Netherland, Joseph O’Neill
O’Neill’s postcolonial, updated Gatsby, multilayered novel about an Englishman and his family in New York brings the attacks to a personal level of an average New Yorker. His character’s experience happens to mirror my own: I was in midtown, at work, watching on tv. Witness is a sincere form of honoring a memory. And so for the 3,000 who lost their lives, I offer my witness of their last day.
* * * * * * *
The sky was piercing blue and sparkling that Tuesday morning as I walked to the subway. You could not help but note it. I had just recently returned to work after a relapse of a csf (cerebral spinal fluid) leak in late August. I was so happy to be out of bed.
When I got to the office, I saw a young guy at the elevator whom I didn’t know. It’s a small company, so that was unusual. It turned out it was his first day in a new position. He looked unsettled. In elevator chatter he said, “I saw an accident this morning. A plane flew into the World Trade Center.” “Oh,” I said, “that happened to the Empire State Building in the forties.” The first moment of the sickening day. It’s why we turned the tv on.
We were slow to process the reality of the attacks. We had a public event scheduled that night with Bob Costas. Even after the second tower fell, we were talking about whether or not we should cancel the event. We didn't want him to be angry with us for canceling him. Looking back, I see it was the shock of what was happening, wrenching everyone out of “business as usual” but with such disbelief that we couldn’t see the obvious.
We closed the office around noon. We didn’t know if there were going to be more attacks, and midtown felt vulnerable to me. I considered it might be safer to stay in my office, but I wanted to be home. The subways had been shut down, so I started walking. The 53 blocks isn’t a terrible haul—people in Brooklyn and Queens and the suburbs had much bigger travel problems—but I was afraid the exertion would further aggravate the csf leak that I had just gotten under control. The buses were still running, and I got on something going north that cut down the walking a bit. I had never been so happy to see my front door.
These were my days with The Talented Mr. Ripley, and that evening he was on my doorstep. We went up to my roof, where sadly, we could see the cloud of smoke from Ground Zero, more than half the length of Manhattan away. We watched the tv coverage, until we could watch no more. And then, Mr. Ripley sat down at the piano. He is an extremely accomplished pianist with a startling ability to improvise. He played through some jazz standards, with the saddest of sad blue notes. He segued into a medley of patriotic songs, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful,” all in minor keys. He played Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring like a dirge. He played through the most sacred of hymns. Music filled the apartment where we could no longer summon words from the emotional exhaustion of the day. He played for a long time. In the morning, he played again, yearning and striving for hope with lush, huge improvisations on “Morning Has Broken,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “There Has to Be a Morning After.”
The office reopened on Thursday. The mayor asked people to go back to work, and so we did. I remember overwhelming dread at the thought of getting on the subway, countered by a strong sense of not letting the terrorists take any more of our lives away. Down the stairs I went, with just enough numbness to overcome the fear. I remember how palpably nice everyone was to one another. The usual apathetic coldness most New Yorkers exude in mass transit was replaced by a general sense of softness.
Now it’s eight years later. We are no closer to understanding or reconciling with the Muslim/Islamic element that resents who we are, how we live, and wants us dead. I think that’s why there’s been so little real healing. It’s an open wound, with a constant threat of relapse.