Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Neighborhood #13 (Café, Brooklyn - for Joël)

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Quelle Surprise

Friday, September 16, 2005

Please Leave Us Alone

It never occurred to me to write anything like a 9-11 remembrance or commemorative blog. All of us — New Yorkers, that is, particularly those of us who lived in lower Manhattan — had our time of telling our stories over and over and over. Something between group therapy and a reunion of combat veterans, we had — and needed — our closed circle of recounting. I don't know of any of us who said or thought of anyone who wasn't there that they just couldn't understand, but I do know that we told our 9-11 stories to each other in a manner very different from the one in which we explained our experiences to outsiders. It's a tight knot tying together those who have inhaled the ashes of their incinerated neighbors.

After about a year, we stopped. Occasionally, something would spark a recollection of that day or that time and one of us would begin again. I had just come out of the subway when I first saw smoke ... But something would stop us. There'd be an embarrassed moment for the recounter and the rest. Eyes averted and we'd all think, yeah, we remember, we were all there, we all have our story, that time is over.

So it's in this context that I hope you'll understand why it is I move on to the next blog as soon as I've read about how on that morning you were glued to the TV set or shocked when the first images appeared on the laptop or almost drove off the freeway when the special report interrupted the classic rock block.

I visited Dachau when I was 19. I was in Europe all summer and had a Eurail pass and found myself in Munich at some point and well why not? I took a series of photographs of the well-preserved concentration camp. I no longer have these photographs but can still see them: black-and-white, stark contrast, all sharp angles and barbed wire. This was partly adolescence but it was also well within a cultural side current of the time: Factory Records, Fassbinder, Syberberg, Bowie in Berlin, and, before long, Reagan in Bitburg.

I destroyed those photographs eventually, as much out of respect for the living as for the dead. I was shocked at Dachau, but not for being in the presence of institutionalized murder. What was shocking to me was to arrive in Dachau and see that it was mostly just a suburb of Munich. The shock wasn't oh, people died here, but oh, people live here. I wondered for a moment how anyone could live within a stone's throw of what was not so long ago a concentration camp, but I also wondered how I and all these other tourists could be so disrespectful as to turn someone's neighborhood into an opportunity for at best emotional catharsis and at worst gawking at one of history's greatest tragedies.

There are two ways of being a tourist. One is to engage with the living place; the other is to consume its symbols. We all do the latter to some extent. Almost everyone going to Paris for the first time will pay some sort of visit to the Eiffel Tower. But few tourists will ever converse with a Parisian or experience the everyday life of the city in even the simplest of ways. I see this daily in New York — tourists snapping pictures of each other in front of everything from the Empire State Building to CBGB. Sometimes a tourist will actually engage with one of us or eat in one of our restaurants rather than the Olive Gardens and the like that are here to give them comfort in a strange land, but most often they don't. Most often they come to experience a New York independent of New Yorkers and the places we go and the things we do.

For the past four years I have felt more invisible in my city than ever. Now, tourists come to my home to gawk at death just the way I did in Dachau. My commute to work by bicycle takes me through Battery Park, very near the terminal for the Statue of Liberty ferry. The park is full of vendors selling junk, some of which is supposed to be Louis Vuitton or Gucci, but most of which is 9-11 commemorative crap. Every day I see tourists buying a shoddily-made booklet of 9-11 photographs called TRAGEDY! They seem almost without exception to be as indifferent to the living city around them as they are gripped by the images of death and destruction.

9-11-2005 was a work day for me. Riding alongside the former site of the World Trade Center, I found the West Side Highway clogged with bikers, hundreds of them. A 9-11 commemoration: hundreds of obese bikers making as much noise and burning as much gasoline and fouling the air as much as possible. On a dare I could not have suggested a less appropriate or more tasteless commemoration, but neither could I imagine a more American one: unless we conspicuously consume as much of everything as possible the terrorists will have won.

Some 20 yards on I had to get off my bike because the path had been occupied by several TV news crews and their equipment. There were symbols to be created and consumed — everyday life would have to wait.

Later that night, a neighbor came into my bar and said, you'll see, within a few years there will be 9-11 white sales at the department stores.

Americans loathe and fear cities, this one more than most. But they've found a use for us now.

End Times

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


In a comment on my last entry, Neil raises an interesting point.
Powerful post, although I'm not sure where you would move that doesn't operate in a similar manner. The poor seem to be always swept away so the rest of the population doesn't have to deal with them.
Where else to go? Well, in terms of the impact of poverty, the answer would have to be virtually anywhere else in what we think of as the civilized world.

According to the CIA World Factbook, 12% of Americans live below the poverty line. This makes us a little better than Egypt and Bulgaria, but not quite as enlightened as Croatia, Thailand, or China.

The lowest figure they list in this category is Taiwan's 1% below the poverty line. When you look up the percentage of population below the poverty line in countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, and Australia you find the letters NA. I'm inclined to believe that this means that the number of people living in poverty in these places is so small as to be negligible.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Tonight I am thinking about the time long ago when a few of my brightest students asked — only partly in jest — why it was they ought to study philosophy. How, they wanted to know, would it help them get jobs? I told them — not at all in jest — that studying philosophy would do something much more valuable than help them get jobs: it would help them know what to do once they lost their jobs.

Tonight I'm thinking about those students and about everyone who's ever doubted the value of a liberal education, about all of us so fortunate to have access to so much knowledge and the luxury of so much time in which to acquire and digest it. I'm thinking about the nations and cultures that collapsed because their resources were redirected to wage pointless foreign wars. And I'm thinking about how my president can't think about the same things, because he was as a student and is still today just too incurious.

Tonight I did something I almost never do. I watched images on the news. There is little anymore on the news but images and the images tonight are horrific.

I am seeing a lot of blogs over the past few days expressing sympathy for and solidarity (whatever that is supposed to mean) with the victims of the hurricane. And while of course my heart aches to see lives ended and upended, what horrifies me is to watch on TV the unravelling of even the hope of a prosperous, democratic society in which the everyday lives of all its citizens are accorded as much importance as are abstract geopolitical concepts and the accrual of massive amounts of individual wealth.

This should not be and did not have to be a country in which one day of weather leaves people with absolutely nothing, not even a place to live. It also should not be a country in which bloggers can complain of the residents of the Mississippi delta that they didn't just get in their cars and check into hotels in Memphis. But no one who's ever seen rural Mississippi is surprised. No one who knows how ignorant most Americans are of the poverty that exists in this wealthiest nation is surprised. (Is Trent Lott surprised?)

And no one who's ever ended up on the wrong side of Canal Street at night is likely to be much surprised by the fact that African-Americans are now wading through the streets of New Orleans, looting businesses (whites "find," blacks "loot"), strapped with firearms acquired somehow without the mandatory background check and waiting period. These are not likely images that will find their way into the jazz festival's brochure or Tulane's recruiting material, but unless you've had your head up your ass all your life they are not surprising images. Shocking, but not surprising.

The stories tonight are rumors of multiple rapes and deaths in the Superdome, in what is supposed to be a shelter, of people traveling hundreds of miles only to be turned away from the Astrodome. The stories tonight are of an unravelling of civil society, an unravelling that is the consequence of natural disaster intersecting with economic neglect and avarice. The stories are the sort you are accustomed to thinking could come only from a third-world country. Maybe they do. Maybe they come from a country well on its way to becoming third-world.

Maybe I'm wrong. I watched the L.A. riots when I was in my 20s and I watched the New York blackout looting on a battery-powered television with the covers pulled over my head when I was a teenager and I did not feel the way I do tonight. As awful as these events were, I didn't feel that they were harbingers of anything to come. Maybe I feel the way I do tonight because I'm older, because I love my wife, because I have for the first time felt the desire to be a father, because I have a better sense of the fragility of daily life, because I've finally felt my own mortality.

I hope so, but I don't think so. Most of what I'm both accustomed to having and am enjoying this very moment — shelter, clean water, easy access to good food, the free time to sit and write, air conditioning on a hot night, an Apple studio monitor, the company of two cats, and knowing that my wife is sleeping comfortably and safely just two rooms away, as well as the crucial belief that all of this will be the same tomorrow — would quickly disappear were we five feet-deep in sewage-infected water. Tonight I'm thinking it very well may come to pass in my children's lifetime if not my own that many of these things, maybe even the most basic, could be very hard if not impossible to have and enjoy.

Lillet and I have talked about expatriation almost since we started dating. Sometimes talk is serious, sometimes not so serious. When it is serious I think that it is more something we mean to do for our not-yet-born children than it is something for ourselves. It's an odd, disconcerting thing to think about for each of us, for reasons we share and a few we don't. Lillet's family have been Americans for many generations. Not so for me — one of my grandparents and all but one of my great-grandparents were not born in this country. Lately, I am hyper-aware of the contingency of my Americanness. Sometimes, it even feels a bit mercenary, as if Richard Dawkins' selfish gene were temporarily hopping continents. My ancestors came here so that I could have a better life, and now Lillet and I may return to where they came from so that our children can have a better life.

Mercenary or not, I cannot bear saying to any child of ours, here, this world, the one I saw on the news tonight, this is the world we've chosen to raise you in.