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Monday, September 17, 2001
By Paul Ford
A narrative of my last few days in Israel, of watching the WTC, then losing my job, then holding the walls, then wanting to help, then giving up, then feeling hope, then giving up again, and on and on.
I arrived in Israel August 3 planning to stay until October 11, but possibly for the year, to work at an artificial intelligence research lab, helping develop chatbots, assisting with some aspects of business strategy. While in the country I stayed in a huge mansion in a safe suburb of Tel Aviv, in one of several suites intended for guest researchers. The offices were right outside my door, and I swam every day. My bathroom alone was larger than my Brooklyn apartment.
I was last here several months ago, for a long stay, but this time I kept missing New York. I'd worked hard on some friendships and was torn between writing email and phoning my friends in the states and trying to see if I could build something new in Israel.
But to build a life here, I began to volunteer with various leftist organizations and went to meetings with Indymedia.org.il and, in Jerusalem, with some people against Palestinian house demolitions. It never felt right, but I tried. I really was enthusiastic about my job, which was the sort of thing I dreamed of doing a few years ago, a unique combination of applying my talent, hard thinking, and random business stuff.
There was a bombing at a Sbarro, and many people died. The office went quiet as the projection screens filled with news reports, men in orange vests. But people did not interrupt their lives for bombings. I tried to understand and listen, but I just kept getting lonelier and lonelier, and wanted to return somewhere safe. I dreamt of my apartment in Brooklyn and looked at pictures of my friends, and wondered if there were any way I could find to stay in Israel working, try to make the country into a home, maybe even with an apartment in Tel Aviv.
Things were tense in the region, and people were sympathetic to me, as I was someone unaccustomed to the idea of sudden violence. Once, at lunch, someone told me about how different things become when there is conflict, how during the Gulf War you didn't really know what to do. If you stayed in your basement to hide from bombs, you were worried about being gassed. Many people went on their roofs to watch the SCUD missiles go by. “It puts things in perspective,” they said. Everyone had either lost a close friend or relative - if they were older, almost definitely - or had a friend who'd lost a friend.
I read the Ha'aretz Daily paper in English and tried to understand the region; I read a book on the 1948 War for Independence - Al Nakba (“The Disaster”) to the Arabs. I walked from Savyon to Tel Aviv in search of falafel, and realized that if I'd gone left instead of right and walked an equivalent distance, I'd be inside the West Bank. I visited a leftist center in downtown Tel Aviv and went out often to bars and cafes. Several people made me promise I'd come to see more of the country, to camp near the Sea of Galilee, to go up to Masada, to float in the Dead Sea, which makes your cuts and scratches burn, to visit a kibbutz. I put these things in my head. I decided that it would be good to do them, that if I could find a life here then I could stay at this fantastic company and do good work, and learn more, even if it meant giving up my apartment in New York. I would go back to New York, perhaps, in November, and say goodbye to my friends and give away my belongings, my cheap mattress, my TV and VCR, and come back here to begin a new life, located somewhere entirely different.
But I couldn't get rid of the nagging loneliness; I couldn't get New York out of my system. I kept thinking about the Brooklyn Bridge, looking at pictures, and I asked my friends to send me digital pictures of the city, which they did. One woman sent me, for my birthday, a little jade rabbit from Chinatown and a postcard of the Staten Island Ferry and another of the Brooklyn Bridge, and she signed the letter with a lipstick kiss and daubed some perfume onto the paper. I sat with it for a long time, thinking about the East Village and the noises and the bars and the grime in your mouth from walking around all day, the angry cab drivers, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge. At one point I wanted this Web site to become entirely about the Brooklyn Bridge; I was going to take a year and walk across the bridge daily and write my experience. Perhaps I still will.
At around 4PM on September 11 someone came up and said, “Paul, come here quickly, a plane hit the towers in New York.” I went downstairs, amazed and shocked, trying to figure how many had died, and then the second plane hit, and then I assumed that one of the towers was obscured by smoke, which is why it couldn't be seen, and then I realized it was actually gone, just as the second one fell, and at that point my entire body screamed to get me out of Israel and back to New York, to shoot me in a rocket across the Atlantic and put me back in Brooklyn, even if I had to breathe ash. As each tower fell I grabbed someone's arm, but they didn't grab back. Then I got a cup full of straight gin and drank it. I tried to make phone calls, but none could be made.
My friend emailed that the ash spread to my apartment. It was very possible - but not likely one or more of my close friends was hurt. That night I spent on the phone, until around 8AM, accounting for perhaps 10 or 11 people. One friend was in the building, one was a block away, several were watching close enough to see bodies fall, others were turned back on the trains on their way to the WTC station. I got through to almost everyone and slept late. The next day I read news reports and watched CNN. I could do no work.
Every place shown on CNN was some place I knew well, a place to buy books, a place where I'd smoked a joint, a place where I waited to meet a woman. They were all mundane New York spots, and seeing them made me homesick and horrified at once. More than anything else I felt terribly homesick and confused to see these familiar spots on the ground covered in ash. I ached physically to go back to New York the moment I saw the image of the plane striking the buildings. All flights were grounded.
The next day I went to a company wide-meeting to learn that the firm was shutting down. “I went to our financiers and asked if they would continue to fund our company. They told me there is no funding available because of uncertainty created by the destruction of the WTC,” said the CEO. I began to weep in the middle of the meeting, could not hold it together, because I had felt one emotion too many, and rose and went into the hallway. Someone said something after me and then Y---- came out, grabbed my shoulder and gave me a cigarette, took me into his office and talked to me for a while. “On the bright side,” I said, “20,000 apartments just opened up in one of the tightest real estate markets in history.”
“The presentation we worked on for London went really well,” he said. I laughed and smoked. I called my mother and brother and my friend Leslie and told them that I'd lost my job. They wanted me to come back to the states. For about an hour I tried to figure out what that meant, but I couldn't, and I checked my bank balance. It was $10,709.49. I can live for about 4 months if I don't pay taxes on it, so I stopped thinking about being fired.
Around then I mentally left Israel for New York. I went out in Tel Aviv and couldn't hear what my friends were saying to me. I thought about getting off the train at Penn Station at night, right by Macy's, the way the lights come off the buildings. When asked questions I nodded, smiled. I told people over and over that no one I knew had died but that my friends had lost friends and that I wanted to go back to New York as soon as I could. I must have said, “I want to go back to New York” at least 100 times in two days.
I wanted to say, I am very lonely, and many of my friends could have died, and please if you could simply hold my hand and not say anything, I would feel much better. But I didn't say that; probably if I had someone would have held my hand, because people were concerned and behaved with real kindness, but I didn't feel comfortable asking. I wanted to be very brave. All I thought about was how to get back to New York City as soon as I could. I kept nodding and trying to tell stories and jokes. At a bar I stopped speaking, lost in a swirl of Hebrew, and watched people touch and smile, buying drinks, the DJ mixing. I kept oscillating, feeling tired and weepy for several minutes, then feeling good and happy for a short while, then back again. I had been to this bar for my birthday on August 11, but I really wasn't thinking in time. I was thinking about New York. The bar was quiet because everyone was back watching TV waiting for the Marriott hotel to collapse.
People, on the phone and in person, said, because you were not there, you will not be so shellshocked, and you can help others and support your friends. People said, you should get out of the Middle East as soon as you can. Some people said, please come home. Some said, I wish I could have talked to you yesterday. Some said, I think I lost 4 people in the WTC. I called the Embassy. They said, keep away from crowds. British Airways did not know when flights would resume.
I stopped reading the news, and gave up on CNN utterly. I saw the graphics “AMERICA'S NEW WAR” and felt sick. I went to Ben Gurion and they did not help me, they just told me they could not switch my ticket and I could not have a refund, and if I wanted to fly El Al, which would not be flying during Rosh Hashanah, I would have to pay full price, which, considering I was unemployed, I could not afford. I heard the word “war” over and over. I called my friends but I felt bad about calling them and I could not ask them to support me because I wasn't even there, I was in Israel, far from the catastrophe; I hadn't been there, I didn't know what it was like.
Time became fluid and I swam in it, backwards and forwards. I called people at night and left messages. I wrote at least a dozen long emails explaining to people that I loved them and missed them awfully and that I was coming home as soon as I could. I know that I went swimming, and that people came over for a big party one night to mark the passing of the company, and I went out and drank too much again, and people were swimming and laughing, and I was one of them, and I made jokes about Osama Bin Laden and we all laughed, and some other people told jokes about the Holocaust.
There was a rally in Rabin Square and everyone sang James Taylor's “You've Got a Friend,” but it felt sort of like the friendship was a little forced. I was a few blocks away and heard the singing, then later saw the posters in English and Hebrew, flags everywhere. I drank a Gold Star beer at a cafe. I had some lamb and chicken with bread and lemonade.
I took a cab and the driver said that Americans were soft and that he was once a tank commander, and that he wanted to see all Arabs die. You cannot fight terrorism, he said and what you should do is for each suicide bomber, kill his family. And he moved his hands to show that he felt that he meant the tallest man and, yes, he said, even the littlest baby. Kill them all. Then you will see. Think about what I'm saying, he said, in two years. You will see. I did not say anything; I just let him talk because at that point if I opened my mouth I had no idea if what would come out, and I thought about how much I would like to grab his head and beat it repeatedly into the side window of the cab, until we ran off the road into a metal telephone tower, both of us dying in an explosion of sparks and gasoline. But most I just wanted the ride to be over, to not have to talk about it anymore.
Somewhere in there I was in my room sitting on my bed and I began to cry out in rapid animal pulses and I tried to get myself under control, but it was merciless, and I thought of the buildings falling and began to shout through clenched teeth, conscious of being overheard, and then I found myself kneeling with my face pushed into an ottoman, so I stayed there for a few minutes, crying out into the fabric, all muffled, until my throat hurt. After that I felt guilty for grieving when I hadn't lost anyone myself, for allowing weakness in myself when other people would be in need of support, those who had really lost something.
Then today all I thought about was sex and touch, how good any human contact would feel right now. But I am not sure if there will be much touch for me in NYC, not to mention sex. When I asked a friend uptown, in pathetic sincerity, if she would sit and hold my hand she said, “2 fingers,” as a joke. But I promised someone else to rub her back in a way she likes and to get her sodas, if she would just sit quietly by me for a few minutes, and she agreed, so at least there will be that, something I can count on and know is there for me.
Someone wrote me, via an Internet text-chat, “I am glad for the people who have someone right now. There has been a lot of slow fucking this weekend,” and I told her I had to go right away, typed “bye” and went into my room and grabbed the wall with both hands and bit down and held myself perfectly still until I thought I was calm, and then another huge wave of something animal came up through me and I stood in my room and began to sob and I shouted out, holding my teeth always clenched, something like, “how the fuck am I supposed to help other people, how the fuck am I supposed to make any sense of this, it won't get better, it will only get worse, and how the fuck am I supposed to even be human?” I don't know what I meant, or why the idea of slow fucking throughout Manhattan hurt so badly, and don't want to figure it out now.
I took off all my clothes as quickly as I could and got into the bathtub and poured water all over my body and kept sobbing, and somewhere in space, a few miles up, I watched myself, amazed at how sudden my emotions were, how just the discussion of sex could trip them off, how incredibly badly I must be hurting below the surface of joking and shrugging my shoulders, saying “well, what can I do?” over and over, how hard the feelings came and how they overwhelmed my body and my mind.
I wanted to write about how I would be strong and how you should be strong with me, and how we need to think and be sensible. I was going to write about how if you can't volunteer today you should not feel guilty because this thing can't be fixed, and people will tire and drift away, and things we can't imagine will need to be fixed. So it is good if some of us save our strength. That's what I've been telling myself. That it doesn't matter if I can't help today, because the opportunities to use my energy to make the world somewhat better are not going to go away. But I know that deep down I believe it can all be fixed, that things can go back, that we can Photoshop some buildings back into the empty air and it will never have happened. And I am lying to myself, things are changed. Nothing is changed utterly, but everything is changed in slight ways, a great chaotic system of lives suddenly broken open, still swirling wildy.
When I call my friends I want to support them and try to say soothing things and figure out how best to help them, and I worry that I'll say something to make it worse. I am terrified to ask for support, and I feel so guilty for not being there, for not helping, for not going and volunteering, for being safe in Israel.
And what I really need is for someone to just tell me how sorry they for me, just me, me alone, me in my fucking aloneness in this tiny country and my stupid lost job and my meaningless trivial bullshit life, even in comparison to the horrid, horrid things that happened. I need some sympathy, and I may not get that for an extremely long time, because I don't want to ask for it, don't fully know how, and in the meantime I must - if I believe in the things I try to believe in - support the people around me, those who watched others fall in flames, those who lost friends, those who have gone numb, those who need words, those who need comfort, and try as hard as I can not to think about myself, until I run out of money or lose my mind, or best, come up with a plan.
I am scared of the sudden grieving punctuating a quiet, tranquil persona, the madness of my reactions to small triggers. But somewhere in there I'll figure it out for myself. And knowing that, I can try to forget about myself in the moment and try to take a long view. I hear a lot of people making big resolutions, like Martin Luther promising his life to God after nearly dying, all the big promises, but I'm avoiding that. Now is not a time for decisions. I have a path, I chose it, and I will stick to it. Some of the specifics are changed, but the goals - to build human relationships that matter, to encourage others, to volunteer my time for things like literacy or anti-racist causes, to know as many people as deeply as I can, to work as hard as I can - don't change; they only become more relevant and, hopefully, useful to the wider world.
When I began writing, I was going to criticize the New York Times for putting together a big magazine section with A-list writers like Richard Powers discussing metaphor in relation to the prose and a memorial already designed with 5,000 human beings missing. All the awful mediation, complete bullshit smeared over the camera lens, people being told to move on with their lives, grief counselors intervening, big names and small all pointing out a way forward, explaining why it happened, explaining that we brought it on ourselves. Calling for war and calling for reason. All these endless voices, all these living voices. All the sounds and words, headlines and big graphics, war, war, war, war, war, war. Everything is being narrowed down into a pinpoint of triteness and then being shined directly in our eyes, and I feel blinded by it, deafened, numbed by the explosion of content and concepts, the racism and the interpretations, the urgent desire of individuals to put their own stamp on the events.
I don't have a stamp for the events. I don't have an interpretation, or an analysis, or a story to tell other than my own distant, simple one. I sort of know what happened, and that it will have consequences, and that everyone is upset, and that I'm going home early and I don't know how my friends are, and I don't have a job. I know that my friends all have different-sounding voices on the phone. I cannot bear any more shrill annotations added to the footage of the falling buildings by newspaper writers and anchorpersons. Everyone wants ownership, to stake their claim, to link to the most Web sites, to make the most accurate predictions, to criticize every possible leader, to cast blame, to matter. But they don't matter. The dead matter. The grieving matter. The war matters. The media is throwing up walls of content, filled with instructions on how to feel, when there is absolutely no right way to feel, when this will not be going away, when there is no way to own what happened, to way to possess the misery for yourself. Why would you want to?
I am telling you all this not so that you pity me, because it is clearly a privilege to grieve and feel emotional pain, at this point. Some people have spaces in their lives as great as those in the skyline. Those people will need help.
I am telling you this because I figure you might be feeling just as stupid, hopeless, and helpless, confused, and lonely. And I'll never meet you, but at least you'll know that you're not alone.
I tell myself, be grateful you are alive, that you are here. Run from ground zero and keep running. Do not feel guilt for not being there, for not suffering more. And I want to admit that even though I feel that I must go home to Brooklyn, must see my family and friends as soon as I can, I am ungodly glad I was not there. I am glad I was not there to see smoke pour over my apartment, not there to go the promenade and watch things fall, not there to race around with my camera - because I would have needed that, to add my own visuals to the experience - in search of the story. I am glad I was here, for those hours, because no one had to worry about me, no one had to question whether I was alive or, by some awful coincidence, dead.
And looking from far away, so many people died, but so many survived. Which - perhaps this is my Christian training - is something for which we can be grateful in this mess.
When I began writing this I was going to call for people to come together and try to find reason, I was going to try to rise above how I'm feeling and call for dignity and decency and greater community and things rising from ashes. All I can tell you is that it hurts, and hurts, and hurts, and I didn't even lose someone I loved, I just lost a city, and a job, and a certain sense about how things were going to go, what was going to happen next.
Now I am here, waiting in the empty mansion in Israel during Rosh Hashanah, flying out on Wednesday, staying a night in London - I don't know where - and then getting into JFK at noon on Thursday. Today, with a great deal of help from coworkers and travel agents, I got my ticket changed and found I could get home by Thursday. It was like the oceans calmed, when I learned I could go home, like tornadoes stopped and loud cannons stopped blasting.
I will take the train back to my apartment. I will transfer a few times, then get off the F train at Smith and 9th St and look out, if it not raining, and I will see what is gone from the platform, which has an amazing view of downtown Manhattan, and I will spend some time looking at that, and then I will take my bags down 90 steps and walk the block to my apartment, and turn three keys in their locks, and go inside and put my bags down and then I don't know what I'll do, but hopefully it will be something useful, something decent, something that moves the world forward.