By Isaac Butler
It felt necessary. It felt like a duty. It felt like what one needed to do, the only way to “process what had happened”. This walk, this slow trudge from Broadway and Canal to the bottom of the Island, the slow march, two weeks after the towers fell, to see the wreckage.
The urgning to take the walk came from all corners. My good friend Eliza called me up to say she had gone first thing on the day when lower Manhattan had reopened. “It’s amazing. Really, it’s just, I don’t know, it’s what you need to do.” Chris, my former theatre professor (at the time, my boss): “If you’re going to go, get out at the Canal Street A/C/E and walk down Broadway, you’ll see the transformation.” Chris was replicating the old New Yorker habit, being the expert, telling someone the right way to experience some secret cultural happening, complete with explicit subway directions.
I’m no fool, though; there was no way I was going to put myself through that trauma on my own, and Mary my then-girlfriend had little interest. So Bryan, intrepid light and sound designer and I conspired to take The Walk (as we called it) after rehearsal one day.
We were working on Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest, an elliptically told journey through the Romanian Revolution. Chris had been hired to direct it at the Stella Adler acting conservatory, and had brought me on as his assistant. Mad Forest is a play as brilliant as it is hard to describe. It follows an Altman-sized cast of characters before the revolution in largely silent scenes, then has a second act where all of the actors play new parts and talk about the revolution as if they are being interviewed, and then finishes it off with a third, hyper-verbal act that ends in a huge onstage fight, a lambada and long speeches that aren’t in English.
It was a play that the largely teen-aged cast had trouble making sense of or relating to. Then, a week into rehearsals, the towers fell, one of our students disappeared for four days and the play started making more and more sense with each passing minute.
The Canal Street A/C/E… why does it feel like most of my significant early-20s experiences are clustered around that subway stop? There’s The Walk, of course, but the Canal Street A/C/E’s Walker Street entrance is also the nearest public transportation point for Soho Rep (site of several of my first jobs in New York Theater), South’s (the world’s greatest post-show pub) and Dream House, the first art installation in New York to blow my fucking mind.
Every year it seems as September rolls around, we’re supposed to recount “where we were when the towers fell”. It’s a tiresome exercise. Bloggers (particularly right wing bloggers) love this exercise, as it lets them call up some profound, deep unshakeable emotions in their readers and then funnel those emotions directly into whatever political agenda they have cooked up.
Glenn Beck of course is the master of this. He wants everyone to feel like they did on 9/12, claiming that what he means is inspired, together, righteous. But did anyone feel that way on 9/12? I felt tired, traumatized, scared and hurt. And so did everyone else I know who was actually in New York.
“I went to Church yesterday,” Eliza calls me to say. It’s maybe four days after the towers fell.
“I know, I know, I’m a Jew, but I was in Union Square and as I was walking away, feeling what you feel, I saw this church and there was this woman outside and she just looked at me and I knew that was where I needed to be.”
So no, no story of that day from me. I am frankly bored by my story. Bored from having told it so many times (one Thanksgiving, I recounted my 9/11 story twenty times in one day) that it’s contours, insights and jokes are like a well-rehearsed stand up comedy routine. I’ve told it so many times it has no emotional resonance for me anymore. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a monologue. It doesn’t prove any points, it has no insights for the reader to feel something about.
I didn’t die. No one I knew died. It was very scary and the day was so clear and sunny and beautiful that I couldn’t get U2’s Beautiful Day out of my head—god how I hate that song— and I was surprised that MacDonald’s was open, and grateful for fast food in the midst of the walk from Mary’s workplace to a friend’s apartment. I watched the plane fly into tower two until it ceased having any resonance at all, repeated over and over like a Philip Glass arpeggio until it was just a minimalist exercise.
In the immediate aftermath, though, every 9/11 story was fascinating. My friend Spencer Berger slept through it, and yet sleeping through it somehow became a profound experience, almost as profound as my friend Jessica, who saw people jumping out of the World Trade Center’s windows from her apartment.
9/11 was the third in a trilogy of events that sealed any feeling of millennial hope I had in a lead coffin and dropped it off the Buttermilk Channel. The first was the break down of Camp David and the Second Intifadah. The second was the Florida Recount and the stolen election. The third was the towers falling.
Wait, the walk. I intended to write about the walk. The “real experience” the experience more real than the towers because no one played it on television until it became a highlight reel, and then a video game and then a disaster movie. The local experience, the experience that wasn’t universal, the experience that you had to be there for. And yet I can’t, I’m blocked. It won’t come out, the story of the walk, what I saw.
9/11 is easy to talk about. There, I said it. There’s a set list of things you can say about it to liberals and another set of things you can say to conservatives. Some of them overlap. And there you are. We’ve had the conversation so many times, I’d rather forget the fucking thing even happened, even though I was there for it.
So here, the walk down Broadway. First the light changed. The light always changed heading from TriBeCa to the financial district because the height of the buildings changed while the street grid completely fell apart. The dimness of the light felt spectral and strange, like we were entering a demon land.
And then the dust appeared. A little at a time. A little white dust here, a little white dust there, like snow (or cocaine) littering this sidewalk, smattering that windshield, lurking in the corner of this shop window clinging to the bottom of my shoes.
And then the windows. I noticed one of them was broken. And then another, and then another. Broken windows, window displays covered in white dust. Like the windows at Tiffany’s when we would come up to New York for our annual December vacation, if the windows at Tiffany’s commemorated disasters rather than Santa Claus.
Finally the fliers. I am missing. Have you seen. Any information about please contact. Here is a drawing. Here is a sketch. Here is a photo from our wedding. Here is a picture of my husband. My brother. My wife. My girlfriend. Any information about, please—
What I did next embarrassed me. Embarrasses me still. And perhaps that is why detail is failing me here.
“Bryan,” I turned to him, talking for the first time in half an hour. No one talked. It was quiet as a crypt with the cold autumn air and the dust and the windows and the fliers. “I mean Jesus Christ.”
“What’s the matter?”
“These people are never coming back, are they? I mean, they’re lost, they’re dead. There’s no one who disappeared that day who is going to suddenly be discovered. The rescue missions are over. It’s recovery now.”
Bryan’s hand encircled my arm. “You need to keep it down,” he said in a whisper, not a harsh one, he wasn’t angry, just chagrined.
“What are you talking about?”
“There are people here, people around you, people taking this walk who have loved ones on those fliers.”
“But they should know, shouldn’t they? They’re in denial, they need—“
“What do they need? You to tell them their families are,” mouthing the word now “gone?”
Ah, the plight of the angry hyper-rational atheist. What could be worse than your fellow humans deluding themselves? That’s the real crime. That’s the real thing to get angry about. Never mind the day itself and its rapidly declining estimates of the dead. It’s the delusion, the lie we tell each other to give us hope to get angry about, right?
Because let’s face it, you’re surrounded by lies, and you know it. Lie #1: That we dodged a bullet by letting Bush steal the election. Lie #2: Religion will help heal you (a lie that’s followed you your whole life). Lie #3: That anyone currently missing will come back. Lie #4: That everything changed and yet if you just continue your life like nothing happened, everything will be okay. You’re up to your fucking eyeballs in lies, and you can’t stand it anymore. For some reason, this is supposed to give you the right to break people’s hearts.
And then, the end of the walk is a wall. A grey construction wall covered in fliers. And over it, you can see the wreckage. And that’s it.
It’s anticlimactic. The point wasn’t the destination but the journey, seeing the change, seeing the street get darker and whiter and brokener and sadder and sadder until we reached a barrier, until we came as far as we could come.
The barrier felt both literal and figurative. We could walk back through 9/11 as much as we wanted, rehash it, create meaning for it, create solutions to it, responses, reactions, but at the end, we would hit a grey wall, covered in smiling faces, with wreckage peeking over the top. All roads lead to Rome. Or to its fall, anyway.