Birth of Cool

Rita Banerjee

Lauren played her Gibson on the phone for me. Voodoo Child. Learning Hendrix one blistered finger at a time. Stairway to Heaven. A poster of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant hung on her bedroom wall. Plant made love to the microphone in his too-tight jeans and denim jacket. His threads hadn’t been washed in decades. Neither had he. His hair was a total mess: wastrel, lion, drunken boat. His stance suggested everything hot and sticky and full of sweat. Plant sang as if his life depended on it. As if Page were a living siren: all dark curls and velvet. Soft everywhere. And cool where it mattered. Who was the devil and who the angel here? Their hair, their dishabille, their guitar riffs, their primal screams. What were Plant and Page selling to us, neo-nostalgic teens of the ’90s? Was it sex or something else? A taste of barely contained passion or total apathy? Whatever it was, it became the object of our attraction, our envy. Could a woman ever be so decadent? So illustrious? So free?

Lauren bent over her guitar and strummed, as if she were searching for an answer, as if the metallic edge of her Gibson could vibrate to the right pitch of cool. Her mom had immigrated from Hong Kong and her dad came from nowhere Zen, New Jersey. They spoke Cantonese on the phone together when they wanted to keep their secrets secret. But Lauren, always listening when she shouldn’t have, found out that her mother was pregnant anyway. Her father played in garage bands. He was born with an electric guitar. And so was she. When our history teacher went around the class and asked what kind of music do you listen to? I said, “Garbage,” and Lauren, “Hendrix.”

At her sweet sixteen, we sang “Landslide,” in an improvised, acoustic harmony. Her living room, surrounded by turn-of-the-century Qing chests and miniature lacquered paintings, felt like a recording studio that afternoon. Red cushions, low lights, and dark walnut furniture. A makeshift cabaret for a bunch of girls, barely legal. Gillian with her dark hair and half-smile, belting out the lyrics louder than anyone else. As if she were Stevie Nicks, herself, and knew the truth about pain. Her parents had divorced. Ours just seemed to fight all the time. So Gillian held the honor of being part mystic, part witch in our tribe.

At another sweet sixteen, Maddy sang, “I Will Survive,” and we girls danced primitive, like women, as if our lives depended on it. What heartaches had we experienced? What did we know about life at sixteen? Most of us hadn’t seriously been in love yet. With a man or a woman. We were just beginning to learn what it meant to come of age. To gaze into the future. To gaze back, an old crone, towards all the mistakes and milestones of our life. And what we saw, at sixteen, frightened us. We were experienced. We sang Fleetwood Mac, Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin together in Lauren’s living room, as if classic rock could keep the future at bay. As if these staged rebels in their infinite costumes, postures, and expressions of cool could save us. Save us from becoming adults. Save us from becoming women. Save us from a million taboos and stigmas and haunting forms of socialization.

“Darling go make it happen,” Lauren’s voice picked up tempo on the phone, “take the world in a love embrace.” Her guitar kept up the song’s dirty rhythm and twanged just when it mattered. I tried to impress her by playing back Joplin, Brubeck, Bach, Beethoven, Yann Tiersen, different time signatures, and chord progressions on the piano. In the ’90s, we spent so many afternoons like that. On the second line just for us: chatterboxes, klutzes, not yet agents of our lives. Girls. Our songs fused and interrogated one another. They hardly made sense. But that’s how we were. She and me. Latchkey kids. Part-time musicians. Like a true nature’s child. Our jams short-circuited every style in history.

I’ve been obsessed with cool as long as I can remember. Of all the things I’ve desired and chased in my life—an education, a lover, art, independence, a room—no, a voice of my own—the thing I’ve chased the most has been cool.

Casually during office hours, Harriet Davidson once told me, as she looked up from a sheaf of Langston Hughes poems she was studying, that she’d made a realization. “These poems, you can’t study them according to the metrics of Anglo-Saxon verse or literary theory.”

I faltered as I made my way across to her desk. “No?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “they belong to another category. Another language. Another body. Something much more—”

“Cool?” I offered.

“Yes, cool.” She looked back at the poems, and then up at me in my fitted red and black striped shirt over boot-cut blue jeans. I wore my favorite embroidered bottle green velvet jacket to complete the ensemble. There was a pin on the lapel. The flat circular button had a large earth in its center—all blue ocean, green-gold land, and wisps of clouds. Around the globe in big black letters was the chant: War on the World—Not in Our Name. It was, after all, early Spring 2003. The wars on Afghanistan and Iraq had just begun.

“What does that word mean to you?” she asked me quietly.

“Cool?” I looked at her, surprised. My fingers brushed against the edge of her desk. There were stacks of paper everywhere. She was neat and tidy and organized and quiet. What did she know that I didn’t? What did cool mean to me?

Everything,” I wanted to say. But after a beat, I threw back the challenge. “What’s cool anyway?”

Professor Davidson looked back at the Langston Hughes poems under her hand. For a moment she looked as if she were scanning them for the feet that were just not there.

And then, as if she stumbled across an answer to a problem she didn’t know she was solving, she said that declaring someone or something as cool was another way of saying, “I like your artifice.” That cool, whatever it was or is, depended on what was artificial. That cool was something totally constructed, totally manicured. But cool’s very existence suggested effortlessness. To be cool meant to perform for the world. The performance could be outrageous or the epitome of restraint. Cool meant being aloof. Cool was striking. Cool meant being more animal than human. Cool suggested carelessness and a loss of control. But cool never lost control. Cool was much more clever. Cool had energy, attraction, and passion to spare. Cool was always just an arm’s length away. Everyone wanted Cool. Everyone wanted to be Cool. Cool was used to it. Cool knew what it meant to be an object of desire, to be desired every time, but to never be owned.

My grandfather was the epitome of cool. He would cruise around the courtyards of St. Xavier’s College in his glossy black Ambassador. Driving in-slow motion like a gangster in a rap video—only this was 1953—he left his windows open, his fedora askew, his dark-rimmed glasses covered by the tilt of the brim. He kept his cigar, half-burnt in his left hand. As he turned the wheel, his watch slid out from his checkered cuff. Elbow cocked out of the window. Dark suede shoes. A three-piece linen suit. Always pressed. Perfect. Whatever cool was, he had it. The Ambassador rolled through the gardens of St. Xavier’s College like a panther on the prowl, waiting for the kill. He showed up each morning exactly five minutes before the eight a.m. bell. His students loved him. He knew how to do it well.

During my first semester studying Comparative Literature in Cambridge, we found ourselves knee-deep in theory. Everyone we studied had something to say or deconstruct about empire. One day the debate in class centered on the influence of literary theory and criticism on culture studies, media, and the American political sphere.

“When we study these theorists, we see how broad their shadow of influence can be,” Christopher Johnson nodded, astute and angular, in front of the class. “In comparison to these critics, who have introduced the language of conceptual thinking into our contemporary art and media, artists rarely change our daily vocabulary, themselves. Few, if any, artists have given us the critical language necessary to study and understand culture. Romanticism. Modernism. Postmodernism. Structuralism. Postcolonialism. These movements have been named by critics. From Plato to Aristotle to Spinoza and Freud, theorists have given us the language and tools with which we understand the world: epistemology, catharsis, ethics, eros, thanatos. Artists, though they may be visionary creators of content, rarely, if ever, name the world.”

As Christopher finished his speech, a slow, sinking silence filled the room. None of us, nearly all in our early 20s, dared to speak after his pronouncements. And as if we were in a scene from an old Hollywood movie, the wind came in from the open seminar windows and taunted us by shifting through our notebooks and papers. It was as if the death-knell for art was being rung, without reserve or irony, in one of the most powerful universities in the country.

As a recent MFA grad and closet writer, I raised my hand in that wordless pause. My arm moved up in a jerky and hesitant motion like it was more android than human.

“What about Miles Davis?” I said.

“Excuse me,” Christopher looked up from his notes, and his dark-rimmed glasses focused on me across the room.

“Miles Davis is an artist who changed the world,” I said, filled with all the quiet determination and naïveté of youth.

“Meaning?” Christopher tapped his dark-blue pencil on his lecture notes, signaling it was time to move on.

“His album, The Birth of the Cool, it changed our lexicon forever.”

“How?” My opponent leaned back now, ready to watch me make a fool of myself.

“Davis introduced to us a taste for cool, and made us crave it. He may not have been the first to use the term. There was Lester Young with his hipster chic and Theolonius Monk with his dissonant, even sorrowful jazz. But Davis and his album made cool a household name in America. A swag, a style. His music shimmered with playfulness, passion, and restraint. As a trumpeter, who improvised but knew the tricks of his craft well, his music walked the line between danger and daring. Listening to his music speak, he made us want to walk that line, too.”

Christopher crossed his arms.

“Everything we value, from Marx and Coca-Cola to MTV and ‘Image is Nothing’ is posited on cool. Postmodernism. The Cult of the Author. The Death of the Author. Chomsky. Foucault. Theory, itself. Aren’t all these forms of modern knowledge propelled by our desire to be and capture what’s stylized, artificial, beyond reach, and thus, cool?”

Christopher did not nod in encouragement.

“Jazz, grunge, hip-hop, reality TV, 24-hour news, commercials for the Super Bowl, war and superhero movies—aren’t these forms of modern media standing in the house that Miles Davis built? Davis gave us a means to define 20th-century style and its 21st-century remix. He gave us a name for our yearning, for everything seductive, familiar but not enough, of the moment, changeable, and thus, essentially cool.”

Except for my odd outburst, the classroom remained eerily quiet.

“Aren’t we all living in the shadow of artists like Miles Davis? Aren’t we all living with the vocabulary and taste for cool they gave us?”

“Yes,” he said, ever so quietly, after a beat, as if he were conceding, reluctantly, to the idea that a single artist, an experimentalist, an individual who had played consciously with aesthetics and form, could indeed affect world culture. As if theories of art and culture were made, not by the Académie française or at Harvard University, but by ordinary players, whether they were from the streets or from the suburbs. Who could be equally articulate with their art. Who could spend an evening jamming in a studio, a nightclub, or a garage, and create a sound that could alter the behavior of a crowd. Whose aesthetic could question a value system. Who could turn art into a language, in and of, itself.

A few years earlier, when September was still kissed by summer, we found ourselves equally free and bored.

That morning the sky gleamed topaz. Not a cloud in sight, true, but all I could think of was a film. I was headed to my journalism class. That autumn, I was moonlighting as a journalist after quitting my engineering program, and I’d spent my entire summer trying to convince my parents that a life dedicated to writing was a good idea. My father was convinced I’d end up a pauper.

“You’re as far away from Bohemia as you can get in this country,” he said over a particularly fraught dinner one night. “This isn’t Paris in the ’20s, this isn’t Kolkata in the ’60s. Nobody wants to starve here. Just look at the people around you.”

My eyes flickered to the evening news humming on the TV. The clip featured a series of interviews with New Jersey and New York locals who were all complaining about the unexpected surge in gasoline prices over the summer.

“Did the surge have something to do with Bush and his cronies in the oil industry?” a particularly portly man in dad jeans and a moustache wondered.

“See,” my father continued, not paying attention to the politics playing out on the screen, but to the people, and what he saw on their round faces. “They’re not thinking of starving. They are not even thinking about creating art.”

My dad, ever practical, was worried that I’d fall off of the bourgeoisie bandwagon and land, instead, in dead space as a writer. When I told my journalist professor about my parents’ concerns during office hours, the same one who was lecturing us on cool that morning, he asked without hesitation, what I wanted to do after I graduated.

“My dream job is to be a writer,” I said.

His eyes brightened. “Great, a journalist?”

I shook my head. “I’d really like to be a literary writer. A novelist or an essayist. Maybe even a poet.”

“I was a dreamer in college, too,” he chuckled, “good luck with that, kid.”

And just like that our heart-to-heart was over.

So while I fought over my future with my parents and advisors, and compromised by telling everyone that I’d get a “real job” in journalism, Lauren, my Voodoo Child best friend, spent her summer much more chicly. She’d had her first internship in New York City. On Wall Street. And spent her whole summer in pencil skirts and fitted blouses. Tailored jackets and pussy bows. Her father’s best friend, who worked in finance in Lower Manhattan, took her out to lunch often. They’d have sushi on Tuesdays, fresh éclairs on Wednesdays, and dined at the best Italian restaurant last week. All this while watching the hustle and bustle of New York from their large window seats in Lower Manhattan. Life had never been so delicious or thrilling.

If envy had a name, I would’ve called her Lauren, especially that summer after our freshman year. My ears turned red when she told me her stories about the elevator ride up to her company office on the twenty-first floor. Lauren interned at a hedge fund there. Wall Street was full of stockbrokers and businessmen, sure, but there were also lawyers in her building. She told me how several of the young men in their sharp suits would strike up a conversation with her. The gilded lobby and art deco elevator of her building were places to mingle and to meet-and-seek.

And by the time college started back up again, Lauren was breathless.

When I told her about my crush on Tom, a tall but scrawny senior and English major, who was a writer and also in my Japanese class, she simply waved her hand in dismissal.

“You should have seen this guy in New York, Rita,” she whispered, her feet stretched out against the wall as she lay on my dormitory bed the night before, “he had these ripped arms. Like an orangutan.”

“And were they equally furry?”

“Rita!” Lauren laughed. “I didn’t get that close a look!”

“But you wanted to.”

“Hmm,” she paused, rolling to face me. “Kinda, because you could see his biceps through the buttoned-up shirts he wore. Sometimes even through his jackets.”

I chewed on my pen and looked at my chicken-stick arms, and then turned back to the notebook open on the floor. “Intriguing.”

“He asked me out!”

“He did?” I dropped my homework. She had my attention now.

“Yeah, he got off the elevator and came to my floor one day.”

“In search of a court case?”

“No, silly! In search of me.”

“Same thing.”

“Rita,” she growled.

“Do go on.” I feigned sincerity, like my best impression of Jon Stewart, badly.

Lauren had been the object of scrutiny at her office the whole summer. When her boss wasn’t looking, one of her co-workers, a portly, over-the-hill IT specialist, who was losing his hair faster than he was losing the pounds, had taken to walking by Lauren’s desk during coffee breaks and lunch hours. A slightly younger man with brown hair, who might have been single, had been caught doing the same. Lauren never got tired of talking of these two fawning co-workers. And to a girl stuck in New Brunswick the whole summer, duking out her future with her parents, these stories from the glittering City were meant to be kept and pondered over like vaulted gems.

“Well, when I came back to the office from my lunch break, he was there at the elevator as if on schedule.” Lauren’s voice interrupted my train of thought.

“Was he stalking you?”

“No,” Lauren’s eyes seemed more cross than her voice, “it was romantic.”

“Uh-huh,” I yawned and stretched out on my back.

“He was really cute, Rita, I wish you could’ve seen him.”

“You have no idea,” I said under my breath.

Another pillow flew past my head.

“Okay, okay, tell me more.”

“Well, he was being really flirty in the elevator, asking when I’d be getting off of work and stuff. He knew that I worked for a firm in the building.”

“And?”

“That day he got off on the twenty-first floor with me. He just had so much to say.”

“I get it, he was hot.”

“Yes,” she smiled, cat-like, to herself. “He thought I was a regular employee there.”

“Did you let him know you were just a lowly intern?”

“Rita,” Lauren sounded stern. “Yes, I let him know I was just interning at the firm that summer. And do you know what he said next?”

“No, tell me, I’m literally dying over here.”

“He said that it didn’t matter to him if I was just an intern.”

“Prince Charming.” I turned back to my work.

“Because we were the same age.”

“What?” I paused over the poem I was scribbling next to my kanji charts. “How old did he think you were?”

Lauren paused, watched me as I watched her smile that smile that only knowing women had. That siren smile. That vixen.

“He thought I was in my mid-twenties like him, I think.”

“How old was he?”

“Twenty-eight.”

“Twenty-eight! Do you even know the definition of mid-twenties?!”

“Of course!”

She sat up cross-legged on the bed. “When he told me his age, I had to tell him mine. He’d practically followed me to my office already.”

“And did you?”

“Yes, Rita. I told him that I was nineteen.”

“Did this happen before or after your birthday?”

“Just two weeks ago when my internship was about to end.” After her birthday then. So she was technically nineteen. Just like me.

“Good, at least you weren’t a decade younger than him,” I muttered and looked back at my kanji. 大好きです。I love you.  好きです。I like you. ちょと。。。I’m busy.

“Actually, when I told him my age, he kinda stopped asking me out.”

“What?”

“Yeah, and he just left me at the door of the firm and walked back to the elevator.”

“Ouch.” Japanese and poetry could wait.

“And I never saw him again.”

“I’m sorry, Lauren.”

“Never passed him in the elevator during my last week there either.”

“Harsh.”

“Yeah. C’est la vie.” Lauren was minoring in French.

“Well, there’s more fish in the sea. Plus, he might have been a tad old for you.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Maybe?” I picked up a pillow and threw it back at her.

Recovering from our late night pillow-fight, I was heading to my journalism class the next morning. We were about to watch a documentary film about advertising, marketing, and manipulating teens. Teenagers, the documentary, promised, were important specimens of study because they were early adopters. They spotted and sold marketing trends like the Insane Clown Posse and trousers that hung below the knee and new ways of being coquettish while touting virginity. The documentary seemed to say that we, the Great American Teens of the early 21st Century, were in the same category as Jane Goodall’s Great Apes. We looked familiar to the generations much older and wiser than us, but somehow we were still barely human, barely belonging to the earth on which we roamed. The documentary suggested that the best use of teenagers was to deconstruct their desires. We were meant to be prodded and poked at, like a science experiment, by the adults surrounding us. And if the experiment was successful, the ones poking us could figure out how to turn our desires into cold, hard cash.

The film was, thus, aptly called The Merchants of Cool. When I finally watched it several years later on one sunny autumn day in Berkeley, I would realize that the film captured something of the late ’90s Y2K Zeitgeist. But despite its provocative title, the film felt rushed, its argument hastily formed, and its commentary on cool seemed clownish, bricolage, and barely held together. It was as if the PBS Frontline documentary dared not ask the most threatening questions:

“What did it mean to be young and moneyed in America today? Who were these fools in their baggy jeans and halter tops, listening to Nine Inch Nails, the Wu-Tang Clan, or Britney Spears? Suggesting sex through every gesture and sway of hips even though they had barely tasted it? Would these teens, ‘the children of our future,’ the Class of 2000, those who drank in music videos on MTV like they were laced with morphine, become the inevitable arbiters of this country, its fate, its lifestyle, its politics, its cool?

“And if these kids were the architects of our collective American future, would they uphold the American Dream, or would their laptop-obsessed-fingers just dance over the country’s self-destruct button?”

The film flirted with these questions but never directly asked or answered them. The Merchants of Cool. This would be a phrase and film that would haunt me for years as I sped through all those foundational years of adulthood. A documentary film, a classroom exercise, a name that came to signify so much more than it should. An omen.

Later that evening, on the day that we were supposed to watch the documentary in class, I would get a call from my grandfather. It would come, like so many important things seemed to, out of the blue, after several weeks of silence: long-distance from Ranchi, India, to my home in New Jersey. No phone cards would be used. The call would not even be made collect. It would start off with a hysterical question and last for hours. It would be one of the last times I would ever talk to my grandfather, merchant, cool, for any length of time before his death. At that time, I would not realize how closely beauty and artifice could intertwine with death.

দিদিভাই Didibhai,” he would say when I answered the phone, “কি হলো? What happened?

In film class, we learned about silence.

Silence 1: In this form of cinematic technique, all dialogue, monologue, and speech on screen stops. But sound in the film does not. That is, all other diegetic sound remains constant. In the scene, you can still hear the rustling of paper, a professor coughing at the podium, a projector screen scrolling down, a large jet roaring towards mach one. The pop in the air it makes sounds like breaking glass. Its thundering motion echoed by the straight and sudden white streak of jet fuel in the sky. All diegetic sound continues. Even nondiegetic sound like a song overlaid on the scene: Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” for example, can be played over the hush of the character’s speech, the quietude of their words, their mutual full-stop.

Silence 2: This is a different kind of beast. In Silence 2, all dialogue stops, all monologue doesn’t matter, and voice-over finds itself suddenly dead. But so too does all the in-scene and overlaid sound and sound effects. The car pulling up to the curb does not rumble, its screeching halt is never heard. The young man who jumps out—all copper hair and sweat—runs across the open field, panting but not making a single noise. His sneakers do not slap on the asphalt pavement, his breath does not hitch. When he pulls the heavy doors, of first the academic building and then the lecture hall, the ancient pre-fab wood does not shutter and groan. His sweaty fingers do not slip noisily off the scratched brass knobs. When he finally enters the lecture hall, the whispering of students does not suddenly stop. Their voices are already dead even as their heads turn, one by one, then dozens by dozens, in his direction.

Scene: Here is a young man crying. He has wild red hair and wears a sloppy flannel shirt and baggy khakis. He might be your prototypical early adopter. He even has something like a beard on his face. He’s growing it out. Hipster chic before we even have a name for it. He should be in his early twenties but looks so much younger. Especially as he runs through the auditorium like a little boy. He is crying. A grown man crying like a phantom, flitting through our journalism class. All chatter stops. Thoughts suspend. Words drop into silence from our lips. This is the closest I’ll ever get to witnessing a total stranger unraveling.

On Diamond Harbour Road, in the three-story house my grandmother grew up in as a teenager, my great aunt keeps our ancient family photo albums. In the thick books with marbled covers, the pictures are tucked away within sheaves of black paper and thin, opaque contact sheets.

In these dusty tomes, one summer in grad school, I would spy my grandmother as a very young girl. Surrounded by her four younger siblings, all sisters except for one brother. All would grow up to be legends in my regard, except for the youngest one in the photo. The baby girl with the charcoal eyes and jewel in her hair. She was the only one in the frame looking away from the photographer, as if she didn’t want her image to be caught on film for too long. Of all my great aunts and uncles, I would never get to know her, or know her name. Nani never talked about her youngest sister. The one she’d missed throughout her life. The one who had died one day, playing unattended by herself in the kitchen with an open fire.

The other faces, though, are familiar. I would scan over the pictures of my great-grandmother and marvel at how dainty and feminine she looked as a young woman, standing next to my grandmother, her teenage, no-nonsense, robust, hyperintelligent, writer of a girl.

Later in the album, I would find a picture of Nani as a newlywed bride. She is standing next to her new husband, whom I recognized as Dadabhai, my grandfather. Dadabhai is decked out in a three-piece suit but still manages to look skinny and uncertain and very young indeed.

The picture, in sepia tones, does not indicate the color of Nani’s sari. But it appears to be a rich maroon color in the print with sparkling diamond-like designs, catching light from the tiny mirrors sewn into the fabric. The anchal is bordered with shimmering threads. While my grandfather smiles and lets his hands rest on my grandmother’s shoulders in a warm gesture, my grandmother, though she appears youthful and full of peace, has a cool and tempered look in her eyes.

Both my grandparents wear dark-rimmed glasses. But my grandmother’s, like those worn by Faye Dunaway, are rounder and broader. Hipster chic before Kerouac and Brooklyn thought they had invented it.

In another photo I’d find in the album, my grandmother wears a dark velvet gown over her sari, which peaks out over her shoes and by her collar. Her golden earrings brushing over her cloak like tassels. In this image, her hair is pulled back, but braided at the side. Her expression is much more playful than in her post-wedding photo. My grandfather stands beside her. Beaming with now a more debonair, tousled look.

In this image, they are just a few years into their marriage, and my grandmother in her monk’s robe and cool glasses is proudly holding a framed degree in her hand. She who graduated with Honors in Sanskrit from Dav University in Jalandhar, Punjab. She who knew more Indo-European languages fluently than I’ll ever be able to speak. She who wrote creatively in many.

My grandfather poses as if he is her proud tutor behind her.

But really, he is beaming because of something else. Two reasons, perhaps. First, because he had recently landed a prestigious job as Professor of Mathematics at St. Xavier’s College in his hometown of Ranchi, and left his former life in law behind. And second, Nani, who looks regal and worldly in her graduation gown, is hiding a secret. She may have been memorizing ślokas and impressing her professors with her knowledge of the Upaniṣads in college, but what she hadn’t told them was that she had been engaged in another sport during the past few months as well. Nearly nine months pregnant, she travels back from Ranchi to Punjab, and takes all of her final exams reclined. And here she is on graduation day, passing her bachelor’s exams with honors, and pregnant with her first child, whom she will name, of course, after that famous female sage and provocateur from the Upaniṣads: Gargi.

Rita: Should I digress? She looks up at the computer screen.

Michael: Totally. He leans back in his chair.

Rita: Okay. I was on my way to my journalism class, the first and last one I ever took in college, and we were supposed to watch this film, The Merchants of Cool, it’s this documentary about advertising and early adopters and—

Michael: I think I know it. Spins his pen.

Rita: It’s not the best documentary but I was so excited to see it.

Michael: Right.

Rita: And as we’re going to the media center on Livingston Campus, one of my friends from high school, who attended college with me, was watching the TV in a small common room. There were just a hand full of kids there, and I remember my high school friend Joanne, standing at the center of the crowd, staring up at the television screen in amazement.

Joanne, who is Filipino-Chinese, stands with a large book bag and a makeshift breakfast bun in hand in the middle of a crowd. Four other students surround her. The student center is quiet and sleepy otherwise. Her breakfast is forgotten. 

Rita: Hey, Jo, what’s up? Looks up at the small overhead TV in the corner of the room.

Joanne: Oh, they’re saying that a random accident happened in New York. A small passenger plane, a private jet like the one JFK Jr. used or something like that, flew straight through one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

Rita: That’s weird.

Joanne: Yeah, a freak accident. First time a plane hit a building in New York since World War II. Look at all that smoke.

In the screen, a silver-white building with glittering windows is standing next to its pristine twin against a backdrop of solid blue. And in the middle of all that glass is a small puncture wound. The wound is expelling large puffs of dust and gray smoke into an otherwise clear sky.

Michael: Wow. Stops playing with his pen.

Rita: Yeah, so I watched the screen for a little bit. The anchorwoman on-screen assured the audience that it was just a bizarre accident. She joked with the weatherman next to her. Their voices dropped to a whisper when they discussed how eerily similar it was to JFK Jr.’s plane accident.

Michael: Mm-hm.

Rita: And I looked down at my watch. It was almost 9 o’clock, and I was almost late for my journalism class. So I hurried across campus, and found a seat next to my friends, who were twins.

Rita sits down next to Lika and Yuka, friends from her Japanese lit class. Lika, who’s the closest to Rita, turns to her.

Lika: Guess what?

Rita: What? Looks at the professor who is about to introduce the film.

Professor: Remember this story is about you. It’s about cool. It’s about why aesthetics and style and individuals matter. It’s about what made you, you.

Lika: I got an internship at MTV! Claps her hands.

Rita: Really? Shut up! Turns to fully face her.

Yuka: That’s what I always say. Yuka is the evil twin. Yuka turns to the audience and takes out a cigarette, lighting it discreetly. She takes a puff, blows it in the direction of Lika and Rita, and then after a beat. That’s true, I am.

Lika: Shh. She fans the smoke from her face. It starts in January, at the beginning of next semester. I’m going to work on film production.

Rita: Wow, that’s awesome. Someone in the row in front of them says “ahem.”

The professor continues his drone.

Professor: Advertisers, media heads, spin doctors, broadcasters, journalists, they’re all interested in you. You’re in the 18-to-64 year-old group. You’re their target demographic. Laughs. And surprisingly me, too.

He hits a button on the podium and the projector screen descends creakily.

Rita: Will you get to work on music videos?

Lika: No, probably not. They’re phasing those programs out. I’ll probably work on shows like Total Request Live or something like that.

Rita: Wow, teenybopper music for a live pre-teen audience. Stellar.

Yuka snorts next to them and coughs after taking a whiff of her cigarette.

Lika: Hey, it’s MTV!

Rita: The American Dream.

The door at the back of the auditorium pulls open, them slams close. The girls don’t look up.

Lika: Yeah, I know—

Michael coughs on screen. Behind dark frames, his eyes glitter.

Rita: Looks back at her monitor. Sorry, got carried away. Anyway, the professor is just about to start the tape for The Merchants of Cool and we’re settling down to watch it And then, this young boy—he’s probably eighteen or something, he just comes in crying. He’s balling, and he runs from the exit at the backend of the auditorium all the way through the entire classroom. He’s running through the lecture hall like it’s a marathon course and there are 200-300 people all watching him.

Michael: Wow.

Rita: He says something to the instructor and everyone is wondering what’s going on. We have cell phones but not smartphones. And so we were just wondering what had happened. And the professor says, “If anyone has family in New York, you are dismissed, you can leave.” And a third of the students jump out of their seats, grabbing pens, bags, and cellphones.

Michael: Wow.

Rita: And he says to the rest of us, “Please allow them to go first. And everyone else, please stay in your seats.” It was like the weirdest thing because you’re thinking, What’s going on, what just happened?

Michael: It was such a dumb thing to say.

Rita: Yeah, and then this whisper goes around the auditorium. Someone says it first, and it spreads like wildfire: “America is under siege.”

Michael: Wow.

Rita: So we’re stuck in the auditorium without cell phone reception, sitting in the dark for what feels like hours, but what probably was only twenty minutes. We’re not allowed to leave. The whole auditorium is rumbling with rumors, noise, and nerves. And then someone’s voice is heard above the fray. It’s another young boy, and he stands up to announce, as if he’s practicing to be a politician, that “two planes hit the Twin Towers,” and that “they both went clear through both of the buildings.”

Michael nods.

Rita: And the first thing that runs through my mind, is that my father used to work in the World Trade Center.

Michael: I forgot that.

Rita: Yeah, for the Port Authority. I think he stopped working there just a few years before when he transferred back to New Jersey.

Michael: Mm-hm.

Rita: But his entire office—secretaries, very close friends were there and some of them didn’t escape. He knew this Indian coworker who made it out of the towers before they actually fell. But at the last moment, this guy decided to go take the PATH train from the World Trade Center home, and he got into the subway, but couldn’t get out in time. In the days and weeks after 9/11, my dad couldn’t stop talking about this guy whom he barely knew, and his favorite secretary, and all these bosses he used to work with at the Port Authority. All of whom had disappeared, as if into thin air.

Michael: Wow.

Rita: And one of my good friend’s Lauren—her father’s best friend who worked in the Twin Towers and who used to take her out to lunch during her internship in New York that summer—he died that day.

Michael: Whoa.

Rita: Yeah. So when we were all finally dismissed from class, and found out what had actually happened, everyone was trying to frantically call friends and relatives in New York. My cousin, who had just moved to America from Bombay, was supposed to arrive at the World Trade Center at nine a.m. for a job interview. He was literally a few blocks away when he saw the first plane hit the North Tower. But I couldn’t get through to him. All the phone lines were dead. If you can imagine. The calls just wouldn’t connect. Either you called and got a busy message or the recorded voice of an operator saying that the number you dialed was not in service, or you got nothing at all. Just white noise.

Michael: Wow.

Rita: And the only way we could get news, because so many of the TV and cell phone antennas had fallen with the towers, was to turn on the radio and listen to the New Jersey AM stations about their reports on what was happening in New York in real-time.

Michael: Right.

Rita: And that morning, between the news reports and the rumors, we found out that the towers were probably going to fall. The experts in engineering and architecture were predicting two possible outcomes. Either the steel bars would fume and hold or they wouldn’t.

Michael nods on screen.

Rita: Around 9:30 a.m., I finally got a hold of my dad on the phone. He’s a mechanical and nuclear engineer and he’d worked on building and systems design before.

Michael: Uh-huh.

Rita: And he knew shortly after the second plane hit, that the towers would not hold.

Michael nods.

Rita: So we decided, some of my friends and I to go to downtown New Brunswick. My friend, Tom, who was in the same Japanese class as Lika, Yuka, Jeff, and me, and who was an early love interest of mine, had an apartment downtown.

Michael: Sure.

Rita: He basically lived in the tallest building on campus in downtown New Brunswick. So we decided to climb to the rooftop of his building. And on that clear September morning, we had this crazy clear, bird’s eye view of New York City. We could see the skyline and the smoke, and we watched what happened to the towers in real-time.

My grandfather had a certain kind of charisma. He had style, of course, a certain mid-century finesse. But there was also something to the way he approached devastation and tragedy in life. Even though he could be playful and sometimes even melodramatic, especially around the little humans he called his grandkids, he still maintained the cool assurance of a detached observer.

The viewing deck of the World Trade Center is on the 107th floor. South Tower. The glass-encased area is called the Top of the World. Yellow, corporate overhead lights wash over the lobby and the walls, making the slivers of wall between large glass windows look vaguely like macramé. The carpet in the lobby and the 107th floor is a deep rust color with crisscross diamond designs in gold on it. It seems almost red carpet worthy.

On a bright summer day in the early 1990s, my mother, named after the Vedantic philosopher Gargi, and nicknamed Gulshan, which means “garden of flowers” in Persian, by Dadabhai, will bring us to see the sights of Manhattan. Our first, and what will be our final stop, revolves around the World Trade Center.

On the elevator ride up to the “Top of the World,” it will be either my grandmother, Nani, or my grandfather, Dadabhai, who will spot the words first. They will be, even in their old age, trying to outwit each other.

सुस्वागतम। Suswāgatam. স্বাগত। Svāgata.

The words are etched in gold in the interior of the elevator of the South Tower, going up, up, up.

“Both are words for welcome,” my mother speaks brightly in Bengali on the phone, “out of all the languages scrawled in the elevator, we could only read the words for ‘welcome’ in two.”

“Other than in English, of course,” she laughs. “Ma and Bapi were so happy to see those words in Hindi and Bengali. It’s like New York was saying hello to them.”

Her mood is contagious.

“You know your grandfather had height issues. He nearly fainted while climbing up the Qutub Minar when we visited it during a family road trip to Delhi and Agra in the ’60s.”

“Oh?” I say.

“So he hadn’t ever enjoyed seeing the world from such a height before,” she continues. “He sat on the concrete bench with you near the rooftop edge. He could see all of downtown New York that way. In every direction, there were bridges, buildings, and even the Statue of Liberty there in the middle of the water. He enjoyed it so much that we had to drag him off the rooftop!”

This time I laugh.

“We had arrived in the early afternoon and it was evening by the time we finally were able to get Dadabhai to leave. He loved watching New York light up in the setting sun.”

“That’s beautiful,” I say.

“Yes, that’s probably why Dadabhai called us on September 11,” she says, “because of his dear attachment to the World Trade Center. Because of the great time he had had there. And once Dadabhai formed a strong attachment, it would be nearly impossible for him to get rid of it.”

We both laugh, and I think how strange memory can be. I was so impatient when I was nine and we visited the Twin Towers with my grandparents. What I remember best about the visit were the snaking lines in the lobby, the heavy red velvet rope guards, and the black security officer in a khaki suit who kept telling us kids to “stand back.” My mother tells me that she had had to give me a whole bag of M&Ms to keep me quiet while my grandparents and she munched on sandwiches at the restaurant next to the observation deck. But I do remember my grandfather’s awe. For someone who seemed so self-possessed, observant, critical, and yet still kind, it was fascinating to see him watch an American city with such childlike eyes. There was no artifice in his surprise or admiration. After pointing out whichever monuments and buildings we could identify in the cityscape below and debating why one tower was considered taller than the other, Dadabhai and I spent the afternoon naming clouds. There were walruses, queens, and whole merchant ships passing by us on the roof of the South Tower. The high winds that day made them move faster. And the clouds and their shapes danced and mesmerized us. From that great height, they looked close enough to touch.

Funny how even such fond memories can be linked to the World Trade Center, when it’s most remembered in the collective imagination for its spectacle of violence, its destruction, and its complicity in America’s unraveling project of late capitalism.

On a recent program recorded for Al Jazeera, Slavoj Žižek sits at a café at Ground Zero and asks his intellectual sparing partners: “Where does the urge to look for an external enemy come from? This is also the important lesson of antisemitism in Europe. Why did capitalism need the figure of the Jew? It needed it to cover up our own antagonisms, and it’s the same here. The point is not: Is the other, the enemy, really as bad as we think? The point is why do we need that figure of the enemy we should ask ourselves.”

Žižek continues, “Empires practically never fall apart because of the external enemy.”

That afternoon, on Top of the World in the South Tower, I have no doubt that my grandfather was dazzled by what he saw below him. But as he watched the city glitter under the afternoon sun and sparkle with light in the early evening, what did he really see? A picture of heaven? The American Empire in all of its principal glory, fashionable and seductive all at once? Or did he think of home—Ranchi—and the red-dust roads of India? And all the poverty there. And the young men and women speeding to work on their motorcycles and mopeds ignoring the beggars lighting fires and cooking their meals on the side of the roads. Did the office workers notice those other men and women who had nothing to call a home? Not even a place to eat.

Did Dadabhai see those two disparate images in his mind, and consider if they were linked? For so long he sat on that concrete bench and looked and did not speak. My mother and Nani gossiped in Bengali behind him, and I tried to engage his attention when he seemed too cool or too distracted. But how could any one of us know what the other thought? We were family, yes, but there were distances between us. So many experiences, memories, and wisdom left unspoken and unknown. On that day, everything seemed to have a double meaning. The gilded elevator cheerfully beckoned, but in Hindi, suswāgatam suggested “auspicious welcome,” and in Bengali, svāgata: “well-being.”

Just twenty minutes after that crying young boy, the sky, outside, gleams a devil’s blue. There is not a plane in sight. No jet-streams. No overhead noise. Everything is too bright, too quiet for comfort.

In the quad, students and staff wander and crisscross each other. Many in the mall are crying. Others, embracing friends. And most, trying to get their cell phones to connect to New York.

In all of those forms of unwanted silence and stasis, we find out that New York and New Jersey are dangerously entangled together. Joint at the hip really, in all manners of communication, longing, and cool.

On the bus ride over to College Ave, Lika, Yuka, and I talk over each other and speculate wildly like everyone around us. The pundits on the cable TVs in the student centers and bus radios give their expert opinions. At least half say “not to worry,” and the other half “unbelievable.” When my phone finally reaches one of my parents at their office, my father says in a soft and tired voice, “The way those towers were built with their frame tube structure, the frame holding everything together will not be able to withstand the heat. The towers will fall.”

And by the time Lika, Yuka, and I reached Tom’s apartment on Easton Ave and Jeff joins us in the lobby, the South Tower, the one that had been hit second with a passenger jet, the one whose attack was caught crystal-clear on tape, is already crumbling and disintegrating to the ground.

In the lobby, Tom buzzes us in. We can’t swipe our cards and pile into the elevator fast enough. On the fourth floor, we make a pit stop to drop off our bags in Tom’s living room. His coffee table is littered with novels about the Vietnam War and well-thumbed issues of Penthouse and Playboy.

His roommates, naturally, seem to match his reading tastes. The nice one, Indian like me, is quiet, and is crushing on a Spanish girl down the hall that I had introduced him to. A few years later, they will get married. His other roommate, whose name for the life of me I can’t remember, snickers when I enter. Half of our entire Japanese class has gathered in the apartment. There is Lika, Yuka, Jeff, me, and Tom. But this roommate likes to single me out, muttering “Daria” under his breath. Boxing me in as one of those smart aleck, sarcastic, MTV-weaned girls, who happens to have an unrequited crush on his roommate, Tom. Tom, in turn, only has eyes for girls already in relationships and fellow Catholics like him.

This morning, I roll my eyes as Tom’s roommate fails to say my name correctly, and I fail to remember his. Tom is already urging all of us out the door, so we leave our books and bags and quarrels in his living room behind, and instead focus on racing up to the 12th floor. Jeff decides to keep his yellow, brick-sized Nokia in hand. In case of emergency, of course.

On the 12th floor, at the end of the long, white, hospital-like hallway, there is an emergency exit sign. We aren’t supposed to use it but when we hit the metal bar on the door, no alarm sounds. No siren, no emergency lights. And so we break free.

Outside, the sun catches on everything. The air ducts, the laundry vents, the silver aluminum piping. Everything gleams in clay and white and startlingly iridescent hues.

In the direction of New York City, against the clear blue sky, there is smoke. The bricolage brick and beige architecture of New Brunswick seems to disappear as we stare at the skyline of New York.

The green flatness of New Jersey, its infinite trees, the slinking Raritan River, the rolling Atlantic disappear from our focus. All of those forms of beauty mean nothing in that moment. As we face beauty much more terrifying.

For teenagers raised on video games, this is the closest we’ll ever get to roleplaying one.

Soon after my grandfather’s call, Jon Stewart in a charcoal suit, bright dress shirt, and silk tie, looks equally elegant and tired.

He tries to introduce the events of the day but ends up pounding his fist on the desk instead. He composes his face.

“One of my earliest memories was that of Martin Luther King, Jr. being shot. I was five. And if you wonder if this feeling will pass—”

His voice wavers. He places a finger on his lips, waits.

“When I was five and he was shot, here’s what I remember about it. I was in school in Trenton and they shut the lights off, and we got to sit under our desks. And we thought it was really cool. And they gave us cottage cheese.”

The audience, off-camera, laughs.

“Which was a cold lunch because there was rioting on the streets. But we didn’t know that. We thought, ‘My God, we get to sit under our desks and eat cottage cheese.’”

The audience rumbles. Jon tries to collect himself again, as if trying to jibe his sense of childhood cool and comfort with the realities of the day.

“The reason I don’t despair is because—” he gestures like a politician would, “This attack happened, it’s not a dream but the aftermath of it, the recovery, is a dream realized.”

He pauses and takes a quick breath.

“And that’s Martin Luther King’s dream.” He sniffs. Watching him watch the camera in that moment, again after so many years have passed, I wonder if he really believes what he says.

“Whatever barriers we’ve put up are gone, even if it’s just momentary. And we’re judging people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

He leans forward on the desk.

“Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see these firefighters, police men, people from all over the country rebuilding—that—that’s extraordinary. That’s why we’ve already won. It’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down.”

His voice cracks.

To me, on that evening of 9/11, and then over seventeen years later when we’re living in a world of open police brutality and militarization, racial violence, gun violence, gender violence, rising nationalism, surveillance, classism and class warfare, our democracy seems anything but light.

“They live in chaos and chaos can’t sustain itself,” Jon continues on the screen. “It’s never good. It’s too easy.” He looks aside, as if to hide a growing sense of righteousness, a growing sense of anger. “It’s too unsatisfying.”

In Ranchi, when Dadabhai and Nani’s house has been demolished in favor of the new skyscrapers sprouting up all over town, I find, in a dusty blue velvet photo album, a more recent image of Dadabhai.

Most of the pictures in this photo album look like they are from the ’60s to the late ’70s. Both Nani and Dadabhai have gray hair now and look more recognizably like my grandparents.

This image, taken when Dadabhai was in his mid-to-late fifties, features him and his good friends seated at a round table. As a child, I knew that table in my grandparents’ living room well. It’s where Dadabhai and his cronies would play rummy and bridge. Often with lit cigars and hot tea nearby. My grandmother, also retired by the mid-’80s, was often exiled to the kitchen on those card-playing afternoons. In the dark of the kitchen, she would have to make the spiced tea, the fried treats, and the samosas. Needless to say when she passed the food and tea onto the tray for me to carry into the living room where Dadabhai sat languorously playing cards “with the good old chaps” as he liked to call them, Nani would be sure to utter an explicative or two about her husband in Bengali before passing the food onto me.

In any case, this image of Dadabhai and his friends looks to be a dress-rehearsal for their later card-games; perhaps taken just as Dadabhai was about to retire from St. Xavier’s, and shortly after my mother had gotten married and moved to the States.

The table is littered with cards and gin and tonics with lime (my grandfather’s favorite drink). And while the other men in the picture stare at the camera with semblances of smiles on their faces Dadabhai’s looks strangely fierce. For a man who was always so cool and collected about everything, this expression sticks out.

When I pick up the old black and white photo and study it further, I notice Dadabhai’s calligraphy on its back. The message, written in black ink which has turned a dull rust red with time like the tones of the photograph, itself, is written surprisingly in English and not in Hindi or Bangla. As if the words are a missive for another time, meant solely for someone like me to read. The epigraph on the back, in looping clean letters, reads: “Lord, please take me away.”

The message is quiet and desperate and devastating.

The inscription is dated 1978. My fingers trace Dadabhai’s words and the date. I would only be born just a handful of years later. No way to meet him then when he had written these words.

After that strange phone call we shared on September 11, 2001, in which my grandfather and I talked about the World Trade Center and his favorite view of all of New York from its observation deck, I resolved to return to India. After a seven-year absence, I bought my tickets to arrive in Ranchi for the winter holidays in late 2002. Dadabhai knew about my plans, but before his birthday during the following September, shortly after the first anniversary of 9/11, he would pass away unexpectedly before I ever got a chance to say good-bye. That phone call on September 11 would be one of the last times I would ever get a chance to talk to my grandfather so candidly for any length of time before he was gone. And in that conversation, as we analyzed what was happening to America, what democracy and capital meant, and where we could go from there, we shared emotions, intimacy, and philosophy openly together. In those whispered conversations, there would be no room for artifice, for posturing, for cool.

Sitting in an empty bedroom in Ranchi, many years later, when I would find this uncanny image of my grandfather surrounded by his friends and cards and drinks, I would think how very alone he looked. Flanked by all of these markers of comfort and cool.

My fingers would trace his face and slide over the inscription on the back. And alone, I would say out loud, to no one in particular, “But you haven’t met me yet.”

None of us have a camera to freeze frame the moment. On the cable TVs downstairs, the Spanish television networks are showing people leaping from fifty, sixty stories up to their death. CNN blocks the coverage.

And we, college kids and card-carrying members of Gen-MTV, stand as close as we can get to the edge of that rooftop and watch what remains burn to the ground. We stand and wait and watch. Voyeurs to our very core.

In high school, we read A Tale of Two Cities, and Maribeth Edmunds makes us recite that scene where Charles Darnay is finally declared free. Just at that moment, outside of the courthouse, a passerby is struck down by a carriage as the trial ends. Rather than help the poor victim of the accident, the spectators from the courtroom stream out and gather around the fallen body, waiting until that living, breathing thing of beauty becomes a corpse. Blue flies gather in search of carrion.

Someone makes a joke to cut the tension. And we laugh as we wait. From our vantage point, the second tower will take nearly thirty minutes to burn to the ground. Destruction takes so much longer than expected when you’re waiting for it.

The anticipation feels almost erotic.

I glance away from the beautiful tableau destroying itself, right in front of us, and turn to Tom. Only his profile is visible in the brilliant light. His eyes are trained on New York. I look over at my other friends, some shivering under the bright sun and holding their jackets close to them against the rapid wind, others engaging in strained conversations and nervous laughter.

I think how beautiful they all look. How very young we all seem to be all of a sudden. Tom’s hair curls in the wind. At my side, he is nearly a foot taller than me. I look at him, and think I should be in love. Because that’s how crushes work. But me, obsessed with cool, I do even my crushes badly. I can’t seem to feel or express any emotion authentically enough.

Today from our great distance in New Brunswick, everyone on that rooftop, standing or sitting on perches like we’re posing for a band photo, will do all of our emotions badly.

There will be no moral compass left in us that day. Stupefied, when the second tower will finally fall in slow motion, we will be unable to look away. But we will not be able to process the hurt, the trauma, the disbelief, the anger, or the love we will feel that day for each other, for those we know and knew, and for what we thought our country could be.

Later in our dorm rooms, when we’d switch on the radio, the shows will be filled with rants from witnesses and listeners calling in. “How could they do this?” “Attacks like this simply don’t happen in America.” “We’ll get revenge on those towel-headed bastards.” “This is war. This is an act of war.” “We need to go out and bomb them.” “God, I love this country so much.”

The interviews, the phone calls, the words of support, anger, revenge, patriotism, shock will pour in that day and for the weeks that follow. And we, the children of the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, will soak it all in. Our emotional barometer will flicker from anxiety and disbelief to righteousness and anger to unbelievable grief. We will let the words of others wash over us. We are, after all, young. And although we are supposed to be early adopters of fashion, of function, of political beliefs and personas, we are also easily influenced. We are part of the target demographic.

Are you experienced? Jimi Hendrix taunts with his stride and regal threads and careless sensuality on stage. Just over three decades and two generations later, the answer, as we watch the World Trade Center fall, will be no. No, we are anything but experienced.

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Rita Banerjee is the director of the MFA in Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, editor of CREDO: AN ANTHOLOGY OF MANIFESTOS AND SOURCEBOOK FOR CREATIVE WRITING, and author of ECHO IN FOUR BEATS, which was nominated for the 2019 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Her writing appears in Poets & Writers, Nat Brut., LARB, and VIDA. She is the co-writer, with David Shields, of Burning Down the Louvre (2020), a film about race, intimacy, and tribalism in the US and France.