A story started on a Virgin Atlantic bright ideas pad in September 2001 and finished today, just in time for the fifteenth anniversary of America’s ‘9/11’ (and the 43rd of Chile’s).
introduction, October 16, 2001
In the weeks following September 11th, one writer after another reflected on how it was no longer possible to write comedy, how glad they were not to have a book due out at this time (and how guilty they feel for thinking in that way), the death of the Manhattan Society Novel, the changed world post-wtc. Rushdie, McInerney, Woods, even Zadie Smith. Breast beating and garment rending for the literati. Emotional tourism.
Death of the novel, Zadie? It’s been lifeless since the 1930s. All those books we’ve seen since then are just ever-more-rotting Romero zombies, overly self-conscious, overly self-aggrandizing, slouching toward us, seeking to devour an ever-diminishing supply of flesh and brains. If September 11th consigns the Amises and Easton Ellises to their impatiently gaping graves, it’s dubious whether history will consider that its worst effect.
But what really rankles is this idea that the world changed radically on that dreadful Tuesday morning. Doesn’t it occur to these people that thousands died in Africa, Asia and, yes, Afghanistan, while untold others continued their pointless tired existences in sweatshops and plantations to stock the shelves of Greenwich Village — and all this on September the tenth, the ninth and so on, back for decades?
One hates to agree with Mr bin Laden, guilty or not, but he was not far wrong when he pointed out that America had suddenly had a taste of what millions of others regularly endured as part of their daily lives (and it was a point about which no paper or politician paused to comment, when condemning his speech’s remaining, more despicable content). In fact, he was hitting on the head a nail that not even these intellectual heavyweights wish to see and which all of us in the heretofore comfortably civilised world ignore at our peril.
No. The world didn’t change, it got even more the same. An unpalatable part of it just burst into your lives, my friends. If you can’t write humour now, surely your doing so before was an act of gross insensitivity. But far from the comic becoming impossible or even unsuitable, on September 11th, to a cynical nihilist like this writer, the world just became even more blackly, sickeningly funny.
by Dai Lowe
But what’s the use of spending your life fleeing the City of Destruction? What about your inalienable right, Thirteen Provinces? His mind unreeling phrases, he walks on doggedly. There’s nowhere in particular he wants to go. If only I still had faith in Words.
John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer
Friday, September 14, 2001: afternoon
… so let’s go where we’re happy …
I was walking past the cemetery when I was attacked.
Taking a cab from Oak Grove station had occurred to me but, tired as my legs were from a day in Boston, the only taxi waiting there was a big black number festooned with an American flag over each wing and driven by a bearded guy in a cowboy hat.
I didn’t want to be driven back to Laura’s house by a refugee from The Dukes of Hazzard. I didn’t want the inevitable conversation. I was tired.
Twenty minutes later the same car passed me as I tried to cross Lebanon.
Nearly didn’t notice him; nearly got myself killed.
There was a low wall on the other side, the perfect somewhere to sit.
I had to get this written down before the inspiration caught its own black and white cab and sped away. Damn muses. Always sneaking up on a guy.
Saturday, September 8, 2001
Rejoicing city that dwelt carelessly
—Back lots and goods yards, small diners and kwikmarts, noonday sun aimed straight down canyon streets. What is this knack of finding featureless shadeless backstreet routes in the world’s most fascinating cities? Even Forty-second Street (just direct your achin’ feet) is dug up and dullsville west of Seventh Avenue.
—How did we end up walking such a long way round, end up sweating and snapping, when I was clearly an irritant from the moment we met up the night before? Trust us to be in town, trying to patch things up, in the week that the Fates, Furies and Fuckers are gathering for a special shindig.
———Keep an eye on the boat. For fuck’s sake don’t just stand there.
—Fatigue and stress and paranoia. Visions of buying two for the two-thirty just in time to see it pull away from the dock. As if she was about to hold a rope and stop it getting away. She could at least have looked as if she cared.
—A three hour trip around Mannahatta. Skyline of warehouses, skyscrapers, Liberty, bring me your huddled masses, Empire State and Chrysler and always those two tall towers, love-’em-or-loathe-’em symbols.
—Bridges are also symbols. Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queensboro, Triborough. The United Nations, Yankee Stadium, the Bronx and Staten Island too. So many photo opportunities, ‘scrapers, bridges, happy tourists. She even smiled for the camera in front of the girls in wheelchairs and tension eased a little to the throb of the engines and the captain’s commentary.
—Rounding North Mannahatta back into the Hudson, sighting the GWB. The Palisades on the Western shore, a vision of what the island was but remains only at its northern tip. The rocky wooded hills, straight out of Fenimore Cooper, that existed only to be flattened. Fill in the waters, level the lands.
—I mastering thee …
Friday, September 14, 2001: morning
I’m not looking for New England
Any customers wishing to travel beyond Richmond or Chicago, please note all tickets are sold for today, tomorrow and Sunday.
Crossing the East River under a leaden sky and always in the distance a pall of white dust and smoke over Wall Street.
Thirty-five years of age and this is the first time I’ve been on a train. So comfortable, too.
Over Long Island, Friday suburbs looking quiet and normal on a gray day.
Through New Rochelle, home of Rob Petrie so long ago; but everything is new today. New Haven, New London, Newport, as we speed through Connecticut and into Rhode Island.
It’s cost me my job! The knock-on effects will last for years. The unhappy girl reads Rowling, while I digest Dos Passos.
And everything is old today. Thoughts of old London and memories of my old Warwick home, as we pass through an American version, bound for Providence, where Jenny began her journey from Dave, from married man to spinster.
The Fall colours are so vivid, the shore on the right, the trees on the left, the changing of the seasons. So sad that tragedy should lead to this discovery. Every cloud, I guess…
Speed well through Massachusetts, westwoods and open lands, to the city named for my birthplace, whence Hooker, Stone and Cotton sailed away.
My reservation’s for a different train. In all the confusion and time changes …
I wouldn’t worry, Madam; in the circumstances, we won’t press charges.
And now to find my way to Melrose, to wait for flights to recommence.
Sunday, September 9, 2001: am
The Burthen of Nineveh
—Lloyd Wright Guggenheim spiralling skyward. Within, the disappointment of a rehang, a limited experience, restricted access; we wander round what little we are able and allowed.
—We too go round and round, and if we spiral it is only down. No rehangs here, unspoken frustrations of her week before mocking surfaces uneven, and distorting images.
—Les Demoiselles d’Avignon ne déçoit pas, though even MOMA has some closed galleries, some rearrangements, some special show in the offing. Like some sort of cusp.
—And in the afternoon the Met. The luminous, the sense of space and possibility nailed down in oils, by Bingham, Homer, Cropsey, Cole …
—Records of promises, hopes and dreams, free from all awkward truths and transgressions.
—Land of the ocean shores! land of sierras and peaks!
Thursday, September 13, 2001: morning
and nothing to get hung about…
Parting is such shrugged sorrow.
After the Grand Central oysters a few days back, Penn Station coffee bars appropriately plain, thoughts and regrets safely half-spoken, as she leaves for the city of brotherly love and academic conference.
Manhattan’s streets I sauntered, pondering.
Somewhere to sit, to write, to sketch? Central Park seems obvious, the subway beckoning me down.
Hurry, get on, now it’s coming. But it ain’t stopping, not till halfway to Harlem. No one, not even Duke, told me they don’t all stop at every station.
Heading up Manhattan, opposite a huddle of homeboys having the most intelligent conversation of the week.
——It ain’t us they was attacking, it was the military, the moneymen, the ones who screw their lives like they do ours and always have. World Trade and Pentagon, man, not Harlem or Marshall Heights.
Strawberry Fields forever. Lennon’s corner in the park more than ever a focal point for grief and floral offerings. I stroll around, say hi to folks, exchanging sympathetic looks. By The Pond I take my rest.
—— The answer is simple, says the young Jewish academic at my side. Drop a nuke on Mecca, that’s all we gotta do. They’ll soon come into line then. It worked with the Japs in ‘Forty-Five.
Nothing is real.
Sunday, September 9, 2001: pm
Just direct your dancin’ feet …
—In Times Square, at the end of a normal day, the buzz of the people again around, under trillions of watts of selling, turning nightdark to perpetual day.
—Broadway burger bar, non-global franchise, culturally less imperial, brings the illusion of greater satisfaction, moral and gastronomic.
—Give me such shows. Give me the streets of Manhattan.
—Fortysecondstreet cinema shows feelgood film. Aussies and a Scot on Parisian rooftops and in the eponymous red mill. Operatic tragedy with rocking soundtrack, sends us out smiling into the New York night.
—The greatest thing you’ll ever learn …
Wednesday, September 12, 2001: afternoon
One more block to Jordan
They closed off lower Manhattan. Even Little Poland was no longer accessible, let alone Raoul’s. The police tape stretches down the centre of E14th St; one block more and we’d be homeless.
What happens now?
Everything’s on high alert. I don’t recall a time when terrorist atrocities have followed in quick succession, nor one when people don’t assume they will. Only armies, only oppressors, only militias on their home turf have the resources to do that.
And internets and phones are down, family at home not knowing, though doubtless confident their relative would scarce be up and about at such an ungodly hour.
Weeks later folks will say, surely this showed her how fragile life can be and made her think she’d best come back? Just as likely it made her think it too short to spend with this dumb jerk.
Monday, September 10, 2001: afternoon
You remind me of a man …
—The rain was bouncing so hard off East 14th Street that guys’ knees were getting wet from the inside of their pants. Even so we decided to make a run for it.
—The entrance to the L was only a few yards away from the Union Square Inn and we’d been waiting in the lobby so long that other guests tipped us a dollar when we held the door for them.
———This ain’t gonna let up, she said. ——C’mon.
———Okay, I replied ——Forget about going up tall buildings for today? Sky could be kinda dramatic though.
———If I want dramatic, I’ll go see a Broadway show. From tall buildings, I want vistas.
———Democratic ones? I asked, as we started to sprint.
———Go careful, said the real porter.
—We did. She hit the dry but steamy subway entrance ahead of me. So far ahead, I didn’t see how she skirted the turn in the stairs any more than I noticed it was two inches deep in rainwater.
—Her laugh was unsympathetic. My shoes and ankles were drenched.
———Democratic vistas? she queried.
———Whitman, I explained. ——Walt Whitman.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001: afternoon
a black mouth with a throat of light
——They hate us. They all hate us, Mike.
——If they all hate us, why does everybody want to come live here?
Answer me that, Jim.
Each day, we’d left the hotel, sometimes for breakfast here in Café Piccolo, and looked down Third Avenue, which gave us a glimpse of the Towers we lefties despised so much. Now two towers of smoke and dust and death hang in their place, like hungry ghosts, waiting for the friendly wind that would blow them out to sea instead of back, deadly, into Mannahatta.
And now the guys at the counter drink stewed coffee and see life ever more in black and white.
No one wants British blood, the risk of Swisscheese brains in decades’ time too great even for those who just had a building fall on them. But prion-free locals queue around the blocks, just as they volunteer in other ways, so we feel satisfyingly surplus to all requirements except concern.
So little we can do, so much closed down, we sit and talk and think about it all. Raoul’s now as off limits as it would feel inappropriate, we end the momentous day with gigantic platters of pierogi, gołąbki, and bigos in Little Poland round the corner on Second.
Who’s on First? Who cares?
Monday, September 10, 2001: evening
Seven minutes. Seven seconds. Seven hours
I joke, if he’d played eight more hours of encores …
How did we find you, Piano Man, in your firstfloor club in old SoHo? Some what’s-on guide, listed under jazz, one passion still shared?
How did we like you, Piano Man, with your bop-based boogie rhythms, your rolling riffs, your moody melodies? So good the crowd called out for more, well past the chimes at midnight.
Cocktails for two and planning what to do. Raoul’s, where your colleague’s cousin was chef, booked for tomorrow night. Empire State preferred to nearby WTC, for Art Deco styling and Central Park views. Determined to rise, determined to shine, be up and out by nine.
How did we leave you, Piano Man, a latenight balmy evening saunter back to Union Square, that fateful kilometre, which then seemed but a prelude to a thaw, a friendlier farewell …
Tuesday, September 11, 2001: morning
a thing that none but fools would keep
You wanted a New York story. We talked of Raymond Chandler, Damon Runyon, Truman Capote, Steinbeck and Dos Passos …
Well, I was sitting on a hotel bed at eight-fortyfive on the morning of Tuesday, September the Eleventh, Two Thousand and One. She was in the bathroom. I heard the plane go overhead.
——Bloody Hell, that guy’s flying low, I said but she didn’t hear me.
As she flushed the john there seemed to be a dull thud in the distance. But I only put the tv on when she started to run the shower. It was going to be a while before we got out. So much for the early start to go up the Empire State on a clear and sunny morning.
The news was already breaking, commentators speculating. Then what looked like an explosion in the second tower. Five more minutes of guess work before a viewer rang in and said she could swear another plane came in behind the towers from the right of the picture. So they reran the tape. She was right.
So then we knew it was no accident. And I knew that the story, if there was one, couldn’t be light confection. No tales of the city. Manhattan Transfer, USA.