#1: On Loss
Part 2: Hellsapoppin
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A month later, I went to New York City for a memorial service for my editor at Harper Collins, Robert Jones, an extraordinary person, an old soul if you believe in that sort of thing, highly evolved and deeply compassionate, who had truly devoted himself to his writers, to nurturing their talent and bringing out the very best in them. He was the editor every writer dreams for. Robert had touched many people in the New York publishing and literary community, and the turnout at the University Club was perhaps a thousand strong. Devastated author after author of Robert’s recalled his incredibly supportive marginal notes: “Exquisite !” “I’m blown away !” “How did you ever come up with such a beautiful sentence? ” One of his colleagues quoted the columnist Cindy Adams, who wrote at the death of Liberace, “How do you type a tear? ”
Robert was the third important person in my life who had died since March. Two of them were only in their forties—Robert was 49-- and I was still grieving for my father, whom I’d lost the year before. Death was abroad, closer to me than it had ever been to me. (Except for my own brush with it in Peru in l977, when I very nearly died of blackwater fever.) I could hear the lacerating Ray Charles voice of the blind Reverend Gary Davis, my guitar teacher and guru in the sixties, singing his haunting song, “Death don’t have no mercy in this land,” as if he were still here and had not died twenty years ago. See Ethnomusicology.
It had been many months since I’d been to New York City. I am “not a pavement person,” as Georgia O’Keefe described herself, and I have always had a love-hate relationship with the place. I had just ended, in July, a very well-paid but singularly unproductive six-year relationship with Vanity Fair, and I was down on everything it stood for and glorified, its celebration of hyperconsumption and the decadent lifestyles of the superrich. There was no place for me there any more, for the kind of the writing I do. Long foreign stories had zero appeal to the current zeitgeist. So I wrote the editor, Graydon Carter, two perhaps too caustic e-mails outlining the issues I had with what he was doing to the magazine, and he didn’t want to deal with it and basically told me to seek employment elsewhere. My wife thought I had taken leave of my senses for thus kissing off two thirds of my income and an enviable and prestigious position at the pinnacle of journalism in terms of pay and prestige, and maybe I had. But it was worth it. I was no longer a servant of the media. No longer did I cringe every time I passed a real-estate sign in Montreal that said VENDU !
My disillusionment with my own culture had actually been growing since the previous fall, since Dubya stole the election. After that mockery of the democratic process, I just started letting my hair grow. It now cascaded to my shoulders, longer than it had even been in the sixties. I told people that I was in my second hippiehood. The electoral process had been hijacked, the Supreme Court was bought—what was there to respect about this culture whose selfish hyperconsumption was destroying the world?
This was more or less where I was “at” when I came to New York to pay hommage to Robert on September 10. My old childhood friend, the Buddhist, who lives on the Upper East side and had gotten me together with the Shamarpa, put me up, and the following morning we drove out to La Guardia to pick up the Shamarpa, who had flown up from Washington. We were planning to have our second discussion about the Karmapa controversy, then I was going to catch the 11:45 train to Albany. Having rained torrentially the night before, releasing a weeks-long buildup of humidity. September 11th dawned cool and clear as a bell. The taste of fall was in the air. I marveled at all the gorgeous chique women on the sidewalks of the Upper East Side, walking adorable little dogs or headed for work, chatting on cellphones. Ideologically I was down on the city, but this stance was quickly eroding, a woefully inadequate response to what New York City is. I have always had this ambivalence about New York. I get totally into it and love it when I am there, but I can only take a few days of it at a time.
After collecting the Shamarpa, we headed back into the city. Getting up on the elevated Grand Central Parkway we could see the whole skyline of Manhattan across the East River, a glorious panoramic view of almost the whole island from tip to tip, whose most prominent features were the twin glass towers of the World Trade Center. But what was this? A huge black plume of smoke pouring out of one of the World Trade Center towers, about two thirds of the way up. It was instantly apparent to all of us that this was not an ordinary fire. Something horrible had happened, obviously another terrorist attack on the preeminent symbol of American capitalism and global economic supremacy. But this was a very big hit, clearly a mortal blow to the tower, and to the people in it who had already come to their offices. Many people must be dead. I could hardly imagine the panic and the horror that must be going on inside what was left of the tower.
I looked at my watch. It was 8:51. We turned on the radio but there was no news yet about what had happened. This was the first hit—by the first Boeing 767 from Boston, American Airlines Flight 11. It had happened at 8:45, only six minutes ago. Only one station broadcast an unconfirmed rumor that a twin engine plane had crashed into the tower. But by 9:00 every station was on the story. But no one knew what was happening.
“It’s the Taliban. I’m absolutely sure, ” the Shamarpa said. Or Osama Bin Ladin, who was harbored by the Taliban. Bin Ladin was obsessed with these towers and with destroying Americans and everything American. We went over the Triboro Bridge. A policeman waved everybody off the FDR drive and we descended into Harlem and could no longer see the towers, but at the end of the eastern avenues, there was a huge mushroom cloud of smoke. By now the second tower had been hit, by the second Boeing from Boston, United Airlines 175.
The three of us realized with a gutwrenching feeling that a major attack, a major act of aggression on the United States on the order of Pearl Harbor, a watershed historical event, was underway. As President Bush (Dubya no longer seems appropriate, considering what he now has to deal with) put it nine days later, in his address to Congress and the nation, “Great harm has been done to us, and we have suffered great loss.” A sentence with an almost biblical cadence, that almost seemed to have a veiled threat to it: and now you shall taste the wrath of Jehovah. I recognized from the phrase “patient justice” that the speechwriter must be the same one who came up with “compassionate conservatism” during Dubya’s campaign.
We got to my old friend’s apartment and turned on CNN and watched the twin towers collapse, one after the other, into the greatest heap of rubble in human history. 55,000 people worked in them. How many had already come to work, how many had gotten out, how many had been trapped and incinerated or blown up or crushed. It would be a long time before that was known. The whole of lower Manhattan was engulfed in smoke, but the statue of Liberty was still standing in the clear September air on its little island at the mouth of the Hudson. The symbol of everything that is good about America was intact. This had been a devastating “surgical hit,” as the military experts contracted by the networks described the little puffs of smoke far below that appeared on our screens during the Gulf War nine years ago, when we were bombing Baghdad, causing the staggering collateral damage to Iraqui civilians. It was this violation and desecration of the Muslim Holy Land, this loss of many of the faithful, that created Bin Laden.
I decided against going down to Penn Station and trying to make the 11:45 train to Albany. It was not a good idea to go anywhere until it was clear what was happening, until the attack was over. But I didn’t want to stay in the city any longer than I had to, so I called Amtrak and reserved a seat for the 1:45. The booking agent assured me that the schedule was not going to be disrupted. At noon I started walked south down Lexington. I walked thirty blocks. The city was like a B disaster movie. The mushroom cloud was still billowing at the end the long, narrow, skycraper-lined canyon of Lexington Avenue. There was very little traffic. The streets were full of dazed people, commuters with loosened ties and attaché cases, New Yorkers whose elegance and vibrance I had admired a few hours ago. The sky was blotted out by smoke. Above it jet fighters—our Air Force-- were crisscrossing the airspace frantically. Each time one screamed past overhead everyone in the street would stop and look up anxiously, shielding their eyes with their hands. This must have been what London was like during the blitz.
I caught a cab which took me to 42nd Street, where roadblocks had been set up, and walked the rest of the way down to Penn Station. The doors were closed, and thousands of people were waiting outside for them to open. Most of them were commuters waiting for trains to Long Island or New Jersey, dying like me to get out of the gravely wounded city, the war zone, the target zone, and back home to their families. No one was saying a word. Thousands of people, regular, decent Americans, just waiting to get home. No one was complaining. How could anybody complain about having to wait for a train, about anything, after what had happened to the people who worked in the towers? There was something very moving about the way they were all just standing there. I had been down on the whole new parochial, anti-intellectual, anti-environmental, dumbed-down, born-again cast of the American zeitgeist, epitomized by “Dubya.” I had been feeling more radical, more revolted by the mainstream society, now than I ever did in the sixties. But the humility of the people waiting for the doors of Penn Station, the patience and politeness and consideration that they all realized was the correct response to the situation, renewed my faith in the fundamental decency of the American people, and in that special quality that exists only in New York City: “heart.”