Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Aftermath of Disaster

This was published in Spanish by Reforma exactly one year after the attacks.
After the initial shock, apparently I went back to my normal, ornery self:
Tuesday, September 11. Night.
South of 14th Street, the island is cordoned off. Nobody can go below 14th Street unless they show proof of residence in the area or are joining the rescue mission. Phones don’t work very well. I have less trouble calling my family in Mexico than making a local call. I feel relatively quiet, but I know my emotional distance comes from some automatic defense mechanism and not from my own volition.
The silence on the street is total, except for the sound of police sirens, helicopters and fire trucks, which is rather sparse given the magnitude of the disaster. I get international calls from some concerned friends. They know I live nearby. I watch TV and have internet on at the same time. On TV they regurgitate the horrible images of the explosions and collapses over and over, ad nauseam.
I have never heard such silence in my block, a spot full of usually crowded bars. A city in which people go out to eat, to drink, to dance seven days a week, has been completely silenced. A permanent hum scares sleep away. I don’t understand where it comes from. I open the windows to better listen to it. The smell of burnt rubber invades my apartment. I realize that what I’m hearing is the labored breathing of the buildings. 
Wednesday, September 12.
Today it smells worse. Giuliani has said that we should stay at home and we obey him. Giuliani, resented by many in this liberal city because of his abrasive personality and his puritanical and paternalist tendencies, behaves compassionately, intelligently and prudently, and he inspires trust. I have been cooped up at home all day. The phone rings every 15 minutes. Friends from all over the world call to comfort themselves that we are fine. Their calls make more bearable the loneliness and terror that have settled in the pit of my stomach. My intuition is that they are just as scared of the new world disorder that threatens to engulf us all. The calls are of mutual support. My friend Delia writes that her young daughter dreams at night of people jumping out of windows.
Between the acrid ashes and the media coverage, I’m disgusted. I decide to go outside and sniff around. Kids play under the cloud of dust and ash, followed closely by their parents. Some bars, restaurants and cafes are open. I see clusters of people standing on the corners that look south. I don’t understand what they are looking at. People wander around aimlessly from one corner to the next, shooting pictures and videos.
In this town of screamers, few people talk. At the corner of Houston and Sixth Ave, next to the fire station, a crowd gathers. People cheer every time rescuers or ash-covered firefighters go by. A young woman scrutinizes a lamppost and I decide she is crazy until I focus my eyes on the post and see the flyers with the pictures and names of the missing and the desperate messages imploring for news of their whereabouts.
I cry because these bastards have paralyzed my unstoppable city. But not completely. On the opposite corner, two Italian restaurants have opened their doors and the beautiful people eat pasta and drink wine au plein air, air rife with traces of asbestos, pulverized concrete and what in my view have got to be the human ashes of at least five thousand souls. However, I’m not surprised. I always knew that New Yorkers would never relinquish their inalienable right to go out for dinner, regardless of whatever catastrophe the future may bring. With this logic, I tell my husband, who is safe and sound in Panama, that this is the best week to make reservations at the hottest New York restaurants. But who has the appetite?
Since there is no traffic south of 14thSt., some people make their dreams come true and glide through the empty streets on their rollerblades and bicycles.
Something never before seen: people look you in the eye as they pass you by. Men see me walking alone and look like they are ready to comfort me (and look like they are ready to be comforted back). The way things are, it seems that this week all the single girls may find a beau.
A guy gives me a small comic book. The doodles are very modern, but the content turns out to be an exhortation to return to the lap of our lord Jesus Christ, sponsored by one of those sects there’s no shortage of in this country, of loony evangelicals who are way too eager for the end of the world. Of course, they could not take long to materialize. How did they get to New York is beyond me, Greenwich Village even more so. Or were they already here?
At night there is thunder and lightning and military planes zoom by. I’m not scared. I have the air conditioner on to avoid hearing the silence. 
Thursday, September 13. 
North of 14th Street, Manhattan seems perfectly normal, except taxis refrain from honking their insane horns. In the advertising agency I work at, I learn that one of our colleagues has lost his niece. My eyes tear up with indignation constantly.
Some of our clients have asked us to take a look at our commercials currently on air to make sure they don’t say things like “ A delicious explosion of flavor” or “A bomb of refreshment”. We make jokes in bad taste: “The Osama of sodas”, “A Jihad of nutrition for your family”.
Bush has declared that we all should go out at noon and pray at the worship place of our choice, which seems to me the stupidest idea that can occur to the president of a country in crisis, in a city which may still harbor extremists strapped with explosives. Besides, as an agnostic, I feel frankly discriminated against. In fact, I feel very alone in my distaste for these government-sponsored paroxisms of spirituality.
To judge from the tone that the media here have adopted, from now on we will be exposed to an indiscriminate barrage of sentimentalism and cheap patriotism. I have already started getting despicable chain letters with feelings of unity, prayer and revenge. The news are no longer news. They are lachrymose testimonies of the poor people who are desperately looking for their dead ones. I wonder what they are saying in the Middle East. What does Saddam think, for instance, what has Muammar declared, what’s the story in Kabul. If I watch the local news, I’m never going to find out. Here they are showing a paramedic that found a doll amid the rubble (there’s always one) and he intends to erect a monument with it if no one claims it.
The cloud of acrid dust has spread beyond 14th street. I search for mouth masks at the drugstores. They are all out.
Bush, who since the incident, has the mien of a kid lost in the supermarket, uses an inflammatory and reductive rhetoric that seems taken straight out of a Hollywood action flick. We’re gonna smoke them, he says, Wanted, dead or alive. I haven’t the slightest doubt that this helps incite the incidents of harassment against members of the Arab-American community, and what is worse, against anybody who wears a beard and/or a turban. An idiot screams at the owner of a falafel joint nearby, “you make money here, but this is my country”, followed by a string of invective. Even though there are four Arabs and one aggressor, they remain silent. Standing half a block away, I can feel their fear. I don’t dare intervene.
Between testimonies, I read in the CNN news ticker the following item: an Islamic extremist in a German jail called the American authorities and warned them that there would be an attack on the WTC. Nobody talks about that. Nobody talks about the fact that Osama was trained by the CIA and that the Taliban is the result of American intervention in Afghan affairs. Nobody mentions these details, except some liberal friends that send me emails with such information. But, like Seamus Milne of The Guardian said, Americans react as if this instance of terror is a sheer impulse of evil that came out of nowhere, random and incomprehensible. They can't conceive that they may have done something to provoke it. They don’t know how much and why they are hated. It’s true. Information exists in this country and it is available to anybody, but few are interested. In general, the lack of American curiosity about the world is alarming.
 Union Square has become a spontaneous meeting ground to write thoughts, leave votive candles, hang pictures, play the congas. A group of young people sing and dance Give Peace A Chance, a song I’ve always found intolerably kitschy. A vigil has been organized at 7 pm. People are asked to light a candle in memory of the victims. A big crowd has gathered. A couple appears dressed as the Twin Towers. They are on stilts, dressed in black velvet leggings covered with shards of mirrors. They dance among the people, who are taking pictures. Why do these expressions of solidarity disgust me so much? Because they are vulgar, childish and innocent. Everything becomes a circus. I go to a movie and spend the entire screening thinking that an extremist is going to blow us all to pieces. 
Friday, September 14.
A regular day. North of 14th St. it looks like nothing ever happened. Taxis blare and create jams, people eat in restaurants.  New York, as usual.  
Saturday, September 15.
A friend who was upstate at the time of the catastrophe wants me to go with him to Canal St., which is now the border of the city. He wants to see something concrete. The only concrete thing to see are hordes of people with little American flags and tourists. People are snapping up postcards with pictures of the towers. The only concrete thing there is to see is a smoking crater at the end of the city’s canyons.
We have lunch at a restaurant where we are treated as if we had descended straight from heaven. Every two minutes they ask us if the food is to our liking. In fact, it is excellent. It is the first decent meal I’ve had since Tuesday. I feel it has been prepared with an intense desire to forget everything and come back to our banal normalcy. It tastes like glory.
A group of friends and I go to the movies. We need to get out of this funk. We pick Barbet Schroeder's Our Lady of The Assassins, based on the book by Fernando Vallejo. The film is in Spanish, which is delicious. And it turns out to have plenty of resonance. It’s about a different kind of terror (drug violence in Colombia), but it is hilarious, blasphemous, violent, and we enjoy it. A lot of its dark humor escapes the small audience. One of us says that when you live with the social injustice that causes this kind of savagery, you have a much more refined sense of irony. A phrase in the film is burnished in my mind. I paraphrase: 
“But child, don't you know that the difference between thought and action is civilization?"
My friends go home but I don't want to go to sleep. I go back to Union Square. The candles and the congas are still there. There’s a group of pale bearded guys and skeletal women with long skirts that sing songs only they know. Another sect. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of lit votive candles, bouquets of flowers, poems, exhortations for moderation, prudence and sanity. The catch phrase of the day is "An eye for an eye and we all go blind". People, respectful, are silent.
I find a Mexican flag. Someone has written on it 500 mexican ilegals (sic) unnamed. I find it an exaggerated number, but I don't doubt it. They are the kitchen helpers, the pizza delivery guys, the bathroom cleaners. I have not seen photocopies of their portraits, nor their names, or faces or teary relatives on TV. 
I can’t say I’m praying for them and their families, but my mind finally becomes silent.

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