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.”