Another Manhattan

“O American people, I am speaking to tell you about the ideal way to avoid another Manhattan, about war and its causes and results.”
–Osama bin Laden

Williamsburg Bridge and small plane

Amy, my favorite souvenir from my year of travel, is a great New York walker. A few weeks ago she was threading through the necklace of East River parks in DUMBO(Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and Brooklyn Heights. Each of these parks is modest–a scrap of grass, or a short, concrete esplanade–but their backdrops are fit for a movie kiss: the river spanned by bridges, Manhattan’s skyline, and Liberty, stretching.

Three years ago New Yorkers gathered at these parks to watch the towers fall, and for weeks afterwards we came back to the river to look at the fat, evil billows of smoke that marked our new lack. Messy shrines grew up. Candle grease dripped all over the esplanade. Children’s drawings flapped beside posters searching for people lost forever. Cellophane bouquets dried out in an Indian summer that stretched to December. We tied our kitschy grief to the railings.

I don’t know what happened to those shrines in the end. I suppose the rain and snow arrived eventually, and someone took away what was left. We stopped worrying out loud about anthrax powder on our junk mail and went back to getting by.

So Amy was startled, on her walk, to see a new shrine at the park railings under the Brooklyn Bridge. It looked like a grade-school project, she said–a series of ceramic tiles, with drawings of the bridge and sad-faced people, and little messages. They said things like:

Dear Brooklyn Bridge,

I will miss you. I used to ride my bike across you on Sundays with my Dad. Now I am sad that you are gone.

Love Ella
June 2006

She described a few more. I felt slightly sick.
    “What the hell? Was this some kind of art project?”
    “I don’t know! There was no information about it. Nothing. And I didn’t see anything in the papers.”
    “How did you feel when you saw it?”
    “Creeped out. It’s creepy, isn’t it? Just…horrible.”
    “Holy mother of Jesus.”

Sprayed on the floor of Manhattan Bridge that week was a message “Osama Votes Kerry” (and also, confusingly but probably accurately, “Obama Votes Kerry”). I wondered if this were part of that campaign, whipping air into our fears. Or if it were some DUMBO(Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) artist’s thought experiment.
    “What did you do? Did you call 311?” 311 is Mayor Bloomberg’s city hotline, where they’ll answer questions from parking ticket information to emergency preparation. You can report broken water mains, giant rats, corruption, or drunk taxi drivers. We like it.
    “I forgot about 311. I called the Borough Council office instead. I just wanted to find out what it was about. They sent me an email saying they were going to investigate. Then I got a giant voicemail from Marty Markowitz, the borough president. _Mawdie Mawkovitz._ It was the night before Passover, and the message was full of Yiddish and Hebrew expressions that I guess he figured I’d understand because of my last name. He got more and more upset as the call went on. ‘What kind of _meshuggenah_ people would do such mishegaas?’ By the end it felt like he was calling some crisis line himself. Actually, it was pretty funny.”

It was a second-hand story. I didn’t even see the tiles hanging on the railings. And yet it took hold of me, as it had taken hold of our borough president. The dread and uncertainity of three years ago felt fresh again, and I was gripped with the same morbid excitement. I wanted rush to the bridge and stroke a strand of its steel ropes, and I wanted to run as far from it as I could. Amy and I looked at each other.

On the morning of September 11th I’d sat with my co-workers in the cramped Foosball room, watching the only TV station still broadcasting. They were mostly engineers, and so we calculated. Measuring the scope of a problem is what engineers do, and this was like a Microsoft interview question: 100-plus floors by two, and how many people on each floor, and how many people would be in by 8 in the morning, and how many people might get to the elevators, and what was the capacity of the emergency wards…

As the towers dissolved a few miles south we weren’t yet ready to calculate how many wars would be fought, and how many soldiers would die, and how many jobs would be lost, and marriages broken, and fatherless children born. We didn’t know about the War on Tear yet. We didn’t know that some of us would leave New York for good. We didn’t even know we’d end up walking home over the Brooklyn Bridge that day, following the dazed and filthy refugees who crossed it while we watched TV.

And now I was scrambling all over that twisted interview question again: _what would happen if the Brooklyn Bridge were blown up?_ How many cars, how many subway riders, how many bikers, how many camera-clicking tourists? I thought of my neighbors, mangled and drowning and wondered who I would call if the Brooklyn Bridge were blown up. I thought, shamefully, of my stock portfolio. The election. My job. Conscription. My visa. I remembered the peculiar, warped exhilaration of a calamity shared. That September we had joked about terror sex and terror cocktails and terror Prada shoes. Who would I have terror sex with?

Strange that with all the practice, and the Orange Alerts, my thoughts could get no bigger than this.

We went back to Amy’s apartment and she played Marty Markowitz’s endless message. He was so grateful, Amy, that she had brought this to his attention. He personally guaranteed, Amy, that it would be taken care of. By the end he was keening at a world in which people would do such things, and we were laughing.
    “I feel bad. They were only tiles. Nobody’s hurt. Maybe I should call him back and cheer him up,” she said. “But I’m glad he called. Even though I think he used _meshuggenah_ wrongly.”

5 thoughts on “Another Manhattan”

  1. Keening is some of the most haunting expression I know of, a wail of song filling everything with emptiness at its centre. It has this depth of integrity and passion that is hair raising.

    If yer borough pres is capable of that, I’m impressed. The “laughing at him” bit is kind of a give away though!

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  2. Ow, ow, ow, you’re hurting me. That’s horrible. And it only makes matters worse that that clown, Markowitz, is part of the tale. How surreal.

    Meanwhile, a square of cement in front of the new Eckerd around the corner from me has been dedicated to political graffiti. It’s had the “Osama votes Kerry,” “Obama votes Kerry,” and a whole lot of other political stuff stenciled and markered on it, but just in that one square. Pretty nerdy, as graffiti goes.

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  3. You know, I., this still seemed abstract to me until I got to work today and my co-workers were talking about the possibility of the bridge being blown up to “celebrate” the election tomorrow. I tend to be overly laid-back about terror alerts, but I’m surprised I didn’t even connect the dots.

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