Some Reflections On September 11 (Reprinted)

by Belle Waring on September 11, 2006

This post is reproduced from September 13, 2004. I don’t think I have anything better to say, but I wanted to say something. My thoughts are with the families of all those who perished five years ago.

I lived in New York City for four years, and visited several times a year for many year before and after. I never went into the World Trade Center. The Stock Exchange? Yes. Century 21’s downtown location, to fight over discontinued Helmut Lang skirts? Yes. I never went to Windows on the World and bought a drink. I could have afforded one drink. As in many skyscrapers, there were different elevators that went to different floors, local and express, like a vertical IRT. I never rode in them.

Perhaps it’s because I am afraid of heights? Some people are afraid of heights because they worry that they might fall. I am afraid of heights because I worry that I might jump. Some uncontrolled impulse might leap from my subconscious, fully formed, and send me vaulting over the railing before I realize what I’m doing. I’m sure there was a big barrier up there, though, on the roof. It would have been all right. I’ll never see it now, tourists with cameras, everything riffling in the wind, the city below like a horripliated skin shaken out onto the water, bristling with towers and water tanks.

The twin towers used to be a lodestar, the true north of downtown. When you were getting close to the city on the Metroliner from DC you would see them, looming palely over the fens and stippled wastes of New Jersey. I don’t know why there are no refineries on that side, between the tracks and the river. To your left there are many, incomprehensible cities of pipes and flame-topped pillars, wan in the sunlight. To your right, nothing: swamps poisoned with acrid metals and the distant towers shimmering behind, out of scale. There is nothing now to tell you if you are near or far, only marsh, and the sudden maw of the tunnel, surprising you into the city.

It used to be that when you got drunk and took the subway downtown somewhere and didn’t know what direction you were facing, you could look at the World Trade Center to orient yourself. Stumbling through the revolving door of meshed bars, which always seems on the verge of mangling someone, up the pissy stairs with their irregular black smears of gum, you would come into the cold air and look about for a moment. From somewhere, over your shoulder or dead ahead, you would see them. So much taller than the five-story buildings around you, as if they were an image refracted from another, Brobdingnagian city. There are almost no stars in the sky in New York City, because there is too much ambient light. On a cold night you might see part of Orion, certainly Sirius. Not the pole star, though. New York has got its own stars, blinking on and off like a cluster of baleful planets, red Marses. Used to have. They were there to warn the planes away. They could only fulfill this function under certain circumstances. The raised white glove of an unarmed policeman suffices to stop traffic, usually.

And what about the people who did this? I imagine they were surprised at their own sucess. But why, if they could do this incredible thing, have they not sent nineteen more men out to shoot people at random in malls, in schools? Don’t they know how terrifying that would be? Can they possibly understand us as little as we understand them? Perhaps we are not even the intended audience for this spectacle of destruction, but merely props in it. Perhaps they would lose face by causing any lesser tragedies, paltry massacres that would make them seem weak. If so, then what comes next must be truly awful, something on a grand scale to compete with the steady, shattering thuds of bodies leaping from the flames. I try to think about the people who did this.

I got a dress of mine out of the closet here in Singapore which I hadn’t worn in a long time. It is a beautiful, patterned silk dress from the 1940’s, indescribable scribbles and swirls on brown and green on a pale ash color. When I took it out, I saw that a mud-dauber wasp had built a single breeding cell on the dress. It depended from the tag in the neckline, a sandy, crumbling cone. It filled me with a peculiar horror. Even now it makes a shudder wash down my back to think about it. The larvae were gone or dead; the cone came apart in my fingers, leaving an oval stain. Nothing dangerous. Still, there was something awful about the idea of this mother wasp going to and fro to my closet, dirt in her mandibles, on her mysterious errand. Was she often shut in there when I closed the door? It was irreducibly strange.

I have looked at that picture of Osama Bin Laden many times. He doesn’t look quite right, I mean, not as I would want him to look. Not angry enough. Khomeini was a very satisfactory villian for the American public. Bin Laden? He looks thoughtful. Inward-gazing. I try to imagine thoughts to put there, behind his too-soft eyes. I put my imaginary desert landscapes there: life reduced to its essentials, a single man trudging along the horizon under a bowl of infinite blue. Is this what he wants? The whole world pared down, all taking the same journey into desert as Arabia Felix did, that was once so green? Nothing extraneous, nothing human? Nothing female, certainly. On Cyprus they used to worship Aphrodite in an aniconic form: a cone of volcanic rock, five feet high. You can see it there, in a museum. Even that would be too much for him.

Last year I went to New York for the first time since September 11, 2001. Driving over the 59th Street bridge I looked back at the curiously balanced skyline. It used to be massively weighted at the tip, anchored by those vertical marks. Now it just floated there, behind the car, the buildings of the east side lowering behind the tombstones of that massive graveyard in Queens, serried rank upon rank, until I could see them no more.



perianwyr 09.11.06 at 7:31 am

It is disturbing how lack of understanding is both the cause of these terrors and often our best defense against even deeper horrors.


Russell Arben Fox 09.11.06 at 1:13 pm

A beautifully written post, Belle. Many thanks.


bob mcmanus 09.11.06 at 5:16 pm

Excellent post. Nice first comment.

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