Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Water Globe: Some Thoughts on 9/11

I used to have a water globe, a tourist trinket, of Manhattan Island. It included the Empire State Building, the Chrysler building with its dome, a department store, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the George Washington Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, a yellow cab, and of course, the Twin Towers. The base was made of nicely beveled cherry wood and contained a music box. When I turned the water globe upside down and wound it up with the key beneath, a charming little scenario ensued: Glittery sparkles danced around and landed on the buildings to the tune of  "New York, New York," calling to mind Frank Sinatra's memorable tribute to the City, a place where anything was possible and all dreams came true.

I set the globe on a three-legged side table I had bought in SoHo. Unfortunately, I found that three-legged tables are more decorative than functional. Inevitably one day the globe went crashing to the ground. It was reduced to a mess of broken glass, water mixed with glitter, and a gray three-dimensional metal silhouette of the city attached to the inner workings of a music box. I was broken-hearted. There was something about that trinket that for me that encapsulated the city’s enchantment and promise, and the familiar and most-prominent sites in the city where I grew up gave me comfort. I went to seek out a replacement.

But when I went back to the department store to get a new one, I discovered that the next year’s model had changed. This one was set on a stark black cube. The sparkles had been replaced with snow. And the Twin Towers were missing. I suppose the designer of the globe simply omitted the towers because they no longer existed. But to me at least, that omission seemed an attempt to erase the memories, the nightmare. I thought about the gaping hole in the ground I had seen when I finally forced myself to go downtown and view the actual site. The water globe’s pristine white snow also seemed fake, incongruous in Manhattan, where within hours sidewalks are salted down and cleared, turning snow into huge puddles and mounds of dirty piles, making it impossible to cross the street. Holding the new globe in my hand, I wondered whether the glamour and glitz have gone from the city, whether the city had become a place where dreams turned to a grey slush. The missing buildings once towering over the island and a symbol of a city’s upward striving, now smacked of a city’s hubris, not unlike that Icarus who soared too close to the sun. Eerily, looking back, one can see how our tallest buildings stood out as an easy target to some unknown demented enemy.

I put the replacement globe back on the shelf and decided not to buy it.

I don’t know anyone in the city who was not traumatized by the events of 9/11. The city’s memory, it seems to me, is now divided into pre-9/11 and post-9/11. One day we felt complacent and safe, and then the next, vulnerable and on edge. I remember my daughter frantically calling me on the phone on that fateful day telling me to turn on the television. The scene I witnessed ten years ago was so unreal, surpassing any sort of imagined science fiction movie. I remember the details of that day all too clearly: the clear blue sky, the smoke from the first tower, the second airplane hitting the second tower. I personally could not watch the disaster unfold, and turned the television off after a short clip of then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani standing at the base of one of the buildings shaking hands with firemen headed bravely upstairs, not knowing what horrors awaited them. I remember the next day’s paper featured a photograph taken by a free lance photographer: People were jumping off one of the burning towers. Caught in midair were business people, men and women in suits, falling briefcases, and loose high heeled shoes. “People falling,” I distinctly remember the caption said. I wondered at that imprecise diction. People were actually jumping from the inferno to their deaths. I threw the newspaper out, yet that disturbing and shocking photo of people in midair still stays in my mind. Ever since that day when the skyline immutably changed, life in New York City has never been the same.

I remember the subsequent days and months feeling like I was living in a city under siege. There were police drills of endless rows of squad cars speeding down the avenues with sirens blaring, blocking all traffic; soldiers dressed in camouflage stood with guns posted at the entrances to Central Park and to the subway. Makeshift altars -- made up of flowers, stuffed animals, a candle, a note, a photo -- were all over the city. Everywhere I saw those reminders of those who died. Then there was that pervasive smell – of melted buildings and much worse. I remember the feeling of being trapped on an island that felt like an imminent target. Even my building handed out a protocol of instructions for emergency preparedness, including directions on how to assemble a “go-bag”, should disaster strike. “Code Orange” was the security buzz-word. A Department of Homeland Security was established as we braced ourselves for future attacks. Our city felt more like a target than a welcoming beacon. Many who had another place to go, left. The rest of us huddled closely together, our discussions dominated by whether to leave the city, that is, evacuate, or to stay. Our belief in a predictable world had been shattered. We lost our innocence.

Now, ten years later, as the city nears its day of commemoration of 9/11 and honors the memory of the nearly 3,000 people who died, the shocking immediacy of those much too visceral images broadcast over the television and indelibly captured in photographs, has mercifully faded. The imminent threat of disaster has receded over the years, as a city on the alert, still at times edgy, has returned to almost normal function. After all, no further attacks have occurred. The perpetrator of this act of war, after a long quest, has been duly captured and buried at sea. The threat is now over, we have been told. There is now a sense of closure and vindication. In the meantime, the city has moved on, has had no choice but to move on, has had to rebuild and recover. With the passage of time, that gaping wound in the ground has closed up and has now become a memorial nearing completion.

However, as I try to think back to that very day, all I am left with that image of that fragile glass globe with its missing buildings and black base, and I am at a loss for words. I dread the TV clips and photos that inevitably resurface on each and every 9/11 anniversary, and all the memories that they retrigger. I cannot bear to have all the details of the attack rehashed by the media again, and again, and again. Numerous books have since been written, documenting the event, but I have no interest in reading them. All I can remember how is exposed and vulnerable and helpless we felt in our once-invincible city when our tallest buildings were destroyed. It is still utterly impossible for me to make sense of what transpired quite literally out of the blue and its resultant trauma.

(c) Olya Thompson

1 comment:

  1. Nathalie----You are an exceptional writer and this essay exemplifies that. Now, five years later, I hope that you are still not trying to make "sense" of what happened. Evil never makes sense and those who witness or who are subjected to evil are best served by understanding that