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Monday, September 29, 2003
By Paul Ford
From there to here, then to now.
In 1997, I went out of my apartment and walked a few blocks to the subway stop at Smith & 9th. There was a sign at the entrance: “by using this subway platform you consent to appear in a film.” I consented to this not at all. But the only other option was the Carroll St. stop, 6 blocks away.
The escalators were not working, and when I got to the top of the 90-some stairs, I found actors in camouflage, holding fake guns, lining one side of the platform. The actors stood in formation and stared ahead as they were filmed.
In the film, The Siege, this scene lasts less than a second. It's part of a montage; the montage shows what New York is like under martial law following a wave of attacks on the city by Muslims. I watched the actors standing firm for a few moments, and then the train came and took me to my job.
In 2000 I took a job in Israel. I loved this job and worked in a mansion, and nearly every night I swam alone and nude in a pool, under palm trees. When I left the mansion there soldiers everywhere, carrying guns. America is, I know, filled with guns. But here were guns out in the open, semi-automatic rifles loaded and ready. I went for a long walk to Tel Aviv, passing hundreds of such soldiers, and when I reached my destination--the beach--I realized that if I had gone right instead of left, then walked an identical distance, I would have ended up in the occupied territories.
When I visited Jerusalem, I saw the bullet scars on the buildings. I was homesick for Brooklyn. I sat at a sidewalk restaurant with two men, both agitators for Palestinian rights, while inside the restaurant the police questioned a Black man. I was eating an ostrich sandwich and drinking a beer. An old Israeli had pointed his finger at the man and said “he is a terrorist,” and the police had come to investigate.
We were caught between the cranky, racist finger-pointing of the old man and the possibility of being blown up. So we compromised: we continued with our meal, but moved ourselves in front of some brickwork, away from the windows, putting concrete between the man in his white hat and ourselves. Right then fireworks went off over the old city, over the Jewish quarter, also a kind of finger-pointing: you see, we celebrate, with bombs of light, a sudden flash over the domes and white stone.
I was asked to stay to work, to move there for most of the next year, and I almost said yes, but I wasn't sure, and the reason I kept giving myself: all these guns, all these soldiers.
It didn't work out in Israel. When I came home, there were guns everywhere. We went down and sat in Battery Square Park, the park filled with trucks, with male and female soldiers, green camouflage instead of desert, but the same age as their Israeli counterparts.
Now the soldiers appear everywhere. At Penn Station, at the entrance to the PATH train. In the West Village. I don't know what they'll do if they ever see a terrorist; when the nerve gas is released bullets won't help. Will they shoot an airplane out of the sky with their M-16 rifles before it hits the Citibank building? I'm sure they have their instructions. And some must feel safer to see them. But when I see them I the smell comes into my nose, of burning plastic, and I think about what it means to have the army on our streets. On a night when they were welding apart the last standing piece of the towers, a friend and I walked around the entire fenced-in area. It took a full hour, a very long way around. We passed dozens of soldiers. The welding was our compass point, the sparks at the center of the circle.
I saw a friend from Israel last week. She said: “They did a survey. Israelis are happy with their lives. I am too. I go to protests. I work for the centers and newspapers. But we are done for. It's gone beyond hopeless and stupid. You can only have so much depression and shame, and guilt. So we live our lives.”
I told her about a boy we both knew over there. I cannot remember his name. He was just 19, on his way to America to avoid military service. But his mother began to speak to him. She was uncertain herself. She told him about how his grandfather came over after the Shoah. How his grandfather fought for their life there. She would support him going to America. She would pay his way and for college. But he should truly understand that from which he was turning away. He told me about how she said this, and I watched him try to find some place of balance, as if he had America on one shoulder and an Uzi on the other. I listened. I didn't have much to offer. Mostly, I wondered why he, a good looking Israeli, was talking to me, a boring American in dun-colored shirts, perched almost without pause in front of my computer while he'd known me. And then a week later I heard he was in the IDF.
I told my friend from Israel this story. “He is probably still in the army,” she said. “Almost certainly.” She had served in the IDF radio station, the most plum of conscriptions.
Today I met a woman who'd been on the 35th floor of the north tower. A fireman had put her onto a boat. “I feel so guilty,” she said. “I thought we could change some human rights problems for the better. But what is Afghanistan? The Taliban is coming back in. I hate what we are doing in Iraq, but I feel that they're doing it for me. For us. I am ashamed that I am not grateful to them for doing these terrible things.”
“I am tired of being depressed about my country,” someone said. “I feel that we have lost something that we can never get back, even beyond simply poisoning our own wells with toxins.”
Tonight I went to a wedding reception. This is always a strange thing, your own ephemeral relationships contrasted to the permanence of the act that has taken place earlier in the day, in which two people proclaim their willingness to keep certain things from changing, in which they both say: at least part of me is done. As a date, I was a stranger, with a walk-on part, so I spent much time leaning against the deck looking out at people, at the water, and over to New Jersey, playing with the buttons of my jacket, amiable and smiling, content to be a tangent off this social circle.
They'd held a guerrilla wedding, going at 10 AM to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, ascending in the elevator in the midst of a fog with a group of about 30 friends along, taking their vows with Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and New Jersey as witness.
The reception was on a boat permanently docked to pier 63 to the west of Chelsea, turned into a club. The groom wore a green tuxedo, and the bride wore a green dress that fanned from the knees made by her friend, and she was the most beautiful thing below 50th St. Their party rocked back and forth slowly in the Hudson. They married couple don't have much money, so their friends made the food and paid for the band.
The wedding band was an alt-country act from Denver, and they sang about Jesus and redemption, about men being saved and kicking the devil away. The lead singer chain-smoked Marlboros and drank endless Budweisers. Most of the people at the party were from Colorado. They brought with them the sort of informal warmth that I, raised on the east coast and still somewhat dressed in its starched social fabric, associate with life west of the Rockies. It was a pleasure to see that no one seemed as if they had been invited out of obligation, and no one looked as if they had come out of obligation.
People drank and danced, clapping and stomping, the sound of heavy heels resounding through the hull of the boat. The bride and groom were very fine dancers, both of them obviously exhausted by their day, but finding reserves of adrenaline and enthusiasm.
Spontaneously, their friends joined hands around them. Standing near, I was pulled in, and in a short while about 25 people had made a circle. We did what you do: we kicked our legs in synchrony and laughed with the dancing couple, who smiled out to us from their place in the middle. A man with a videocamera circumnavigated the circle of bodies from the inside, filming each of us in turn, face after face. Then he turned the camera onto the dancers in the middle, twisting, shimmying, kissing, their arms finding each other's waists. These were the sparks at the center of the circle. The song ended, the circle spit into its arcs. Then the bride and groom cut the cake, which was in the shape of the Empire State Building.