A personal account by novelist Joseph McElroy of the WTC crash (that is: a structure of some outside and inside project encompassing one individual).
Others have it worse, have had, will always. “We,” though, own the record now for largest building collapse.
A double you could call it. Work with it. Live with it.
Others far away die (and live) with the daily probability of car bombs, bus bombs, persons exploding in the neighborhood. They experience bombs from the sky and the earth, and are exhausted and homeless, and watch their children wasted by hunger, maimed, lost; and can’t keep in touch with friends to get help, join forces, or mourn. And can have scarcely a thought except for today’s survival. Scarcely a thought period. For example, that history is what hurts. Thought must seem like a leisure activity for those whose survival is in doubt. Like reading.
And so, what is my experience worth, displaced from a lower Manhattan loft for three weeks by air quality and marginal restrictions and shock?
What use is my experience? What do I make of it, putting it together? A form it may take in what we make. A half-recalled remark someone made about a very long sentence or two of mine.
A memory bears me from inside myself perhaps an hour and a half beyond that first clear sight from the parking lot across the street from our old six-storey brick building eight blocks from the shining north tower of the World Trade Center abstractly, palpably burning, and a few minutes later the south which from my angle with scarcely a sliver of space between the two seemed to catch fire from the north; and carries me beyond several things I did thereafter during an extended moment of unusual dimensions (a structure also of some outside and inside project encompassing me) such as shut my absent neighbors’ fourth- and fifth-floor wide-open windows that I’d noticed from where I stood at five minutes of nine across the street – thinking floors, height, sky, fire, distance, closeness, passengers, and a “thought” that the plane, which I had not seen, was gone into that hole it had made (that I could see) shaped by subtraction – while with me three excellent observers (and parents), invaluably talking (and to me), two outside in the street my downstairs neighbor, Phil, an architect, and my Brooklyn friend Steve, a writer who appeared unexpectedly, used our phone upstairs, had been certain from the second he saw the plane pass down Greenwich Street that this was an attack, and left again to pick up his six-year-old daughter he’d just dropped at school; but third, and always somehow with me, from the beginning inside our home (where she had heard like a car collision the sound of the first 747 hitting the north tower), then in the parking lot where we saw debris flying lightly across the north tower (out of it), pale things, papers, objects) before she went back upstairs, my wife Barbara, a painter – the first experience (as I say) beyond these alert, I know stunned minutes (many), was, upstairs again in our third-floor loft, to raise the window and look out to the right and see at the end of Hudson Street where it converges with West Broadway what took my breath away a five-storey-high cloud by then or wall or advancing wave (it seemed) of impenetrable gray debris of the first collapse, a dam burst and we were down in the gorge and not about to swim with this or against it, felt already in my chest and ticking self as if the fifteen minutes had almost passed after which we would not be able to breathe.
Outside, inside, outside, little more than that. I had read about Beijing, China, darkened almost to pitch blackness one April morning by a storm of dust from the Gobi Desert a thousand kilometers west. I shut the window. I remembered my almost-12-year-old son at school uptown. I remembered the first time I dived in the Mediterranean with a tank of compressed air on my back, my bodily doubt facing thirty minutes of not breathing normally, maybe not at all; then, mouthpiece in place, hearing the cave of my in-and-out breathing as I went down, the sound of one person’s breathing in a cave of use. I thought of damage control, a Coast Guard weather ship I served on half a century ago, how watertight bulkheads contain potentially catastrophic leaks from compartment to compartment, hold them off.
What choice have you breathing? Don’t hold your breath. Breathe deeply. (Come back to that.)
Barbara pressed rolled towels and cloths along our dilapidated old sash windows, and we looked around us. We took two wet wash cloths and left and set out walking north assuming little more than that we would pick up Boone at Lab School on 17th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Later I remembered seeing as I set foot on our sidewalk the sculptor Richard Serra coming diagonally toward us across Hudson Street walking his three Chesapeake Bay retrievers.
The emergency maybe not life-threatening for us; a shock, a falling curiously away from normal responsibility. To do almost nothing could seem one option, as if one had forgotten what one had seen down the street. I forget to breathe, or I think I do. A set of unquestionably new things happening, but there are questions not ready to be sounded. The towers gone? Nothing to do with the movies, in my case anyway. Or what is so easily called “surreal,” which for me this was not. Sirens with some fresh meaning in the midst of a reliably remarkable, an experimental city and these unknowns, like words I could italicize, verbs, promises to be developed, take action, sirens calling, Get outa the way. Time seems overcome or scattered by extension in space. The emergency obvious and still unknown had brought together those three people, Phil, Steve, Barbara: equals, friends, thinkers, makers – and neighboring – no exception Steve who lives in Brooklyn, who must pick up his six-year-old Micaela from Early Childhood Center (another center) scarcely two blocks away on Greenwich and must get home to that now more remote Brooklyn which makes him even more a city neighbor, though possibly without a subway now – were they running? – and cab traffic frozen, and getting home maybe by foot across the Brooklyn Bridge or the Manhattan which are now suddenly quite vulnerable above the East River all merging with the need to get somewhere a fear time-sensitive plugged into a net of decentralized uncertainty: distance, building, intelligence, children. We help each other think. But of what?
A parking lot attendant had called the first hit an accident. (His call.) Not a chance, I knew (without knowing, without hoping, just looking at the morning, which the plane people still existed in). Phil Parker had said that these towers, if they went – if they what? – wouldn’t tilt over and topple like a tree but collapse (like a telescope, I thought, but crumble). Phil hadn’t ruled it out. A structure of outer and inner sleeves. A structure becoming unknown. We were looking at the second fire by then, as if the south tower had caught fire from the north. They call New York the Empire State.
The Empire State Building plane in the early Fifties notwithstanding, accident never occurred to me September 11th. I will add, though, in advance, that as a function of this new, unmappably decentralized likelihood of terrorist attack that now “exists” or some community in me and interest and vanity packaged with compassion, 9/11 has engulfed me with a menu of accumulating views to be checked out, even if then discounted – yet the fear of them, as if hearing is as threatening as overlooking is perilous, and time is running short. (Come back to accident.)
It was like counting the dead, these views. The views begin at home. Things will never be the same. Is that it? We all three of us talk. My wife, my son, and I. Three angles on possibly not the same thing. These opinions have a spatial presence. I don’t think the attack and collapse were like TV for Boone (though he saw them there) or movies. Imagination is doing something. It may not be art, but it is putting materials together for yourself or helplessly. It is action, emerging from the materials. I know the event had happened for Boone. (With Barbara I speak of the next time; of our porous defenses up and down the coast, of resettling in the Sierras.) Boone and I will venture near the subject of the deaths, the people high up. He asked without asking. We didn’t speak in general of limbs, much less of limbs found in Murray Street or on roofs near us. Some people didn’t exist any more even as bodies, I said. We made of that what we could. We steered off from the atomization problem. I heard it said in front of me walking up Hudson Street the morning of the 11th and I heard it behind me and turned to see the speaker leaning his head into his cellphone.
That things would never be the same. That things had changed. Some had. If so, what follows? How make use of this change?
Expand, surround, gather, grasp, cut. Contrasting 9/11 (though implicitly likening it) to the death of Diana, the French critic Jean Baudrillard declares “the stagnant Nineties” over. “Events are back at work. With the attack on the World Trade Center, we have now witnessed the ultimate event, the mother of all events, an event so pure it contains within it all the events that never took place.” History’s inevitability as an art collectively chosen or anyway OK’d. (Baudrillard on 9/11 is reviewed in ebr by Nick Spencer - ed.)
The German composer and acoustical theorist Karlheinz Stockhausen had compared the attack on the Twin Towers to a work of performance art and praised such a spectacle of destruction and its effect on an audience which would require us “to rearrange our brains.” The American sculptor Richard Serra called this “a nihilistic distortion of the ethical imperatives to make art.” In a letter to the New York Times that appeared 40 days after 9/11, he rebuked Stockhausen for losing completely “the distinction between art and reality” and envisioning “the preposterous and hypertrophic competition between an art performance and the annihilation of thousands of people.” (Oct. 21, 2001) Yet the reality of the attack, no more than what Baudrillard insists is “witnessed” (i.e., foretold) in a decade of Hollywood disaster fantasies, isn’t the only reality, as Serra, a brave maker and strong writer, knows. And the distinction he makes so incisively reminds me that the dialogue doesn’t end here in languages strict like Serra’s or metaphorically loose like Stockhausen’s; or others, my own American, for instance, open and crossbred.
We’re “looking at” losses “in the neighborhood” of billions of dollars, which will “trickle down” in innumerable ways that will be covered in detail. Emerging through coverage. Monumental coverage, abundant, omnipresent (though the press, oddly, were kept at the Canal Street frontier for weeks according to Gabe Pressman, New York Times, Jan. 15, 2002).
So that there might from moment to moment be nothing more to say.
Recyclable coverage. 9/11 emerging in spite of coverage. One reality emerging to coat another. A succession of these displacements. Free society coverage discouraging you like the totalitarian from setting out to speak: the spread and noise and occupied space of coverage proliferates, more inevitable, it seems, than the attack, according to angle, agenda, compassion, compartment, complicity, information’s cloning, contagion, and/or border-dissolving flood; by a talent for seeing whatever, and by speech free or prepackaged.
Testimony, hopefully. Putting it like a thought together. Making something of it. Of oneself. A woman struck down and killed in the street by part of the South Tower plane’s wheel. A ragged shoulder against a wall; in Murray Street a hand a block and a half from our branch library in the first silent days. A roof garden visited by bone. The gruesome readily turned to words isn’t it, necessarily. Protect can mean “censor,” I know. Steve finds himself using the word “accident” to Micaela. Steve Hall, the science writer.
What is to be done? (Maybe you’re doing it.) I read that our Twin Towers builders had stopped using asbestos when they got to the 73rd floor, information had caught up with them. That’s still a lot of asbestos. When it was found in our neighborhood park, the sandbox sand extending under a jungle gym and formidable wooden walkway at one end was dug up and carted out; the grass was left. To the air, the breezes off the river. There is so much else to think of that we will have to come back to air, neighborhood, the children, certain silences during the first weeks.
Is it that we have the leisure to be overtaken by it and if we were on the run and wounded, losing each other, hungry, as good as dead – that would be our drill and we wouldn’t be free to register emotion, take stock of health hazards, reflect and document? Talk to our children. Women and men talking truly. It is an advantage of our society surely.
Yet the variety of reaction to 9/11 may displace our own. Is there really much variety?
All reactions partial but not equal. Some seem to approach my condition, my conditional. Some do not. Flags motorcade style on either side of rapidly moving vehicles on their way somewhere. Flags on recovery workers’ jeeps. Flags among all the letters, poems, flowers, oversized T-shirt offerings in front of St. Paul’s Chapel, which since September has been reserved for the recovery workers. The Jasper Johns flag paintings are diminished, my wife Barbara thinks, by all this exposure. I don’t agree. Though she might be right. Though they were always paintings of objects equal to other objects, newly questionable – mysterious as a person’s use of experience might be, or the land might be. We will take it up later. A giant flag on a restaurant owner’s warehouse building, northwest corner of Duane Street, 3rd floor, up 24 hrs a day, clinging to the bricks or slowly rippling, tattering. An object outside a storage building. Phone tapping you hear is going on but our phone is out for weeks. It was theoretically an attack on the nation, but really New York is my view. But then my patria is probably New York, if I’m honest, though I don’t have to be. Does patria give me the identity or do I give mine to it? Is it American air I breathe? It’s the accidental blessing often called divine of fabulous natural resources continentally that I live off. Leisure, jeeps, theory.
Patriotism transcends whatever. (Though not for me.) And carries its built-in gap or Pause wherever it goes. More or less sublime it takes us away from observation yet with a code pathetically easy to break. The black-and-white photo of the towers with light dawning between them; other optical pleasures among the postcards you wouldn’t want not to have; in March, 2002, turned by way of three separate design projects into the twin towers of light. These are visible in all the boroughs and Barbara is right, they help some people to deal with their grief. Though in fact the beams emanate not from Ground Zero but from over by West Street, and, viewed from my next-to-Ground-Zero neighborhood every night now, they stand at a World War II antiaircraft slant like leaning towers. Art Spiegelman’s black-on-black New Yorker cover for September 24th closes down sight into night and suffocation, a feat, a cover coup; and even with the outlines of the Twin Towers discernible in the illustration if you look, there is an elegant pop glimpse sort of New York School abstract.
The event. Shaped by explosion and subtraction. Where it came from, where it leads. The event as it was at impact was like other great events a chance to think and, as when you target groups, not think. (It brings everything up, as we say of divorce and marriage and childbirth. And death; though does mass death?) Even the sublime in its seduction can make you think a little. The beautiful shot of a snowy owl foregrounded in low flight, the Twin Towers looming softly behind, palely guarding, bluely shadowing, filmily, optically almost not there – recontextualized as “this ghostly…pre-September 11 image” by the editors of one of my favorite magazines Living Bird (Winter 2002) for their back cover. The photographer, Frank K. Schleicher, back in January, 1985, standing on snow-covered dredge on the Bayonne, New Jersey, side of New York harbor had deepened his field to bring out the owl close by. Updated by the magazine his juxtaposition is made to say what he may hardly have implied. Bird habitat very near the city. A distance that is a border. More than that I would not attribute to Mr. Schleicher’s twin towers, nor, I think, does he, in 1985. Or now when I gave him a ring in California. The timing of the magazine cover imposes, however, a genre sublimity upon the towers; the photo is suddenly almost about them; their size embodies, we now know, an exquisite vulnerability secretly contemplated, and I clear away the snow to recall why the channel was dredged: for a container ship to come through. Containing what? The sublime is secret in its subsuming of fact and immediate experience to beautiful grandeur contrasts. Yet it takes aim, and aim is often quintessentially riveting be it a deer’s distant heart or to golf watchers an iron’s loft to the treacherous green and its flagged cup.
The Mayor’s visibility was a minor branch of sublime, the great site backgrounded to the almost full-screen presence of Giuliani in charge. High on visibility. Sublime but mixed with detailed attention to the work. Thus not simply transcendent. But attention unquestionable – in the sense of entertaining. The mayor was all attention, apparently; and it helped. It was reassuring. It helped the bereaved (his alert, narrowed eyes respectfully remote). It seemed to clarify the work. It had that illusion of no illusion – to keep us up to the minute. I would not take that away from him. (He made his contribution.) His signature on the front rail of the ramp as you look out at what I saw one early January morning with an artist friend and many out-of-towners, as sixteen acres waiting for development. Reassurance as theater is diversion too: from questions largely forestalled. Like some from Giuliani’s preceding eight years – such as teacher training and school class size among others angrily bypassed by the Mayor’s remark that the school system should be “blown up.” Other 9/11 questions to come. Stay with us, the anchor says at commercial time. The diesel tanks in the north tower intended for emergency command-central mayor’s offices constituted a fire hazard, and may have contributed to the disaster and should have been removed, one fire battalion captain believed. Just a question, you understand. Though questions take attention too and ask it, and are thoughts. They generate other questions. Like compassion for Giuliani – what forms would it take, given the full dossier on him. He was everywhere yet he was a competitive delegator never accessible unless you were someone.
In the event, I have found again this New York (which all my life early in the morning to late at night revealed itself from block to block, sidewalk to sidewalk, person to person, surprising me with familiarity and power, invention, indifference, tangible idea; and got to me, expelled me, drew me back, pushed me ahead) to be a patterning of potentials, people, motion (not least, psychic) that like a mysterious commitment closed me inside an open field. Flight, fall, choice.
The mystery was in what was here that I might use while being used, I knew it as a child. Knew it growing up in Brooklyn Heights above the East River watching the harbor from my window, breathing room, and the lower Manhattan skyline of ambiguous distance and contents rising from bedrock or nowhere, or afloat, and permanent in some structure higher than fantasy and unquestionably solid. I outlined it from there, drew it, its lines, on sheets of unlined paper and described it in words on lined paper, was aware of it from friends’ back yards that were eventually appropriated by the City’s eminent domain for the Belt Parkway (now part of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, what they call in the UK a “ring road”); knew the skyline later in memory’s highlight when I lived in New Hampshire and abroad and when I came back to live in Manhattan. To use while being used. By being.
A generation later the Twin Towers, echoing, anchoring, outdoing other largely undistinguished high-rise construction in Manhattan, meant little more as single-use architecture or as a vast, so-what plaza than as half vacant office space. Very, very high. A symbol (like the Statue given us by the French, dedicated 1886, “Liberty Enlightening the World,” she a mere aid to navigation for the South Tower plane the morning of 9/11.) A cynosure to all the world like (but so much less than) this beautiful city. (“Develop or die,” said the current owner of the former WTC.) Some people didn’t like working up there, a trader on the 105th floor who said if there was ever a terrorist attack, that would be it for him, and he was right. Philippe Petit, the French high-wire walker, called his clandestine stroll between the towers one early morning in August, 1974, a “coup.” His “art” never as clear to me as to him.
WTC a “great” target, one half of it nearly missed by the second, faster moving plane we now know, which would likely have destroyed my home a few blocks north and my son’s parents, or hit the Village, or perhaps my son’s school on 17th Street. Us and our perhapses. Impact, rubble, steel, traffic, fear, time, very. The towers came down much as they would have in a controlled demolition.
In the neighborhood of the Twin Towers, which maybe never had a neighborhood (or was its own), and in the midst of overviews right and left and hundreds of capsule bios in the papers and much in the way of experience that arises between (or like a third angle), I in some self-defense am of my downtown neighborhood Tribeca, which has been in my time among other things a place of artists and, often more important and useful to be acquainted with, their work.
Bordered on the west by the Hudson, the inconstant winds, the surging current striding toward the harbor, though twenty years have given us not only bike paths and parks but development blocking the river. (Can years give?) Bordered on the north by Canal Street (the site of a drain excavated in 1803 to clear a pestilential pond and swamp), we are bordered on the south by the financial district canyons which long predated WTC and have survived it. On the east we have the law courts and the featureless high-rise offices of Federal Plaza.
There my neighbor Richard Serra’s sculpture Tilted Arc was installed in 1981 by the General Services Administration as a permanent site-specific work. At once even before it was up it was the target of a letter campaign attacking it demanding that it be “relocated.” A subtle curve 120 feet long, 12 feet high, of 2½-foot- thick steel, it had been contracted in the understanding that it would be a permanent work for Federal Plaza. An outside work, conceived not for a clean, well-lighted art museum space but for the public to see in relation to that site and hopefully (to name one feeling) think about in a context Serra has called “reality.” Tilt, arc, federal.
While “concerned with” weight (as he has put it) as with right / left and convex / concave, with leaning, with relation itself (surely not excluding the “ethical imperatives” Serra rightly specifies for art), “Tilted Arc” was not essentially heavy. It was even light, it illuminated where body and mind live together, it was sweepingly swift or contemplatively slow, depending.
On what? I would ask, inclined to take these attributes a bit further into explicitness than the artist for all his emphatic forthrightness about the uselessness of art takes them. Anchored deep below ground, it was an artifact of thought. What thought? From down eastward on Worth Street one could look back and see the Twin Towers in the background. Like much other Serra work, “Tilted Arc” was in dialogue with the place where it stood so surprisingly and clearly. What dialogue? A reply to the unremarkable plaza buildings, it might have been seen to add a delicate line, a post-Euclidean hypotenuse purposefully conjured as action with beginning and end and in its limbs and the space around it a necessary independence from what it was part of. The motion of the form of a question. The motions simultaneously vectored in a dynamic pattern that draws my own energy to make connections. A way of being in that space that might with art challenge, not without complementing, an architecture that has nothing to do with art except as it might complement the art that arises in its vicinity.
Nevertheless, Serra’s “Arc” was seen by some few in authority somehow as a rusted steel, allegedly ugly barrier affronting and demeaning those who would look at it (instead of at what lay beyond it, one supposed, whatever that was). People who worked in the area? Only a few of them were heard from on the subject. It was blamed for graffiti, waste, and litter, and for the increased rat population thereabouts. Unique among such major public projects, it was removed. My sentence is ineptly abrupt and I will leave it raw. Serra’s historic suit to prevent the destruction of “Tilted Arc” failed to persuade an appeals court, and the work was taken down March 15, 1989 – reduced to its raw materials not raw now in the same pondered potential.
Serra has sometimes taken an adversarial view of architecture. It is not art; it is utilitarian. Art, by contrast – sculpture, for example – is itself, is useless. (A useful point if I connect it to the limits within which his sculpture explodes with meaning, a bodily thinking I take in my eyes, my legs and feet, my back, my chest, the forms I am learning.)
I speak of Serra here. In early September, 2001, when the Trade Center attack occurred, huge new work of Serra’s was being installed in the great spaces of the Gagosian gallery thirty blocks north and west of the former site of “Tilted Arc,” and some of the crew were diverted downtown to help with rescue and recovery at Ground Zero. There is more to it than these neighborings. Serra speaks of being taken by his father, a steel worker, to see a ship launched. How it looked like a skyscraper on its side. His work has sometimes been described as menacing. A worker was hurt moving it. Not the work’s fault. There may be a sublime to be accounted for in the curve and lean and simultaneities and size of the work, but the torques and strengths of still movement it measures have less than nothing to do with menace. Serra sets out to change the way you look at (and are in) space. How you are used to seeing it. I believe I could speak of that change of perception. What use it is, how it adds to me. What you could do with it. The change in how we might see. Through, nonetheless, as Serra would have it, the supposed non-usefulness of art. Life, building, intuition, action. And I wonder what all the workmen who execute his projects for him think.
Once he was walking on the beach and then he turned and realized a difference between left and right that made all the difference. These things can be explained and used. For experience as we must experiment with it in order to use it bears in itself our own abstracting powers.
Serra’s economy encourages me to digress a moment into everyday life if not some subsurface thinking that goes on like growth or survival in us, parallel. It reminds me of my raw materials, even those already composed, not what you would call raw. It was October and my wife, my son, and I were back in our home, having, on the recommendation of a woman friend of my wife’s, had our loft tested by an Environmental Protection Agency listed lab on East 25th Street for dust particles. Result: 8% fiberglass. We had the place cleaned as well as could be by a team of cleaners (why did one neighbor ridicule our doing so?), and the unusual gray dust was settling, and sanitation trucks would water the streets twice a day to lay the dust as the Ground Zero fires went on burning, and the curious (it seemed literally curious) smell metallic, acrid, sulphurine (hydrochloric acids from all those incinerated carpets and desk and floor surfacings?), more and more familiar, distinctly unwanted yet sometimes welcome as something definite, bearing some organic signature or marginal chemical change going away, coming looking for me and at odd times more noticeable on our north-south Hudson Street than on the east-west cross streets, though the experts said later that I smelled the particles more during the night because the air was less in motion. (Structure, breath, asbestos [on the spreadsheets], air, sky, planes, see.)
And, which I’m getting to, I would hear said in the street what we had heard on September 11th walking north, looking back, wondering if there would be enough water to drink if Manhattan was cut off, hearing this thing, seeing people in cafes watching not apparently miserably the television-framed mess at what was soon to be called Ground Zero; turning on 17th Street to go pick up our son at Lab School, where he’s in 6th grade (I keep coming back to him and I am not done with any of it); presently stopping for a respite on 25th Street at my old friend Bill’s (it was the natural stop to make, it moved us like memory projected onto the pictures of the TV screen while I talked to my daughter’s babysitter in Seattle); finding a free bus going north, and at Times Square ascertaining from a cop the one train running to Queens to near my wife’s studio in Long Island City just across the East River, and hearing this mantra that Things would never be the Same. People didn’t want to take the subway but wanted to get home. The subway, the tunnel, a tube where air can be spent. Different grays – this dust invisible in the air but in the vacuum thick and a distinct, paler gray than pre-9/11.
Life I suppose is not art. We make both, though. I have tried to hold to my thoughts about what has and has not changed, and to how CHANGE evoked with the relief of a generalization has often, from high levels of the polis or blessed patria, down to the neighborhood of my observations, meant STOP rather than PRESS ON.
That is not yet it. My understanding must show me what to do: in one sense beginningless because of my limits, it begins with house and family and work, what I smell and am breathing, using – doubt, the senses: it will extend outward to the City by these conduits like my street and guesswork and impressions, and in this huge event to the incinerated planes and their blown fuel and the pilots and the passenger manifests, and deconstructional interpretation; and sometimes to macro-political formula and fantasy, world news, spreads of miscellaneous facts. And failures like irony: for example, the lobby in each tower had 12 X-ray machines and 16 concierge desks, but Atta and Co. came in upstairs. My experience is at many differing (obviously) distances, which drives me to “move on it” – to know more. A firefighter’s very large, must be Catholic, family in mourning for him. Two black women covered in ashes making their way north. Temporarily useless image. I wrote two letters to the Times pointing out how little data the City had made available regarding air quality. They were never published. In the early weeks and I would say throughout the first six months, there was little coverage of air. Or certainty or even knowledge about it. It would resolve itself or anyway you’re basically OK, was the official thought. I did not mind uptown friends asking if things were better “down there” – air OK now? It was less denial than attention, and what did I know beyond my senses? Vacuum cleaner, child, abstract.
The attack on me asked what knowledge have I that’s of any use. At an air quality meeting in early October at Pace University near the Brooklyn Bridge, a “pulmonologist,” or lung doctor, told us that what we had here was “unprecedented.” It was a mixed bag though not unreassuring. Cement-dust (calcium silicate) inhalation tests were not alarming except for smokers; for those exposed, reactive airway diseases such as asthma and pulmonary fibrosis had worsened, but we were seeing asthma problems only in children who had it already and they shouldn’t be in this environment. Trauma we were advised could interfere with breathing.
Chest X-rays for firefighters not showing many abnormalities so far. Cellulose levels tolerable. Tests on WTC dusts so far mainly negative for the small particles that reach the lower lungs. Lead concentrations read out below the EPA minimum of 400; arsenic, tin, molybdenum also “within acceptable limits.” Probably OK for metals, organic compounds, soluble ions that could cause changes to lung linings. (Up in the balcony of the Pace auditorium, seeing down there a friend who is a public interest lawyer, I wanted to ask a question, but what?) Over the years I have read up on some of this and am more and more ignorant. Pollutants. The sinal labyrinth. The life of a lung moving like the most interesting structures. Lung cancer commonly moves to the brain where it has been steadily thought about. I am old. I have lived. To see this, and with sufficiently little real experience of disaster, except in certain graces of writing. I can be glad with Whitman of what I have seen and who I’ve known and what I’ve known, including the dread presumptions of the beginnings of a piece of writing that may build from nothing or from accretion or slowness to make a home that almost no previous experience was telling me I had made before.
An industrial hygienist warned us that outside dust must not get airborne inside, and advised us on N95 respirators, HEPA vacuuming, wet cleaning, and air purifiers (five of which have been going full throttle in my loft since early October and are still picking up quantities of the real stuff so I wondered if our air-conditioners in storage for cleaning and reconditioning should be reinstalled). Americans united against death. Long-term. Asbestos, we were told, wasn’t going to be a problem (probably) for workers. At least not as a scarring lung disease. Though cancer in lung and lung-lining and abdomen was a present possibility. Which, still, there was little point in testing for now even the recovery workers who didn’t wear their N95s, because asbestos takes fifteen, twenty years to do damage. I write it down. How long do knifelike or merely prickly fiberglass particles take to do their business? Pulmonary fibrosis, which it also turned out could get started in an emergency like this, likewise would show itself only over the long term. A monitor upstairs at Pace keeps track of the air. Vacuum bags, children, hands.
What have I seen that changes what I must do? How to take command of my experience, like those who interpret the overall picture: those people hating us; the globe itself (I hear) rejecting globalization, an eco-psychic Gaia but self-destroying instead of self-regulating.
Diary entries. Letters. To a painter friend in London, I write, “Those first few days. People on street. Eye contact, talk…. People talked in a different way this time. Subway quarrels, rush hour closeness. Bad jokes down to a minimum among friends.” “There is at least one animal therapist at work here treating freaked-out dogs.” “All this did and does change one’s sense of each day; and it’s different from JFK and Cuba, and it’s different from Cold War nuclear standoff ancient history.” It felt, in late September early October, “like an undefendable-against wipeout or civilizational darkness potential and near….” “Sudden noises.” “Even in this city where there’s never enough time, there’s less now.” Sudden, sleep.
All this is like air and water, raw material, little more. What can be done with it?
Almost a month sleeping on the floor of Barbara’s studio (hard for her to work, though she’s a good sleeper, nice for me to see the paintings in the street light when I woke in the middle of the night so illuminating and new, made, these last few years, of encaustic, that ancient wax-based, quite thick paint you heat: a rich, difficult medium with which she has painted a great series of boards, paintings based on Parcheesi, the steps around the board and into that central “Home”); taking Boone to school in Manhattan; debating air quality, Barbara not ready to go back.
Five times while we were away I went down past the checkpoints, showing ID to the state police at 14th Street and a week later at Canal, the zone shrinking.
Boone wanted to get back home. Was our place still there? he I knew wondered, though he didn’t doubt. Though, though, though.
Yet then we went back; and Boone had a series of nosebleeds like students at Stuyvesant High School nearby possibly from the needles of fibreglass…and an ear infection which he hadn’t had since he was little. Me with nosebleeds and clogged nose and chest that sent me back to Long Island City to sleep temporarily. Barbara with stomach problems. Your experience builds on mine. That’s the use. Boone and I visited the two firehouses in the neighborhood, in one of which, when he was very small, he would be lifted into the firetruck to drive. Time, sentiment.
Firefighters I found during the second month actually ask you where you were. After what they’ve been through. They are in the firehouse like hosts. The sympathy cards outside. Time, sentiment.
We walked the few blocks to the site, we wore cheap, stupid carpenter’s dust masks and pulled them off. We looked at the Bridge, and Boone thought there were probably terrorists in New Jersey but not here. What was the difference between an atom bomb and a hydrogen bomb? H is more powerful. Boone has studied water. Hydrogen is life practically and benign. But here a lot of hydrogen atoms of two special kinds with a different mass, packed around an atom bomb magnified it exponentially.
What would happen?
My son looked at the Bridge, the Woolworth Building, me. Probably hit another city next time, he thought. We went back to bombs. Well, regular bombing was bad enough. How bad? asked my son. Dresden, Tokyo in World War II, I said (rather than say a hundred thousand dead). A lot depended on the weather, I said. Turn, fling.
The wind, said my son.
Our friend Ellen Stavitsky (a maker of collages like earth-finds subtly small-scale embodying the passage of time) picked up a singed page from a law book in her backyard in Brooklyn, singed on three sides, it had blown over on September 11th on air that moved our huge debris cloud at the foot of Hudson Street not north but eastward and up into Brooklyn, a page out of the bankruptcy code. It didn’t smell like anything. It has been on her icebox. Ellen’s work enfolds inside and outside, she doesn’t know how she will use this page. This time of year the easterlies off the Atlantic have died down and we await the winter westerlies. These raw materials, let them settle, speak. What to make of them. As it gets colder, the heat from all the furnaces I am told in a Times article makes “a heat island effect” which “draws” colder air into the city – and by the way “New York City is big enough to generate its own unique weather…often to the detriment of its air.” What are we discussing? Whatever Boone’s thinking, I’m thinking on another track to myself, If terrorists can set off one of these stolen Russian 10K nuclear “suitcases” in the harbor (60-pound-backpackable like a small fridge), killing 100,000 of us and finishing lower Manhattan for, say, a decade, what should I do? Should we make our departure? Make a life elsewhere? (Come back to that question.) What should we make of it? What does Boone make of me? Find, found.
We’ve often passed the plaque on lower Park Place where Columbia (in those days called Kings) College began in 1754. They held classes at Trinity Church, head of Wall Street. Less than two hundred years later it was at Columbia uptown that Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard demonstrated the possibility of a chain reaction of nuclear material. I thank Jonathan Schell for this reminder and for years of writing on The Fate of the Earth.
Years ago Serra found a ton of tires outside on Duane Street and was instantly interested in the materials. What did he do with them?
Much experience comes from good books. It would not be there if it were not distilled, as if experience (though it is more like the experiment of rendering it) were distillation; nor be true if not for my experience, me. We learn by building on what we know or have half-forgotten. My story on yours, though story can seduce you away from some other real as easily as it may mysteriously embody it all: Hector turning and running when he sees Achilles; Hamlet thrusting his rapier through the curtain. Not that I am inclined to ring the knell of my city or my culture, yet if it has a knell, a fierce explosion of doom coming, I hold with my pieced together knowledge of things. Great events are doubtless great. “For more attentive minds,” William Gass observes, “it is the unnoticed, continual events that count.” I think that in the scattered rhythms of my attention during which I seriously thought for many weeks that I was not suffering from shock, I “stayed with” many commonplace subjects.
Yet came upon them. Here is a story with another built inside it. I heard that a fireman I know named Joe Rocha had been caught as he ran from the north tower’s collapse and picked up by the twisting unthinkable force of that volcano-like advancing wind and blown through the air ten feet, twelve feet, fifteen feet, into an empty ambulance the rear doors of which happened to be open and now closed behind him as he landed seriously injured inside.
A “waiting ambulance,” we say. A sensitive ambulance.
The debris that followed as lightning thunder or as death its warning too fast to protect against, totalled (as we strangely say) the vehicle, but Joe inside was saved, I had heard. A fellow writer when I mentioned this in March thought it sounded like the world of Bruce Willis. Dread secretes its grain. One night in October – I don’t quite know why it moves me so much, not knowing is like strength except it’s not – it’s not that he’s black, nor that he is a large and kind man, though his intelligence inseparable (we say) from his kindness and thinking attention to things explains my feeling – I came out of the elevator into the small vestibule of our modest loft building and there he was.
He had been working up on the sixth floor for my neighbor Andrew, moonlighting, for Joe is skilled in all matters of construction, a specialist in windows, he’d patched ours. I had a rush seeing him there and asked if the story was true. True enough, and he was going in to the Hospital for Special Surgery that very week to get his forearm repaired. He told me of the friends he had lost. He said his number just hadn’t come up. Tank on his back, all that heavy equipment they are trained to run upstairs with, and the heavy coat and so forth. Two seconds slower, and the avalanche turning into a tornado (as he put it) would have done for him. Yet then he asked me where we had been. And what had happened to us. And what we thought. I have a theory why firefighters, at least in my experience, listen longer. They are not armed. And when the moment of their work comes, which requires so much knowledge, there is no time.
Luckily not destitute or (so far as I know) sick, I was perhaps lucky to be able, breathing, for example, to think if my experience of this I believe continuing attack had any uses, a value in new action beginning in the luxury of a non-suicide’s follow-up on this necessary luxury of trying to think.
Did it get me and my family out of town? Does it make us stay? What will be may not be. My wife, the painter Barbara Ellmann, has her studio back, we’re no longer sleeping there. In those abstractions of parcheesi boards done in that ancient wax-based encaustic the heating and melting and cooling and textural complexities of which have bold surfaces and dense transparencies, I see more and more. This becomes a form for thinking and trust in yourself and the motion of attention and analysis putting the half-known together.
I’ve never stuck at breathing exercises for more than a day or two. I guess I respect all that. I had a small history in my work of breath, of breathing. Swimming in water and under it. In a two-year-long bedtime saga I made up for my son that took us to the moons of Saturn and the rivers of South America I found my hero saving himself yet again by discovering a way explained in detail to breathe under water. Concentration on the air sacs. I heard in my sleep and that of my family, interested sounds of breathing, breathing as thought, as exploring, as displacement into visions or death, as discovery, as jeopardy, some strictly half-waking dreams less purely fed, as in scuba diving, by conscious breathing that becomes unconscious. I had had two sleep dreams in June in Seattle that someone in authority might have imagined forecast the twin towers. Like art, like real experience, they add to me. Real, did I say? How long can you hold your breath? What’s it worth? Doubtless for export, two men on NBC’s “reality-television” series, a show called Dog Eat Dog, see who can stay under water longest; one loses consciousness and is spitting up blood when he’s pulled out of the pool. Die, live. Like that.
For weeks we breathed smells. An ocean of breath out there. Smelling with the lungs in my case. Remembering the masses of dead a few blocks south. Uptown folk said, Air’s better down there now, right? They have been concerned.
My friend Bill – though as italicized nouns have developed into italicized verbs as part of the raw material traces in this writing, so perhaps first (or given, or Christian!) names should be completed and identified (as I have mostly believed) by last, or surnames, names added once upon a time of place or achievement, now of family – Bill Wilson reminded me of my own interest in breathing – he a reader of mine, attentive and perilously (for me) remembering texts, critical and therefore helpful, a writer on life and art and a philosopher – helping me to what was my own experience: e-mailed me October 27th that I was “qualified to write about the Attack. Since it was so astonishingly unpredictable, it fits some of the themes of your longer sentences, with their long preparation which makes possible the graceful arrival within a semantic composure which had been unforeseen, yet is self-supportingly secure.” (Wilson himself has written for ebr on both 9/11 and McElroy - ed.)
If the hijackers would just stick around to get our feedback in all its variety. Atta and Hamburg city planning. Rejects the evil he finds there. I don’t know him and probably won’t. Atta & Co. Their act has endless consequences but not for them. Traffic, silence, breathe, enclose, expand, lift, erase.
Our loft in square feet. The word loft: “height,” you think, and that’s correct: a word rooted in “air, sky, upper room” cognate with “lift,” and meaning among many meanings floor or storey, an upper floor of a warehouse or business building. “Wareroom” is a word. Work and storage. Stored work. Now it’s paintings and sculptures like my wife’s work. What was stored in the Twin Towers? In the computers. In the people there. Compacted.
I am of my neighborhood, unknown to the hijackers. I build on my own neighborhood, so changed in certain people I stop to talk to on the street, who are nonetheless approaching their same selves along this new shadow – the ones who were upbeat before, the ones who were… – but still the working district I visited on occasional Saturdays or Sundays with my father in the late 1930s walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. The colors of brick and stone newly cleaned, upscaled, restored now: the angles down Hudson Street, Franklin, across West Broadway, a rough, here-and-there theme of triangular convergence, the superimposed delicate volumes of the buildings however utilitarian. I liked the potential, the quiet, was it architecture that called to not the writer but some spirit of work-on-my-own, at age seven, eight, nine, ten?
The storage, the work stacked not art in those days, the wares American, imported, hidden in those useful and often beautiful buildings. Useful to me. Stored in me to be used one day in understanding Torqued Ellipses, say, and, later, Serra’s new show. At the turn of the century what we now call Tribeca – TRIangle BElow CAnal – was a cobble-stoned, horse-drawn commercial district. By the Fifties half abandoned, not heavily trafficked. “Soho” happening then. SOuth of HOuston Street. While this area below Canal still cobbled waited in historic disuse and pillared and loading-platformed distinction with a wide and interesting, though for most people unresidential, volume. I have always liked its warehouses and its trapezoidal and peacefully angular prospects. (I no longer attach much singularity to my likes, only try to describe accurately.) Here artists and musicians and other, mostly not well-to-do independents settled into inexpensive loft space in the late Sixties and after. Space was freedom and time.
The district called Tribeca was a Sunday-remote city within the city, scarcely anywhere to buy groceries, the air better down here, the Hudson shore, a pioneering area it styled itself that ran on sheetrock, big cheap lofts, a neighborhood relatively secret in those days. But in fact well after designs had been solicited for a World Trade Center to the south.
I came in `82 – a New Yorker from several directions, from France, from uptown, from America, from Brooklyn Heights. I spread out hundreds of long-hand and typewritten (in those days) pages of a book. A novel, recycling initiatives toward and away from the Other, drawn along bodily and understanding vectors, holding its expanding and contracting scope in some psychic and muscular join if not on the head of a pin at least in the field of an American idiom miscellaneously wide and freely ambiguously secure, continental, local, domestic, scientific, audible and collaborative: and, with at least some of those ancient and rhythmically ceremonial meanings of breathing, partitioning the indeterminate living spaces of its narratives and populations with “Breathers” which were less rests than changes – chances – good old American gaps filling with motion between knowing and acting – intervals but long and longer and dominant.
It is down through my neighborhood, under my windows, that thousands of visitors walked. You could mistake their walk or clothes or portable equipment for whatever you wanted. To see for themselves. I believe to make of Ground Zero what they could. A photograph, a mark, a memory, a silence. A group of groups of which in many respects (certainly from the limited point of view of the terrorists) I am a part.
Crowds passing under my window. Many from overseas. Yet mostly they are terrorist’s Americans I know alive or dead; still more really they have been, when they reach the ramp, more like Robert Frost’s people on the beach, who “cannot look out far…/ [and] cannot look in deep./ But when was that ever a bar / To any watch they keep?” Frost’s irony in my view declines to dismiss them, for who knows what they think?
I know. They think everything imaginable, for I have talked to them. I can use them. Americans on the move: Red Cross worker Donna Harrelson and her husband had owned a rental equipment store in Texas. When it was bought out by a chain, they wisely declined to take stock options, they took cash. The chain went bust. New York plus and minus the disaster a magnet for all the Ground Zero visitors, an envied place, photo op, family vacation, a noisy stage expensive and dangerous, a property that is and is not theirs. Arriving by subway, walking from there, arriving in front of St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway between Vesey and Fulton and viewing the memorials, the poems and messages, the flowers, T-shirt offerings, they line up for the ramp (the front rail signed by the former Mayor). They have their moment taking in sixteen acres of developer’s lot where freedom will be recycled.
A woman from Ohio asked me where things had been. Why me? Was it my readiness to speak or I did not know what? Some signal or motor reaction. I pointed out where my Borders Bookstore had been. I miss the mall under the WTC; unfortunately it will replicate. I know what that sounds like.
Whereas “`experience’ used to refer to something you had or underwent in the course of the quiddities of daily existence [,] Experience today is something to be architecturally engineered, from the theme parks of…Disney to…Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project” (Architecture, March, 2002, p 78). Scrap metal debris up against 18th -century gravestones in St. Paul’s by the ramp. The WTC itself a burial foundation unearthed layer by layer which, as remains continue to be found, in its memorial surfaces can remind you of its absences, upwards of 2000 death certificates requested by families in the absence of remains. One rainy night there is a flag umbrella great-circle spoke to spoke.
For a sculpture project near the White House in the 70s, Serra rejected a proposal by a collaborating architect Robert Venturi to make “two star-covered granite pylons to be topped off with American flags framing the Treasury Building at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue…If you want flagpoles you might as well decorate them with eagles or swastikas.” (Writings Interviews, University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 188.)
The roll of the dead recently installed under glass on a wall of the ramp identifies them as having been sacrificed “on the altar of freedom.” Venturi proposes for our sixteen acres to do “nothing.”
Building my own statement freely, I find around me a swamp of interpretation. Baudrillard’s theorems in “The Spirit of Terrorism,” for example. Elegant and foreclosing. Predicting more than describing what may but in the real world may not materialize, this new “war of fractal complexity, waged worldwide against rebellious singularities that, in the manner of antibodies, mount a resistance in every cell.” “A downturn in production, consumption, speculation, growth,” very likely. The balanced, transcendent rhetoric, though, takes me too far from the days and my loose human sequences which may even resist the global forces Baudrillard likes to imagine are as inevitable as terrorist acts lack logic. It is we who released “the violence now spreading throughout the world and…the terrorist imagination that (without our knowing it) dwells within us all.”
Who is this “we,” this “us”?
“In the end,” the rhetoric swells, “it was they who did it but we who wished it,” a Manhattan “disaster film” projected by a fictional reality in the locus of which we live. Thus we are interpreted by the same Baudrillard who says “we can make whatever interpretation. But there is no meaning,” and so on. Atta and Co. cowards? No, I agree. Yet not the opposite of cowardice either, if we think of courage not as blind, physical, cool under pressure, but resolute to make the most effective use of experience. As experience propagates itself and, dependent still on us, perseveres in its own existence. Which the terrorist cell entities (even seen collectively as a “virtual state”) may do but not the persons who are their effective life. Any more than a thought, the contradictorily suicidal conclusion, for example, that “no means of turning the tables remains besides terrorism.”
They are exhilarating, Baudrillard’s sentences and I resist them like other less telling transcendances. Resist them provincially. They are an overview, and they may speak of Washington and the oil interests, competition for cheap labor, and all the business lies associated apparently only with the West; but they are self-certifying and they do not know me.
According to last week’s civil service newspaper, too many firefighters are taking early retirement because of lung damage, decreased lung capacity, trouble breathing. Taking experience with them. It is some breathed exchange that keeps part of a 12-year-old girl’s poem in mind: Judy Hill: “Wage Peace with your breath. /Breathe in firemen and rubble. Breathe out whole buildings.” Out with the bad air, I would have thought, but no, in the Whitman mode, she means some creation or other. Built. Loosely shared, somewhat indiscriminate, American. Next thing you’ll be calling a person a work of art.
One night in early March we were talking about the rich here in our neighborhood taking their kids out of school and putting them in schools near their country houses. And talking about art. And architecture came up, this notion that it is utilitarian and not art. My wife agreed, at least for the moment. True art is useless but is art.
Well, surely Serra didn’t mean Chartres, where the sculptured dead outside record a history that is reflected in the famous glass inside. (Maybe he did.) Or the mosaic paving stones of the Basilica of San Marco at which last August as others looked up we looked down to see a dodecahedron of divine mathematics, a shield of triangles, immortal peacocks between the great octagons of the right-hand aisle. Buildings like that take a long time to build, “… the conceptions of an architect must be worked out by other hands…than his own” (Geoffrey Scott, The Architecture of Humanism, Anchor, p. 42). Compendiums of many works and intentions. Whereas an artist nowadays may want to see this thing that he’s done all by itself, this work of his. Not confounded with what it might be near, or be appropriated for, in a society opening and closing, opening and closing, like the experience I am used by, in the experiment of being both the maker and the made.