London Review of Books, Women's Review of Books, Red Hen Press
Begun as an op-ed in the London Review of Books, this piece was reprinted under the title “Week Day Warriors” in Women’s Review of Books. A longer version won the Red Hen Press Nonfiction Award, 2003 and was reprinted by Australia’s Spinifex press in September 11, Feminist Perspectives, alongside commentary from the world’s leading feminist voices – including Barbara Kingsolver, Naomi Klein, and Arundhati Roy.
It always felt like a war zone to me. The huge, monolithic buildings, the dearth of sunlight. The vast barren stretches of concrete and the foreign, giant-scale money culture. It was all a far cry from the left wing weeklies and glossy literary magazines that were so progressive, they couldn’t pay junior employees anything at all. With the result that only the sons and daughters of the wealthy could afford to hone their skills there.
Not so Wall Street. Like the army, they will take anyone. They don’t care what school you went to you or who your father was. They will find you a job. There is a sense of camaraderie, of opportunity — if not quite equal opportunity — lacking in more prestigious, academic, and creative professions.
Civil rights are abridged in the war zone. There is no racial profiling. Everyone gets fingerprinted, drug tested and interrogated while hooked up to wires, on being hired, and at random intervals thereafter. Criminal intention is assumed. Pages long questionnaires involving violation of drug and securities laws – only indicted, but never convicted? Indicted less than three times?
The first Wall Street company I worked for was a huge, mysterious international financial conglomerate. Its executive ranks were filled with ex-Army men, “spooks” from the CIA and FBI. We did business with “bad” countries – Chile, Yugoslavia, Arab nations I’d never even heard of before. When I told people this — people who worked at left wing weeklies, in academia, at literary magazines — they said it was impossible — You can’t do business with countries the U.S. government doesn’t recognize. You can. We heard strange stories we didn’t know whether to believe – that the company was involved in third world coups, and had a sideline in sex tours to Thailand. The top secret company chart showed over four hundred subsidiaries. It was said the company was kept deliberately complicated so that no one could tell how much money it really made.
No one I knew – no one who worked uptown, no one who lived in the mainstream consumer universe — certainly no one who worked in journalism or book publishing or especially at a left wing weeklies, knew of or cared about the International company. If you told them at a party that you worked there — worked downtown, they’d look at you like you were suddenly speaking another language, or that you’d proclaimed you were a Nazi sympathizer.
But everyone on Wall Street knew my company’s name. It was a force to be reckoned with. It lived in its own fortress — the building its own self-contained world, with a lower concourse full of shops and services, its own bars and restaurants and in the upper echelons of its tower, a private dining room that opened its four doors to the sky. The company chief – in whose presence I swiftly came to understand the seductive charisma of history’s great dictators – here showcased photographs of himself between then-President Ronald Reagan and the Chinese Premiere. The other executives – many of whom had landed at Okinawa and Normandy — were so afraid of him that when he entered a cocktail function dispersed as if a smoke bomb had been thrust in their midst. When addressed at meetings, they were too rigid to laugh at his jokes. I was too far down on the totem pole for him, or anyone much else, to bother with. I had to interview men (they were always men) from one of the oppressive foreign regimes we did business with. They all ran divisions in their native countries – the company’s unique success was that it spoke the language it did business in, instead of exporting American managers. Most of these men barely spoke English, I had trouble interviewing them, but they always gave small tokens of appreciation before they went back to their native lands — jade jewelry from Indonesia, an enameled box from Malaysia, bricks of coffee from Columbia.
Wall Street gave me my first inkling that there was another point of view. A Cuban-born Chilean executive explained, quite convincingly, why his adopted country’s dictatorship was preferable to Castro’s Cuba, which he had been driven from in violence as a child. A girl who interned in my department, the daughter of a middle eastern executive, told me exactly what it was like to grow up, sleeping in the hallway every night, a pillow over her head to block out the sound of mortar shells showering her native Beirut, what it was like to see her beautiful city destroyed piece by piece by her twentieth birthday.
I liked the International company, but the pay was low, and when the eighties’ stock market bubble was getting ready to burst I went to work at a large, famous brokerage house. The day I arrived, it put itself up for sale. A demagogue gathered us in a room and told us there would be no mass firings, not in 1987. Two days later the company announced that five thousand people would be laid off after Christmas. The acquiring company looked each of us over to decide who would stay, and who go.
Though we knew we would likely be fired, we worked till midnight at a downtown printing press to get our sales letter for the field brokers out on time. One of my coworkers was 23 years old and seven months pregnant with twins. Our boss praised her — “Maria’s a real trooper” — for staying at work, though she could have got her doctor to write her out at six months. I remember eating with her in the Orwellian, cavernous cafeteria in Two World Trade Center at ten p.m. on New Year’s Eve. She was so ill I had to fetch her her food, and looked so dreadful I couldn’t swallow my own. I remember looking at my ill, pregnant co-worker, thinking, This is no place for women. We got our newsletter out, an before dawn my coworker gave birth to her twins, each dangerously underweight. She was so ill with blood poisoning that she doesn’t remember any of it, or anything that happened at all for the next two days.
I ran from the rubble of these two companies, accepting a job at a third firm. I worked there four years. I left just when Anita Hill was hitting the scene, and in lieu of filing a law suit, took a package. Before they’d give it to me they made me sign a piece of paper swearing never to tell anyone what happened.
That job wasn’t all bad, and I certainly wasn’t the only one who suffered. During the last Gulf War, my co-workers – Viet Nam Vets all – clustered in my office to listen to the war on my small transistor, whose usage was otherwise restricted to hourly stock market updates — recalling glory days or otherwise, artillery makes, and the pros and cons of various jet bombers. At our company, the enemy was internal — the surprise attacks coming from above, a side effect of a prolonged bear market.
My male coworkers considered me lucky – they were equally abused, there was a rash of cardiac arrest from the same causes that felled me. But they had no framework of accountability — their type of harassment had no legal classification, nor protection. It was just business as usual.
After I left I swore I would never go back downtown again.
People who’ve worked there understand. They know about the ten hour days, the seventy hour weeks, the two weeks off a year. It takes a certain kind of person to stick out those conditions — people unafraid of either risk or sacrifice, in the name of company, capitalism, the American dream. I wasn’t one of them. I know that everyone in those World Trade Towers, at work at 8:30 in the morning, was already a warrior, long before any planes hit.
THE REST OF THE STORY … Red Hen Press Award
When I was stricken with this illness my life radically changed. A sort of shell shock I haven’t yet quite recovered from. Alternating with periods of relative calm and wellness, it comes in surprise attacks, always beyond my control, impossible to counter. Nothing to do, but try to clean up the damage, and hope it doesn’t get any worse.
(It isn’t true, of course, that Wall Street made me sick. I got sick from a virus, or perhaps two or three viruses, that I was probably exposed to, sitting vigil in my father’s hospital room. Working together on a stressed out immune system, these bugs wreaked havoc, resulting in a brain fever. When I was sitting waiting for my father to die, my Wall Street bosses impatiently awaited my return. When I did return, my father not having died, I was punished for my four day absence.)
I didn’t get sick from Wall Street, but it felt that way, it still feels that way.
When my husband said, “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center,” my first thought was: The downtrodden of the world are finally getting back at us. My second was: We’ve paid too high a price for our alliance with Israel.
I said, “They want their countries back.”
This is not a valid viewpoint, in my household, or in the part of New York where I live.
We sat in front of the T.V. I was thinking of my friend Anne, perhaps suffering in fear, perhaps already dead, as I watched the steel beams fray like threads. After months of panicked unemployment, Anne had been thrilled to be hired at a giant bank. She had been somewhat less thrilled to be working downtown.
At 11:30 she called from her apartment, detailing her rapid descent from WTC Building Seven — “I never looked back” — which collapsed later in the day. At the time her main concern was, Did she still have a job? And that she’d left her briefcase with her address book at her desk.
In the afternoon, my husband said, “I’m going down to the water to see.” We live 20 miles up the Hudson river from the disaster, the misty Manhattan skyline beckoning like the Emerald City in the distance.
“The buildings will still be down tomorrow,” I said.
In the end I went. Just a huge double cloud of dust. “The world has changed,” my husband declared. “Everything I assumed about it is rearranged. I can’t imagine the kind of evil that would do something like this.”
“I can,” I said. I reminded him of a crime that happened to me when I was a young woman. This crime too, involved categorical hate, random revenge. “When you’ve been close to death by violence,” I told him, “Life always feels like the apocalypse.”
But mention of this, too, is met with shocked silence. We looked at the cloud.
“It’s shocking that it happened,” I tell my husband, sitting by the river. “But it’s shocking that it didn’t happen sooner.”
I was expecting this. Growing up in the full force of the cold war, in a munitions town that manufactured nearly all the helicopters that buzzed over the swamps of Viet Nam, I closed my eyes each night to imaginary bombs, conditioned by the stories of my mother, who feared the same thing during World War II. Later, during the Reagan years, I used to lay on the futon on the floor of my Brooklyn apartment, listening to the commuter planes fly over from New Jersey, waiting for the bombs to fall. I knew that such things happened in the early hours, when no one was looking.
“We’re the greatest nation in the world,” the President says on someone’s transistor. Didn’t Germany say that once?
Over and over in American history, pundits proclaim a new age of “lost innocence.” Watergate, Viet Nam, Kennedy’s assassination, Lincoln’s assassination, the Civil War. In fact the further you go back, the more profound the lack of innocence, starting with the theft of this great expanse of Native American home land.
This is what I think, looking at the beautiful wooded palisade cliffs across the river, upstream from the wreckage. What we’re looking for, I think, is an unearned claim to an innocence we never really had. Each new generation in deeper denial about the sins of the one that went before.
The following evening, a yoga class formerly centered on promoting peaceful vibrations abruptly shifts focus. We do an unprecedented number of warrior poses, and our teacher tells us stories from Hindu mythology: Sometimes going to war is the right thing.
Jabbering outside after class, we cast around for someone to blame. This happened because we have a weak leader, I say. This happened because Arabs are crazy. (This from a woman who drives a Lexus SUV, requiring maximum dependency on foreign oil.)
“We’re going to war over oil. And Israel,” I state with resignation. No one contradicts me, but their faces tell me I’ve committed sacrilege, here in the land of free speech.
In the weeks after the attack, I keep getting up in the middle of the night and turning on the TV, just to make sure nothing worse has happened. During the day it seems odd that the sky should be such a peaceful blue.
I seem less shocked than most. Living in London during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, I grew accustom to seeing Arab students hold banners chanting ” Death To America!”and was spat upon in the Student Union. One Friday afternoon in the lounge of Hanover Lodge, in the middle of peaceful Regent’s Park, grounded from the trip to Coventry the rest of my class took by a bad cold, I heard what sounded like a car backfiring. Minutes later I looked up from my textbook to see the local mosque on T.V. – one Libyan had shot another, tearing through the Friday bazaar. Every other week, it seemed, another Iranian student was blowing himself up, trying to make a bomb.
In May, another hostage crisis across the Park at the Iranian embassy, pro- and anti-American demonstrations in Hyde Park, an SAS raid, four dead. Our class was, oddly, garrisoned in the large, shabby Columbia hotel, whose other long term residents included upper level American military operatives and their families, British soldiers, Lebanese businessmen, fabulous, secular Arab women in jeweled sandals and furs, and the odd, slouching rock band. This all made for interesting conversations in the bar. My friend Robin argues with an SAS officer, You Brits have less respect for human life than Americans, you just went in and shot civilian workers. The officer wearily tells us that no foreigners have the right to fight their internecine battles on British soil. Eventually I rode the tube, unafraid of bombs.
A few years later, right here in New York, I lived in inner city neighborhoods where I feared daily for my life, and grew used to being called “white whore” in Spanish on the street on my way to and from work. Despite community action, the cops and local government seemed to want to do nothing about the harassment, the drug dealing, the junkies screaming in the middle of the night, the shootings. In 1984, crack was just moving in, and the local cops were mostly black and Hispanic. They were so disinterested in enforcing law, we had to assume they were either afraid of the criminals, on their payroll, or just didn’t want to protect the local residents. I move out of my dangerous, drug addled neighborhood into Manhattan, thanks to my first Wall Street job.
Ten days after WTC the attack, my husband urges me to watch a celebrity tribute to the heroes. The program nauseates me. What I would like to see is: Bruce Springsteen, personal pledge, seven million dollars. It’s nice that it makes these pop stars feel better to emote. But instead of having Whoopie Goldberg and Jack Nicholson manning the phones taking pledges, they should just be flashing their two and three million dollar donations. They shouldn’t be guilt-tripping some laid-off guy who can’t afford to donate, or urging someone trying to support a family of five on $50,000 a year to part with a cent. They have the money. They should be giving till it hurts.
On the radio, a foreign policy expert tries to explain the virulent anti-Americanism shared by Muslims throughout the world. “Take what happened in New York two weeks ago. Multiply that – once a month, for ten years – and you’ve got Iraq. Muslims around the world feel solidarity to their Arab brothers there, just as American Jews feel for Israel.”
“Sorry we’re out of time.”
The New York Times declares over and over again, that the attacks had nothing to do with Israel and the Palestinians, though the entire Arab world, and much of the European world, says otherwise. As if, by ignoring the facts, the situation will go away.
I Can’t Believe it happened, I’ll never get over it, email people over and over again.
When I see the repeated photographs – the stricken symbol of strength — it hurts, though I know that strength was flawed, full of hubris.
I listen to Winston Churchill’s pre-war speeches, setting forth Germany’s Hitler era point of view: “You are rich, we are poor, you have the past, we have the future. You have your colonies, we have none. You have your navy. Where is ours?”
I read how the Towers, lit up at night, appeared as a glamorous beacon to visitors and residents alike. These people never worked in them. Circling Newark airport at ten p.m., seeing the checkerboard pattern of lights in the twin giants, I remembered only the ordeal of working there till midnight.
I still have people I need to make the calls for. I can’t quite bring myself to.
Two weeks have passed. Cleaning out a drawer I find the email address of an old high school friend who worked in the trade center. Ironically, his last message was about the T.V. program, Survivor. I send brief note. He writes back, saying that on a fluke, he’d been working at home September 11. (One of the forty thousand Jews employed in the WTC who knew in advance, according to anti-Semitic lore. This is a joke. I hope you realize this is a joke.) I forward him a piece I published on Wall Street life. He replies, “They have to understand, that one of our lives is worth a hundred of theirs.” Like me, he lives within view of where the towers used to be, but on the New Jersey side of the river.
Radio stations lean on archives from the late sixties and early seventies, when support of, then opposition to the last big war gave popular music real urgency and poignancy. United We Stand, Divided We Fall, Aqualung My Friend, anything by Neil Young. Saturday evening, the parking lot of Stop n’ Shop, dark scudding clouds against Norman Rockwell church spires. The sweetness of eleven-year old Michael Jackson singing “I’ll Be There.” I rest my head down on the steering wheel. My sole errand is picking up gallon jugs of water, as advised. If the Indian Point nuclear power plant gets hit, where would we run? And what good would this water do?
My husband and I go up to Cold Spring for the day. Ever since the attacks we have been arguing religion and middle east politics. This is nothing new. Our first conversation was about Israel’s invasion of Beirut. I pretended to be an Arab, because I thought he was dehumanizing the enemy. My husband is Jewish and I am not.
We stop and eat outside at a restaurant celebrating Octoberfest. We have beer and bratwurst, and listen to an oompah band. His uncle Sam used to go to Octoberfest in Germany every year, right after World War II.
My mother-in-law calls up and asks me to explain the international situation. She is an artist, she lives in her own world. I say that the Taliban is a little like the Nazis. The rest of the people in the country are so run down, so poor and sick and disempowered, that they don’t have the strength to resist. I’m not sure the analogy works for her, or for me.
The strange thing is, I disapprove of so many of the things that spur anti-American sentiment among Muslims around the world. I don’t know why anyone who doesn’t live in the Rocky mountains would drive an SUV. It is too bad that sex and money is the only message we’re sending around the world; it isn’t true for most of us.
I talk to an older Jewish woman at my pool. First we say, Isn’t what happened terrible, isn’t the war terrible. She says wasn’t it good that Guliani gave back the check from the Arab prince. I agree with that. Then she goes on to say things I don’t completely agree with. About the UN being a third world institution. About the South African conference on racism, which condemned Israel. I don’t agree with everything she says, but I can understand why she says them.
She, however, does not see the other side. I say I read the foreign papers on the internet, and no one is on the same page as us. I think we should get all the facts, all points of view. She disagrees. She begins to talk about anti-Semitism. I tell her that racism works in both directions. I give her several examples. She is unbelieving. She tries to explain it away.
“I’ve seen real anti-Semitism, but never this,” her aged, pale blue eyes are tragic, confused, deluded. I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but I tell her about incidents – with my in-laws, what I heard in temple, what I heard working for a Jewish philanthropic organization when they didn’t realize I wasn’t Jewish.
She acts hurt, as if I were a Holocaust denier. I tell her I did Holocaust studies undergrad, that I was raised with Jewish best friends, taught the Jewish point of view by Jewish teachers and professors all my life. Anti-Semitism is a fact, I said, but so is Jewish prejudice towards gentiles. Yet there isn’t even a word for it.
She tells me it couldn’t possibly be. Then she calls my husband a self-hating Jew for marrying a Christian. She says she would rather her children marry Jewish, but that this isn’t racism. It’s felt like racism to me, for the last twenty years, but I can’t say this.
I see a wider and wider gap growing between the local Jews, who only see themselves reflected as heroes and victims in the media, history and entertainment, and the gentiles, who are constantly made conscious of our past sins towards the Jews, and everyone else. Self-criticism doesn’t seem to exist.
I go to temple for Friday night services. The reading is about Noah. In the sermon, the rabbi pointedly negates the old testament story, We should not be thinking that we brought this on ourselves in any way. This is in contrast to my experience of the Catholic church, whose one fundamental teaching is to always examine our own wrongs — that is, blame ourselves.
Afterwards in my sister in law’s kitchen we speak of the international situation; I can only listen. I have no right to talk about Israel. To my surprise, both my sister in law and her husband say Jewish settlers on the west bank shouldn’t have settled. I am perplexed, but I don’t say anything, because I don’t have a right to.
After twenty years of being involved with this Jewish family I am still an outsider. It is like being invited into a large, glowing mansion, where the front vestibule is warm, and the hostess’s embrace is genuine, but the second door, that would let you into the main house, is slammed in your face.
I don’t understand why Jews don’t invite people into their religion like Protestants, like Muslims. If I go to a Methodist church, I am Methodist. If my husband were to take a course of study and then the sacraments, he would be Catholic. Jews do not spread their religion like others, but rely on marriage within their race. It’s like trying to sell a product without any marketing strategy. You are bound to be slaughtered by the competition.
I am sick for two or three days after my conversation with the woman at the health club.
It is Halloween, and I am fifteen minutes late for yoga, because a children’s parade has blocked off the high street of my town. Afterwards, I talk to my two friends, and find that there was a controversy at the beginning of class. The yoga teacher suggested an optional peace chant to be directed towards Osama. Apparently the class was split, with half willing to give the chant a try, and the other refusing, of the opinion that the only way to deal with him would be to bomb him.
I stand talking with my two friends in the parking lot, on the shore of the Hudson River, in the dark, for an hour after class. I sing them “Come Mr. Taliban, hand over Bin Laden,” to the tune of the banana boat song, from a cartoon making the rounds over the Internet. We complain about the gap between our so called freedoms and the reality of overworked American life. We talk about past wars. When I mention Churchill’s name, a shadow crosses Karen’s face. She is Australian , but her father was a German immigrant, post-war. My other friend, when pressed, seems slightly embarrassed to admit that her father is from Iran.
Months ago, before the war started, I asked another friend whose mother was a German immigrant if he ever felt demonized. He said yes, all the time. When I was in high school, we were taught that the Versailles treaty led to the rise of the Nazi party. Now we are taught, as Daniel Goldhagen says, that there is something inherently wrong with Germans that makes them hate Jews. My nephew on the Jewish side tells a story about a racist, a parable told by his social studies teacher, and is sure to include the fact that the man at fault is German. My nephew on the Christian side asks a question about U.S. foreign policy in school and is told to shut up.
My friend Anne, who survived the disaster, is reverse commuting to Stamford, Connecticut. The company paid for the property she lost – a brief case and her address book. She thinks this is very generous. They are also helping with commuting costs. She says it is very hard to get down to work, the relocation adds another two hours to her commute each day. Her co-workers are very social, always going out to lunch and for drinks after work. A young man who sits next to her seems to constantly need to talk about the disaster, as if to reassure himself. He is always showing her new jokes and gossip about the war on the Internet.
Early on, there were telephone shrink sessions sponsored by the company. The counselor said “you might feel scattered, unable to concentrate.” My friend said she was always like that anyway.
I go into New York on a golden October Friday, and people in the park walking their dogs seem to be succeeding in achieving moments of peace. Friends in the city say it is worse, that women are crying on buses. Friends far away, in Rhode Island and Colorado, feel as if it is happening to someone else, but people in New York know.
My friend who is an inner city school teacher in Providence says she is getting tired of the jingoism and tear jerking. What about the 1200 people a year that get killed by hand guns?
For the first time in the five years I have lived here, there was vandalism by the local children on Halloween. When I’d got in from yoga, I’d noticed sullen-looking young teens loitering on the curb. I did not hand out a single treat, though traffic was heavy. My husband got stuck with the whole chore, and the next day it was his car, not mine, that got trashed.
I used to do mischief day, too, back in the last years of the Vietnam.
“Smash the Mazer machine! Smash it!” my husband and I chant, trudging up the hill to our annual condo meeting. Mazer has been the president of the condo association for the whole of its 23 year history. There have been several failed attempts to oust him. Election fraud has been suspected on several occasions, but residents have been too busy, or too timid, or too scared, to protest. Mazer will take his dog to do its business on your property, defying pooper scooper laws, but get your friend’s car towed if she parks it, unknowingly, in the wrong spot. He makes decisions unilaterally, and holds board meetings, which are supposed to be open to all residents, in secret. At last year’s annual meeting, four men had to shout him down when he flew into a rage over a snow plowing issue.
But this year an amazing thing has happened. Bill has been persuaded to resign. I suspect that Camp David style negotiations have been going on for years behind the scenes among the other board members. The new chairman, Barry Miller, is everything Mazer is not – calm, even handed, patient, wise. He looks a little like rookie New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, but is more handsome. They have given Mazer a plaque for his many years of service.
To me Mazer’s ousting is as surreal as the end of the Vietnam War, which I came to accept as a permanent fact of life, or the sudden dissolution of the Soviet Union. I feel the end of Bruce’s reign deserves some kind of monument in the club house: “Never Again!”
We cluster in the street at the end of the meeting. One of my neighbors, Dave, works in the Federal Reserve bank downtown, blocks from the former WTC. He has been ailing all year. I have seen him climb in and out of his car, wearing an eye patch. He lost 90 percent of his vision at one point over the summer, and suffered all kinds of neurological episodes before they found out the problem. He has a rare blood disease, and will be getting his spleen removed in a couple of weeks. “Can you live without a spleen?” I ask stupidly.
Facing various predictions of his own mortality all year, he is sedate about the current terrorist war.
Friday afternoon I travel into the city for a doctor appointment, and to attend the premiere for a documentary film about my illness, made by a fellow sufferer. Police barricades and black limousines on Park Avenue – I can’t remember whether or not the President is in town. I have an hour between the end of my doctor’s appointment and the time I’m supposed to meet another woman who has my disease for the movie down in Tribeca. It is Friday rush hour, and will cost me twenty dollars, and maybe two hours to get to the lower west side. I decide to take the subway, the first time I’ve gone underground since 9-11. I have to switch trains twice, but the car is full and calm. At Grand Central, four firemen enter my car in their elaborate red dress uniforms. I don’t know whether to feel safer, or to wonder if they know something I don’t.
When I get off at Canal Street, it smells like a barbeque. Not industrial chemicals, or building materials — I have worked in factories and in construction — but burning meat. After the movie, the other woman, Mary, and I had planned to go out to eat. I don’t have much in common with Mary except our illness. She has never worked on Wall Street, or in a factory, or been overseas. She is a moaner and a groaner. All she wants to do, she says, is get married and have a baby. Though she is tall and attractive, I know she never will. She is supported by her mother, who would otherwise retire from her job. Mary does not smile or make eye contact, and though she’s begged for months to get together with me, now she acts like she is doing me a favor.
She says she doesn’t read the papers – she is too upset, she says. She acts like September 11 happened only to her. We go to ground zero and end up walking around for over an hour. There are more cops and firemen than civilians. One fireman wandering around rather drunk can’t remember what hotel he’s garrisoned in … “I’m forty-eight years old,” he says, sounding surprised. “What the hell, who cares about kids …”
Firemen are fit and handsome. A little later, as we gape at the ruin of Building 5, the only building left standing, a cop explains why: “They make the firemen keep in shape – the cops – they don’t care what we look like after the first seven and a half months.” I ask the cop if that’s why they shoot people instead of chasing them. The cop has a sense of humor, “Two blondes — make my dreams come true.”
The scene itself invokes Hollywood horror spectacles, like the scene in Artificial ntelligence where New York is under water. At night it looks surreal. One building away, people are still working away at 9 p.m. on this Friday night – then it’s rubble, then nothing. They’ve cleared away a lot, they work round the clock and there’s the constant sound of grinding metal. Then of course, the wreaths, candles, poems, flowers and other tributes everywhere. Mary keeps going on about how it makes her angry. I feel she is emoting. I feel she is taking this on because she doesn’t have a life. She has never worked here, she has never informed herself about world events. It makes me sad, and scared, but reinforces my original reactions – How did we get here, and how are we going to make this stop?
On the ride home, we continue to speak of topical events. I am stunned that Mary knows absolutely nothing about Israel — the Ottoman occupation, the Balfour Declaration know her not. She went to Catholic schools all her life.
The next night, doing errands in East Chester, I get slammed into by an SUV. I had made a turn and was under the light already, and the SUV rammed right into me, not slowing down at all. The emerging drive is massively overweight, and yells at me for her error, “I have a CHILD in the car ..” As if this fact alone were enough to ensure her innocence. I say, “Then you should be ashamed of yourself for driving so aggressively.”
Both of our cars only have scratches, but it makes me feel sicker. The woman is the embodiment of why everyone hates Americans – rich, greedy, fat, self-righteous, thinks she owns the world. I spend the rest of the weekend indoors. It has been almost two months since September 11. Every night I go to bed, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
One year has passed. When was it that I stopped leaving the radio on all night in the bathroom? Punching it on and off in intervals of five minutes all day, to make sure another attack hadn’t happened? Heard a siren and wondered if This Was It? When did I stop thinking that a water stoppage, an electricity outage was the result of another attack? It comes and goes, the fear.
Long before September 11 I had begun carrying disks of all my work around with me, wherever I went, in case of house fire, disaster, robbery. Afterwards I began to think of everything in my home in terms of portability. I purged the closets so the clothes I wear will be easy to grab; bought portable plastic tubs for my files.
The older Jewish woman at the pool and I have made our peace. We don’t talk politics anymore, but about classical music, her daughter’s career therein, and hopes to marry. Once I was swimming in the pool and I noticed another woman, not so old as my Jewish friend, ostentatiously beaming her dark eyed smile at me. She was lean and athletic and friendly, talking to the men in her lane. Like many others in this pool – Tawainese, Polish, German, South American – she was obviously foreign born. Later in the locker room as we were both finishing dressing and taking our things to leave, she began smiling and nodding at me again. I made some small greeting, but she did not pick up the ball for small talk, just kept beaming at me with approval as she made her way out. In the parking lot, I saw her stride towards her car, a filmy pink head scarf trailing. I hadn’t noticed anyone, or had I, vaguely, when I’d had my debates with my Jewish friend?
Friday I went into the city for my I.V. drip. The train home at rush hour — majestic Palisades, the evening sun on rippling mercury. Usually there are taxis waiting, but not tonight. I look up and down. An Arab woman in a head wrap with a small baby in a carrier is looking up and down, too
When she tells me the apartment complex she is going to, I point her to the waiting bus. “No,” she says quickly, “Not a bus.” She asks me how to get a cab; I call one on my cell phone. Under a buttoned up raincoat, her waist is baby-thick, and I think of that joke, “What did one woman terrorist say to the other? ‘Does this bomb make me look fat?’” She also wears an ankle length skirt on this hot summer day, when I wear a flimsy sleeveless short red dress.
She speaks English with careful foreign precision. Saudi? Her skin is several shades lighter than mine at the end of summer, she is not part of the local Pakistani posse. I think of asking, did she come from the city or from overseas? But think better of it. We wait in companionable silence till the cab comes. I squat down from the day’s fatigue, and admire her baby until he starts making a noise.
When the cab pulls in, an a handsome, Italianate man runs down to where we are waiting.
“I called this cab!” he says.
The cab driver and I explain that cabs are shared here. Mother, baby and I pile in the back and give our addresses. The handsome angry man sits in front with the driver, and will be dropped off first. He seems inflamed to be in an enclosed space with an Arab; he can scarcely contain his fury.
As he pays up I see his face, and it’s more pained than outraged. He is dark, small featured, dressed in black, casual yet elegant Friday-wear. He might be a plain clothes detective. He lives near the golf course, in a house converted into flats — single. He would have lost a fiancé a year ago, have brothers on the force or in the Fire Department.
He says good night to the driver, but doesn’t say anything to us in the back. Something inside him is still screaming.