you in a child's scrawl
Taped to the Third Street firehouse wall

There's shadows of the lost on the faces I see
Brothers and strangers on this island of grief
There's death in the air but there's life on this street
There's life on this street

This is the land of the living
This is the land that's mine
She still watches over Manhattan
She's still holding onto that torch for life

Then I got in a taxi, said Hudson Street please;
He started the meter and he looked at me
I glanced at his name on the back of his seat
And I looked out the window at the ghost filled streets

I noticed cuts on his hand and his face
And I said You're bleeding, are you okay?;
He said I'm not so good, got beat up today
And I'm not one of them no matter what they say

I'm just worried about my family
My wife's in the house and she's scared to leave;
And I didn't know what to say
I didn't know what to say
But I said a prayer for him anyway

This is the land of the living
This is the land that's mine
She still watches over Manhattan
She's still holding onto that torch for life

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