WARTIME IN THE BIG APPLE



                       
                      
      
                             Taking it personally
      
           I cannot but take it personally. I may have been living in 
      Paris for a dozen years, but I grew up in New York, and spent the 
      first twenty four years of my life there.
           Or rather here.
           For I am writing this in November in New York, in the front 
      room of an apartment on 9th Street and Avenue of the Americas--the 
      very room, looking out the very window, from which I was looking 
      out at a crowd forming on the avenue and looking south on Septem-
      ber 11, 2001.
           From my angle, I couldn't see the Twin Towers of the World 
      Trade Center, or rather, as I was soon to learn, that they were no 
      longer there.  I showed Dona Sadock, whose apartment it was and 
      is, the crowd forming on the street below, expressing my curiosity 
      at what they could all be looking at.
           "Oh," she said diffidently, "they shoot movies here all the 
      time, no doubt just another one."
           I called my agent to make an appointment, but I was told by 
      his receptionist that he wouldn't be coming into work today be-
      cause of what had happened.
           "What happened?"
           And she told me.
           And I dashed down in the street, into the buzzing, milling 
      crowd, looked south, and saw--nothing.
           The familiar giant monoliths simply were not there, as if 
      Stanley Kubrick had commanded the set struck and ordered them 
      teleported back to Jupiter.
           Instead there was an immense roiling rising cloud of dense 
      black smoke where they had been.  And the smell. Even from these 
      several kilometers away, you couldn't avoid the acrid chemical 
      tang of it, and beneath that, the subliminal pheremonal odor of 
      the shock and anger of the dazed onlookers.
           I dashed up to the apartment to get Dona, who already had the 
      TV on and told me that the area below 14th Street had been de-
      clared a no-go zone to vehicular traffic, possibly a barricaded 
      zone to pedestrians as well.
           Call it base instinct, call it survival instinct, and I was 
      far from the only one responding to it, I ran back into the 
      streets, looking for an open supermarket, of which there were 
      none.  Only a few small stores were open, and they were already 
      clogged with people frantically scooping up what they could from 
      the shelves in a hoarding panic before it all disappeared, and I 
      did likewise.  Toilet paper.  Whatever canned goods I could grab.  
      Milk.  Butter. Eggs. Bread. Packaged cheese. Whatever was still 
      left that I could lay hands on before someone else did.  
           That night we were out on the streets, and most people, at 
      least downtown in Greenwich Village, seemed to be gripped by the 
      same gregarious tropism, for there was a strange electric charge 
      in the air, the bars and restaurants were full, strangers babbled 
      to each other about the only topic there was.
           Hard to explain why to anyone who has never been a New York-
      er, but I was proud of the town that night.  There's a T-shirt 






      that maybe comes close. On the front it says "I'm from L.A., trust 
      me." On the back it says "I'm from New York, fuck you."
           That night that I conceived what should be rebuilt to replace 
      the Twin Towers: two new twin towers, higher enough than what had 
      been destroyed to be world's tallest buildings. Atop one, I'd 
      place a floodlit piece of the wreckage.  Atop the other would be a 
      giant floodlit replica of the hand of the Statue of Liberty.  
           It wouldn't be holding a torch. Instead it would be holding 
      aloft New York's collective index finger, a mighty and eternal 
      fuck you to whoever and whatever so foolishly presumed that even 
      such a catastrophe could dull the edge and daunt the true spirit 
      of the Big Apple.
      
                            Taking it on The Tube.
      
           Dona and I had lived together decades ago, broken up, gone 
      our separate ways, and this was supposed to be a romantic essay at 
      reunion. And it was. Though, of course, not as we had imagined, 
      let alone ever intended.  
           Strangely enough we had been sojourners in New York together 
      those decades ago during that other great national trauma, Water-
      gate. We were there during the hearings.  We were there when 
      Richard Nixon resigned.
           There?
           Sure we were. We were all there together, now weren't we?
           We watched it all on television. 
           Dona and I huddled for hours and hours, day after day, before 
      the television set, within the barricaded zone, watching all that 
      was to be seen on a hundred or so channels of cable TV, which was 
      little else but coverage of the catastrophe and its aftermath, 
      waiting.
           Waiting for George W. Bush to emerge from his seclusion.  
      Waiting for American retaliation.  Waiting for the horrendous 
      body-count to be completed.  Waiting for the next attack.  Waiting 
      for something to happen.
           But nothing really did. 
           Nothing really happened for the week that I remained in New 
      York after September 11. But every channel had 24 hours of air 
      time a day to fill and no one was interested in seeing anything 
      else. So every channel reported that nothing endlessly.  The air 
      time, and therefore the public consciousness, was filled with 
      endless pronouncements by government officials saying nothing new 
      of substance.  And with worse.  
            Even as early as the day after the destruction of the Tow-
      ers, the perverse, mendacious, yet somehow admirable New York 
      commercial spirit had already filled the permanent flea market of 
      14th Street with merchandising tie-ins to the disaster. American 
      flags.  American flag T-shirts.  Posters of the Twin Towers.  
      Anti-bin Laden dart boards and toilet paper.  And much more, as if 
      to say, this is New York, assholes, and when the bottom line gets 
      added up, as usual, we're gonna come out ahead.
           But day after day, dozens of times an hour, the TV pounded 
      the image of the plane slamming into the second Tower into the 
      public consciousness, even using it as a station break logo. And 
      for lack of any other dramatic footage, milked coverage of the 
      disaster area, the despairing relatives of the victims, the gloom 
      and doom of it all, for all the air time it was worth. The politi-
      cians, for want of the ability to give the audience the blood-red 






      meat of the retribution it craved, spouted patriotic rhetoric and 
      created and encouraged ceremonies of public mourning.  
           And television covered that endlessly.
           And the mood of the city began to change. Anger began to turn 
      to grief, defiance to melancholy. New York began to lose some of 
      its edge, some of its special spirit, and in the eyes of the rest 
      of the country as well.
           New York had long been regarded by the rest of the United 
      States as a city apart, more European than true red, white, and 
      blue; a town that more than one politician had publicly wished 
      could be sawn off the rest of the country and sent drifting out 
      into the Atlantic Ocean.
           But now New York had been the victim of the most devastating 
      attack on American soil in history.  Many more people had died in 
      minutes than in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  And they had 
      been civilians. And there had been television coverage.  Endless 
      television coverage. Rudy Giuliani, the New York firefighters and 
      police, became national heroes.  For the first time, the rest of 
      the country took New York to its heart. 
           But millions of New Yorkers, like Dona and myself, who had 
      lived through it, who had smelled the smoke and felt it on the 
      backs of their throats, were now getting the same images, sounds, 
      and reportage of what they had experienced first-hand that the 
      rest of the country was getting--second-hand via the edited virtu-
      al reality of television.
           And what they were getting was a flag-waving patriotism that 
      had never been New York's style. And what they were getting in 
      lieu of pay-back ass-kicking in true New York style was a long and 
      increasingly lugubrious wake.
           CNN once ran a piece of self-promotion in which the President 
      of Egypt gazed at the camera with an expression of bemused wist-
      fulness.
           "It must be true," said Hosni Mubarak.  "I see it on the 
      CNN."
      
                           Apocalypse Now Revisited
           
           And so now here I am back again, less than three months 
      later; in New York, in Dona's apartment, writing this in the very 
      room I was in when the planes hit the Twin Towers.
           The more things seem the same, the more they change.
           And quickly.
           Via the transformational power of wartime.
           The wartime romance may be a hoary cliche, but cliches don't 
      become cliches unless they are built around a kernel of truth. 
      Dona and I were in the process of rekindling our old relationship 
      before September 11, but being thrust together into  what had in-
      stantly become a war zone, into the Ground Zero of history, cer-
      tainly added intensity.  Many, many babies were conceived during 
      the four days of the great New York electrical blackout of years 
      past, and I suspect six months or so from now, when the numbers 
      are added up and the birthdays calculated backwards, it will prove 
      that even more were conceived during the week of September 11.
           As well as relationships started, ended, or transformed.  
      Like it or not, personal life becomes more piquant, more super-
      charged, and consciousness itself is heightened when you're envel-
      oped by war or what amounts to a war atmosphere. 
           It's not so much the fear, or the tense boredom of waiting 






      for what will or will not happen next, though there is that too; 
      it's the sheer charge of life at the center of destiny, at the 
      heart of the whirlwind.
           The more things seem the same, the more they change.
           And quickly.
           Via the transformational power of television.
           As I write this, the destruction of the Taliban is almost 
      completed, and by the time this is published, Osama bin Laden may 
      even have been captured.  But there is no feeling of victory in 
      New York, no sense of closure. 
           It is still all but impossible to have a conversation with 
      anyone for ten minutes without it coming round to the events of 
      September 11 and their aftermath, but the aftermath now seems to 
      have taken on a more powerful life than the terrible event itself. 
           On the ride in from the airport, patriotic billboards are 
      everywhere, and the most prevalent slogan is: "United We Stand."
           And so it seems. Big American flags fly from apartment houses 
      where they have never been seen before. Little ones fly from the 
      radio antennas of cars, taxis, trucks.  People of the left who 
      previously would never have been caught dead doing so are wearing 
      American flag label pins. Patriotic flag-waving T-shirts, posters, 
      warm-up jackets, are everywhere. Patriotic underwear is even on 
      sale.  And posters and postcards and T-shirts featuring the Mar-
      tyred Towers abound.  Last week, the New York Times published yet 
      another supplement on the aftermath in its big Sunday edition.  
      Indeed, such supplements, magazine articles, TV specials, seem to 
      have become a permanent genre.
           "United We Stand."
           But for what?  Or even against what?
           No one seems to know the answer.  Hardly anyone here seems to 
      even be asking the question.
           But to a son of the city who was there through the event 
      itself and the subsequent week's television coverage and who has 
      now returned two months and more later as an outside observer, it 
      seems that United New York Stands--within itself and with the rest 
      of the country--not for anything, not against anything, but in 
      grief.
           Two months and more after the event, New York is still a city 
      in shock, still a city in mourning. Many, many people have told me 
      that September 11 was a great watershed in history, have compared 
      it to the assassination of JFK, believe that life will never again 
      be the same.  On the surface, the city still rocks and rolls with 
      the familiar frenetic energy. Life goes on, but the old New York 
      obla di, obla da thereof seems to be missing.  
           This is not the New York I grew up in. This is not even the 
      New York I experienced in the week before September 11, 2001.
           A great catastrophe has occurred. An unprecedented attack on 
      the American homeland.  A huge number of people killed.  Tens of 
      billions of dollars in damages. Scores of thousands of jobs lost.
           And yet....
           And yet York was in much worse economic shape in the 1970s 
      and 1980s than it is now.  And in cold hard objective terms, the 
      white collar jobs lost in the destruction of the Twin Towers will 
      be outnumbered by the blue collar construction jobs gained in re-
      building on what is now the most valuable empty plot of real 
      estate in the world. The cynical and ruthlessly pragmatic old New 
      York would be licking its chops and wheeling and dealing already.
           Yes, six thousand people died in an historic instant, but 






      lesser cities than New York (and to a New Yorker all cities are 
      lesser cities than New York)--Sarajevo, the London of the Blitz, 
      Leningrad under Nazi siege, among others--have endured worse and 
      gone on even while it was happening with more of the old New York 
      spirit than New York itself seems to be showing this time around. 
           In emotional terms, the Twin Towers, two huge but otherwise 
      architecturally undistinguished glass boxes, were never loved by 
      New Yorkers while they stood, were never spiritual or esthetic 
      sigils of the Big Apple like the Statue of Liberty and the Empire 
      State Building, or even Rockefeller Center and Yankee Stadium.
           Yes, there is a huge hole in the financial center. But why 
      should there be such a hole in the heart of the city?
           "It must be true," said the President of Egypt. "I see it on 
      the CNN."
           And therein, I believe, lies the tale. 
           I myself was there in the flesh. I myself was in the street a 
      few miles away scant minutes after the Towers fell. I participated 
      in the hour of hoarding. I walked south towards Houston until I 
      could no longer breathe the acrid air. I lived for a week after-
      wards in the No-Go zone. 
           But what did I do most during that week?
           What millions of other people in the city did.
           What the whole country did.
           I watched hours and hours of television.
           It that sense, it was indeed like the assassination of JFK.  
      There was hardly anything else on the air. Television immersed the 
      entire nation in a communal experience. That experience was rela-
      tively short and it had a dramatic structure with a closure. The 
      assassination itself, the killing of Jack Ruby, the funeral.  And 
      it was centered on a man, not a city.
           But we in New York were watching what we had experienced and 
      were still experiencing in the flesh as presented by television to 
      the entire nation. As crafted and spun for the entire nation. On 
      virtually every available channel.  For a week and more.  And to 
      some extent, it is still going on as I write this.
           Smaller wonder that even for the people who had lived through 
      it in the flesh in New York, the TV version became the experience. 
      We too, in terms both of hours and the endless repetition of the 
      same images, the same public pronouncements, the same endless 
      processions of talking heads telling us what to make of it, saw 
      more of it on the tube than in what the naive would call 
      "reality." 
           And until the bombing in Afghanistan began, all this air time 
      that had to be filled, and therefore all this coverage, had no 
      real story to tell. President Bush was semi-incommunicado for 
      days. No meaningful counteraction was being taken. All there was 
      to broadcast was recapitulation of the terrible event and its 
      aftermath.   
           Finally, Bush declared "a war against terrorism that would go 
      on until the last terrorist was eliminated."  But this was an 
      impossible goal, a definition of a state of war that could go on 
      forever, with no achievable concrete goal, no reasonable defini-
      tion of payback and victory, and therefore no point of closure to 
      even move towards for New Yorkers.
           The politicians blathered, likewise the talking heads of the 
      media.  A period of mourning was declared. There was a week with-
      out baseball or football. Candlelight vigils.  Interviews with the 
      relatives of victims. An endless and endlessly televised national 






      wake that went on and on and on, and that, in somewhat attenuated 
      form, goes on still. 
            What this did for the United States was to bring the nation 
      together to "stand united" in patriotic fervor.  But what it did 
      for the Bush Administration, and therefore to the United States 
      was to silence any dissenting voices, not even by government edict 
      but as a national reflex action.  A TV anchor who mildly criti-
      cized Bush's craven behavior of the first few days was fired. Save 
      the American Civil Liberty Union, little outrage dared to speak 
      itself when thousands of people were detained without proper legal 
      procedure, without even being publicly identified.  Behind this 
      pixelled smokescreen of patriotic grief Bush was able to temporize 
      while his approval ratings soared simply because he was the Presi-
      dent.  
           What this televised national mourning on its behalf seems to 
      have done to New York is dampen the contentious, ironic, hard-
      edged, survivalist, ass-kicking, entrepenurial spirit that made it 
      the Big Apple, the closest thing planet Earth had to a capital 
      city.
           Television meant for the country at large ended up selling 
      New York the politically useful image of itself--New York the 
      victim, New York the city in mourning, New York the grievously 
      wounded metropolis. Boo-hoo-hoo!
           Call me a hopeless romantic, call me a hard-boiled cynic, or 
      just call me a son of the city as it was before it was turned into 
      the TV version of itself, but I believe that the pre-September 11 
      New York--or rather the pre-media version--would have puked at the 
      very thought of itself as the lugubrious star of such a sob-sister 
      series.
           But maybe there's a ray of hope in the old ironic New York 
      style. For now the popular and heroic Rudy Giuliani, a mayor the 
      city came to love, is gone, and maybe he was part of the problem. 
      It's just not natural for New York to love its mayor.
           He's been replaced by Michael Bloomberg, an utterly inexperi-
      enced millionaire who refused public financing so he could buy the 
      election with $50 million of his own money.  And the town certain-
      ly has reason to be nervous.
           But perhaps that's just what the city needs now--a mayor who 
      New Yorkers can distrust, can hold in contempt, who can become the 
      butt of really nasty humor.
           I'm the mayor you elected. Trust me.
           Give us a break, will ya!  We're New York. Fuck you! 
           It could be just what the Big Apple needs to get back to 
      monkey business as usual.
      
                end