September 10, 2002

I have a book to copyedit and man, am I procrastinating. The September 11th Anniversary is not just a media event. I'm having real, visceral memories and flashback feelings.

I had written a piece on my compulsive attraction to Ground Zero, but not gotten it published at the various places I sent it out, so it languished in my computer. Friday morning, the editor of the Villager called asking if I had anything to contribute to their anniversary issue, so I started revising. I emailed some editor friends for help (and Mitsu, now in NY, came over and looked at it, validating the opening paragraphs I'd chosen, thanks, M). I want to post the piece here tomorrow. My hope was, by the anniversary, to have a page up of links to all my Sept. 11 essays, called "Impact." Not sure if I'll get it done, given that I have an actual, paying assignment on deadline. Anyhow, I ended up emailing today one of the women who helped me edit the piece down this weekend, and i feel like sharing that email now:

Yes, I sent in that last version yesterday; it will appear in tomorrow's Villager. They printed an earlier essay I wrote about how Sept. 11 reverberated in my vehemently anti-authoritarian neighborhood; there was an outpouring of support for cops and an arty patriotism that combined peace protests and flag graffiti. That was the first time I'd ever been paid for writing (50 bux), and I learned then that I had to edit myself because they have no staff and no time, and I have no idea who ever reads the paper because we have the Times and the Voice and the Post and New York Press.

Anyhow, thank you again for your editing advice, I took a lot of it, in terms of extraneous sentences. Most important for me, you seemed to understand the tone and structure choice overall, which was extrememly encouraging.

As for the anniversary coverage, I think there is good stuff to be found. Last night I watched a PBS special that focused on several firefighters over about half a year as they searched for their friends and attended memorials and continued to fight fires. It differed from the commercial network "hero" specials in that the men talked about being very angry, about how they were bickering in the house, being hostile to the new replacements, yelling at their kids. It talked about their ambivalence about being used as symbols of patriotism for the national agenda, and about the wave of divorces and retirements this past year. Then, PBS had a documentary (obviously a low-budget labor of love) about two undocumented Mexican workers from Windows on the World, and how their families, living in astounding poverty in Mexico, tried to get information, get here to search hospitals, and finally, negotiate the maze of official paperwork in another language for men who'd officially "not been there." PBS is airing "Doubt and Faith at Ground Zero" Wednesday night, that looks to me like the best thing to watch, if you choose to see anything.

I think the thing about coverage here is that it's much more human, on a smaller scale; it's a local story. The WTC had housed the television transmitters for the city, so, not having cable, I (along with millions here), had only two channels. One was local, and the newscasters, usually relegated to covering crime and feel-good stories, were suddenly on the front line in a war zone. And they really rose to the occasion. The thing was, being based here, their stories were both more detailed, less prone to abstraction, and echoed that bewildering mix of scale that we all were experiencing. Like, they'd report on the timeline of the hijackings, and then they'd give a bulletin that St. Vincent's Hospital wasn't accepting any more blood, and then a call for volunteer ironworkers to show up at the Javitz Center, and then Guiliani giving a news conference with freely crying top cops and emergency personnel, and then a report on which subways were running and which roads were blocked and which schools were closed and the students should report to this other place...

The national news was much more about overview stuff and immediately "attack on America" and "American Fights Back." I can tell you that, here, we could have given a shit about fighting back. It just did not compute. I mean, people were wandering around putting up flyers describing their wives and kids, people were forming gigantic lines to volunteer for everything, people were handing out water and bringing bags of anything they thought might be useful to checkpoints and distribution stations. The national news reporters, for the most part, were doing their stand-ups from a further geographic remove than I was experiencing. So I'd be in all this futile activity and chaos and bustle, where a call for "visine!" had 25 overadrenalized volunteers ripping open cartons and running around, and then go home and hear these sanitized reports of "the volunteer effort" or something that didn't at all capture the scope and mess and redundancy. Also, close to the site, you could see that, for days, there was no order, there were no supplies, and there was no communication. The emergency command center had been housed in a destroyed building, and, since people might still be alive, all of the procedures and care for evidence and hierarchies were just out the window. No one was in charge. There was all this food and water and donated emergency equipment and it was heaped around the perimeter, no vehicles could penetrate, the guys inside were using their hands and makeshift crowbars. We would load up a grocery cart of supplies and walk it down to another pile of dust-covered stuff, and still it wasn't getting to the people who needed it.

It was a huge lesson in the inability of the media to convey the on-the-ground reality of things like war and disaster. There was a surreal triangulation between direct experience and then going home and seeing exactly where I'd just been standing sort of interpreted and divested of all its human complexity. I think part of the ground zero compulsion was an attempt to erase that alienation. I mean, the world is obsessing on these few acres of space, and it's right down the street, how could I not be there, how could I just receive images?

Rereading my piece in the light of the two documentaries I saw last night, I felt again (and I had had so much trouble with this, over the months), that I had missed the point. The way the deserted streets felt, everything dark and trashed and the overpowering smell of rotting bodies and burnt electronics, omipresent sirens and people, really, in varying levels of shock, which took the form of hyperactivity but also this very slow, numbed, affectless conversation... It was like martial law or a post-apocalyptic film. I think the main difference in writing about it here, and talking, too, is that everyone has a story, everyone has a set of intense episodes, we experienced it, not collectively, in a way that can be codified and wrapped in neat paper, but in a fragmented, disjointed series of personal moments. But also profoundly alone. I felt like were were a bunch of atoms, all off-kilter, bouncing off of one another, all of the social conventions and habits of work and routine did not apply. Nothing felt like the right thing to do when you were doing it, it was restless. Conversations, especially, did not flow. People were either like zombies or control freaks. And it was a full two weeks before I overheard anyone on the street talking about anything else. I mean, the first time I heard someone going, "Well, then she said bla bla and I was like...," it was startling. And the first time I heard music coming out of a passing car instead of news.

For me, most of the writing, even by name-brand folks and literary luminaries, those first few weeks, just didn't work. I think, like World War Two, which people are still coming to terms with (I just read Ian McEwan's "Atonement," which has a truly amazing section about the evacuation at Dunkirk that's so visceral and disturbing and captures arbitrary destruction and chaos and then the tidy, heroic way it was reported), the writing about Sept. 11 will mature with time, and explore more of the nuances and contradictions. I had wanted to convey one idea: that there was no "inside", that the closer one got, the less any understanding applied, that it was a site of absence, that all of the media focus and frantic activity created a false sense that there was a geographic and temporal 'there' . There were like a million 'there's and there was no there.