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Media gets even sillier in its zeal to whip up an anthrax panic. “ONLY
CERTAIN MASKS WILL PROTECT.” That’s their idea of a headline at the St.
A young fellow walks into the café wearing a green sweatshirt. In big letters on
the front: When All Else Fails, Manipulate the Data.
from Basic Books. Tremendously excited. Larry King’s people want to talk with you.
Sure, why not? Just when you thought the media had dumped the WTC for a quick
fling with bio-terror, he’s hooked a big one.
A moment later, Larry’s “book person” calls. “OK,” she says briskly, “you have
thirty seconds to tell me why your book is worth discussing on Larry King.” Abstractly
you are aware that you ought not take this personally. All the big shows do pre-
interviews to make sure potential guests are sufficiently mediaphilic. You’ve done this
before, albeit less abrasively. Doubtless the young person you’re speaking to is sleep-
deprived, having worked 24/7 for weeks on end and scared out of her wits about
anthrax having to open Larry’s mail. Perhaps she even lost a loved one at the WTC, the
Pentagon or in that Pennsylvania field. Who knows her trials or sorrows?
Suddenly though, you find yourself incapable of being accommodating. You
discover, yet again, that you are not a bodhisattva. Unable this time to slow your
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 174
Instead you tell her that have no interest in reducing your book to a thirty-second pitch,
and that from your perspective the conversation has begun very poorly indeed.
Besides, there is another factor to consider: whether you want to be on Larry King. A
beat of silence on the other end, then outrage. In her four years on the job, nobody has
ever talked to her like this. Well, you say, now someone has. Sounds coming your way,
but you hit flash.
A few minutes later comes the fight with Randy. He’s no more accommodating
than you were, particularly since he’s worked tirelessly to cultivate the person you’ve
just pissed off immeasurably, perhaps immemorially. Blown a great opportunity – not
just for yourself but for other Basic authors too. That’s it. Now every button’s been
pushed. Part of you disengages from your body, becomes a camera: arm up on a shot
of a crazed-looking fellow parading around the pool’s edge, gesticulating as he screams
into his cell phone – a satire, if that’s possible – on a tantrum by Hunter Thompson.
Fortunately, you’re the only one there.
OK? Who was it spent eight years writing this book? Who got pneumonia from talking to every
media asshole in the world, most of whom found me without your help anyway? I’ve done
everything – everything to support this book! What have you put on the line while my labor’s
been buying you another fucking car?
You’ve kept your cool for over a month. Finally, it’s all spilled out. All your
helpless rage at being unable, even for an instant, to deflect the course of the media
frenzy in its awful drive for war. You even manage to call Larry King a “court Jew.”
As you’re shouting at Randy though, part of you know none of this is his fault. He’s
not the real enemy – he’s no eminence grise – just an unthinking link in the great chain of
complicity. And who needs the bad blood? What’s scary is you’d no idea how close
your fury was to boiling over – and here you thought that after working on your temper
for so long, you’d gained some measure of maturity, learned the power of restraint, the
capacity, in a tight spot, to tell yourself a bigger story. The fact is though, even a few
days ago you’d have been too weak to get your blood up at all, much less take it over
the top. Your old energy must be kicking back in – all out of whack, but at least it’s
there, on tap if need be.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 175
The episode peters out in a sorry anti-climax. You apologize to Randy, and he to
you. You agree to talk with King’s producer if he can get through to her and
ameliorate. Half an hour later, the producer calls. Her tone’s much more civil than the
book person’s and so is yours, but you’re hoarse, shaking. She asks you questions, then
half-covers the receiver before you’ve fully answered, muffling the sound while she
talks with someone else. Impossible to tell if she’s consulting with this other person
about you, or whether she’s having two entirely parallel conversations at once. It soon
becomes clear that L.K. has no interest in discussing the WTC’s history, but rather in
finding an “expert” who will uncritically endorse the idea of rebuilding it even taller.
No doubt this person exists. If not, they will be manufactured by airtime tomorrow.
Lie back and breathe in the Florida sun. It’s doing the trick. An aftershock of
anger. Couldn’t Randy have vetted these assholes out before exposing you to this
charade? Has he even read Divided? Not bloody likely. Does he ever have any idea
what the books he’s hocking are about? You put too much trust in these weak-kneed
functionaries when in reality, you’re not even playing the same game. Time to pick up
your marbles and go home.
• • •
There would be the event. However, does the event exist? There is the white
space before the event and the white space after the event. But who could tell them apart? So
the event is perhaps the unexpected shattering of the white space within the infinite space of the
Are you some strange, atomized reincarnation of the British Empire – your
strategic bases not far-flung coking stations but cafés in port cities? In your Tampa
outpost, Marcella serves the coffee, a rhinestone stars and stripes appliqué safety-
pinned to her black tee shirt. When she turns her back you see white flour prints where
the baker’s hands touched her shoulders. She tells you she was born in Colombia, but
once lived in New York City, on 53rd Street and Eighth Avenue, which happens, by
coincidence to have been the epicenter of last night’s 2.6-scale tremor. No injuries, just a
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 176
afar. Last Wednesday, the collapse of a huge scaffold and tumbling brickface. Six
workers dead. Tremors from above and below. On 9/11, seismologists up the Hudson
recorded higher shockwaves as the towers began to disintegrate than when the bulk of
the rubble fell. How to explain that one?
For two afternoons on two successive days, you lay by the pool drinking air as
though it were the healing waters of a therm. Actively worked at diffusing warmth to
every cell of your lungs. Counted a hundred deep, unhurried breaths – slowed down
the exchange to a snail’s pace – then turned from prone to supine and began again.
Deliberately teaching yourself to breathe again, to repattern the autonomic impulses
that seized up after the towers, themselves so filled with air, turned to density and dust.
Only five or so stories of rubble above ground level – all that compression of material.
And the loosened spirits, springing into the atmosphere – the microparticulate riding
their luminescence. Did you accidentally trap spirits in your lungs? Who clamored to
be coughed out, even as they drowned inside you? How many met a second death in
your lungs – how many did you liberate with every spasm of your back and chest? Did
they drift out only when, on the exhale, you numbered your respirations, dozed, then
half-woke each time Gwen called “un, deux, trois!” and then the silence of her run and
leap – splash! into the pool.
Do the spirits care that the genie opened the bottle and liberated them in Central
Florida, on the Gulf, far from where you unwittingly corked them? Are they
disoriented to have traveled, engulfed in your vessels, so far from their original release?
Or are they merely grateful not to be drowning any more, rather dry as the geckos
Gwen befriends, builds houses for in the gravel with palm chips. Are they lighter and
swifter now, no longer creatures of the earth and fire and sea – new citizens of the air?
Marcella refills your cup. Learn to drink coffee again. The tabletops here are
made of a very rough mosaic. Broken-up tiles set in grout. Here and there a sharp
edges. Got to be careful moving your arm across it as you write.
B-52 strikes on Afghanistan. We carpet bomb the weavers of rugs.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 177
Amnesia the beautiful.
• • •
Back in the City of Heroes and walking along a band of Chelsea sidewalk,
narrowed here and there by trees and townhouse stairs. From opposite directions, you
and a mail carrier approach one another, she wheels her cart, you lug your backpack.
En passant, you smile at her, and in response, she widens her slightly wall eyes. At that
moment you think: I love these streets. And then a voice says: But these are different
On the phone this afternoon with Wolfgang the formulation comes: there were
two towers, the Soviet Union and the other the United States. First one freefalls, then
soon after the other.
The headline reads: “Sight of a B-52 makes Northern Alliance troops shout with
joy.” The Times devotes these days, an entire section to whatever fits under the rubric
of “A Nation Challenged.” But each time you see it, by some virtue of some psychic
dyslexia, you invert the second and third words. Lately too, you find yourself blasting
words into constituent syllables: Work. Man. Ship. Pen. Man. Ship. Hand. I. Craft.
Chipping off the mortar. Knocking apart the stuck-together bricks. Need to build
Sit in the café preparing to spill ink. But first, a Protestant moment: review your
appointment book. Write in a note to call Dr. Johnson on Monday. Not happy about
the cramped, awkward way you’ve made the letter “s” in his name. Erase it and try
again, attempting fuller, more generous curves. But now the top overwhelms the
bottom, so you rub out the offending character a second time, and make things worse.
Now you’ve obliterated the second “o” and amputated the right leg of the “n” to the left
of the “s.” Collateral damage. Things are not going well. You’re impatient. The eraser
is too broad. And besides which, you’ve neglected to take off your glasses even though
you’ve reached the age where it’s hopeless doing close work with them on.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 178
What next – erase what’s left entirely and write it in again? Attempt to repair the
hole in the word as seamlessly as possible? Or seize the opportunity to deproblematize
the issue of your teeth by rubbing it out altogether and pretending everything’s fine?
Of all the strategies, this last seems the most heroic. But after due consideration, you
convince yourself that if you write each missing or damaged letter deliberately and
without haste, you can restore “Dr. Johnson” to coherence, and perhaps achieve
aesthetic adequacy into the bargain. You have just rendered “n” bilateral once again
and are about to take on the troublesome “s” when Anna leans across your table and
asks: “Do you need anything?”
You find yourself struck dumb in the face of her beauty. Her pale eyes meet
yours so directly you must shift your gaze. You focus on the white letters in the three
blue circle on her tee shirt: “ulu” – a palindrome, like Anna. You read this backward
and forward several times, stuck in a kind of loop, unable to engage your power of
speech. Wrench you eyes back to Anna’s face, notice that her cheeks are sunburned and
recall that the last time you spoke she was planning to attend a bluegrass festival in
northern Florida. How was it? Her eyes light up. Great, she says, really amazing
music. Nothing like it back in Sweden.
The café’s not busy so the conversation keeps going, moves with light feet from
subject to subject. Eventually you tell her that her asking, “do you need anything,” took
you by surprise, that you were somewhere very far away, and temporarily incapable of
replying because you didn’t realize she was asking a simple question, not a complicated
one. She laughs. More coffee arrives in your cup. You do not say to her that more than
anything else, what you need is to stay connected to the principle of Eros, to repudiate,
every instant, the pull of morbidity.
Later, at the cash register, after she gives you your change, you reach out to
shake her hand. It is a silly gesture. But in the aftermath of your brief dialogue, you
successfully completed the “s” and added the “o” thus creating a legible, altogether
satisfactory reminder to call Dr. Johnson on Monday. You have even convinced
yourself that in some small way, you’re more solidly implanted within the circle of the
living than when you walked through the door an hour ago. In a way that could never
be communicated in so many words, you stand forever in her debt.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 179
Phone rings. As ever, you hear a little throat-clearing cough before “Wolfgang
here.” He’s just returned from Berlin for his customary fall-to-spring New York
sojourn. His apartment scrubbed clean and HEPA filters installed in the air purifiers, he
invites you over to resume your bi-weekly séances – sitting at his white, enamel-topped
table in the dining alcove as dusk falls on the Lower Manhattan massif and the harbor.
Way back, when you’d just started your research, one of your advisors made the
introduction to Wolfgang, whose work you already knew and admired greatly. The
intervention proved crucial. Would there have been a book without these dialogues,
who knows? In any case, Wolfgang’s associative brilliance and rigor served as your
model. And the conversations continue, ad infinitum, to hopefully mutual benefit.
In retrospect, the book’s evolution owes something to the atmosphere of
Wolfgang’s high-rise cave: the bicycle with its wire basket leaning against the foyer
wall, the bright kitchen near the table where you sit, parquet floors several shades
darker than your own, the coffee table in the living room piled with research books.
And pictures on the wall, deliberately chosen, enigmatic worlds unto themselves.
During all those of late-afternoon meetings, the towers stood close by, implacably
asserting their presence, and the ever-shifting patterns of light and darkened offices
provided objects of contemplation during the gaps and silences in your talk. How
different will this next coffee-conversation be without this presence.
As the doors close on the subway downtown you realize you’ve forgotten your
camera and very nearly get off at the next stop to go back for it. But then you’d be late,
and in any case, you’re a bit relieved not to feel compelled to photograph the ruins.
When Wolfgang opens the door his greeting is cordial but brief, since he ushers
you straight to the window. At once breaks out a skirmish in the everlasting war
between memory and what is. And for the moment, memory retires in defeat. In the
six months since you visited – accelerating in the past weeks – your mind moved the
trade center much closer, compressed to insignificance the intervening streets and
buildings to the point where, as you rode up in the elevator, you imagined that when
you did look out, you’d be nearly hanging over the rubble. Thus the view isn’t as
impressive by half as the one you anticipated. Part of you feels cheated by the
remoteness of the wreckage. From this angle, even twenty-five floors up, what’s most
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 180
much of the mound behind it. Over there, at the corner of the building was Borders,
where you did you first public reading from Divided.
Beyond, endlessly rising smoke and intermittent glimpses of a bulldozer, moving
like a remote-controlled toy, surmounting a peak in the rubble then disappearing out of
view. If fifty maids with fifty mops would sweep for half a year…
Wolfgang, as it turns out, had been documenting the progress of the clearance
from his aerie, as well as from the surrounding streets. A pair of binoculars stands on
his window sill.
As night falls, the illumination of the site turns ghastly and aestheticized,
evoking images of Triumph of the Will and Norman Bel Geddes’s stage design for The
Inferno. Weirder still that, when set against these images of artificial spectacles, the real
thing appears tame by comparison.
Though he says he hasn’t slept well, Wolfgang seems in fine form. There are
those whose spirits and even physiologies are constituted to respond to the stimulus
within a terrible event, who find their energies liberated by proximity to something
cataclysmic. If you ever were one of these people, the mechanism has been suppressed.
Or something prevents you from enabling it. The circuit breakers get thrown before
you find out whether the fuses are up to surviving the surge. Thus the sight of the
rubbled terrain fails to animate you, if anything it drains you of will.
Once, long ago, after your parents had separated and you were living with your
mother – probably when you were about eleven – you went to visit your father at your
old home on West Broadway. You knocked but he wasn’t there. So you used your key
to let yourself in and discovered, once inside, that he had chopped up most of the
furniture in the apartment, probably the night before, including the rocking chair in
which your mother had nursed you, and, inexplicably, a reel-to-reel tape recorder given
to him by one of his drinking buddies. You didn’t wait for Jack to appear. Turned
around and left upon surveying the scene. You remember, after the initial shock,
feeling only a strange, buffered calm. Deep down, you’d known for a while that
something like this might happen. But never imagined that something’s precise form.
Walk toward the subway home and veer south with the idea of placing yourself
as close as possible to the site you have avoided these nearly eight weeks. Crossing
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 181
other fires you’ve smelled in the city, but admixed with something indefinably more
caustic. You press on for a block, thinking to duck into the subway entrance ahead, but
it’s boarded shut and standing atop the scaffold, three men who, in the uncertain light,
look like hulking Niebelungen with the features of Peruvian Indians, all wielding
camcorders which they train upon the steaming heap. Just ahead, an impasse of
plywood hoardings demarcates the site itself.
You turn on your heels and head back toward the last open entrance you passed,
but another blast of incinerated air envelops you from behind. Gaining the subway
platform, the tunnel wind smells strange too, but mediated, the harshness buried
beneath a kind of tinny lavender.
Bea’s birthday. How she adored her view of Lower Manhattan. How once when
you spoke on the telephone, she told you the fog was so thick she couldn’t see the trade
center towers. She felt, she said, like Ondine – marooned in the clouds.
Another time, in the ‘80s, your mother called in the middle of the night – her near
hysterics all the more alarming for this not being her usual MO. She’d awakened
suddenly to see, out her bedroom window the upper stories of the Empire State
building engulfed in a globe of flame. A bomber had plowed into it once at the end of
the War – surely something like this was happening again. You told her to hang on, put
the phone down, ran up to the roof and looked toward the Empire State. From your
angle, a jot different from hers, it was clear that no catastrophe was unfolding. Back on
the line you told her what was happening and then she began to see it herself: the
brilliant spill of light resolved itself into the discus edge of the moon emerging from
behind the tower’s mass.
Back when you were working on the book, Susan O. told you a story about how
she and Sam – who must have been about four at the time – were driving through
Jersey within sight the Lower Manhattan skyline. Suddenly, Sam cried out in a panic.
One of the WTC towers had completely disappeared! Knowing this couldn’t be true,
Susan said reassuring words until their coign of vantage changed, and the hidden tower
came out from behind its twin.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 182
Post 9/11, a weird, untoward embrace of New York by the United States. Our
status as City of the Other, temporarily revoked. And now New York, for its part,
imagines itself home, at last, in the heartland.
• • •
For the first time today it occurs to you that there must have been numerous
copies of Divided, perhaps hundreds of them in the WTC when it was obliterated. Some
of the books belonged, no doubt, to people working in the towers who had bought them
just downstairs at Borders. They’d always kept a good stock on hand. Other copies
inhabited the shelves of Port Authority officials, or were owned by organizations like
the World Trade Centers Association. And then there were the Divideds that escaped,
those purchased and taken home. Someone told you once that they’d seen it for sale in
the shop way up on the observation deck, among the other souvenirs.
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