What Is a Day?by Ann Lauterbach
9/11 is in two parts: “What Is a Day?” was written in October 2001 to try to capture some of the immediacy and urgency of my experience of the events of September 11th; “After the Fall” was written for a special section of the journal American Letters and Commentary, “Beyond Extremis: Seven Essays on Language and the Imagination,” issue no. 14, 2002.
To narrate oneself into a catastrophe with unknowable global consequences seems trivial, or vain, or both. What does it matter where one was or what one did or how one reacted or felt or what one thought, if thinking occurred at all, during or afterwards?
Why should one insert oneself into a cataclysm after the shipwreck of the singular?
One plus one equals two.
One plus one equals eleven.
One plus three thousand equals three thousand and one.
The eleventh day of the ninth month is an emergency.
In an emergency call 911.
Satan the Joker.
Flight 11 drove overhead, engines so close it could have been inhaling the air, so one was being sucked up into the roar, had become the roar.
Out of sleep into nightmare, out of sleep into the recall of earlier times when every plane carried a bomb, when the night sky was nothing if not a seedbed of danger. In New York, in Lower Manhattan, during the Second World War, during the Korean War, during the cold war. Bombs. Planes with bombs.
Rolled or fell or jumped down onto the floor, covering the head.
Silence for seconds.
Then a great thump, a muted swallowing sound. Not a big crashing sound, but the sound stealth might make on its way to annihilation. A giant rat swallowing a giant snake.
One could see nothing, or rather one could not see the Something that had just transpired, because my south-facing windows no longer looked out, but only the backs of buildings recently constructed into the view. It took months for these buildings to go up, the workers only a stone’s throw away: scaffolds, hard hats, reverberating tools. Bit by bit, the sky was removed, the view of the Towers sealed under the collage of progress, under the sign of a swollen prosperity. When I fist moved in, twenty-odd years before, the view included the Hudson River and Woolworth Building and the Twin Towers. The days and nights were quiet. The moon came up and stood visible in the framed sky before going on. Sunlight streamed through the big south-facing windows, carrying the glittering facades with it.
In the first place, and until a few years ago, the first floor was a hum of activity all night long, long yellow trucks, men loading and unloading foodstuffs—eggs and butter and cheese—to deliver to the restaurants in the city. Now the downstairs is called ROOM; it is filled with smart cool furnishings. Across the street, there are chairs hanging by threads in the window. They cost, according to the New York Times, $140,000 for a set of twelve. Slender woman in tight pants and slim pointed shoes stand on the loading dock with their cell phones, speaking with French accents. They do not smile when one passes them carrying one’s groceries.
The neighborhood seems overtaken by a throng of well-dressed young persons who move as if blind, barely noting the parts of the world that do not directly address their needs or intentions or designs; they walk as if the world were put there for them, is a result of their desires. They seem to have no sense of time, as if nothing existed before they arrived, and nothing will exist when they leave.
Make coffee, get dressed. One is alive after all, after whatever that was. Turn on the television. One never turns on the television in the morning, in the day, but something just happened. A bright female voice is talking to a male voice who is describing sitting on his balcony in Union Square, sipping his morning coffee, and seeing a jet come in low, too low, calling to his wife, “Hey, honey, come look at this jet so low over the city.” One sees the image of a shadow plane, the plane’s silhouette like a cutout, peculiarly dematerialized.
The body and the mind in discreet places, wires crossed, thinking one should get to the basement, take cover, thinking about tornadoes, hurricanes, huge winds, and bombs. Confused between accident and intent, acts of nature and acts of man.
One does not remember at what moment terror took on motivation, pulled the cause into the effect, the effect into the cause.
Pictures of a tower in flames.
Still, one does not quite register that the plane was that plane, the towers those towers. One is at the place that the tiny TV screen is making into an image. See! Look there! Where? At passages. The actual collides with its images.
The cat goes into the closet.
One goes upstairs to the neighbors. We are not good neighbors to each other, we are poor denizens, neither friendly nor unfriendly, who have lived with a floor between us for more than twenty years. The neighbor is wild with worry for her son. Her teenage daughter tries to look as if nothing is happening. Her television is blasting; one hears the word “Pentagon.”
One goes downstairs. M. is standing near the elevator. She lives on the top floor with her three sons and her husband, S., the landlord, son of Harry, who started his butter-and-eggs business here decades ago. She is wearing a pretty dress. One mentions the basemen; M. stares; she mentions the school. We are not in each other’s company. The trajectories of fear do not intersect; words spoken fly into the dead space of incomprehension.
One goes out. One looks to the right, where a small crowd has gathered on the northeast corner of Hudson Street, everyone looking up, looking south. One walks to the corner and looks south. The tower is in flames, orange flames licking out of the edges as if one had thrown a box into a fireplace.
There are no comparisons. It is not like anything.
One is back in the house. There is an explosion, the windows rattle, the building shimmies. A sudden wash of pale grayish particles rains down. The TV picture turns into a spray of splitters and the sound shreds into a shimmer of agitating vibrations.
One goes back onto the street. More people, moving and gathering. One walks to the other corner, the west side. One looks up, the other tower is in flames. It looks like the first tower. Symmetry.
Persons scream, point.
Above, tiny figures are emerging out of the window into the blue air.
Slowly turning out, seemingly weightless, like paper dolls.
Persons below are crying, running.
Now the whole city is a Siren, an Engine heading downtown.
Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright
In the Forest of the Night
What Immortal Hand or Eye
Could frame thy Fearful Symmetry?
Even as a little girl, I refused to watch newsreels of war.
My nephew Richard phones; I tell him I am frightened. He says his friend David is at home across the street. Richard has recently married; he works for ABC News. David has recently married; he makes films. They are both in their early thirties. I leave with a bottle of water and my purse; I do not shut the windows. I go across the street, ring David’s doorbell. David gives me some scotch, says he is going to pack a bag and walk north, find his wife who is in the Village.
It takes a village.
David says, “We can go across the street and close your windows and you can pack a bag.” I say, “I am too frightened to go back, let’s just leave.” We leave, walk north, through pockets and eddies of persons looking bewildered and scared, some of whom start to run in panic. The sirens are now at a steady pitch, billowing downstream into the maw of it. I do not look back.
Don’t look back.
David keeps saying, “I just want to see my wife.” He says, “Now we are refugees.”
At Bank Street, where David’s wife is with some of their friends, I do not want to watch the big TV screen in the small apartment. I do not want to see any more of it, but I do see the towers collapse like so many gossamer threads. I do see the shadow shape of the airliner plunge into the tower. I see the huge orange ball of fire coming out of the side of one of them, immense flaming innards from a ruptured body.
Everyone in the world is seeing these images.
A wholly phallic rape, the plane penetrating the material verticality of the erected.
How big is yours?
I have two.
One minus one is zero.
I never liked the Twin Towers. I was working on Broome Street in SoHo in the early 1970’s, as a waitress, shortly after they were completed, and I saw them each day as I walked to work. I found them totemic and graceless, not so much minimal as monolithic. If this is world trade, then why are they the same? Where is the reciprocity and recognition of difference? What or where is the Other between two identical objects?
If this is world trade, then why are they so anonymous, uninflected by the human, so brutally abstract? What are these colossal vertical plinths, dwarfing all else, meant to mean to a city of pedestrians, island wanderers, immigrants? Where is the space of dream, the vicissitude of hope and disappointment, the contemplation of the space between action and consequence?
If this is the World Trade Center, then where is the world, where is the trade, where is the center? Where is the turn of the tide, the humility of looking back from far off in space, tiny blue and white ball in a great sea of change? Where is the horizon’s distant line that gives definition to days and nights, figures the man and woman, the beast of burden, road from town to town, from wilderness to city, voyages, discoveries, routes from China, from Spain, from England, over, and from, sea to shining sea?
Giant step for mankind.
Not trade but power, not exchange, but Capital on its hegemonic march.
Out of scale with everything around it.
Scale, n. a drinking vessel; a bowl; a cup.
The obsolete definition gives way to the two dishes of a balance or a machine for weighing.
Things weigh in the balance.
The figure of Justice with her scales.
When, twenty years ago, my friend Jennifer had her wedding supper at the Windows on the World restaurant, I felt the tower shift like a dry reed in wind.
Eventually, I learned to love the weather play against them, the sapphire blue of long Manhattan twilights, the dark pewter gauze of cloud or fog or mist covering their tops like an ethereal hem, the setting sun splashing its scarlet against their surfaces.
I thought they were like fish leaping from the water. I saw them then, imagined them, plunging down, into the Hudson.
Late in the day I go uptown by subway with another nephew, Jack, who is an architect. He has walked down from his office to Bank Street to get me. We sit outside together, just down the street from Saint Vincent’s Hospital, which is strangely quiet. I can see a crowd of white-uniformed doctors and nurses milling about, waiting. David and his friends try to give blood, but the lines are too long.
When the fighter jets begin to streak overhead, I cover my ears.
On Wednesday morning, my friends Peter and Susie and I set out from their house on Eighty-fifth Street. The city is quiet, no traffic, the stores are closed. We find a gypsy cab, whose driver tells us he can only go as far as Fourteenth Street. We zip down Ninth Avenue. In the unencumbered distance, we can see the cloud of orange-tinged smoke rising, filling the bright blue southern sky.
We are stopped by a police barricade. I say I live on Duane Street and need to get my cat. The policeman is gentle, and tells us to go to the next corner, where I show my ID, and we continue south. We pass a wrecked car covered in white dust. We stop at Citibank to get some cash. I keep saying, “There is no way the garage is going to be open. I will not be able to get my car.” All I want to do is leave the city.
Fight or flight.
The air is thick with gritty particles. We run into the poet Jackson MacLow and his wife, composer and poet Anne Tardos. They are trying to buy some food but do not want to go farther south because the air is too bad. Jackson looks small and recessed and ashen.
The building where I live is dark and vacant; a sign on the downstairs door says that my landlord suggest the tenants evacuate because there is no electricity or gas.
Madonna, my aged cat, named for the pop star, comes out from her hiding place in the closet. She looks betrayed and resentful.
To the south, where there had been the aspiring pillars, a massive pile steams and heaves like a beached whale, its great belly engorged with sorrow and waste.
The man who is always at the Kinney Garage is sitting on a chair where he always sits, at the entrance ramp. He has ebony skin and a kind, chiseled face. I say the obvious in disbelief: “You are open!” He says, smiling, without irony, “We are open twenty-four hours a day.”
From, for example, the 11th of September until the 12th of September 2001. I am thinking, What is a day? He says he cannot take credit cards or a check, only cash. I borrow money from Peter.
Now it is October. The days move away from the Day, but the Day stays near, does not move back in time. It feels as if it wants to attach itself to another day, equally terrible. There are flags everywhere, messages of condolence from anonymous companies in the paper, scraps of paper on buildings with pictures of missing persons. People in the neighborhood seem to be moving more slowly, with less sureness of where they are going. On the weekend, a steady parade of persons streams past, cameras around their necks, to stare at the wreckage. There is a smell of burning, acrid and gritty, rubbing against the bright autumnal air. The sky where the towers were is empty, as if time had rolled backwards. The Woolworth Building looks taller, less archaic, like an elderly relative called to stand in for the dead.
We would like to thank the author Ann Lauderbach for her support, and Penguin Group (USA) Inc. for given the permission right to reprint this essay from The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience (Viking 2005).
ANN LAUTERBACH has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1986 and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship in 1993. She has published seven collections of poetry, including If in Time, Selected Poems 1975-2000 (Penguin Poets 2001), and most recently, Hum (Penguin 2005).