The Best American Essays 2002
~9th in a series
Most of us living in New York City on 9/11 were not in the World Trade Center, many of us nowhere even near it. I was working in market research on 25th Street and was supposed to start teaching night classes to new immigrants that evening. I left work after the second tower fell and walked all the way back to my apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn—through roadblocks and makeshift water stations, past bars full to capacity, then home over the Manhattan Bridge. I didn’t leave my apartment for three days.
Each of us felt a sense of dread as pervasive as the smell that anyone who was in New York then can remember—a vague admixture of sheetrock, petroleum, and barbecue that few can describe but still, twelve years later, comes back to me vividly at random moments when some element of that smell enters my olfactory glands and sends me into a panic attack. But that dread—at what had happened and what might follow—was commingled with a vague hope that lingered, a hope stirred not by what had happened to our city but how the nine million treated each other in its wake.
I have to admit, in my own backwards journey through The Best American Essays series, I approached the 2002 volume (essays written in 2001) with some trepidation, as if I were drawing near some looming chasm between pre- and post-9/11 nonfiction writing. I actually looked forward to being done with it and enjoying a more innocent brand of writing on the other side.
One of the contributors to this volume, Adam Mayblum, is not an essayist. He isn’t even a writer, at least not professionally. His essay “The Price We Pay” recounts, in a linear narrative, his life from the time a plane crashed into 1 World Trade Center while he was on the Eighty-Seventh Floor working as managing director of a private investment firm until shortly after he escaped. The last paragraph of the essay, however, offers a remarkably insightful, harrowing, hopeful summation:
If you want to kill us, leave us alone because we will do it ourselves. If you want to make us stronger, attack and we unite. This is the ultimate failure of terrorism against the United States and the ultimate price we pay to be free, to decide where we want to work, what we want to eat, and when and where we want to go on vacation. The very moment the first plane was hijacked, democracy won.
Mayblum’s account, in the months after its writing, was featured on NPR, paraphrased in emails, and recounted on television the world over, so much that many people started to wonder if it wasn’t faked. (Snopes.com has since verified its accuracy.) I think Mayblum’s essay affected so many people so deeply because there were nine million stories like his.
“Word on the Street,” co-written by Richard Price and his daughter Anne Hudson-Price, documents, in a series of short vignettes, the immediate aftermath of 9/11 through third-person renderings that are intensely personal, yet epic in scope. The cabby pieces, with titles like “Cabby No. 2, Sept. 19,” work off each other in a cascade of interactions between the fares, all white New Yorkers, and the cabbies, all Arabic New Yorkers. The “Kids” pieces, with titles like “Kids No. 3, Oct. 9,” narrate interactions between a father, presumably Price, and his two daughters, revealing the daughters as just as mature and capable in the midst of the horrors of this aftermath as their father. At one point the older daughter writes him a letter, saying:
Dad, it’s like these days, there are adults, and there are children. Only two camps now, no intermediate zone for teenagers like myself. If you possess the information, if you understand what’s going on in the world, you’re an adult, no matter what your biological age; all others are children … the gut instinct of kids my age to go to their parents and demand comfort, answers, or whatever doesn’t work now, because we are aware that we know just as much about the world as you do…. And along with the scariness that comes with being a member of this new group of adults without any actual adult experience is the sadness that we bear for the years we had to surrender in order to accept this mutual burden with you.
I now have two daughters myself, one three years old and the other three months old. When I read this letter from a teenage daughter to her father, my immediate response was, This is it. This is the chasm. I was reading a lot of Jung and Blake in August of 2001, thinking about personal mythology and the collective unconscious, and the signs and symbols that fit within them. The child, in most cultures, symbolizes innocence, and the passage from childhood to adulthood is a passage from innocence to experience. The daughter in “Word on the Street” is the voice of a child who sees the collective innocence of an entire city’s children—and adults—replaced by the knowledge, the “information” in her words, of the horrific, destructive force lurking behind their civilization’s cardboard façade, and the mutual sadness that knowledge engenders.
Rudolph Chelminski’s “Turning Point” has, in the years since its publication, rightly become considered one of the great New York City essays. In a remarkable sleight of hand reflective of its subject, the piece narrates a famous feat that occurred right after the towers were erected, providing an elegiac bookend to the towers’ demise.
When I see two oranges I juggle, and when I see two towers I walk.
These words belong to Phillippe Petit, who gained instant notoriety in 1974 for tightroping between the World Trade Center towers and who experienced a renaissance after the towers fell in 2001 due to this piece and the ensuing documentary on Petit—a fascinating man who seems possessed in equal parts by genius, orneriness, and insanity. Chelminski also brings the reader up to date with Petit, revealing his longstanding occupancy at NYC’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 112th and Amsterdam, where Petit is Artist-in-Residence (or resident Quasimodo), wire-walking over the building to raise money for the cathedral’s building fund.
Another piece, Amy Kolen’s “Fire,” documents New York City’s other major occurrence of people jumping en masse from a burning building—the Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. Kolen’s grandmother was a secretary for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company when the horrific factory fire occurred; she barely escaped, mostly because she was a cousin of the owner who worked administration rather than in the sweatshop that was locked from the outside, trapping hundreds of female garment workers.
The crux of the essay is Kolen’s struggle between loyalty to her grandmother, who wrote extensive, loving letters to Kolen throughout her granddaughter’s life, and a search for the truth of the event:
I’m uneasy taking sides—management against workers—but everything I’ve read and heard makes me embrace, instead, the workers, the survivors from the eighth and ninth floors, whose words … are testimony to a reality different from the one Grandma experienced.
Kolen wonders what people were thinking, questions her own motivations, and asks how she can simultaneously love and betray her grandmother by writing this essay. She ends it with a brief, intensely personal rendering of herself when she was seven years old in Queens with her grandmother, trying to light a leaf on fire with a magnifying glass. This little scene, giving us a very human glimpse of her grandmother, reads as an act of forgiveness.
Sebastian Junger’s journalistic essay “The Lion in Winter” isn’t technically about 9/11, but, perhaps more than any other essay in this volume, it is. The lion of the title is Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan guerilla leader who went from fighting Soviet invaders in the Seventies and Eighties to fighting the Taliban in the years immediately before 9/11.
Junger continually alternates the zoom on his camera out to the historical development of the Taliban and in to Massoud’s role as an elder Afghan warlord. In some of the most fiercely and elegantly rendered scenes I’ve read in quite some time, Junger also reveals his own trip with Massoud’s army, from the foxholes where Junger fears for his own life while shells crack all around him to a gorgeous, humane moment alone with Massoud, Massoud’s doctor, and the photographer who accompanied Junger, when Massoud reveals his post-war wish:
[A] room for my children, a room for me and my wife, and a big library for all my books. I’ve put them in boxes, hoping one day I’ll be able to put them on the shelves and I’ll be able to read them. But the house is still unfinished, and the books are still in their boxes. I don’t know when I’ll be able to read my books.
In what many U.S. counterterrorism officials cite as the moment they suspected something was horribly amiss, Massoud was killed on September 9, 2001 by two al-Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists.
The specter of death extended its hand to the Guest Editor of The Best American Essays 2002. Robert Atwan, in his annual foreword, had the unenviable dual task of eulogizing Stephen Jay Gould, who died of cancer unexpectedly just months before the volume’s publication, and addressing the horrific and permanent change in the landscape of not just literature but the world. He performed both with grace and dignity, noting that Gould “promised to finish the introduction before undergoing the [cancer] surgery. And he did.” Atwan then wrote about the essay post-September 11, 2001:
The essay always seems to revitalize in times of war and conflict—and it’s usually with the return of peace and prosperity that fiction and poetry renew their literary stature…. Perhaps in times of conflict and crisis people want to be in the presence of less mediated voices—we need more debate and directives, we desire more public discourse.
I think many writers—and readers—of fiction and poetry would disagree with this assertion. I remember, in December 2001, the collective national obsession that accompanied the movie trilogy adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The journey of Frodo, Aragorn, and the rest of the fellowship provided both a mythological framework through which to contextualize our collective national tragedy and an alternate universe in which the fate of the entire world could be reversed by throwing an old ring into a volcano.
But I also remember that the days, months, and years after 9/11 were the first time I formed concrete opinions about the world outside my own little life, the first time I realized my life was simultaneously a self-enclosed story and a small part of a much larger public discourse. In short, this was the first time I took the nonfiction world around me as seriously as I took the stories and verse I’d been ingesting since I was a toddler.
Now, twelve years later, I feel a creeping uneasiness as I realize that not only the Guest Editor, but many of the writers in this volume—and indeed many of their subjects—are now dead. David Halberstam’s and Christopher Hitchens’ pieces, “Who We Are” and “For Patriot Dreams” respectively, are included in the volume. Both of them quote the same poem by dead American poet W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939.” On April 23, 2007, Halberstam was killed in a traffic accident while researching a book, and Hitchens died at the end of last year after a well-documented bout of lung cancer.
“Who We Are,” written shortly after 9/11, is, as the title implies, an examination of what it means to be an American, specifically what it means to be in a democratic republic that’s threatened. Halberstam is fundamentally hopeful, stating, “One of the advantages of being older and having some degree of historical knowledge is the faith in the free society that eventually comes with it,” but he also warns, “We have been quite differently conditioned than our parents and grandparents were in what to expect out of life. This is a much more self-absorbed society, one that demands ever-quicker results; it is accustomed to being secure—and entertained.”
With the benefit of the ensuing years I unfortunately don’t share Halberstam’s sense of hope: we are more self-absorbed than ever, with more and more media to use as myopic mirrors; our private sector has become, if possible, even more indifferent to its social responsibilities; and the government, despite our electing a President who is a direct opposite of the last one, seems just as incapable of acting as a moral compass for our people.
Whereas Halberstam only gives the Auden poem a passing mention, Hitchens, in “For Patriot Dreams,” makes it a central text for understanding 9/11:
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Hitchens, like Halberstam and most of us in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the towers, was feeling patriotic, even as an Englishman in New York, though he makes sure to define his terms:
[The U.S. is] the only place in history where patriotism can be divorced from its evil twins of chauvinism and xenophobia. Patriotism is not local; it’s universal.
Most of those terms unfortunately went out the window during the five or so years after 9/11, as Hitchens’ patriotism ironically morphed into an anti-Muslim stance that bordered on both chauvinism and xenophobia, until he softened his stance after having himself waterboarded in an experiment in immersive journalism (he lasted seventeen seconds).
Perhaps, finally, I’m not only examining the question of post-9/11 writing, but also of post-9/11 reading. One essay in this collection that seems especially resonant post-9/11, perhaps in ways it hadn’t intended, is Mario Vargas Llosa’s “Why Literature?” which seems to have been written as a philosophical response to 9/11. I want to quote about three quarters of it—there’s so much in it for a reader and writer to embrace and love—but I’ll limit myself to the following:
Literature says nothing to those human beings who are satisfied with their lot, who are content with life as they now live it. Literature is the food of the rebellious spirit, the promulgator of nonconformities, the refuge for those who have too much or too little in life. One seeks sanctuary in literature so as not to be unhappy and so as not to be incomplete … to divest ourselves of the wrongs and the impositions of this unjust life, a life that forces us always to be the same person when we wish to be many different people, so as to satisfy the many desires that possess us. Literature pacifies this vital dissatisfaction only momentarily—but in this miraculous instant, in this provisional suspension of life, literary illusion lifts and transports us outside of history, and we become citizens of a timeless land, and in this way immortal.
While reading and rereading this essay, itself a work of nonfiction, I found myself thinking about fiction, and poetry, and other forms of writing that seek not merely to portray the world but to transform it into art. I thought about The Lord of the Rings, and Blake and Jung, and the stories each of the nine million had to tell. I thought about Massoud’s boxed-up library and Petit hanging by a wire between the towers of the yearling World Trade Center.
Perhaps, and I don’t think I’m disagreeing with Robert Atwan’s assertion in his foreword, in a modern time of mediated crisis what people need most is the child-like illusion—some would call it hope—that it all means something, that everything will be alright, and that we are not alone in a world that seems less safe now than it did earlier, when we were children.
More of John’s Hunger Mountain BAE reviews.
The Best American Essays 2002 Stephen Jay Gould, Editor Robert Atwan, Series Editor Houghton Mifflin 2002