As the fifth anniversary of the cataclysmic Bin Laden-driven terrorist attacks approaches I am filled with a great sense of trepidation and near nausea when I think of the inevitable wave of phony patriotism and jump-on-the-bandwagon “grief” that is certain to inundate the nation for about a week. I guarantee you that the bulk of media will be devoted to documentaries/tributes on the subject — all punctuated by somber arrangements of classic patriotic standards — and there will be at least one presidential address to the nation from our alleged Commander In Chief, a badly read cue card performance that will politically and emotionally push buttons and exploit/exacerbate the administration’s xenophobia and jingoistic horseshit, which in turn will probably fuel yet more American youth to throw away their lives in a pointless and immoral war supposedly being fought in the name of Freedom with a capital F.
Across the nation, but most flagrantly here in the Big Apple, there are certain to be legions of thoughtless vendors out for no more than some extra greenbacks, flogging mountains of 9/11 souvenirs and merchandise to blindsided tourists and perhaps even a few locals who forgot exactly how horrifying the events of that day were. The rest of the country may have been genuinely shocked by what they witnessed on the news during 9/11 and the days that followed, but the images seen on a TV, secure in the comfort of home and hearth, cannot convey the agonizing impact of happened here. Yes, other countries have endured nightmarish events of similar caliber — on a daily basis, no less — but this was the first time something of such international magnitude struck us here at home in quite some time, and that’s what really kicked our long-held American arrogance right up our collective ass, that feeling of “How could they do this to us? How can this happen here?” and my absolute favorite, “But we’re Americans! We’re the good guys!”
How soon we forget the atrocities committed by this country and its various administrations, both within my own meager lifetime and since the beginning of this nation. My ancestry includes both Native-American and African blood, among the other genetics that make up my own personal stew, and both of those groups were famously fucked over by the US government and its people, but many factions these days urge us ethnic types to more or less shut up and forget it, and be happy about where we are blessed enough to live.
I love my country, but I am in no way blind to what has gone before or at present, so the situation of five years past did not necessarily surprise me, but what does continue to surprise me is the extent to which the American people — and to be honest, some New Yorkers as well — have relegated the horrors of 9/11 to an oft-discussed tragedy, but one that they are not really connected to in an actual, visceral way. It’s one thing to have the media inform your opinion, but it’s a whole different animal to have been there for a major catastrophe and relegate it to the file of sensational events that evoke revulsion one day, only to become a case of, ”Yeah, that really sucked.” In essence, forgetting it as another disposable news item rather than the globally connective event that it was.
I, for one, will never forget it, and I hope that I never see anything else like it for as long as I may be fortunate enough to draw breath.
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I reported to work at 7AM, an early start, yes, but one that facilitated speaking to the company’s European freelancers without interrupting their dinners or evening times with their families or loved ones. I immediately got on the phone and called my favorite HELLBLAZER scribe — you know who you are! — to hash out the details of getting him a check that had slipped through the cracks, an unfortunately common occurrence at the company in question. As I chatted with him and assured him that I would remedy the situation once the payroll guys showed up, one of the editors from the collected editions department burst into my office and told me to switch my computer to the BBC News live feed; an airliner had crashed into the World Trade Center and one of the towers was burning and in danger of imminent collapse. Stunned, I filled the freelancer in on what had happened and again promised to take care of his check as soon as possible. I hung up the telephone and switched to the online BBC news channel.
I gaped at the monitor as I watched the tower burn, and immediately thought of the people who were within the structure, frightened, confused, in search of a safe exit, and in many cases flat out dead. As those thoughts wrapped around my brain, a second plane hit the towers, and at that moment one cold, jagged inkling leapt to the front of my consciousness:
THIS IS NO ACCIDENT. THIS IS A TERRORIST ATTACK.
I had no experience with such matters other than through what I saw on the news, and while I was willing to accept one plane slamming into the Twin Towers as pilot error or some other such thing, two planes making such a collision one after the other was too much of a coincidence for me to write off as an unfortunate twist of fate, the odds against such a fluke being beyond astronomical. Sure, I worked in an industry that thrived from depictions of super-powered set-to’s and endless scenes of mass destruction, but that shit’s fantasy and entertainment. Here, for the first time in my life, I was faced with wholesale devastation for real, and the gravity of the situation completely rewrote my thinking on such things as the stuff of celluloid or four-color diversion.
As my mind reeled from what I had just witnessed, before I proceeded any further I called my mom in Connecticut; I knew that she was one of those East Coasters who frequented Manhattan but did not really know its geography, so for all she knew the Trade Center could have been across the street from where I worked (it was at the bottom end of Manhattan, and my office was in Midtown, across the street from the David Letterman Show, approximately three miles away). She was still asleep when I called, and had no idea what the hell I was talking about, but I told her not to worry about me and that communications in the city would soon be overloaded by people attempting to reach their loved ones. I then signed off and set about emailing all of the freelancers and anyone else who might wonder if we’d been caught up in the attack.
Most of my co-workers made it in to work, arriving just before most mass transit ground to a standstill; the majority of the subway lines shut down, there were power outages, and then the predicted phone problems happened, effectively rendering the city incommunicado for the better part of twelve hours depending on where you were. Needless to say, work did not happen that day and we all sat or paced in a nauseous, nervous state of uncertainty, wondering if more planes would plummet from the blue.
After more than six hours of being more or less stranded in Midtown, the subways tentatively began to move once again, and we all made our way home. I entered the B train station right at the steps of where I worked and found myself deep in a throng that crowded the platform, every one of us eager to get home and escape the horror that spewed hellish black smoke only a few dozen blocks away. Three or four trains slowly lurched in an out of the station before the crowd thinned enough for me to actually board one, and as I clung to the metal ceiling handle I surveyed my fellow passengers and found each of them looking back at me with the same silent question written on their faces: “What now?” That brief musing came to an abrupt halt as the train shuddered roughly into motion and bore us downtown, a destination that we dreaded since the line ran close to what would later be known as Ground Zero.
As the B train approached the stop near the burning towers there were long delays as the preceding trains delicately inched their way toward Brooklyn, gingerly advancing and hoping that the tunnel would not collapse. Never in my life have I felt such out-of-my-control fear, and I couldn’t help but flash back to my mother’s rampant claustrophobia, a condition that has affected her since her father attempted to kidnap her in a sack and through a window when she was three years old; if she had been on that train, she would have begun hyperventilating, shaking, and finally trying to claw her way out of the car like a rat trapped in a box. NOTE: the claustrophobia story about my mom is not a gag, but that's a tale for another posting.
Passing under the potentially unstable section of street took less time than I would have thought, and as we left that foreboding underground hell we emerged onto the elevated track that crossed the Manhattan Bridge and sat stunned as an unspeakable tableau loomed to our collective right. You see, the train passed right by the Twin Towers as part of its route, which I rode every motherfucking day, and as we surfaced all present beheld a vision straight out of Gustave Dore.
The pristine lower Manhattan cityscape that I had passed for four years now had a black abscess smack dab in its center, a wound from which protruded two smoldering stumps of iron and glass, both surrounded by a multitude of police cars, ambulances, and assorted rescue vehicles, each with lights blinking and swirling, forcing the onlooker’s attention to the misery. Thick, blacker-than-black clouds of chemical smoke billowed heavenward, making the scene look like the largest sacrificial pyre imaginable, which it kind of was, let’s face it.
The passengers craned their necks, pressed themselves against the windows, and sat agog, unwillingly mesmerized by the sight. Not a word was said as we passed the inferno, but the view was reminiscent of a drive-by attraction at Disneyworld if the designer had been a mass murdering pussy of an arsonist. The chemical fumes somehow managed to creep in through the car’s sealed doors and windows, filling us with the dread certainty that what we were experiencing was so unreal that is simply had to be real. Not soon enough, the nightmarish display faded into the distance, and we were once more underground in the safety (?) of the MTA’s underground labyrinth. A commute that normally encompassed about a half hour one way had been actually and subjectively transformed into a three-hour trip along the River Styx, and I felt an edginess that I had never known before.
Upon surfacing at my subway station, I looked northward in the direction of the once flawless skyline of lower Manhattan — a key selling point for homes and apartments in Park Slope — and saw the spewing columns blotting out everything else within view, then noticed some form of unusual precipitation; thanks to the strong winds debris, ashes, and burnt office papers fell from the skies like morbid snowflakes, festooning both sides of the Gowanus Canal with remains that settled all over parked cars, houses, backyards and citizens on the street. When I realized that at least some part of those ashes was all that was left of some of the innocents removed from the human equation by a bunch of cowardly hijackers, I became stiff as a board, staggered over to the entrance of the local bath house turned performance space and voided the contents of my stomach onto the sidewalk. After I had regained my composure, I headed straight to the corner bodega and bought a case of beer, then raced to the liquor store on Fifth Avenue for a bottle of the reliable Jose Quervo tequila, and finally went home to my apartment.
After dropping off my book bag and putting away half of the beer, I went to the roof of my building, camera at the ready, and found many of my fellow dwellers at number 647 staring to the north, some in the throes of great, wracking sobs while others just stood transfixed by something inconceivable to those of us raised in the over-confident security of a society that had kicked ass on all comers (yes, I’m leaving Viet Nam out of that one).
Zombified, I snapped pictures of the burning towers until I had exhausted the disposable camera — pictures that I decided against developing, and I chucked the disposable camera over the side of my building — at which point I broke the seal on the Quervo, took a deep burning swig, and passed the bottle to the others who stood on the roof bearing witness. As the amber cactus squeezings incinerated their way down my gullet, I washed them down with one beer, then another, and ended up sitting cross-legged on the roof trying to make sense of the whole thing. Then a huge joint was stuffed into my mouth by another resident and I inhaled for all I was worth. “Fuck it,” I figured. ”This is the first volley of the end of the world, and there’s NO FUCKING WAY I’m facing it sober!” The other-than-nicotinal effects mingled with the fermented goodness to create a feeling of hoodoo comfort, and I willingly surrendered, somehow eventually ending up safe in my bed, where I awoke the next afternoon, which turned out to be a day off from work for obvious travel and emotional reasons for the company’s entire staff.
The moment I awoke I turned on the TV and sifted my way through countless takes on what had happened, and a nearly endless amount of video footage from Ground Zero and the surrounding areas. It was several hours later when I caught up on all of my friends who lived and worked in Manhattan and found all of them to be basically okay, although some soon showed signs of post-event trauma such as a formerly brown head of hair turning silver, and one healthy person in his early forties developing the first sign of what would turn out to be testicular cancer. Both people had made their way out of the great cloud of debris when the second tower collapsed, so the gods only know what the fuck they inhaled or absorbed through physical contact, but they are both thankfully okay now.
When I returned to work, the morale of the whole place was quite understandably fucked up and very little work was accomplished, but we all were grateful for our own miserable lives, and sickened that so many innocents had senselessly perished in what was in my humble opinion a clear case of the chickens coming home to roost. I resumed my usual duties and checked in with the international talent who needed to be called, and one of our artists, a guy who lives in Croatia, forever cemented my understanding of how the rest of this world looks at such events; as I told him of what I’d seen, he didn’t say a word, and when I had finished I was greeted with a very long silence. As the long distance hush stretched on I said,”Goran? Dude, are you there?” He cleared his throat after an audible drag on a smoke and said, “Bunche…I know you’ve just seen something really, REALLY horrible, but I live in Croatia, man. Similar shit happens all the time here, and the worst part is, YOU GET USED TO IT.”
Sure as hell put me in my motherfucking place, let me tell you that fucking much.
And that’s all I have to say on the subject. Hopefully I will not have any need to bring this up again in the foreseeable future, but here’s my multi-point, possibly bottom line on the subject, and then I’m out:
1. WAR FUCKING SUCKS. DO NOT FORGET THAT. It is wasteful of lives and everything else, so avoid it whenever possible. When innocents, women and especially children are killed there is simply no excuse, despite what your country’s administration may tell you.
2. THE DEHUMANIZATION OF OTHER PEOPLES AND CULTURES IS UNACCEPTABLE. See above.
3. THINK FOR YOURSELF, AND DO NOT LET THE MEDIA — even well meaning li’l ol’ me — OR YOUR GOVERNMENT TELL YOU OTHERWISE.
4. REMEMBER WHAT RICHARD PRYOR HAD TO SAY ON THE SUBJECT OF WAR IN GENERAL: “COMING BEATS HAVING A WAR.” So get the hell out there, get your hump on, and stop all of this madness, for fuck’s sake! In this world, you are just a guest, so make the stay pleasant for all people.
Thank you for your time.