In 1999, I moved into my first post-college apartment, way out in the farthest reaches of Bensonhurst. It was a mere 15-minute walk from Coney Island, a walk I would take many late nights on my way home from the city and somehow avoid murder. Circa 1999, the neighborhood had barely changed since Saturday Night Fever days. When I jogged around the neighborhood, I was an exotic specimen, because people in Bensonhurst did not jog. Old ladies stared at me like I was a wild animal and rotten teens would joke-jog next to me or fake-lunge in my direction, hoping I would flinch.
She must have been hiding. I’m walking up Manhattan, almost home, when she steps onto the sidewalk out from some darkness, wrapped in a camelhair coat.
She walks alongside me and says, “Can I ask you a favor?” Her teeth almost chatter when she says it. It’s near midnight and cold, but not teeth-chattering cold.
I’ve always been an easy mark for panhandlers. If someone wants my spare change or five minutes of my time, they’re probably going to get it. It has occurred to me I will probably die from being too nice to say no. But this feels different. I sense a want, but no hustle.
I stop, but she says, “No, keep walking, please.” So we continue down the block. A few steps later she looks back to where she’d been, a bar with all its rhubarb and glass clinking. She says, “Some creep was following me from the G train. I ducked into that bar for a minute but I couldn’t tell if he was waiting for me. I just need someone to walk me home.”
Her place is around the corner on Kent, so we walk in that direction. Manhattan Avenue and the bar fade behind us and the night becomes quiet. I make some feint stabs at small talk. Each word that leaves my mouth feels dumber than the last, but I don’t know what else to do. Talk, even dumb talk, feels better than silence. Talk will keep away the creeps, I think.
We reach her building. I wait with my back turned to the front door while she fumbles in a purse for her keys. I scan Kent up and down. I see no one. The bodegas are shuttered and the apartments are dark. It’s so quiet, you can hear the drone of cars rumbling on the FDR across the river, echoing against the night.
I imagine armies of silent creeps hiding in shadows, lurching in the darkness like zombies. They will emerge all at once if I take my eyes off of the street for one moment. Strike one creep down and another will climb over his undead corpse to pursue what he thinks is his. I’ve never seen the world like this until now. It occurs to me that she must see it this way quite often. Every night. Every day.
She unlocks her front door and her mouth says “thanks,” but her face doesn’t. There’s still too much worry and anger there, anger that some creep threatened her. Anger that her best hope for getting home safely was to latch onto a random stranger and pray he wasn’t also a creep. She’s not angry with me, she’s just angry. She should be angry. I should be angry.
I want to give her some kind of apology, but I know it won’t make this night any better and I know it won’t change anything. So I wish her good night and I turn and make my own short walk home and I suppose I am safe but in truth she wasn’t and wherever she is now she still isn’t and so none of us are.
Surely no one wished to be in Woody Allen’s shoes when Dylan Farrow’s new accusations came to light earlier this week. But I assure you, gentle reader, neither did you wish to be me, a Very Important Writer, at that moment. For the news sent me into the kind of turgid self-examination and moral reassessment known only to Very Important Writers, the men to whom the world looks for guidance.
As you are no doubt wondering, how does an allegation of pedophilia make me, a Very Important Writer, feel? As shocking as it may sound to you, this is not a question I could answer immediately.
Foremost on my mind when hearing of Dylan Farrow’s tale of unconscionable sexual abuse and violation of trust was, of course, how would I enjoy Woody Allen’s films again? Could I restrict my enjoyment to one viewing of Annie Hall while sitting on an uncomfortable chair as penance? Would it be more prudent of me to watch his more difficult films such as Interiors instead? It was a quandary not to be considered lightly, and a burden that only I, a Very Important Writer, should be asked to bear.
You can be sure that when I, a Very Important Writer, heard this news, it caused me to pace about my brownstone, lost in the recesses of my Very Important Thoughts. The walls of my humble $3.5 million home soon grew too confining. I phoned up a Very Important Writer friend of mine, but he was busy preparing for the Bread Loaf Conference, and of course also preoccupied pondering the same questions about Woody Allen’s work as I. Could we ever enjoy Allen’s films again, he wondered, and if so what would be a respectable time to wait to do so? We reassured each other that we, two Very Important Writers, should be able to solve these dilemmas in our own due time.
Hoping to clear my head, I took a stroll around my colorful Brooklyn neighborhood, peering in the window of the antique shops and the coffee shops and the charming bistro that used to be a laundromat. I stopped at my favorite watering hole and sipped a 12-year-old scotch while exchanging pleasantries about a local sports team with the ruddy-faced barkeep. I sought solace in a delightful ethnic snack from a food cart while trying out snatches of Catalan I learned during one torrid summer in Barcelona. I believe I made myself understood, for all the deficiencies in my accent, and the considerable drawback that the delightful ethnic snack’s vendor was not from anywhere near Catalonia.
And as I ran across these people, I tried not to burden them with my own burden. To do so would have been unfair, for it is a burden they could not possibly have understood, no matter how much my soul yearned to cry out, You do not understand the grief Dylan Farrow’s lost childhood has caused me, a Very Important Writer.
I returned to my home, which began to seem very much like a prison to me. A prison with an ample garden and vintage pressed tin ceilings, but a prison nonetheless. The latest issue of The New Yorker was waiting in my mailbox, but it gave me no succor, despite a fascinating feature on the oldest bookbinder in Northampton. Nor did I find any relief in a sojourn through an advance reader’s copy of Franzen’s latest, The Tepids of Winona.
Alas, it is only in work that a Very Important Writer can find peace. We are much like the ant in that sense, or the miner, or the humble mechanic who toils on my Audi. And so I resolved to document my inner turmoil, because I wanted you, gentle reader, to know that even I, a Very Important Writer, can not answer every question. I must press forward nonetheless, though I can think of no person who has been hurt more by what Dylan Farrow was subjected to than I, a Very Important Writer.
My grampa isn’t my grampa yet, so let’s call him Frank. Frank lives in Brooklyn or Queens, depending on what year it is. He doesn’t change his address, but the borough containing that address changes with the whims of city surveyors.
The subway is a recent addition to his neighborhood. The place is rapidly urbanizing, but there are still some signs of its small town past, like farms. A few small farms lie nearby, some only a few blocks away.
Thanksgiving is on the horizon, and Frank’s dad wants to take advantage of this proximity. He knows a farmer close by with more turkeys than he knows what to do with. Rather than drop way too much dough on a bird from the butcher, Frank’s dad figures he can buy one of these young turkeys, raise it in his backyard, and get it nice and fat in time for the big holiday. He doesn’t have a very big backyard, but how much room does a turkey need, really? All they do is eat and sleep. He’s seen neighbors raise chickens and roosters in their backyards. A turkey can’t be any harder.
This calculation doesn’t take into account Frank, and his sister Kathy. Once the turkey comes home and takes up residence in the backyard, they look upon it not as a future meal, but a pet. Frank and Kathy bring it scraps from the dinner table. They pet it and play with it, even though the concept of “play” seems too complex for a turkey to grasp. They name him Tom.
This presents a dilemma for Frank’s dad. He knows the kids are attached to the turkey and don’t want to see it slaughtered. He is inclined by nature to make them happy. He is not the whip-cracking type of dad, but a sentimental sort, a lover of pranks, a story teller. He ushers at St. Aloysius on Sundays, then goes from church straight to The Eagle’s Nest to bartend and exchange jokes.
Frank’s dad is also a Great War veteran. He served in France to display his patriotism at a time when the propaganda of the age said the True Americanism of anyone of German descent was suspect, a time. And it is 1930, which means Frank’s dad is a dad at the beginning of the Great Depression. He cannot afford to simply throw away food, even food whose name is Tom.
So despite his fun-loving, accommodating nature, Frank’s dad takes the turkey, chops its head off, plucks it, and hands the carcass off to Frank’s mom, who will cook it.
If the idea behind killing the bird was to not waste food, this proves poor reasoning. Frank’s mom and dad eat, but Frank and Kathy do not. They sit in their seats at the dinner table and stare at pieces of what was once their pet and burst out crying, wailing “oh, Tom…” Frank’s dad sees no point in berating his children, but reminds them that this is all the food they have. They can eat this on Thanksgivng or eat nothing. They choose nothing.
Frank will become my grampa and he will tell me this story, and in his telling it will be a funny story. He will imitate his young self crying over a turkey and laugh at the memory. He will have gone to war in a strange land, just like his father, and will come home in one piece and have to raise children on a tight budget, like his father. In his rearview, the plight of a turkey will come to seem like small potatoes.
You could call this cold or cruel, but I know my grampa was not a cold or cruel man. Just the opposite, just like his own father. Grampa just knew that parenting requires difficult decisions, and in a no-win situation, perhaps laughter is called for.
I believe that today of all days, if you can use your childhood pain not for brooding, but for laughing, then you should be thankful.
After one strange year in Bensonhurst, I have relocated to Greenpoint, along with a roommate. Our new place is an ancient railroad with bad wiring and brittle drop ceilings and no ventilation to speak of. But it is closer to where things are happening, which is enough at my current age.
The new apartment has a little area that could serve as a living room, provided we had a couch, which we do not. Neither of us are in a position to drop big bucks on furniture, but we fall ass-backwards into a couch when my roommate’s uncle informs us he bought one he doesn’t like or can’t use; he apparently dislikes the couch so much, he can’t decide exactly why he doesn’t want it. If we want to come get the couch, it’s ours. I can’t conceive of someone who’d just give away a couch, but if that’s what this man wants to do, who am I to stop him?
We rent a U-Haul, and realize when we pick the truck up that we’ve acquired way more truck than we need. It’s not a van, but a real truck, with a lift gate in the back and an overhang that extends across the cab, and a clearance height notice printed backwards so you can see it in your rearview.
I’ve driven a U-Haul in the city before. The first time came when I relocated post-college. That mission went off without a hitch, apart from the moment when I had to stop short on the Verrazano Bridge and heard all my earthly possessions shift, fall, and crash behind me. I also U-Hauled all of our stuff from one end of Brooklyn to the other when we moved to Greenpoint. That too went well, except for when I went to gas up the truck just before returning it and backed it into some dude’s van. Also on my driving résumé: negotiating band vans through city streets (high school–present), owner of an angry little Passat with manual transmission (1999–present). Therefore, I outrank my roommate in city driving experience. It falls to me to get this truck to his uncle’s apartment in Manhattan and back again.
The key to driving a truck in the city is to remember that you are bigger than pretty much everything else and you should act accordingly. Being timid and safe, pulling half out into traffic or stopping to allow a little sedan to move past you, that’s how pile ups happen.
When I was in college, I’d take myself on trips to random neighborhoods. Pick a spot on the subway map, ride the train there, and wander around. I wanted to see the entire city, not just a tiny patch between 14th and Houston. When I went on these trips, I invariably went by myself.
This may have been a genetic affliction. My grandfather told me he used to work as a messenger, and when he’d be given a nickel for the subway, he’d pocket it so he could walk the distance. He preferred to take the messages above ground, where he could wander, explore, people-watch.
So this is why I’ve taken the L train to its end, to wander around Canarsie. A few years from now, I’ll spend a few Christmas Eves in the neighborhood, but at the moment there is no particular reason for me to be here, no landmark or great restaurant I must see in person. The idea to come here was first planted in my head by a sociology book about the neighborhood, which studied the flight of the white working class from places like Williamsburg and Brownsville out to Canarsie and points east. But more than anything, I want to check off this plot of the city in the mental ledger of places I’ve been. The sooner I check one off, the sooner I can travel to another one.
I stroll down Rockaway Parkway. It’s a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in the early fall, the sun low and orange. Every little glimpse I get of the neighborhood seems important to me because I’m here to witness it. A little old lady shuffles out of an ancient Italian pasticceria with flamingo-colored lettering. At the local high school, a football coach chews out his players for a lack of hustle. A strip mall appears charmless except for the large Burger King at its northern extremity, which never received a rebranding and still looks like the Burger Kings of my youth.
I keep wandering down Rockaway, under the Belt Parkway, and into Canarsie Pier. It has an arched welcoming sign that suggests amusement, but there are no rides or attractions here. Just a pier, really, where a few lone fisherman have cast out lines. There are also a few running paths carved out of the grass. I follow one.
Fifty feet down the path, the grass becomes wild, uncontrollable, taller than me. Then weeds emerge among the blades, huge cattails and snarling jagged things, and soon there are more of these monsters than the grass. The path seems to narrow with each step. The noise of the highway recedes into nothingness. I feel the vague unease that only surfaces in October, just when the leaves begin to change and the chill in the air first stings you. But I don’t dare turn back. I want to see all of New York.
The weeds give way, and I find myself on a dune tumbling away from me into Paedergat Basin, which separates Canarsie from Bergen Beach and Mill Basin. Across the basin, another dune, and more weeds beyond that. There are no waves here. The water tugs weakly at the sand, recedes, and tries again. The Belt Parkway is visible in the distance but only as an outline against the sun.
I am alone. But the array of trash in the sand—beer cans, Coke bottles—suggests this is a destination for somebody. So do the remnants of a badly constructed campfire, planks of mealy wood laid across each other and burnt to char, still smoldering, maybe. At times I swear I can hear music, faintly, as if it were trailing from a radio on someone’s windowsill a block away.
It suddenly occurred to me that I told no one where I was going before I left for Canarsie. I could be killed right at this moment by these campfire setters, who were surely lying in wait for saps like me to wander along, and I might never be found again. No one would know what became of me.
This is the most basic fear humans have. Not the fear of dying, but the fear of leaving no trace. We can deal, abstractly, with the thought of not existing. What terrifies us is the thought of a day when no one knows we ever existed.
I was not dressed for jogging, but I ran back on that path, past the weeds, past the grass, back onto the pier. I slowed myself down once I hit Rockaway again just so I wouldn’t look like a maniac, but I still wanted to run, past the high school and the old timey Burger King and the pasticceria, back to the L train, back to my school where I had to show my ID to enter every building and there was no doubt people were recording my existence.
Death is never far in Queens, the borough of graves, but it creeps closer in certain places than others. One such place is Mount Olivet Crescent, a slip of a street that wends its way up a hill in Maspeth and down another in Middle Village. The Crescent is bordered on one side by its namesake cemetery, a lush expanse of granite mausoleums, angels, and obelisks cut in half by the busy thoroughfare of Eliot Avenue. A few ramshackle flower shops hang on for dear life, squeezed on all sides by vinyl-sided one-family houses and a sore thumb of a chrome-plated apartment complex. The Crescent comes to rest near an enormous sign pointing the way to the parking lot for the Hess-Miller Funeral Home, host to more than a few wakes for family members of mine.
At the Crescent’s summit, the Fresh Pond Crematory looms over it all, a cream-colored slab with a circular driveway paved in brick, ideal for the approach of hearses. Built in 1884, the exterior resembles a crossbreed between federal mint and Gilded Age prison. Cremation was rare enough in those days that a Brooklyn Eagle reporter made the long trip to Fresh Pond after hearing the mere rumor a wealthy German businessman was to be cremated there. The reporter soon found himself in an Abbott and Costello-esque exchange with one of the attendants, who impatiently explained he could cremate no one until the oven was complete.
The reporter eventually got what he wanted: a graphic description of exactly what cremation does to the human body. (“The total weight of the ashes of a full grown man would only be six or seven pounds.”) He also received a defense of the practice from the attendant, based largely on the overcrowded state of the city’s cemeteries and some other concerns about corpses that haunted the Victorian mind.
Oh, cremation is what we must all come to, and it has a great many advantages when you look at it in the right light. You can’t wake up after burial and find yourself choking to death with six feet of earth over you and your coffin nailed down, and medical students can’t snatch your bones and monkey with them in their dissecting rooms. You can have your cemeteries all the same, and set these urns in them and plant flowers about the urns; that will be all right and nobody will be hurt. This thing has to come.
The crematory has grown considerably since those days, when nearby residents were worried about the smell such a facility might produce. A towering smokestack now announces its true purpose, as do the large copper letters over the main entrance, dripping green with its name. Beneath, in smaller, more polished type, is the announcement AMERICAN COLUMBARIUM CO., INC.
On Sunday morning, me and the family took a brief trip into Greenpoint to pick up some gardening supplies and to stroll. I lived in Greenpoint for six pre-kid years and I still love it there, though I don’t find many chances to make it back to ye olde neighborhood.
When I called it home, Greenpoint struck me as having the exact amount of artsy-ness that Williamsburg aspired to while being a tad more real, for lack of a better word. For one thing, Greenpoint never needed to “recover” in the way that Williamsburg did, since it had a well-entrenched middle class that never left in bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s. On top of that, it seemed like the artists in Greenpoint actually had jobs and weren’t being held aloft by trust funds. This was provincial prejudice I’m sure, because it still wasn’t hard to find a wealthy dilettante among the populace, someone who seemed to be dabbling in bohemia until Dad’s Law Firm came calling. These folks tended to be the ones most into juvenalia like kickball tournaments and organized games of manhunt, since they had the idle time and total lack of worries necessary to waste in such pointless pursuits.
As I said, we were strolling through Greenpoint, on Nassau Street near Lorimer, where McCarren Park ends. Ahead of us, I saw a twenty-something swinging from scaffolding like it was a jungle gym. At a certain age and in a certain mood, I could have found this kind of thing is cute. In fact, I’m sure I’ve done the same at some point in my life, though I’m also sure I haven’t done so since college. To mid-30s Dad Me, it just struck me as juvenile, embodying the worst aspect of all the dumb infantile things people think of when they now think of Brooklyn. My mind voiced a judgmental Really?, but I said nothing out loud.
My daughter was less guarded. Our corner of Queens holds very few hipsters, and this was not a specimen she’d encountered before. “Why is that GROWN UP swinging like that?” she asked, very loudly. I saw this guy as a kid, because that’s how he was behaving, but to my child, everyone over the age of 10 is a Grown Up, and this was conduct unbecoming a Grown Up. The Swinger abruptly stopped, somewhat embarrassed, and continued on his way, as did we.
“Grown ups shouldn’t be acting like that,” my daughter said, again very loudly and slightly annoyed, as we passed by The Swinger.
“I agree,” I said, and I felt confident that I’d already given her enough information to tell the Real Grown Ups from the fake ones.
On last night’s episode of Project Runway (look, I make The Wife watch enough horrible Mets games; I can sit through some competition-based reality TV now and again), the designers were tasked with making outfits comprised of materials found in a pet store. One contestant opted to make them out of a housebreaking product for dogs referred to as “wee-wee pads”.
Hearing “wee-wee pads” cracked me the hell up. Because aside from being obviously hilarious in and of itself, the phrase “wee-wee pads” reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about in years: Lionel’s Puppy and Kitty City. Or rather, an ad for this establishment that ran on local TV during my youth.
It was an ultra-low budget production, one that I’m not sure legally qualifies as a commercial. Really, it was a slideshow of pics from the exterior and interior of a pet store in Brooklyn, and its running time was no longer than 10 seconds. The reason I still remember this ad is thanks to the voice-over genius who read along with the slideshow. A low-toned, emotionless narrator urged you to come down to Lionel’s Puppy and Kitty City on 86th Street in Bensonhurst for all your pet needs, in a very thick Cop Accent.
If you’re not from the NYC area, a Cop Accent is a very particular Brooklyn-y, Bronx-y dialect in which the speaker sounds gruff yet subdued, usually because their words meet slight resistance from a substantial mustache. (Think Christopher Guest doing his “I hate when that happens” routine.) I grew up in a town where everyone’s dad, it seemed, has a Cop Accent. You could also hear it on the local news all the time, when an NYPD spokesman relayed the finer details of a horrifying crime in as bored a voice as possible. “And den de alleged perpetratahs beat de 87-year-old woman into a coma with her own cane…”
That’s the kind of voice this narrator had. Which is why I would always lose it when, at the very end of the commercial, the narrator with the Cop Accent would mumble. “Free housebreaking wee-wee pads with every purchase.”
When Project Runway gave me Lionel’s Puppy and Kitty City flashbacks, I reminded The Wife of this golden piece of cinema. She recalled this ad as well, though we were in dispute as to when it aired. I feel like it was strictly a late night commercial, appearing in the SNL/Showtime at the Apollo window, while she swears she saw it during afternoon cartoons. I feel like she can’t be right, because if an ad that prominently featured a man nonchalantly mentioning “housebreaking wee-wee pads with every purchase” in the post-school time slot, kids would have gone to the hospital in droves for laughing themselves sick.
Sadly, among the Vast and Dusty Scratchbomb VHS Archives, I have yet to locate video evidence that this thing actually existed. Googling provided me no evidence, either; the closest thing I could find was link to someone’s Facebook post where they mentioned “free housebreaking wee-wee pads,” but the link was sadly broken. For the moment, my wife’s mutual memory is its only corroboration. But I assure you, it is one of the most simply hilarious things you could ever hope to see. If you remember what I’m talking about, just leave a note in the comments section so I know that I am not alone. And if anyone out there actually has this on tape somewhere, I will pay in the dozens to see it again!
THAT MORNING: I have a job interview at Automotive High School, right on McCarren Park. 7:30am, the earliest interview I’ve ever had. I’m still not sure how I feel about teaching, but I’m positive how I feel about being unemployed, which I’ve been for about 9 months. Having no job, it turns out, is a terrible way to make a living. I also like the idea of walking to work, and Automotive is a mere 10 minute stroll from my apartment in Greenpoint.
The school’s principal—a prototypical harried, no-nonsense type in Sipowicz-style short sleeve shirt and tie—wastes little time with small talk. He wants to know my experience and how I’d deal with certain disciplinary situations. Some of our kids are a bit rough, he says. But he liked the way I handled the security at the main entrance, waiting my turn at the metal detectors with all the kids just arriving for first period. Of course, I say. Are there people who just shove their way in? He shrugs.
A secretary walks into his office without knocking. Something happened, she says. Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center. She says this in the way you could only have said such a thing up until that moment in time, confused and vaguely annoyed, with a typical New Yorker’s undercurrent of Great, now what?
The principal sighs and cuts our interview short. I gotta deal with this, he says, and promises he’ll be in touch.
I walk home on the waterfront. From there I can see dark black smoke billowing from one of the towers. I’d assumed the plane was a Cessna, some small thing piloted by an amateur who got catastrophically lost. Clearly, I was wrong. I get to Calyer Street and the cityscape becomes completely obscured by the rest of Greenpoint. Right around the time the city disappears from my view, the second plane hits.
TWENTY MINUTES LATER: I’m sitting on the couch in my living room, feeling this horrible sensation of my skin trying to run away from itself, of my bones contracting and folding in on themselves, as I watch something horrific happen a few miles from where I sit. I hear people shrieking with horror throughout the building, up and down the block.
My neighbor, a photographer from Germany, knocks on my door and asks if he could watch with us. He doesn’t have a TV. He is normally a very peaceful, positive person. He can’t even sit down, just stands near me on the couch saying nothing. The reception is snowy, because I don’t have cable, and the city’s main TV transmitters have just been destroyed.
90 MINUTES LATER: I walk with my roommate and his friend down to the waterfront. We aren’t sure why, we just feel compelled to do so. We head for the old ferry landing at the end of Grand Street. As we walk down Grand to the water, a kid on a skateboard scoots down the middle of the street. An old man in a huge Pontiac honks at him to get out of the way. The kid does not budge. He turns around and deadpans, “Fuck you, it’s the apocalypse!”
At the ferry landing, you can see the smoke billowing up and out to the West, in the vague shape of what once was there. Nothing else to see, but we just stand there, as do so many others compelled to stand at that spot, because it feels wrong to do anything else.
TWO HOURS LATER: On our way back to the apartment, a car pulls alongside us on Franklin Avenue. The people inside do not speak English all that well and struggle to make themselves understood. Eventually I gather that they can’t get over the Williamsburg Bridge back into Manhattan and want to know the best way into the city. They have no idea what happened. I have to tell them.
12 HOURS LATER: I have a dream about planes crashing into the hill behind the house where I grew up. I will have this dream, and variations on it, for the next 10 years. Sometimes I’ll have Slaughterhouse-Five type dreams, of the planes crashing in reverse, reassembling, returning to the sky and flying back to where they came from. I can’t tell which is worse.
1 DAY LATER: My friend Chris calls and says he’s having folks over at his place in the East Village, just to hang out and play boardgames. I dare to leave the house. The subways are running surprisingly well, or at least the L train is. The East Village is technically part of the Frozen Zone of downtown, but the part where Chris lives is only closed to vehicular traffic. People walk down the middle of Avenue A, not going anywhere exactly, just because they can.
A dozen people cram into his tiny apartment, playing games, drinking beers, and not talking about what had just happened in the least. By being together and doing this, we can allow each other to pretend everything is okay. I play along. People stay until about midnight and start to drift back home. For others, that’s mostly other parts of Manhattan. Me, I have to find a way back to Brooklyn, and I find myself having a full blown panic attack at the thought of taking the subway back home. I am convinced something awful will happen if I do. So I crash at his place and get almost zero sleep on his miniscule couch.
2 DAYS LATER: I wander the city for a while with Chris’s roommate, Miss. We figure we have to do something, anything, but we have no idea what. Give blood? Move boxes? Make sandwiches? The air is hazy and stung with this horrible smell, metallic and organic all at once. Sometimes I can still taste it at the back of my throat.
We buy facemasks at a hardware store, but they do nothing improve our breathing. Shamefully, we ditch them at a corner garbage can. Our efforts to find any meaningful way to help are fruitless. We stand at the corner of Broadway and West 4th, and look downtown at the speckled haze, the color of plow-fouled snow. We can go no further. I manage to get myself on a subway again and go home, and sleep for the first time in days.
3 DAYS LATER: I get an “are you okay?” email from an ex who’d dumped me for Jesus. I briefly consider not writing back just to be a dick. I feel the implied insult: it took three days for her to reach my name in her “are you okay?” list. I take the high road and respond with a terse “Yes, I’m fine,” then punch a door jamb until my knuckles ache.
4 DAYS LATER: I’m walking up Manhattan Avenue and spot a car parked off a sidestreet that looks a lot like my VW Passat, an angry little car I call Maggie (short for Magdalena, a good, stout name for a German car, I thought). I’d dropped it off with a mechanic on September 10 for an inspection and some other routine maintenance. I hadn’t been back to retrieve it since. I have no idea why it’s sitting in this particular spot, a good 10 blocks away from the garage. My mind immediately assumes it had been stolen and was about to be used in some hideous terrorist plot. That I entertained such an idea even for a moment demonstrates just how insane the world has become. I have an extra set of keys on me, so I drive it home.
I stop by the mechanic’s shop later. He is relieved when I tell him what happened; when he couldn’t find it, he assumed the car had been stolen. Why was it so far from the shop? He’d been driving it around to test something, he says. Though he’d always been a pretty square and reliable guy, as mechanics go, something about the whole affair rubs me the wrong way. I settle my bill and never take my car to him again. Not that I have much chance. With insurance premiums killing my unemployed wallet, I give Maggie to my dad, who treats cars like Kleenex. He drives her into the ground in record time.
5 DAYS LATER: I’m woken up by a dull thud. It feels like someone dropping a safe on the pavement. Fearing the worst, I run out to the stoop, as do all my neighbors. Soon we get the word that it was a very mild earthquake. There is a barely active fault line under Brooklyn/Queens, and it has picked the absolute worst time to give us all a jolt. Barely reassured, everyone goes back inside, angry at the earth over having some brand new thing to worry about.
7 DAYS LATER: I’m upstate for the weekend, in the town where I grew up, where everyone’s dad was a cop or fireman, or so it seemed when I was little. I go to pick up dinner at the pizza place I’d eaten at my whole life. A furious red-faced man in an FDNY t-shirt fumes by the counter. There’d been clashes at Ground Zero earlier that day between firemen who wanted to keep searching for their lost comrades and cops who were tasked with preventing them from doing so. In this man’s words, “they found the gold”—unnamed wealth or treasure from some corporation or another buried in the rubble—”and they don’t wanna look for nothing else.” He’d been pulling double shifts or worse all week. He looks like he can barely stand, from every form of exhaustion.
My mom drives a school bus in this town. In the weeks to come, it will be impossible for her to drive that bus to its destinations. There’s another memorial service at St. Mary’s every day, tying up traffic with one funeral procession after another to accommodate all the dead.
10 DAYS LATER: My brother asks if I want to go to Shea. The Mets are playing their first game in New York since That Day. It was the first game of any kind in New York since then. He had the tickets for weeks and can not find people to go. I accept the invitation. The stadium is maybe three-quarters full, the cavernous upper deck lightly populated. Too many rumors are swirling about what could happen next, what Those People have planned as a follow up, and none can be dismissed outright.
Liza Minelli sings “New York, New York” with a kickline of policemen. Mike Piazza clubs a two-run homer to straight away center that gives the Mets the lead in the bottom of the eighth, as Howie Rose screams THIS ONE’S GOT A CHANCE! They hold on for a 3-2 win over the Braves, on a field that days earlier was used as a campsite and supply center for the recovery effort, with various Mets chipping in some manpower. As Piazza’s homer sails into the night, I know nothing is better and nothing has changed and nothing will be good for a very long time. And yet, in this moment, brief as it is, I can simply be happy that someone is hitting a baseball high and far and gone.
6 WEEKS LATER: I’m returning from visiting my family upstate on the train. By the time I get to Hoboken, I find out there are no PATH trains to the city. A plane crashed in the Rockaways. No one’s sure it’s terrorism, but no one’s sure it isn’t, either. The ferries to Manhattan are still running, so I hop on one while scanning the skies, wondering what was going to fall out of them next. It lands in Battery Park City, way too close to Ground Zero, where that smell still hangs in the air. I make my way to the A train before I can vomit.
2 MONTHS LATER: I meet a girl. She tells me That Morning, she was going to meet up with a friend to get textbooks at the World Trade Center, but she stayed out too late the night before and slept in. One day she will become my wife and we will have a baby, and I will try not to think about what might have happened—or not happened—if she’d gone downtown That Morning, or about all the people who had the misfortune to be on time for their appointments.
3 MONTHS LATER: Automotive High School never gets back to me. My interview is lost in the mess of That Day. I have a job again, working as a roving teacher in a junior high in the Bronx. I take the job because it was offered to me and I’m in no position to turn down employment. It is a nightmare. Every morning, I walk over the Pulaski Bridge into Queens so I can take the 7 train to the 5. As I do, I see helicopters and small plans pass over the East River, sometimes getting lost behind certain buildings in the foreground of Long Island City, and I have to pause because I want to make sure they come out the other side in one piece.
The kids at this school are almost uniformly assholes. The same can be said of any junior high student body. But I am not equipped in any way to deal with them, after a year of complete and total failure. It’s bad enough to be beaten down by life, but to be also shit on by 13-year-olds is too much. I know these kids came from rough backgrounds that I can barely comprehend, but in my current state of extreme despair and self-pity, I can’t understand why I have to suffer for that. I begin to break down my days into tiny slices, just to get through them intact. Okay, made it through that minute. Now let’s take on this next minute.
One day, the rumor swirls around the junior high that the water supply was poisoned. It was one of many terror fears that bubbled up in since That Day. I try to tell the kids that it was virtually impossible to do this, that there was almost no way taking sips from the water fountain could kill them. I don’t think they’re even scared, really; it was just something else to distract them from school, to fuck with me and every other teacher. So when a kid takes a sip from a water fountain and feigns choking, I respond with staged unconcern. “Alright, you’re dead. Who’s next?” Some laugh, most don’t.
A week later, two kids get into an argument over something idiotic, and one hurls a chair at the other. I want to smack their two heads together, knock them out cold. Immediately after thinking this, I realize how insane and dangerous such a thought is. I leave the school that afternoon and never return. They call me at home for weeks. I let the phone ring.
1 YEAR LATER: I’m back in school, getting an MFA in fiction at Brooklyn College. On the anniversary, we drop the pretense of trying to talk about anything but what had happened. And yet, no one can say much. We all know we’re nowhere near the end of it. As aspiring writers, we try to talk about how someone could write about That Day. Is it too soon? Then we hear a fighter jet flyover pierce the air, and we all have to stop.
Later, we repair to a bar not far from Atlantic Avenue. Not long after we arrive, a few fireman enter desperately looking for a coworker. He ain’t been here, has he? one asks angrily. No, the bartender assures him, We know we’re not supposed to serve him. The fireman sighs and leaves, slump shouldered, to look for his friend, who has been driven over the edge by This Day.
2 YEARS LATER: I’m working at a different job, one where I make programs for pro and college sports teams. I’m sent to a printer’s conference at a plant 100 miles north of Minneapolis. I drive a rental car from the airport and realize how little of America I’ve seen.
I’m the only person there from my company, staying at a nice little resort in the middle of vast Minnesotan prairies, where road signs caution motorists to watch out for horse and buggies driven by the local Amish. At dinner at the hotel, I am forced to sit with the other attendees. Some from the Midwest find out that there are New Yorkers present. They breathlessly ask what it was like. I say nothing, but a trio from another company play it up for all it’s worth, sharing their tales of narrow escape. I can’t decide who I hate more, the non-New Yorkers with terror envy or the New Yorkers who are talking about it like a Big Fish story. I repair to my room and drain a six pack while watching The Civil War on my laptop.
3 YEARS LATER: My grandfather, the greatest man I’ve known and will probably ever know, has died. I grew up next door to him, and I spend most of the night trying to pick out photos to put on the little corkboard thing that will sit in the funeral home. I see a picture of me as a child, sitting in his lap as he drives a lawnmower through his backyard, and I have to run back nextdoor to my house. I hadn’t cried yet and this image makes me erupt in angry, endless tears.
It also happens to be election night. At 2 in the morning, the man who swore to get Osama bin Laden dead or alive, then said he wasn’t “too concerned about him,” has just taken Ohio. He will be president again. Bin Laden will remain uncaptured. I will attempt to drink myself to sleep, to no avail.
4 YEARS LATER: My father falls terminally ill, in Nepal of all places. Since I was in junior high, he’s traveled the globe doing “consulting,” in countries that experience some sort of political turmoil immediately before and after he arrived. I always suspected he was a spook. The main reason was, he’d once worked for an insurance company, spent a good portion of the 1980s trying to drink himself into oblivion, then suddenly dried up and was working for Nasdaq somehow. None of it made sense, unless you sniffed conspiracy.
Whenever asked, he would laugh and change the subject, which was odd, since he usually had no problem lying straight to your face. My pet theory was that whatever he truly did with his life, this was the only thing he felt guilty about. I’d always wanted to ask him what he’d done, what he knew. He was at the World Trade Center for the first bombing in 1993. He was in the vast former Yugoslavia when NATO accidentally bombed a Chinese embassy. He’d been to Pakistan several times.
Was it impossible to think he knew something about 9/11, or bin Laden, or both? No, but now it was impossible to ask him, about that and a million other things.
9 YEARS LATER: I’m working downtown, literally next door to Ground Zero. Every step reminds me of my father, who I used to meet down here for lunch when I was in college. The weight of it presses on me, to the point where I have to rush to the office to get away from it.
Every morning I see people with tables on street corners selling 9/11 crap to tourists. Postcards. Framed pictures. Coloring books. I’m amazed at how time can transform anything into a tourist trap. In a hundred years, this will all be as distant as the Civil War, or the Battle of Hastings, or Thermopylae, a point on the map and a plaque. Maybe it will be a mere blip on history’s radar, a prelude to something else even more momentous or horrifying. What’s worse to contemplate, a 9/11 coloring book or the certainty that every lifetime will one day be condensed into a sentence?
9 YEARS, 231 DAYS LATER: Twitter tells me Obama will address the nation at 10:30pm. My immediate thought: either we’re about to be flattened by an ICBM or Bin Laden is dead. Thankfully, it is the latter.
Twitter knows the news before the networks do, or will dare to say. While my feed celebrates the not-yet-official announcement, David Gregory can only allude to it. 10:30 quickly becomes 11. People begin to complain about the delay, but when you think about it, the delay of this eventuality even one minute after 9/11 is a travesty.
In my neighborhood, police and fire truck sirens blare. I think they are celebrating. I find out later they are rushing to a five-alarm fire. Their work never ends.
I always wondered how I would feel at this moment, and I still do. Bin Laden being killed, finally, does not erase anything he did, does not bring anyone back—either from the dead or being stationed overseas—and does not alleviate the pain caused both by him and the administration that used him to further its agenda. I don’t know what to do, so after the president’s speech I turn the Mets game back on, which is winding its way into sluggish extra innings. Earlier, the crowd erupted into a bipartisan chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Not the most nuanced reaction, but it seems uncouth to criticize such an organic display at such a moment. Especially when it just happens to have the same cadence of “Let’s go Mets!”
And I know this means even less than what’s happened to Bin Laden, by an astronomical amount, but I want the Mets to win. I need them to win. So when Ronny Paulino knocks in the the go-ahead run in the top of the 14th, and they hold on for the victory, I finally feel a strange sense of closure. From Piazza to Paulino, one Met catcher to another, bookending this horrible era with their game-winning hits. Something makes sense to me. There is symmetry after a decade of chaos.
9 YEARS, 232 DAYS LATER: I drop my daughter off at day care, and then leave for the city. On my way into the office, I pass by a plaque in the lobby of my building, dedicated to carpenter’s union members who lost their lives on 9/11. The same number of names are there as when I left on Friday. I head upstairs to work.