Omni on the World Trade Center
Total Destruction and then Transcendence September 2001
The Transcendence Continues November 2001
The Transcendence Explodes I March 2002
The Transcendence Explodes II March 2002
The Transcendence Explodes III March 2002
Appendix To The Transcendence: "Bin Laden On The Keyboards, Bin Laden" July 2002
Post-Transcendence: Surfin' USA November 2002
Five Years After The Transcendence January 2007
Post-Transcendence: Surfin' USA
The Transcendence Explodes
by Adam Sobolak
The Transcendence Explodes I, March 2002
Of Evil: Bold As Love?
Just days after the unveiling of Osama Bin Laden's "September 11 Tape", I read the following line in a newspaper column: "Jimi Hendrix smiled broadly as he watched the debut of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in the Isley Brothers' living room". Knowing that maybe I shouldn't, I smiled broadly. It felt like a missing link of some sort...
If my reaction to September 11 was idiosyncratically overmesmerized and underhorrified, perhaps there's the 1963-into-1964 key: at this scale of cataclysm, it's as if the JFK assassination had conflated itself into the whole-new-thingness of the Beatles' American debut. It was a loss, but in its startling, epiphanous unfamiliarity it also seemed an implicit cue, an open gateway toward a new, unconstrained phase of expression.
Yet the event was so extraordinarily extraordinary, it was difficult to tell who could "respond in kind", even among the hitherto enlightened and/or avant-garde. Maybe I, like Hendrix, sensed personal vindication for a vision. Beatlemania spurred and motivated a lot of great music and musicians; but still, there was only one Hendrix.
For all his decadences and indulgences, it is said that Jimi Hendrix was personally childlike --a brilliant musical savant who made love to his guitar and constructed a cataclysmic musical universe around his intuitive discoveries: a mouse that roared, roared a bedazzling apocalypse of sound and aura capable of smothering even the silliest core psychedelic hokum and jive. When faced with the aftermath of September 11, I, too, feel like a child --and a child perplexed by the constant bickering of elders that has plagued said aftermath. Whether the bickering relates to world affairs, or the simple stuff of architecture and planning. With the child's intuition, though, I look at the realities of all that radiates from (and including) Ground Zero, and want to play it all like a Hendrix. I'm tired of the bickering; I just want to take it all into my hands and let'er rip. And if it takes your breath away or disconcerts you, then so be it.
Not that "childlike" qualities haven't been a virtuously cherished element in artistic creation--not at all. In architecture, in fact, it defined Frank Lloyd Wright's self-styled, trained-by-Froebel mythology. (Consider, especially, the Prelude to "An Autobiography" --"The boy was troubled. Something was left out" --truly a parable of my post-9-11-perplexity.) And Maya Lin must have been seen as akin to an untrammeled child (in fact, thrice "handicapped" --young, female, and non-Caucasian) when she presented her Vietnam Memorial design-- and I've heard it suggested that the person who may ultimately do best justice to commemorate September 11 might be but a present-day toddler with unknown future greatness. Though it may be argued, perhaps, that my use of "rock" metaphors undermines, like much of late c20 pop/rock-music-centric culture, the heralded virtuosity of the childlike --lionizing instead a callow, culturally stunted and superficial existence (or buying into the same). Why not more genteelly "apocalyptic" reference points or "disconcerting" paradigm shifts --musically, perhaps in various strains of modern jazz, or Stravinsky's "Rite Of Spring"? Why Jimi Hendrix?
Hey --Hendrix has been dead for over three decades, and were he alive, he'd be older than Rudy Giuliani. And as hackneyed and fatiguing as the rock reference point is, it still hasn't been done proper justice within a broader context. Perhaps it's "disconcerting" today at a layered-meaning opposite end from its unruly origins --disconcerting because it's so hackneyed, no longer lowbrow so much as middlebrow --but what it indicates is that rock's victory at being nothing if not disconcerting; lowbrow or middlebrow, "vulgarity" is still "vulgarity", and to reference it sympathetically still marks you as debased in the eyes of the elite. Or else when the elite embraces it, it winds up looking silly, so it's best to avoid embarrassment --what rock is and (in its way) remains, therefore, is the anti-elite monkey wrench to beat all monkey wrenches. But the vulgar, disturbing half-century omnipresence of rock culture and its spawn--well, it exists, and its recognition is immediate, universal. Maybe, now that much of it is effectively "historical", we should cautiously allow it to cross a carefully monitored divide into safely distanced embrace or referencing. And it's a culture whose current omnipresence hinges upon its metaphorical electrifying disturbance in the first place; remember that, for better or worse, university courses on Elvis are still a cinch to have longer waiting lists than courses on Aristotle, and that a tenured "rock critic" like Greil Marcus is, by luck of association, the best popular communicator of avant-gardish and otherwise "obscure" academic/aesthetic theory there is --everything he touches turns to "kewl". Indeed, Marcus's most self-consciously avant-garde/"academic" work --"Lipstick Traces"-- fashionably, intricately traces the spiritual threads connecting rock and punk to Dada and Situationism and sundry unruly anarchistic c20 flotsam in such a way that, theoretically, ought to have prepared its readership for riding the waves of September 11 in style.
Which only further confuses me as to how September 11 just plain defeated so many who ought to have been prepared to face it --in practice, even the popular quest for healing and catharsis seems several stages more mundane than it ought to be. Maybe because it was living memory's definitive attack on America and the Western world--an attack which revealed hundreds of millions of feet of clay. Somehow, even with all this, I'm left feeling that the Taliban's more critical vandalistic legacy is domestic --the destroyed Buddhas, the lunkheadedly oppressive tyranny-- but 9-11 is in another phase of existence entirely, beyond vandalism's commonplace. Maybe because it exposed the posturing, and the martyrs to the posturing ...in the West. In academe, or the profanity of popular culture. Including rock and post-rock culture. Posturing over stylized, amoral destruction, but when the destruction's real, in the West's backyard --nay, the front yard --nay, in the house itself --well ...it reminds me of when a rock critic colonially "discovers" a non-Western recording and declares it the record of the year or the decade because it "out-rocks" all the "real" rock recordings he's heard lately. So here, too, the West is one-upped at its game by the culturally "colonial" East.
Ironically, Jimi Hendrix doesn't appear in the index of "Lipstick Traces" --presumably too guitar-goddy profane, insufficiently "arty" for Marcus's argument. It's the Sex Pistols --the most self-conscious popular "destruction act" in rock history-- that take cumulative pride of place. But try as I might, I sense nothing Pistols about September 11; their act (and that of most punk-culture) was strictly sensationally stylized in the manner of disaster movies, calculated camera angles, sweeping showboating havoc and all. For all its accoutrements, the net effect of Hendrix's musical apocalypse was the more sublime sort of psychic violation that is notably un-stylized --or whatever vestiges of stylization that remained were pulverized by the overall sonic melee. And that is what the disconcerting, jaw-dropping, all-enveloping superreal untouched-by-cinematographer's-hands density of the 9-11 footage resembles, where in that eternal orgasmic metaphor, "the earth moves". Regardless of race, culture, gender, anything...and 35 years later, it's still ill-understood as such. Perhaps because "ordinary" rock fans and mythmakers are as disappointingly mundane as those now trying to make sense of September 11...
No wonder the hostages chose a kind of Electric Ladyland as their destiny.
I was originally aroused to add yet further instalments to my WTC reflections after reading a series of pieces in the Dec 2001/Jan 2002 issues of Metropolis --most especially, Philip Nobel (in "On Not Falling for Ruins", December) being shocked at "the way some were finding aesthetic release in what could only be described as a mass grave" ("God help whoever comes along and fetishizes this thing"). In some way, it felt unbeknownstly directed at what I was perpetuating, the declarations of Ground Zero as my lover, et al --though consider how fetishization has long been a tool for coping with horrific fact (consider how the desiccated trappings and regalia of Naziism have been effortlessly coopted for the purposes of S&M culture). Or maybe, again, it's that nagging fact that the mass grave in question was too immediate, practically right in the reporter's figurative backyard.
Hey. Salon called "when did the house fall down?", from "Buffy The Vampire Slayer", the best postcoital line ever. Talk about houses falling down…
However, Nobel's conclusions are understandable, if one considers it addressing less the fetishization/aestheticization itself, than its cheap, hollow coffee-table debasement in recent years and decades, its reduction to slogans and soundbites. (Okay, "Ground Zero is my lover" is a soundbite.) And here, it was most apparent in how the remains of the WTC facade were iconized to the point of mawkishness, as if to set it up for a future Andrew Lloyd Webber musical stage set --the thin line between aestheticization and sentimentality. They may have looked silvery-titaniummy good in selected press photos (and have become visually iconic anyway; recently, I saw the "WTC ruin" resemblance in a cockeyed bundle of coffee stir sticks), but the unretouched unposed discoloured violated warts'n'wounds'n'all reality of those shards of gothicky mullionny steel wasn't nearly so poetically photogenic. (Though actually, being the ugly-reality connoisseur, I'd prefer them that way.)
Why must I aestheticize, fetishize, sublimate, celebrate? Maybe blame it on the late-Soviet Poland I knew from 70s and 80s travels --a place which bore its brutally harrowing recent and not-so-recent history, the geographic push and pull, the human, cultural humiliation and extermination, real and attempted, so intensely on its sleeve, that it seemed to wear a figurative "mass grave" mantle in toto. It felt vast and intensely haunted as a mass grave should be ...but a mass grave with real, poignant life counteracting the gloom and melancholia; and moreover, it was a belwether of my own aesthetic release, all the more for the unairbrushed, unbowdlerized reality I was faced with at first hand (and beheld quite innocently, as a child does, incorporating its physicality into my mental landscapes and dreamscapes). But those qualities have never made for easy mass embrace, except maybe during the brief "Schindler's List" tourism boomlet, and even there Krakow could never click upon Prague's cosmopolitan Perestroika-chic young-American-expatriate-bait stylishness. Poland's always felt too raw, too bleak, too nerve-wracked and hyper-intense for the timid --in fact, it's a place that "outs" the timid, exposes their weakness. And it all pivots upon the spectre of World War II, when, effectively, Poland became Europe's own Ground Zero, its very epicentre of inhuman horrors and acts of war inflicted from without.
Which adds dimension to my statement: "Ground Zero is my lover". And like New York, Poland was much, much more than the banal Ground Zero in question.
Significantly, my first Polish visits were with my grandparents, who had an idiosyncratically experiential worms-eye way of travelling, almost like babes in the woods, and treated Poland's current realities very matter-of-factly; sentimentality was a primary factor only where it counted the most i.e. the warmth of blood and memory and love and spirit. Everywhere my grandparents travelled became nothing more or less than an extension of themselves. It allowed for a more intimate and visceral affinity for the place; even the requisite visits to Oswiecim (i.e. Auschwitz) and other such sites were allowed to speak for themselves, untraumatically, timelessly. (And in context; rather than standing in isolation, Auschwitz was inextricable from the placidly real, everyday town of Oswiecim.) Even Germanic cities like Wroclaw weren't stigmatized for being Germanic (not, at least, by me). It was a traumatized land, but the trauma became personal only through the language barrier and the nearly complete, aggravating isolation from North American peer bonding and popular culture (as well as general Eastern Bloc dinkiness and a certain understandable grandparental generation gap). And for all that aggravation, I could never get Poland out of my system. The pain not only spared passion and spirit, it enhanced it. It was akin to the aftermath of a forest fire, with the saplings and lichen and other next-generation growth nurtured by the great fallen remains of the old, and the wild creatures foraging and frolicking --a natural life cycle in progress. Hardly barren, hardly a simple wasteland --except to the unimaginative, the soulless.
Coincidentally, when cleaning out boxes in December, I came across a copy of the eulogy I wrote in 1995 for my grandfather, where, paying tribute to his own sublimely intense aesthete's personality --but also stealthily addressing a recent family history of turmoil, tumult, and dysfunction (it takes a Tenenbaum?)-- I sung the generalized praises of "extremity" as an enriching element for us all. And upon re-reading it, I was shocked at how the tone of the eulogy --"it makes us richer" mantra and all, like a knife blade boldly yet salubriously slicing through perplexingly constipated, frustrating confusion, pettiness, impotence-- anticipated my tone regarding September 11.
"Extremity," of course, has been cheapened and degraded in recent times, if sometimes intriguingly so. In the weeks leading up to September 11, a 15-min-phenom talk of the town was the pop-harakiri exploits of one David Rosenthal, a successful Hollywood sitcom writer who had bailed from his career and marriage upon the epiphany that he wanted to have sex with supermodel Heidi Klum, and was doing the requisite publicity circuit (Howard Stern et al) leading to the off-Broadway opening of an expletive-laden play, "Love", based upon that epiphany. (His father supposedly sent him to the mental hospital for 48 hours upon reading the script!) Unfortunately, "Love" was scheduled to open on September 13 --anyway, scathing reviews and, surely, the changed city and world climate did it in by month's end. And just as well; the whole superstructure of pre-Ground Zero stylish outrageousness had buckled as if it were those rumoured upper floors of 1 Liberty Plaza. Heidi Klum sex fantasies may have sufficed pre-9-11, but thereafter for full effect you really had to up the ante outrageously, nay, self-destructively ...say, by proposing Monika Beerle-type rape-dismemberment atrocities upon Christina Aguilera while the full-length version of Buffalo Springfield's "Bluebird" was playing...yes, the world really did change, it really really really did change, on September 11...
And there might be a clue as to what Philip Nobel, Michael Sorkin, and others feared --and why, in fact, stunned, impotent silence (or, unfortunately, ooh-aah-the-ruins schmaltzification) was the more typical net effect of September 11, with only a Stockhausen or two to (sort of) uphold the evil anti-aestheticism of what I've earlier styled as "art that cancelled out
But it does not kill art, any more than Hendrix killed the electric guitar, or Paganini killed the violin, or Glenn Gould killed Bach's Goldberg Variations.
Besides, I'm not a builder, I'm only a beholder. And my intensely engaged hunch all along was that Ground Zero's greatest monument was, in fact, the plain, simple, present-day running fact of Ground Zero itself --the site and activity within and without, a work in progress, inclusive of its heroism-bestowed participants and affected ...including ourselves. A spontaneous, extemporaneous monument of the real world, of firefighters and police and rescue and aid workers, of heroes and victims, of the ordinary, the spectator, their vehicles and machinery, the extant buildings which frame and serve the whole, all who interact with and address this outcome of unthinkably unprecedented crisis. What'll happen is, well, what'll happen, and we'll all continue to play a part (or maybe not; flawed urbanity happens). But in the meantime, regardless of whether it should have been induced in the first place (duh), the deepest greatness is already there, upon a tableau that already radiates. The comprehensive spectacle: a monumentality to cancel out all monumentality? Certainly, nothing purpose-built can convey the same curative electricity, the fluid ecstasy, of this work in progress. The greatness is the sublime greatness of urbanity itself, a fact that defies the self-conscious form-builders. In a horrifically heroic way, the theories of Jane Jacobs, William Whyte, et al are affirmed --it's all about the people. Real, or ghostly, or presence felt. And never had we felt it more strongly, even in deep recesses or dead zones, or been forced more emphatically to not take it for granted, than around Ground Zero in September 11's aftermath. Mass exaltation reaches its apotheosis here; and we, too, are among the exalted.
That's why I view this "loss of innocence" more positively, as a "loss of virginity" --in its eye-of-the-storm way, too magical and otherworldly to be banally traumatic. Not simply a destruction; an awakening. And, to suit my invocations of the immediacy of humanist urbanism, extraordinarily, even intimately, physical.
And as to the designers, the builders, the visioneers, and those who serve them...well, I don't expect them to hit the specific sensual nerves I've evoked, but somewhere along the way they seem to have misplaced, to have lost sight of, the human element, the comprehensive human element, the unsung magic behind the spectacle. Like too many lessers, they're overly preoccupied with the giant sucking sound of that big hole in the middle --like those who gawk at the Mona Lisa while neglecting the rest of the Louvre. They may have been trained to talk the Jacobs'n'Whyte talk, but they plod the walk 'cause they ain't got that swing, that jive, that boogedy beat. It's a dance of life, of hope, of joy and of pain, in which everybody participates, and they can participate to the max as long as they got the means, the scope, the clearness of mind. (Though I shouldn't be too harsh; a boogedy beat might be proudly beating Jacobs'n'Whyte at their own game.)
But for a long time, I was working on hunches --talking the talk about New York and Ground Zero without experiencing the experience. In fact, I was in no rush to do so, due to work and financial commitments and the as-yet uncertain logistics or morals of visiting, well, a death scene. And the immediacy of the collapse, the environmental effects, the closures, the diversions, the in-your-face personal imprint --well, that was lost to me forever. Some may perhaps argue that if I'd been amidst it all in the immediate aftermath, I wouldn't be so sunny. A fortunate mitigating factor was that the Internet made it so much easier to be continually "of" and engaged to the place than could have been the case a few years earlier --proof of how electronic media's viscerally, fundamentally intrinsic to this "monument of the real world". But something was missing. I was expounding on virginity loss while remaining a virgin --a Britneyesque right-to-the-borderline virgin, but a virgin all the same.
Thus, when I got the news barely a week before Christmas that I was to spend Christmas week in New York City, it whumped me like a surprise trip-to-the-whorehouse gift from an Uncle Stan somewhere.
The immediate reflex was rational: this was to be a trip to New York City. Not Ground Zero. New York City. Ground Zero'll come naturally, come what may, but it held no monopoly. In fact, the trip promised a welcome corrective effect--a chance to go there and be natural, to diffuse the myth and puzzlement by witnessing it all at first hand. A search for normalcy --New York's, and my own.
But it was still shell-shocking, especially as I hadn't been to the States in over 4 years, or on a plane just short of 5 years (or on a plane to NYC in over 20 years). And post-9-11 customs and flight hassles only aggravated the fear of having fallen out of practice. Besides: what was I to do in New York? I felt purposeless; and moreover, while normalcy is one thing, denial is another --and it's devilishly difficult to normalize a pregnant place.
Still, unless Ground Zero in person was enough to drive me la-la, it was the trip there and back that appeared more portentous--and not just the customs and flight part. So in order to master the basic substructure (and to take advantage of this being my first "internet-age" journey), the first bit of homework I did was to look up MTA and airport-connection data, from LaGuardia and to Newark, on-line. Quickly, intuition told me that if this was to be a trip in search of normalcy, it was to be a transit trip--a view of NYC in the humble, proletarian straphangers' lay-of-the-urban-land mode. Have Gun, Will Travel; I'd do it by MetroCard, the economical way.
At least the fact that this trip had practically dropped into my lap alleviated concerns about its being a parasitical gesture. But still --Christmas? Arriving on Monday, Christmas Eve, and leaving the following Saturday? This was turning out as giddy, surreal, and accidentally foolhardy as many a real, literal virginity loss is... too rich a psychic overload to be true ...maybe the lead-in had to be humble, in order to counteract overexpectation. In fact, the 24 hours before departure felt gloomy. I could barely eat. I wanted to stop twiddling my thumbs and get it over with. Perhaps it was a realization that my innocence was not long for this world.
Somehow, all the fears of customs and checked-baggage problems led me to pack sensibly, frugally to a fault; just a medium backpack as a carry-on, whose principal contents were clothing, basic toiletries, a diary, a Hagstrom, and the Bible itself, the one thing that told my purpose in visiting --the AIA Guide To New York City (2000 edition). And even then, I was scared that something'd hold me back --customs problems? Bag still too big? Was a 7:30 airport arrival guarantee that I'd make it for the 9AM flight? How late was "too late"? Post-9-11, any flight felt like a "first flight ever".
The magic of electronic ticketing (non-existent the last time I flew) and an earnest lack of anything to hide or declare or arouse undue suspicion got me into the departure lounge by 8:15. I was free. The trip's biggest hurdle had been cleared. Everything else, I could master spontaneously.
From that point, it all felt like the lead-in to a first young love, an extemporaneous sequence of existences suspended between unreality and hyperreality.
An airplane with lots of elbow room --unexpectedly, I had a bay of seats to myself. Before I knew it, I recognized Geneva NY from the air (all that Rand McNallying and driving through in 92/93 did me good). Then after snow patches came into view and cloud cover intervened, unidentifiable shards of what was presumably Westchester/Fairfield suburbia turned up upon descent. The flight was clean and easy --this was no overwrought "vacation"; it was practically a commute. NYC could have been Hamilton, or Kitchener, or Peterborough.
Soon, we were over White-Willenskyville. I recognized City Island, as well as the Trocaderoesque silhouette of Robert Moses's Pelham Bay beach facilities. Descending over the goofy-chintzy Bronxside environs of the Throgs Neck and Bronx-Whitestone bridges, I already felt disconcertingly possessive. And AIA Guide mastery led me to instantly recognize the Poppenhusian skyline and big-blue EDO monster of College Point as the plane touched the LaGuardia tarmac.
As we taxied, something seemed surreal --and no, it wasn't the absence of the Twins. (Not being an everyday New Yorker, I didn't feel the immediacy of absence, though the hazily distant Lower Manhattan cluster indicated where they would have been. In fact, the more disconcerting skyline "injury" was the fact that yes, Virginia, the black shaft of Trump World Tower had materialized next to the UN.) It was the totality. The recognizable glimpses of Empire State, of George Washington Bridge tower, of other landmarks --all at my commuters' fingertips. I felt I had mastery, like it all fit like a glove, like I was the "honourary local". Much as my grandparents would have been.
And on what had been forecast as a melancholic, intermittent-precipitation day, the sky was disconcertingly sunny. And it stayed that way, all day. As if NYC wanted to shake off its strained Ground Zero pall for me. "Don't worry --I won't bite. I'm alright." And it was. With a smile. A sad smile --the skyline still felt diminished-- but a smile all the same.
Paradoxically, September 11, and my will to follow its macro-footprint, had drawn me closer still. Collateral damage? How about collateral engagement?
Honestly: at 10:30 in the morning on the first post-9-11 Xmas Eve, LaGuardia's main terminal was positively laconic. It could have been Calgary. (But it was LaGuardia! And the same jernt that'd been toiminal since the Unisphere era.)
Before long, I picked out my transit maps, figured out which MetroCard I needed (unable to get the 1-week pass at LaGuardia, I got daily 4-buck "fun passes" instead), and grabbed the Q33 bus to Jackson Heights, scooting across the GCP into the New York urbanity that, even in the wastes of Queens, manages to appear denser and more ad hoc and teemingly, lustily polyglot than visitors are prone to expect.
A bright, dry, mild Xmas Eve in Queens --and compounding the unreality, I was the Q33's only passenger from LaGuardia. (Given how slooow the bus was, and how its passenger load became predominantly Latino as we inched into J.Hi --should I call it that, or is it called that?-- no wonder. Still, we all seemed to coexist humbly yet serenely, as fellow commuters --another sign of how easygoing this visit was to be.)
Of course, it helped that, being White-Willenskyan, I was the rare NYC visitor equipped to exploit Q33 not only as a cheapskate grin'n'bear-it means to Manhattan, but as a chance to see Jackson Heights (NYC's archetypal interwar suburban apartment zone, and a landmark district to boot --but being New York, it's denser and more bustling, more "urban", than one's led to expect) up close. And probably rarer still in not letting post-September 11 magnetism be a distraction from the earthy perambulator's pleasures of passing through J.Hi ...almost. After all, the ubiquitous intermingling of seasonal and Stars & Stripes/United We Stand iconography upon townhouse lawns, in apartment and office windows (including a very post-9-11 Stars & Stripes draped across one of the aeries of The Towers Apartments, J13 Central Queens in AIA-NYC), cannot fail to leave an indelible impression, not least as a foreboding Christmas Eve '01 introduction to Gotham ...upon deeper consideration, I was certainly passing places where (or, for that matter, sharing a bus with) victims and their intimates resided…
...then J. Hi ended with the clattering of the #7 elevated over the bodegas of Roosevelt Ave, such an un-touristy tempting racket that I impulsively chose that motley #7 as the next stage of my journey, and it was such a bright and pleasant springlike Christmas Eve late-morning to stand upon the 74th-Broadway elevated platform ...it may have been largely non-Caucasian up there, but so's most bus routes around Toronto these days; and with nothing more than the trusty backpack I ordinarily use for work, it was almost as if I was at work. Me amongst the citizenry, going about their/our normal day. And regardless of September 11, life is as normal as ever, as normal as it wants to be. Even in NYC. Well, actually, such normalcy has a way of being otherworldly these days...
...boarded the train, on I went, casting an informed gaze from this scratched-windowed receptacle of humanity out upon the rooftops of Woodside and the warehousing and rail-yard ghosts of LI City, disembarking at Queens Plaza and going upstairs within the trussed-up elevated maze to the topmost platform for a breathtaking aerial view of it all, from the pre-lunchtime gleam of Citicorp to the obnoxiousness of Trump World Tower to the enigmatic factory/studio district thereabouts; it seemed as if this close to Manhattan, the motley vulgar-tourist-scaring "coloureds" were increasingly outflanked by young student/yuppie sorts ...then descended to the N/R/W "yellow line" but forgot that it didn't cross the Queensboro; disappointedly switched on a whim next stop to the Lexington 4/5/6 to Grand Central, just because I needed a Grand Entry...
And what timing, indeed: the clock struck 12 noon at the almost exact moment of ascension into Grand Central's concourse.
At that moment, it felt too contrived. And exiting onto 42nd St, the hectic Midtown Manhattan tableau teetered at the brink of triteness --as if I instinctively knew it and mastered it all too well, already: too well for my own good. It was the obverse of disorientation: overorientation? The sensation of Grand Central at lunchtime was stunningly banal --and it was my fault, entirely. (Or was it Mayor Giuliani's by proxy? After all, he supposedly steam-cleaned the danger and dread out of the city...) The WWII slogan immediately occurred to me: "Is this trip really necessary?" I feared that this anticipated, latently electrifying trip would turn out to be, in fact, horribly anticlimactic, an empty shell...
Maybe the banality was good --a sign of NYC normalcy in effect. Or maybe it was sad, like the false normalcy of the hollow, banality being the refuge of the depressed. After all, Empire State still can't shake off the melancholy as the once-again-tallest...
It was but a disarmingly bright half hour noontime walk via 42nd and 5th, past NY Library and Empire State, noticing the Lord & Taylor Xmas window-watchers, playing the tourist game by buying a pretzel from a cart (and noticing how expensive NYC's gotten) ...turning right at Empire State, being given Ali Larter's Gap grin from the hoarding around the old Hotel McAlpin before turning left and hitting my accommodation, the Holiday Inn/Hotel Martinique at Herald (okay, Greeley) Square.
Checked bag in advance, keeping what'd be my constant street accompaniment on this trip: a trip diary and the AIA Guide, wrapped in plastic. In NYC, I could never afford to be without my Bible.
But then what? Only shopping hours 'til Xmas, and I was still hedging over making an immediate and potentially macabre issue out of you-know-what. (And official "check-in" time for getting my room was 4 or 5ish, and I didn't necessarily want to be too late.) Should I go north and self-consciously absorb myself into the "normalcy" of the cinematically romantic last-chance pre-Xmas retail buzz, window displays and Rock Ctr skaters and Times Sq boogie woogie and all? Or ...south?
It's like a choice between shopping and travelling and dining out with the family --which can be fun and exciting in its way-- and the intense unknown of the beckoning arms of a lover.
The magnetism drew me; I had to get it over with. So, leaving behind that Grand Central ambivalence for good, I chose the lover --I headed south.
Whether more or less travelled, it made all the Frostian difference --albeit slowly and deliberately as I spontaneously inched along Broadway. Sat at the Farragut monument in Madison Sq for an AIA-glimpse break --but over time's course, I noticed I wasn't using the Bible as intensively as in '92, when most of the fundamental "homework" was done, and this trip was taking on a different, more sensual dimension, less the contrived "perambulation" than overall absorption ...the classic pace of the urban wanderer.
Took note of posters for a restaurant that was offering free soup after 3 across from the Flatiron, and hoped in vain I'd maybe make it back ...really, the post-Sep 11 poster-memorial-mania had been mostly eliminated and worn away ...Union Sq at 1:30, couldn't bring myself to make Greenmarket purchases, and as to the busy little village of huts selling Christmas gift items at the south side of Union Sq, it felt tragic that I hadn't the bauble-buying patience or resources or, well, the locality, but it really did feel like a wonderful little village, all of Manhattan an overgrown village even through its gentrification ...and poignant, of course, for this is where the greatest post-Sep 11 poster-and-memorial action was, now scraped clean but a dignified Parks Commission sign indicated that all had been saved for commemorative purposes. It was but little blips like that amidst the Dec 24 gaiety that indicated the gravity of this particular Dec 24 in New York, slowly unfolding as I gravitated southward...
...Strand Books; no matter where I look, can't find the New Yorker "Newyorkistan" cover on a postcard, I really overestimated the city's ability to hit the ground running ...a bottle of Cel-Ray across from Grace Church; south and south, compounded the Cel-Ray with a coffee'n'donut-from-a-cart around the corner from Sullivan's scaffolding-girded Bayard/Condict, tucking into the lobby to look at displays and nosh ...south & south across Houston, wandered into and around and out of Rem Koolhaas's brand new Prada store like Billy in "Family Circus", of two minds over whether the matter-of-fact Staples store within the Haughwout Bldg was appropriate or not...
As a reminder of where I was headed, that big thumping black slab of a Hammer Of The Gods thang yclept One Liberty Plaza loomed ahead, true unto itself. And even at this distance, it appeared not just big, but unrelentingly insistent...
And then came Canal Street, marking the arrival of an ominously ubiquitous street-level presence: the wandering wooden catwalks and barriers and asphalt humps of temporary ConEd/Verizon utility lines. It still didn't feel quite real that I had actually arrived someplace --I was coming out of too much of a fluid, linear dose of everyday NYC, so this felt like but part of a continuum. Or a stage set --albeit one of the very present. Even the fire station around the corner at Duane, the glimpse inside at bouquets, memorials, real firemen and selected visitors (family/friends?), et al, felt a little unreal, as if I'd crossed the mundane Alice looking-glass of the TV screen or on-line newswire, into a world where the extraordinary became ordinary, a thing of the everyday. (As it turned out, this was the 9-11 station of documentary footage fame. Maybe not doing homework is best.) I had a camera, but forgot batteries; then after getting batteries, I realized I forgot my film; and momentarily decided to leave it --photography's a tokenism. The everyday cannot be frozen; it is extemporaneous, felt through the senses.
Even took a Giulianian diversion along the north face of City Hall and the newly re-stepped Tweed CH, but on this sweet springlike Xmas Eve mid-afternoon, couldn't tell what to draw from it --perhaps the noontime Grand Central was-this-trip-necessary emptiness was reasserting itself? People were moving here and there dodging the utility humps and barricades, but there was no extraordinary pattern of street activity one way or another; from the NE, Woolworth soared white like it was 1913, but as a non-local, I didn't severely feel that pair of galling absences behind it. Nor were there the kinds of sensationalistic calling cards like broken windows, building damage, telltale dust accumulations --all that was cleaned up or fixed long ago, or was simply invisible to the non-overinquisitive naked eye. Perhaps below-Canal traffic diversions/restrictions helped, but something was puzzlingly benign about the tableau, succeeding too well in evoking a 1913 when New York was what a Piqua or Bucyrus wanted to be when it grew up ...maybe Mullett's Post Office'll reappear at the apex of City Hall Park ...or just a mullethead from Piqua or Bucyrus…
It was already 2:30ish. While intervening urban fabric (Woolworth et al) still left my full heart-of-it-all recognition-reflex momentarily in suspense, I was pretty much "here", but didn't know whether it'd be hit'n'run, quick-circuit'n'run, glimpse'n'return-later ...and there'd been that free soup promise at Flatiron, and tourists are a pain, you know. Besides, I'd originally hoped to get back to the hotel for check-in 5 or 6ish, and do whatever for a New York Christmas Eve. So I felt a bit pressed upon entering the fray, yet all bets were off...
A quick duck into the Woolworth lobby, though security couldn't let me far ...but probably thoughtfully understood my will to look; few Ground Zero pilgrims probably bother, not least because this 800-footer soaks into the urban tableau so well from the utility-cramped sidewalk passerby eye-level ...then in the next block the red-zone retail disruption started making its mark...
...and then, the block ended, the next block was the St. Paul's Chapel block, I looked to the right, and there was my lover. It had been a three-month long-distance correspondence, but now we met, in person, for
the first time.
It didn't disappoint, for my conception of Ground Zero was open-ended and comprehensive, I wasn't expecting an immediate wallop --yet for virtually anybody else visiting for the first time around Christmas, it would have been a severe letdown. For you see, every single significant piece of WTC that had remained above eye level was gone. The melodramatically mythic Moog Gothic shards of WTC 1 & 2 were history --the last freestanding vestige had been removed a week or two earlier. Less ballyhooed, though, was the removal of all trace of the burned'n'bashed'n'battered low pavilions, WTC 4, 5 & 6, so ubiquitous an aerial-view backdrop for weeks on end. (I'd already known that the formidable pile of rubble that was WTC 7 had been cleared away --what I didn't know, and would later find out, was that its site was by now as clean and flat as a parking lot. Already.) At best, a tiptoe or chain-link squint might discern incidents of unidentifiable concrete superstructure and some token beams and mullions lying prostrate. But otherwise, what one sensed far behind the police-manned barricades, rising over the green-clothed chain link, were cranes. And spotlights. And beeping emergency vehicles. It was a supremely undemonstrative spectacle --compounded by the news the previous week that the last of the underground fires had been "officially" extinguished. Just in time for Christmas, Ground Zero had been tamed. It appeared less as a scene of war and mass destruction than as a vast urban-renewalish construction site, as if in preparation for something like, who knows, a new downtown Yankee Stadium. (Or, conversely, as if a controlled-imploded KingDome-type array had once stood here --to the degree that the nascent observation platform south of St Paul's Chapel resembled an expired megastadium's ramped pedestrian approach.)
Let's not mince words here; as spectacles go, it was, upon a superficial glance, dull. Other than sheer scale, there was, from the Broadway end at least, nothing to raise the ooh and the aah. Even the still-damaged buildings surrounding Ground Zero were tamed either by sheaths of black or red netting (red appeared to denote repair work in process, black --as at 90 West and Bankers Trust-- appeared to denote momentary limbo) or by the sloppier damage cleared away (3 WFC, the Winter Garden, the CUNY layer-cake north of WTC 7). The sum quick lay impression of Ground Zero proper was: there it is, is that it, can we go home now. If this was the outcome of an act of evil, what one witnessed redefined the term "banality of evil".
And as such, it was perhaps the perfect moment to absorb Ground Zero and its environs, in my spirit of its being, as a running, living, breathing, all-encompassing fact of reality, its own best monument. When the wreckage was still above eye- and fence-level, the net effect would have been stirring to a melodramatic fault--a big, belching, tottering, open-casket-funeral rapture-inspiring vortex of a whirlpool, a psychically paralyzing distraction. No wonder aesthetic fetishization was such an inapt reflex; more than a Stockhausian apotheosis of art, the spectacle was, in fact, the apotheosis of kitsch. If we're on the verge of "rock'n'roll" architectural criticism, the highminded mooning over the ruins too often recalls well-meaning 60s cultural commentators struggling to canonize the lyrical/musical poeticism of the Beatles.
Consider when one is on a cross-country plane journey, and notice how it's over the mountain ranges that the passengers fixedly gaze out the window. It's an unfortunate universal conditioning: mountains are "spectacular", flatlands are "boring". Too easy. Thus, imagine the disappointment felt by those who came to bear witness --what's there to witness anymore? They expected Colorado; they got Kansas. Yes, Kansas: Toto, we're no longer in Oz.
But in absence, there is presence --a presence that assumes its own voice. A human presence; an urban presence.
Christmastime at Ground Zero was an ideal moment between two morbid phases of tourist-trapness; after the wreckage was cleared, yet before the observation platforms were opened. At this moment, this respite from total-assaultness, the memorializing assumed centre stage. So did the people passing by; so were the people working within and around, the vehicles and machinery, the shops and offices, the everyday life. So was the fabric of the traumatized city, of the vicinity, as it eased around and adjusted itself, in the manner of a renewing forest, to the circumstances. A heroic, diverse series of interactions, spatial, temporal, mental, psychological, of hurt and of passion. Ground Zero was not just "there"; it was all around us.
Ground Zero was never so subtle before; it would probably never be so subtle again. It created, radiated a sparkling seasonal dreamscape. The last time ur-Western traumatic reality impassioned me so, it was in Berlin in 1987, two years before the Wall fell. The same dynamic, enveloping hush, intimate in spite of the overpowering scale. A lover's embrace.
Few, I suspect, were prepared to appreciate the subtle knit. Architects and planners (and cynics) fall short in understanding the human spontaneity; mere mortals fall short in their informed "reading" of the built fabric. Beyond that, they're derailed by what has happened, what was there, and what needs to be done. Derailed by experience at first hand. And derailed by politics --most especially, world politics.
In this light, it's significant that through all my days of on-site absorption, I almost forgot the name "Osama Bin Laden". Except as background-noise tokenism and scrawl, Osama-bashing, or jingoistic shibboleths against the East, was a virtual non-factor. The grief was domestic.
And I would have been no less transfixed in Kabul --in fact, this brought a Kabul situation into Western immediacy. In New York, high and low, we were no less waifs bombarded by the fatuous fools up above.
Maybe it'd be different had I entered Ground Zero
proper (let alone if I saw chunks of fleshy DNA --in fact,
there was a windfall of bodies found Xmas Eve, little did
I know). But like all the proles without official authorization,
I never did (except through the media, of course). And I never
demanded otherwise --why should I? I conducted my love affair
from without --going within, crossing the never-never zone,
would have been as arbitrary if not inapt as standing in an
operating room, watching a lover undergo open-heart surgery.
Hey, if it's your bag (let alone if
you're the doctor)...
In fact, urbanistically speaking, an "official"
visit to Ground Zero --that is, to be blindly transported
within the green fence in order to utter a few inevitable
Apocalypse Now the-horrors-- is a hollow thing indeed. It's
like visiting a stadium or mall or tourist attraction,
isolated within a sea of parking, disconnected from the
community around it. Go in, look around, say "the-horror
the-horror", and go out. Wham bam, thank you ma'am. That
ain't love. And as Jane Jacobs et al'll say,
It's all in the periphery; the monumentality-accentuating
action is in the public border zone, and its interaction
with the inaccessible, traumatizing molten core. Thus,
the proper way to truly understand Ground Zero urbanism
and all it entails is the way of mere mortals: to do the
circuit. To follow the yellow brick (or green
fence) security perimeter.
For me the general pattern was clockwise, "officially"
starting at St. Paul's Chapel, south into the Financial
District, west into Battery Park City, north t/w Tribeca
and back. A real-life Nintendo tableau in slo-mo. But
open-ended, allowing for all Kama Sutra variations on the
erotic theme of my interaction with Ground Zero.
As a child, I went to the roller rink with my grandparents;
and rather than skating in the sterile white rink, I preferred
to skate the circuit round the rink, dodging the benches and
refreshment stands and nooks and crannies and all. It was
more interesting, exciting, dynamic.
Funerals tend to be typecast as mournfully depressing;
and of course, if they were overly fixated on the subject
lying in state, at the risk of toxic grief. that's what
they'd be. But in practice, I've found them the most
exciting of events --rare yet thrilling, even giddy,
moments of interaction among friends and/or family
members. The interaction isn't always harmonious --but
even disharmony vindicates the dynamism. Funerals, more
than births or weddings or analogous events, are a
mandatory excuse to bring us all together; and we're richer for it.
Funerals form a magical mini-urbanism among intimates,
a stage for interaction, a microcosm of the world around us.
I've seldom cried at funerals --in fact, I'm more likely
to be rapturous. I may not wish death upon others, but I
cherish funerals, the greatest of all social events.
May we then look upon Ground Zero as the apotheosis of funerary art?
Let's start the circuit:
The Transcendence Explodes II March 2002
Omni on the World Trade Center