Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Enterprise - 40

We think words mean things. But they really mean ideas. This is by design—this is how we want them to behave. If we don’t like something, we can change its name. Or pretend its name means something else. We’re in control. But the thing is: we don’t live in truth. We inhabit a brokered, dubious realm, situated in the gaps between words and what they represent. We are insulated by language—most of the time. What happens when it fails to protect us?

A few of us were going to the game on Monday night. Kevin, Rob. Maybe Peter, Jimmy. Maybe Steve. It was going to be Yankees-Red Sox, Roger Clemens. But a hard rain started in the afternoon and didn’t let up. After work we went to the dark bar around the corner to wait and see if the game got called. In the cozy barglow we felt a little lazy, like we were playing hooky. But on TV we saw the tarp get rolled out over the infield. A few intrepid souls in garbage-bag ponchos huddled in the stands. We began to drink in earnest then, shooting pool, insouciant. Outside the rain was grim and unforgiving.

The following morning I awoke later than I wanted to. As usual. Coffee, shower. The whole routine. At my bus stop all was quiet and serene, the sky a limpid blue pierced by a column of black smoke from some building on fire downtown. As the bus progressed along Fifth I had that thought that everybody has: I wonder if it’s my building that’s on fire.

It probably wasn’t. Hundreds of buildings down there. Thousands. But still.

“The last stop on this bus will be Fawteenth Street,” the driver suddenly announced. “Fawteenth Street will be the last stop on this bus.”

There was a French couple near me, young, eager to see the sights. Qu'est-ce qui se passe? she asked him. What’s going on? He translated the thing about 14th. That’s all anybody knew.

A fire engine passed us and one of the firemen, in a rear-facing window seat, leaned his head out, looking back. He bore the smile of a man who knows exactly where he’s going and what he has to do.

I got off at 23rd, the smoke still far away. The building super, an older Hispanic man, was sweeping the little foyer by the elevator. He stopped and looked at me, resting his hands atop the broomstick. He seemed a bit alarmed to just be clearing out the dust.

“The towers!” he said. “Plane hit towers!” He made a swooping gesture with his hand by way of illustration. “Twin Towers! Yes? Plane!”

“Really?” I replied. I tried to strike an appropriate posture of concern. “Wow.”

Two!” he added, eyes wide, holding up his fingers in a V. “Two plane hit!”


“Two plane hit towers! Two!” he insisted.

It seemed like he’d doubled the number in dissatisfaction at my response. What on earth could he actually be talking about? I imagined a little prop plane wobbling off course, bonking into the side of a building; another somehow following suit. (Didn’t a bomber do that after the War? Stick into the side of the Empire State? Then a giant ape came along and tore it out?) I tried again to pitch my voice to the urgency of his outlandish assertion.

“Two planes?!” I said. “That’s incredible!”

I got off the elevator to find most of my coworkers on the other side of the sculpture and the plant, staring dumbfoundedly at the television. The same plume of smoke was on the screen, bigger and closer, a little less real. Newscasters were gravely reciting the facts as they were known: airline names, flight numbers, emergency response activities. Origins and destinations. Times to the minute. Speculations as to the dead and injured. Each of the twins bore on its face a crooked maw with a tongue of fire inside, vomiting torrential sheets of slate-gray smoke into the sparkling, baby blue sky. Down below, safe in the valley of shops and streets and sidewalks, many stared up at the conflagration with hands over their mouths. Police waving stand back, stand back. Nothing to see here, folks.

A blizzard of documents—reports, charts, memos, contracts and faxes—animated the air and fell, confetti-like, upon the living. There went our paperwork. There went our records.

The rest of the office looked normal. The same walls and floor, desks, lamps and chairs. Yesterday’s coffee mugs sat upside-down in the rack beside the sink.

Were we now living in a new world, different than the one before? A world of smoke and death, where nothing can be trusted?

Neil paced between his office and the TV, murmuring a word or two of consolation when it appeared to be expected. He suggested we all go home if we like. This is so bad, you don’t even need to do your jobs. Brett embraced Julie in a comforting, older-brotherly fashion, his leather jacket muffling her sobs. It was like we were in high school and a friend committed suicide. It was hard to say what it was like.

I wandered over to my desk and placed a call to Melissa. She was up on the roof with her binoculars. While my voice was worried, tense, aggrieved—all the things it was supposed to be, I thought—hers was weirdly calm, detached. Like it always was, in fact. Why shouldn’t it be?

“I can see it from here,” she said. “I can see it really well.”

“You can see the towers?”

“I can see the smoke.”

“You can see the smoke?”

“I can totally see the smoke.”

I told her I’d probably head up to her place in a little while. I called my sister and my brother. Then I wandered to the TV just in time to see. It came as a surprise, at least to me. How does a burning building crumble to the ground?

I returned to my desk and watched the calamity as it was haltingly presented online. I expected some reassurance from the words arrayed in different sizes on the screen. Not from the words themselves—the words were UNDER ATTACK, TERROR, STUNNED—but from the fact that they were words. Our words. We had typed them into a machine. The machine displayed them back to us. This was still the world as it should be. Was it not?

Instead I felt a greater unease, almost nausea. The words, the phrases, they only pointed feebly—cravenly—toward the meanings that they would contain. I perceived the awful intrusion of something raw and powerful—something unnameable—into our insular domain.

“Oh my God,” I heard Lucy wail across the divide. “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.”


“The second tower just collapsed.”

Monday, June 11, 2012

Friday, June 08, 2012

The Enterprise - 39

I was beside myself, what to do with Melissa. All I could imagine was her disappearing. And me grasping at the space where she had been. She’d been a little quiet lately. What was up? I made mental lists of things to say to her. Little jokes to make. As though to appease some insatiable beast.

Still, our relationship persisted. I shuffled fearfully to her apartment every couple of days, convinced she’d send me right back home. Instead, we’d order out. Watch some old movie. Fuck. Wake up and brush our teeth and that was that.

I began to make a tally of the good days and the bad. I took her out to dinner for her birthday. That was good. I got her drunk enough so she forgot my apprehension.

We planned a vacation. A trip out west. A visit to a friend of mine and to a friend of hers. Hotels, wineries, a drive up the coast. Carmel and Monterey. Some camping. I hated camping. I would have done anything she said.

There appeared a warning light on the dashboard of our rental car and I called the 800 number that was provided in our pamphlet of materials. Ignore it, they said. There’s no problem with the car. There’s a problem with the warning.

The first few days were fine. She liked to get high. As long as we were smoking pot together, everything was all right. That’s what I thought. We sat on the windowsill of a motel room in Santa Monica, blowing smoke into the shaft. Little sparks flew up into the darkness.

The night before it was all over we were staying at an extremely expensive inn overlooking the rocky Pacific shore in Big Sur. We got high on our patio. I sucked each papery hit deeply and held it in as long as I could, drawing every last bit of intoxicating smoke into my lungs in little bursts, trying not to cough. Then we walked the path to the restaurant perched over the foggy cliffs.

We were offered a table facing an angry orange fire; for a moment it seemed lovely and then my hands and knees and face heated intolerably and in my hazy state I felt the thing was ruined and the whole world was sure to end.

"Ask the Maitre d' for another table," said Melissa quite reasonably, so I did, and we were promptly seated at a table by the picture window looking out to sea.

We ordered white wine and oysters and California caviar and when it came we set the oysters between us and slipped them off the shells into our mouths, and everything was fine as gray turned to black outside, and far below us the foamy surf that beat upon the shore receded into darkness too.

Suddenly there was a man standing behind her, his nose to the window. He had wound his way around nearby tables and chairs and appeared to be examining the glass with intense curiosity. His fingers walked upon the surface and its ghostly, gold reflections of faces and hunched bodies, chairs, tables, plates and softly glowing candles. He probed it timidly, hesitantly, like an explorer who has discovered a new world far more mysterious and wonderful and terrifying than he could ever have imagined.

"Sir?" said Melissa.

After a beat more puzzled fumbling he broke out of his trance.

"Oh! I… I thought that was another room!" he said, and pivoted back among the real things from whence he came.

As we watched the lost man and debated the meaning of his behavior—was it some kind of joke? Was he very drunk? Senile?—I became convinced I wasn’t me.

We drank more in the restaurant, got the check, wandered through the parking lot and smoked some more. We tried to break in to the swimming pool, the fancy one that’s in the pictures in the travel magazines. Someone with a flashlight saw us and yelled something. So we went back to our room, drank some more. Fucked in the tub. When I awoke in the morning she was not beside me and I knew right then it was over. It wasn’t my own thoughts that told me. It wasn’t my own voice. It came from outside of me. It had the authority of the other. It’s over. I knew there was nothing I could do. And like an idiot I still tried.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Crossing Guard on Eighth

The crossing guard on Eighth is a nice woman about my age, an old maid already, maybe. Always says g’mornin’ in her Brooklyn accent. She chats with the moms and their kids, catching up on gossip. flattering the girls: Don’t you look beautiful today! With her coffee in her hand and her back to the traffic, the cars and trucks are an afterthought. She knows they’ll stop.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Food Day in Brooklyn - 3

The Thai food—sausages in buns with cilantro and a trace of sriracha sauce—was very good. But they took a minute and a half to eat. We went back up the hill, toward the entrance, hoping to find some stands with shorter lines. We circled a log cabin-like structure that had vendor windows on all four sides. Bagel halves were on display under cheese bells, each draped with a limp and pallid blade of lox. Around the corner two women stood at a bakery counter. All they had left for sale were sticks of salty bread. I was so surprised that a vendor with something in stock had no line before it that I bought some. The women seemed more surprised than me.

We got some sweets in the dessert sector—those were not hard to obtain. After a wait in two lines—one line earned you permission to stand in the other, essentially—we got duck hot dogs created by a particularly famous restaurant. The cabbage topping seemed, weirdly, to be mixed with orange zest. I popped a piece of Orbit gum.

Frustrated, defeated, we walked to a little hill beside some trees and lay down for awhile. The cool grass felt good against my neck. On my palms. I gazed serenely at the sky through the gaps of the branches looming over us. It was still a beautiful day. I began to feel good.

Suddenly something fearsome and raw violated the idyll. KRANGG!! It was a ferocious chord from an extremely loud, distorted guitar. CHUGGA-CHUGGA-CHUGGA KCHANG KANG CHUGGA-CHUGGA it went, again and again and again. A jolting expression of id to cast a damning pall on the gentle afternoon.

We arose blearily, as though hung over.

“It’s a Van Halen cover band,” observed Sara.

It did not seem possible to me—they sounded more like death metal. But sure enough, they were playing “Panama.”

We gravitated toward one of the exits, at the south end of the park. To get there we walked past rows and rows of portable toilets. Something seemed strange about them—an incongruous, dreamy quality. I’d never seen these objects in quite this way before. Then it occurred to me what it was: there were no lines.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Observed Through the Drugstore Window

A man stood in the window of the Rite Aid on 42nd Street, having just passed through the checkout. His white plastic bag lay open on the sill, and in it sat a torn little box from which he’d withdrawn a Styrofoam and metal finger splint, which he now placed gingerly over his index finger and wound around with gauze.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Food Day in Brooklyn - 2

The scene seemed idyllic at first. Pavilions, stands and stages across a hilly expanse. But then we looked a little closer: you couldn’t buy beer with real money. You needed special money. You were supposed to trade your real money for the special money first.

We traveled a little further and found a beer stand that took cash. But you needed a bracelet. I gazed back up the hill. I saw neat rows of food stands with extravagantly painted signs. People. Trees. No indication as to where one might obtain a bracelet.

We toured the natural amphitheatre. Around its rim, vendors fed lines of people extending from the amorphous pit like a hundred hungry tongues. Employees stood at vague points on the hill with signs that read, “15 minutes to go!”

Down on the lawn some people had food. Some people had beer. Some had food and beer. It was difficult to imagine what they’d endured to obtain it; or perhaps into what privilege they had somehow been born.

Onstage someone bellowed a perfunctory welcome: How you all doin’ today? Soon a dixieland band struck up, its jaunty counterpoint bleating incongruously over the proceedings. I thought about the woman on her hands and knees.

We found the shortest line—Thai food—and so there we stood, and stood, and stood. I took a break to try to find the bracelet place. I reached the side of a beer tent where a worker was chatting with a customer. I asked the worker where to get a bracelet. He shrugged. Like he didn’t know what I meant. Certainly he didn’t care. I asked the customer.

“How do you get a bracelet?” I ventured. “How do I get a bracelet? Like the one you have.” I pointed to his. “There.”

“Over there, by the entrance,” he replied, pointing at a shroud of trees. Then he swiveled uncertainly. “Or over there. I dunno. There’s two entrances,” he said.

“Over there?” I asked, pointing where he had pointed first.

“I think so. Yeah. I think.”

I found the ID booth. There was a line snaking away from it, around a tree, and back out of view. Hundreds of people all shifting foot to foot. I turned away and walked back to find that Sara had made a little progress up the hill.