“The New Century”

Linsey Abrams


September 11 started for my lover and me as a videotape of the first plane on our bedroom TV. We were among the lucky New Yorkers.  Half-crazed, I ran outside to the sickening evidence of a smoky shaft in the sky downtown.  In the two minutes I stood there, they hit the other tower, which I found out back inside.  I was not one of those writers who contemplated whether you can write about a tragedy as it is happening.  I was devastated and furious, and I still am. Sitting in front of the TV, I started taking down facts that seemed important, and I kept this up for three months. I edited what I had, and it became a poem. 



Living in New York, you think you’ve seen everything.  

Not that 14th Street, your street, had seemed a likely frontier.   You knew global warming was
going to flood Manhattan, making all downtown a shipwreck.  Some day.  But this?

And not that if you’d been that guy in the subway in Washington, D.C., and everyone’s cell
phone started ringing, you’d have known what was going on either.

Not that a manual on flying a commercial jet is the same as flying it. Not that Venice, Florida,
with its shitty rental cars, should be confused with Venice, Italy. 

Not that the Mayor’s emergency bunker under #7 WTC  was such a good place to hide.  Not that
you cared to make further criticism of that government idea or any other at the moment.  Though
why someone would form a motorcade to a secret location, unless it’s a decoy, is a mystery.  Not
that decoy had been a staple of your vocabulary...except as referring to duck hunting, which
you’re against.

Not that your young mother, working at the Pentagon, had expected the highest clearance.  Or to
know about Pearl Harbor hours before she could tell.  Not that everyone wants to hear
immediately about tragedies.

Not that a drill is the real thing.  Not that the real thing is readily recognizable.


Not that it wasn’t bad timing that your lover’s father had been moved from Florida--by the two
of you--to the Bronx the day before.

And not that it wasn’t puzzling to have paid September rent plus deposit, $3900 each, to install
him in assisted living, only to be asked to move him out.  Not that people with Parkinson’s can
always help drooling.

Not that you’d have planned your last communal experience before it happened, to be at Ikea
buying him furniture.


Not that you were offended at first by Attack on America.  The same tag line for every program
you could get on TV.  Meaning cable and only CBS of the broadcast channels, since they hadn’t
ever taken down the old antenna.  On the Empire State Building, from when it was the highest
point in New York. 

Not that you’d ever paid attention to the Woolworth Building, featured in the first hour of
coverage, and certainly not to its height, dwarfed at the tip of Manhattan.  Frankly, you were
concerned about the ground level Woolworths, disappearing like black holes that sucked down
into them all the little tools and objects of the universe.  Not that you remember half of what
those were now.


Not that you hadn’t complained about your lover’s  45-minute showers.  Not that you’d have
been with her that morning otherwise.  Where would you have been?  On the map of uncanny
places...not where assassinations take place, for example,  but where people were when they
heard.  Empire of a single tourist. 

Make a dot for Disney World, with the imposter Goofy and the imposter Donald Duck, in
Orlando, Florida.  (Pencil in the whole damn state: #1 in carjackings, #52 in health care.) You
hadn’t intended to feel sad when they closed it.


Not  that you thought canceling an election--even a local primary--was a good thing. 

Though not that the last election--for President-- topped your list of outrages now. 

Who ever thought they’d wonder where Air Force One was?

Or in their lifetime visit www. fbi.org?  Defend the stock market’s right to exist?


The Japanese proverb that didn’t apply: Fall down seven times, stand up eight.

What wasn’t the marathon: a horde of people crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. 

Not that  everyone was Caucasian and not that everyone was old, who escaped hair to shoes
frosted white.


Imponderables: the one who had cramps and drank the vodka,  the one on vacation, the one who
told the boss go fuck yourself and quit.  The one who had to have the bagel.  The one who was
always late.  The one who voted come hell or high water...twice.  The one whose dog wouldn’t
pee.  The mother who time-shared.  The screenwriter so broke she took the bus to LA and not the
plane.  The one who in the eighties became a coke-head and never worked again.  The one who
had a terminal illness anyway.  The chef of Windows on the World, floor 110, who veered off
for eyeglasses.  All that food pureed.

And the destiny of paper: reams prematurely to the shredder, all documents in the Disaster file.
Passports and drivers licenses unnecessary for impromptu free fall. Wish you were here crossed

Written in disappearing ink: a window washer.  

Floor 25, BlueCross BlueShield.  Forget your catastrophic coverage.


Not that they let stand the remark that it happened in New York because of all the abortionists,
feminists, lesbians and the ACLU.  Not that you’d thought of yourself as controlling world

Not that they let stand the e-mail sent to seventeen thousand people on the Left Media List:  I am
pleased to report
that it is NOT TRUE that 4,000 Israelis did not show up for work at the World
Trade Center on Sept. 11.  Please forgive my mistake!  Love and Peace and Blessings,
withheld in poem to avoid lawsuit. 


In a flash poll, 61% of Americans favored waging war.  62% weren’t sure on whom.  Your lover
said, Between evil people and idiots, we’ve had it.

Children are the only logicians:
The girl who said, So if they didn’t like New York, why couldn’t they just ignore New York?
The boy who when told there were people missing asked, Are their mothers looking for them?


Driving back to the City, three days later, from an emergency trip to your own mother in Boston,
you were mildly surprised to pass a check point.  Not that you expected warships in New York
Harbor, where your ostentatious friend had rented a boat for the Bicentennial.  Everyone got
seasick from the wake of so many pleasure crafts and threw up their fancy dinners.  It was 1976,
the last time you saw so many flags.

The Javitz Center reminded you of Woodstock.  Minus the music, admittedly.  All right.  Plus
the National Guard.  But there were the reserves of food stacked to the spirit of communal
destiny and the unilateral high hopes of youth.  Still, those helicopters weren’t about to download
ten cases of artichoke hearts from the now defunct Concorde Hotel in the Catskills.  An acid
head’s feast.  You saw two girls in hijabs and tight pants riding a sawhorse from a barricade,
being cruised by two Hasidic boys trying to outrace their coats.  A pair of debutantes accepting
free Cokes from their ghetto counterparts, who magnanimously threw in a straw each.
Everything comes in twos, apparently.


The Twins as celebrities.  The most recent subjects of the serial neighborhood murals: RIP Lady
Di, Mother Theresa, JFK Jr., Selena the pop star shot dead, and Lisa shaken by her crack head
step-father.  Or was it Marta?  Well, anyway, one of those girls.  Like Greek tragedy, no joke. 

Union Square was the opposite of a rogues’ gallery:  Thank God for scotch tape and color Xerox
and digital photography, for part-time actors’ head shots and yearbooks.  The ugly rejected
passport photos, the wedding albums of the divorced.  Authors’ book  jackets, expired IDs, last
year’s Christmas cards, the calendar from Fotomat, the Polaroids.  Thank God for all flat
surfaces.  Before it was understood that, like the flight crews, no one would be found: Hung from
a wall, a king size bed sheet with the names  in Magic Marker of the permanently sleeping,
captioned: American Proud and Tall.  United Through it All.  And underfoot,  Ode to a Flight
on cardboards taped haphazardly to the sidewalk.  A kite tail too heavy for the kite.
Grief is like a dream in which all wishes of the dead are granted.  A mother now writes of her
daughter, Distinguishing Features: tongue ring, fish tattoo.


Your own mother can’t remember if she’s taken her pills or where she lost either plate of her
dentures.  Both pairs.  But she remembered where her hair dresser was.  She cleaned out her
bank account, not to pay him or contribute to the $2000 replacement teeth but to hand over a
month’s Social Security for a cruise that she was offered over the phone for free. Not that that
could be attributed solely to dementia. How could it be free? my brother yelled at her, if you
gave them $1200?

Korsakoff’s Syndrome sounded like something romantic but it was just short term memory loss
from alcoholism.


Not that you could call all the makeshift morgues ghost towns exactly...since no one had ever
lived there.

And not that those towers were our redwoods if you’re being literal.

Not that a human chain is the best metaphor for a policeman leading a whole floor of people by
hand down 95 flights of a pitch black stairwell, albeit with a better than average flashlight.
Maybe picture DNA, so unfathomable as to be beautiful.  Or something ordinary but almost
crazy, like a conga line.

Not that one woman who wore a placemat over her face to breathe, actually thought it was
Afghanistan.  Though try running when you’re wearing a whole tablecloth.

And not that the Taliban--who blew up the two largest Buddhas in the world--merited special
consideration anyway.  Unless everyone deserves a second chance?  Fair enough. Pick a number
between one and 110. 

So if we’ve had the disappeared and the homeless, is it now the pulverized? The minced-meat?
Previous to this you associated body parts with serial killers, one problem New York doesn’t
have.  Not that you could have imagined in your wildest dreams your lover saying, It’s the
, after you commented that the workers were cooking again in the basement below your
window.  The wind had shifted. OK, so you’re not a pacifist any more.

42, 000 windows.  16 acres.  5,843 dead or missing a week later. The devil is in the details.


Bubba Starxxxx
spelled with four x’s
Funkmaster Flex and Boris
You wanted to be superheroes
But ended up Rap DJ’s
on a billboard.
Imagine a better resume:
your upon-a-time grand plans seeing daylight.
Desired job: rescue worker
When available: immediately

How do you see yourself in five years?
Capable of heroic measures.

Interview: Myself and EMT Ramos have been part of a trained force.  We’ve been treated with
oxygen.  We follow orders.
  Did you see any deaths?  I witnessed a disaster beyond my wildest
dreams, ma’am.


Your friend, older than your mother, who climbed down 43 flights of stairs
and was finally being elevated back up was asked by a TV reporter,
if she’d known at the time that everything in her apartment was going to be destroyed
what was the one thing she’d have wanted to save?
The view, your friend said.

Further evidence of ruin: the name Mohammed Islam on a hack license.


Can the personal be tragic?
Is one the loneliest number?

Not that fitting your mother with a diaper that weekend  was as bad as the devastation at home.
But not that a part of you--and her--didn’t wish she’d been blown to smithereens too. Not that
she would remember thinking that.

In the Bronx your father-in-law (in a better world) was the same irritating man.  Falling out of
his wheel chair trying to pick up a paper clip...hording electrical cords without plugs...using
batteries with just enough charge to ruin music.  He sprays the cans of whipped cream directly
into his mouth. 

Not that the movers, meanwhile, driving via New Jersey, had planned to run their truck into the
George Washington Bridge.  Clearly, ripping a hole in your own roof is not a terrorist act.

So three of the terrorists turned out to be from Delray Beach, Florida, where you spent
September 8-10 packing up one old man’s paltry and final treasures.  The same place where later
they found the first Anthrax.    If you think life isn’t a mystery, ponder that. 

Or the randomness of sweethearts:
someone clasping the nearest hand to jump with that person off a roof
a man on a cell phone connecting to 911 and his soulmate operator from an airplane.


One rumor was the shower of gold rising from bullion reserves buried under the buildings.
Survivors saw this as a miracle.  For them it was.

And the rest hardly more credible.  The special dogs scrambling over the smoking rubble, who
when being bathed and rehydrated strained to return?  How they could identify the traumatized
workers--though maybe that was everyone--wasn’t explained.  But their paws became so sore
and inflamed that Patagonia donated little pads.  Where is that again? I asked my lover, who was
reading aloud the paper.  The company, she clarified.  They donated gortex pads.  Forgive me for
thinking Shangri-la.


The new grammar:
A flight attendant is not a stewardess
A fire is not a paring knife to remove a person’s skin just so.
An airplane is not a yo-yo.  It can go down but that’s the end of up.
A subway is not a chute to hell. It’s hell.
A gap in the skyline is not an amputation.
An amputation is nevertheless not by custom performed with an airplane.
Disaster Zone is not a good sign for your nephew’s bedroom door now.
People can’t say, and mean, that they were lucky to have survived high school.
Honestly, analysis never prepared you for this.

Other things you never expected
but secretly may have hoped for:
The Queen of England to sing the Star-spangled Banner.
Elizabeth Taylor to slip into the Armory on Park Avenue to visit the families.
The Gurkhas to be sent on assignment in Afghanistan. How often have you heard,Whatever
happened to the Gurkhas? 
Not often enough.

The high school marching band from Huntsville, Alabama, that played, standing stock still, at the
site.  The psychic in Brighton Beach who came out of retirement to help find the living then
stayed to contact the dead.  The mother and son who drove straight through with crawfish from
Louisiana.  The Oregon tourists who refused to cancel.


So what if Kate Smith commissioned God Bless America to have a hit.
So what--you half mean this-- if the Yankees lose the World Series. 
And so what if your cell phone won’t work from the subway never mind a 747.
It’s become a cliche: location, location, location.  And yet
Suddenly nothing else matters.

How could all that happened
Have fit into one week for one reason in one city?
Because this is New York. 
Where else would the 21st century have begun?

December 6, 2001

New York City


Bio: Linsey Abrams is the author of three novels, most recently, Our History in New York (Great Marsh Press 1998).  Her stories, essays and reviews have appeared in such publications as Glimmer Train, New Directions annual, the New York Times Book Review and The Review of Contemporary Fiction.  She is Acting Director of the MA Program in English at The City College of New York (CUNY), where she founded and edits an eclectic journal of ideas, Global City Review. 

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