Monday, January 09, 2012

Memoir Monday: The Art of the Personal

When I heard that the World Trade Center had been destroyed, I thought first not of the people killed but of the only time I'd ever been atop one of the towers. Maybe that's self-absorbed, but I've always thought it's easier to grasp the personal than the universal. Like art, death makes a connection more quickly and intimately when it's personal. When one person – your aunt, a friend, a friend's friend – dies, sympathy is pretty natural, but when thousands of people die that emotion is much less direct and pointed. And maybe it's arrogant to say so, but I think that's true for everyone.

Anyway, four years before the attacks, I had visited New York with my friend Jack on a crisp, clear, lovely September day, which was eerily like the day the towers fell 24 months later. We had decided to do all the touristy things, and one of those was going to the top of the WTC. We took an elevator up a long, long way, then switched to another elevator which took us the rest. Even inside that windowless moving box, I felt like Daedalus; there were some things human beings were just not intended to do, and one of them was ride a windowless, moving box hundreds of feet above the earth. Even the children on board were hushed.

We stopped first at the top floor, which had telescopes and windows and these little build-outs where you could look all the way down the ribbed side of the tower and get that vertigo that's your body saying "get the hell down from 1300 feet." Then we went up the escalator one more floor to the observation deck. Jack stepped right off the moving stairs into the open air, but it took a long time for me to gather the courage to follow him. Jack was always the bolder one, and when he laughed at my reluctance it didn't sting at all. Even if he found some of my ways funny, Jack never laughed at me.

Quiet. That's the first thing I noticed when I stepped out after him. There's not much peace in Manhattan, but at that height everything except the wind was quiet. There weren't even any birds to break the silence, and the other people on the deck respected that and kept their voices down. There were lots of people up there: tourists with kids and fanny packs, and New York types way too hip for either. I remember these two guys who looked as butch as Vin Diesel, but when they put their arms around each other Jack and I had to run away lest they hear us laughing and toss us over the side. Not that you could really toss anything over; the observation deck stopped well short of the roof edge. To commit suicide by jumping you'd have had to climb a fence and struggle through about fifteen feet of wires and other obstructions. Easier just to shoot yourself at home.

We were up there a good long time, looking over the harbor where the Statue of Liberty looked as small as the souvenir I'd once owned, from a long-ago New York trip. That kitschy little thing had been gold and the real deal was green, though. I always wondered what the US government thought when the French proposed building the thing: "Yeeeaaah…a giant robed lady holding a torch is exactly what New York harbor needs." Or maybe it was a surprise, and Grover Cleveland had to act delighted: "Wonderful! Amazing!" [To an aide: "Just put the damn thing somewhere I can't see it."] He probably burst a blood vessel when he found out they stuck it at the Gateway to America. Millions of immigrants got to wonder why the hell the French didn't just buy something off the registry. Jack laughed when I said that, except at first he thought Grover Cleveland was the muppet from Sesame Street, and not the 22nd (and 24th) President of the United States. He accepted the correction in good humor; Jack never thought it was embarrassing not to know something.

We tore ourselves away from the WTC and kicked around Manhattan the rest of the day, with Jack entertaining me by bursting unexpectedly into the theme song from "Hawaii 5-0." (He wasn't much of singer, but he nailed that one.) By the time we staggered back to Philadelphia we were exhausted but satisfied. I will never forget that day. Maybe that's why, when I heard the news of the destruction of the WTC, I thought first not of the people who died – that came a bit later – but of the time I'd spent there. I remember thinking, "But that means Jack and I will never get to go up there again." It took a long time to get my mind around the fact that about 2600 people would never get to go up there, or anywhere else, again. Too large, too distant.

Some years later, when I was told Jack had died, I had much the same experience, except this notion was just the right size to bullet directly into my brain. I understood straightaway with a dreadful clarity that I wouldn't go anywhere with Jack, ever again. So while I'm sorry that all those people died in September 2001, when I think of the World Trade Center what I remember most is visiting it with Jack. And if you'd been with him on that roof top on a bright September afternoon, you'd feel the same.


Blogger greengreyeyes said...

Beautifully written, thank you.

8:41 PM  

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