Guest view: History, dead at our feet
MANHATTAN – Yes, there is a word to describe the New York state of mind five years after Sept. 11, 2001 – earbuds.
Yep. The little white headphone freebies that come with most iPods; the remote Bluetooth device that makes one look like an extra on the bridge of the USS enterprise; the single wire connected to ear connected to cellphone reminiscent of transistor radio headphones (for those old enough to reminisce about transistor radio headphones); the warm-as-earmuffs bose speakers that cuff the head in a sound vice and send one into a trance of deep eardrum penetration.
Everyone has something in their ears.
But there is a gaze that accompanies putting something in your ear like that. You no longer look at the sky, but at the ground, or, more specifically, at the tiny wheel on the tiny device that you’re spinning looking for the right song or a specific number or the letters you’re texting to your friend across town saying you’re running late.
Because, you’ve got something stuck in your ear.
And what you miss is New York. You miss what you’re trying to avoid, the approach of sirens, the squeal of cab drivers, the expectoration of a doorman you’re passing, the drop and crunch of the first leaves of fall and the pant of a dog forced to breathe whatever it is that’s coming out of the grate on the sidewalk.
There was a young boy no older than eight descending the three-story ramp on the way to actual ground zero – the base footprint of the World Trade Center. His mother grabbed the crook of his elbow while trying to adjust her sunglasses and carry an impossible armful of roses and a picture of her husband. The boy, fidgety, looked down at his electronic device and, presumably, turned it up just a notch.
As they reached the base of the ramp, and were swallowed by a sea of mourners, also carrying impossible armfuls of roses, the mother yanked at the son’s earbud cord and they came out with what one, if standing closer, would presume was the sound of a Champaign cork. One would wish, standing in front of the boy and seeing his expression as he were unplugged, that suddenly his eyes became clear and his gaze fixed on one of the makeshift footprint memorials (a pond for the North Tower and one for the South Tower – equidistant on the 12-acre Ground Zero quarry), but, he didn’t.
Instead he plugged back in and turned around to motion to the subway that was coming through the rubble site – delivering gawking commuters to work on this day of remembrance.
Around the perimeter of the World Trade Center site are the tourists with their digital cameras, the college students on furlough posing in front of a makeshift memorial or the list of Sept. 11 “heroes” … There are protesters calling for Bush’s head, those questioning the whereabouts of Bin Laden, and a man with a jacked up SUV with airbrushed images of people jumping out of the towers emblazoned on the side complaining about the healthcare system in the U.S. It is New York’s finest in white gloves patient and forceful moving the throngs of naysayers and answer-seekers along in one steady stream counterclockwise around the site with precision and calm.
It is, in the words of those I accompanied to the hellpit of the western U.S., “The best of what we are and the worst of who we are – but in a sense, that’s New York.”
The tears came for me not at the bottom of the World Trade Center site, where, looking up you see skies so clear and blue and wide that the city seemed magnified in reverse to a toy scale; they didn’t come at a candlelight vigil at Central Park, where a song (that was written specifically to evoke tears – one could tell) was played; it didn’t come after watching the kids (there were many, many children at ground zero, some playing with the dogs that helped sniff their loved ones remains from the rubble), it came early that morning in Central Park.
My friend Paul, the one that perished in the South Tower that day, was a religious runner. Fattened up to proportions that only stretch marks could tell after four years of football at Brown, the only way Paul knew he could lose the weight was the only way he knew how to do anything – hard work. So one day he started to run. One year later he’d shed 80 pounds and his three-mile slow jogs soon turned into a daily routine of eight to 12 rigorous miles. His favorite route was twice around the six-mile circumference of Central Park.
And so, on the early morning of Sept. 11, I set off on the loop, without earbuds. It was a quiet morning in New York; quiet in the way that people only get when they stay up too late and they see the sky begin to turn gray again. There were old men in jogging suits and young women trying to get something out of their system before slouching at a desk all day wondering what happened to their yogurt in the office fridge. There were middle-aged women with their dogs, and middle-aged fathers pushing jogger strollers. I realized I was going too slow halfway through the race, and as I passed a line of meter maid carts looking ahead to the horse-drawn carriages, all in a row, still horseless in the early light of day, I cried. For three miles. I ran and cried.
After they read Paul’s name on a loudspeaker that bounced into the ground zero cavern and reached up high to the media vultures perched 8 stories up (there’s Anderson Cooper, there’s Fox News, there’s Matt Lauer – and look, way up there, notice the telephoto lens coming down on you, c’mon, the photographer is thinking, show me some tears) I had lunch with Paul’s family in a trendy Tribeca hotel. We ate hamburgers and pizza though the menu didn’t seem to want to point us in that direction. We made small talk but not talk that was forced. We talked mostly of the trip east and debated the MoMA over the Guggenheim (the latter won out as they have a Pollack exhibit) … There were some long pauses, and, visibly exhausted, moments where one could only sit back and reflect.
There are millions of busy people in New York. There are people here who have the images of their loved ones airbrushed on a shirt. There are children running around with a parent still listed as “missing” who they will never find. There is a deep wound in the center of the city’s heart, a hole in it, that will be backfilled someday with a new set of towers – not the gray monolith homage to the concrete and steel menagerie of the opaque ’60s, these new ones, white and translucent and clear like we fancy a new century.
And we will go on. We have gone on. Earbuds at the ready. Plugged in, focused, the story of this country continues, New York at the helm. History, literally, dead at our feet.
– Andrew Pridgen is news editor at the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza in Incline Village.
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