Remember, remember, the 11th of September

I was working in London on September 11, 2001, midway through a misadventurous stint as the comically inept, in-over-his-head cub reporter on a trade magazine, having moved from New York. I was struggling to crank out a story about some advertising world blah blah when a coworker announced that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. It was the early days of the World Wide Web yet, but I had a scrolling news ticker at the bottom of my browser, and it confirmed the story.

“They’re saying it’s terrorism,” my colleague said. “Oh, we Americans think everything is terrorism,” I replied. I envisioned a small plane smashing into one of those big ugly towers, a victim of mechanical error or pilot malfunction, and the paranoiacs of the then-ascendant right, having only just recovered their bearings after the collapse of the Cold War and stolen a presidential election, going into full DefCon One crouch mode.

We soon learned that a second plane had hit a second tower, and it was pretty clear that the fear-mongering bedwetters had been right for once. An editor had the TV on in his tiny office, and a dozen or so journos were packed in there, watching the plumes of black smoke rise from the towers. As the office’s token American, I was invited to watch, but it was cramped and hot in there, and there was copy to file, and I already knew they looked a little like those snake fireworks that your grandfather let you have on the Fourth of July when you were five years old and too young yet for M80s and Roman candles.

So instead, I went to the smoking room, where people were talking about whether or not the buildings would come down, but that was impossible. And then one did. And then the other.

I think we tried, absurdly, to go on with the business of meeting deadlines for meaningless stories for an hour or two before doing what Brits do when they’re feeling raw past teatime and repairing to the pub.

The trains on the Piccadilly line were half-empty, the straphangers mostly silent and palpably on edge. Londoners have long experience with terror attacks — they will never let you forget the 5th of November, nor the many Irish Republican bombings of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Heck, the IRA first bombed the Tube way back in 1883, and even though it was clear that this was the work of a very different sort of terrorist group, everybody figured the Tube was the next obvious target (their worries were four years premature, as it turned out).

We made it safely back to Brixton, the work colleague I was diddling and I, and found the pub as packed as the train was empty. Brixton, where I blew my meager salary renting an exorbitantly expensive Dickensian hovel, is pretty thoroughly Yuppied up now, but it was then a neighborhood rich in culture and poor in the pockets, with a vibrant Afro-Caribbean community and a proud history of resistance to racist police violence and neo-fascist douchenozzlery. I once stood in line behind Linton Kwesi Johnson, the bard of the Brixton Rising (which the Clash also wrote a song about), at the Aldi on Brixton Road.

It was, in other words, exactly the sort of neighborhood that attracts young white lefties wanting to fight the system by rocking the radical chic aesthetic. No sooner had I dipped my nose in the foam of a pint than a pair of mouthy student Trotskyites glommed onto me and began to lecture me about my country’s sins — chief among them, imperialism and colonialism.

The cultural capital of my home country, the embodiment of its riotous diversity and everything hopeful about us as a people, was wounded, smoldering, and I was being lectured about imperialism and colonialism by a couple of Englishmen.

I may be an Ugly American, but I did not punch anyone that day, though it was, to quote the First Duke of Wellington, a damned close-run thing. Instead, I advised them that we Yankee imperialists learned all our tricks from our own former colonial masters, and that I was not talking about the Dutch.

And then some friends rescued me and we went to someone’s flat for a proper roast, savory pudding and all — basically an orgy of comfort food. At some point, Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets came over the stereo, and to this day it’s the song I associate with that moment — a little sad, a little eerie, cheerfully absurdist. It builds into an audial embrace. I’d never heard it before. The chorus hit me sideways and I burst out sobbing in big, hungry gulps.

We’re down on our knees and we’ve nothing to say

Nothing to say

Nothing to say

There was nothing to say. There was nothing to do. None of it made sense and nothing mattered.

America was going to go apeshit and everybody knew it. It was SUNDAY, SUNDAY, SUNDAY in America, and America was going monster truck rally on the world. A saber-rattling, shit-talking, smirking WASP frat boy-cum-dude ranch cowboy from the reptile brain party was president, and America. Was. At. War. But with what? Against whom? Who knew? Anything and everything, probably. Except Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Somewhat paradoxically, they were safe.

I sobbed, and sobbed, and drank about a bottle of plonk, and Brian Eno rubbed my back with a wistful smile and a faraway look that said “Shit is so weird and tragic, and we are so. Fucked.” And kindly Brits kept me afloat in the weeks thereafter, and then my work moved me back across the pond, and gradually, I shed the embarrassing fake British accent I’d picked up, and 17 months later, on a bitingly frigid day, a half-million of us marched in Manhattan against the imminent invasion of some random country in the Middle East. But the deciders had decided, the die was cast, the press did a huge eyeroll at all the silly hippies freezing their asses off on the Upper East Side, and the merchants of death got their sequel. And now we all know how that one turned out.

I flew back to New York a few weeks after the attacks, ostensibly for some family thing. My flight was nearly empty — people, particularly Americans, were afraid to fly for months afterwards — and I was able to stretch out fully across a row of seats. I couldn’t really call myself a New Yorker then — I’d only moved here a year before I got seconded to London, and I was really still just a wet-behind-the-ears, gawping-at-the-skyscrapers, walking-maddeningly-slow-up-34th-Street Midwesterner.

I went down to Ground Zero, where “The Pit” was still smoking, if only a little. Looking at it didn’t make me feel anything. What made me feel instead were the terror porn tourists in patriotic T-shirts, worn over pre-ironic normcore ensembles that advertised their origins in Real America.

Over on Vesey Street, a couple of elderly Chinese women had set up a stand and were selling tchotchkes to the tourists from Iowa — “Ground Zero” bumper stickers, post cards, etc. The item that stood out for me was the Twin Towers snow globe, its base stamped with the battle cry, in red, white and blue: “Never forget.” I was broke, or I would of bought one. I tried to snap a picture with my ancient Pentax camera, but they shooed me away, one of the women body blocking me and insisting angrily: “No pictures.”

I thought at the time that maybe they were ashamed to be peddling kitsch at a site of such horror, exploiting a tragedy of such monstrous proportions. But they were, of course, only engaging in the humblest and noblest form of market capitalism, that great civic religion whose high priests huffed animal spirits only a few blocks away, on Wall Street. They were butt poor immigrants working a subsistence hustle, trying to keep from freezing and starving. Meanwhile, the press and the politicians were exploiting that tragedy to lead us into a war that would make an abattoir of the Middle East — making many of them rich and/or famous in the process.

Fifteen years later, my loved ones and I spent September 11 building bookshelves and delousing. It seemed a hopeful way to spend the day — nesting, working toward the future, tending to one of the more benign annoyances of child-rearing. On my way to the pharmacy to buy poison shampoo, the fire trucks were out in front of Most Holy Redeemer Church, where they hold an FDNY memorial service every year. I thought of their fallen comrades, trudging up those darkened stairwells in their heavy gear towards their doom. Many must have guessed they wouldn’t be coming out, and most would have gone in regardless.

Nothing to say

Nothing to say