What I can’t describe is how beautiful the day is in New York; clear skies, visibility all the way to the other side of wherever you think you are looking.
Or looking away.
After the long and strange Odyssey back from La Guardia airport this morning, I went to a jammed upper west side coffee shop. A family was eating, deciding, loudly, whether to get the chicken or tuna salad; the mother expressed great disappointment that there was no skim milk. The coffee shop was packed and the mother said, “Well, it’s ok, at least we’re not in a rush right now and after all the restaurant probably has more people now than they are used to handling.”
Outside, two guys with workboots and cellphones strapped to their waists yelled toward the coffee shop, “I can’t believe these fucking people are sitting in a café when the city is being blown up.”
I can’t imagine Manhattan without those two towers looming over the south end. As I was walking across the 59th Street bridge I couldn’t stop thinking of that Simon and Garfunkel song named after the bridge, “Feelin’ Groovy” (“Life, I love you . . . all is . . .”).
It was hard not to feel like it was a movie, and one with an unbelievable plot at that. All the airports closed; the Pentagon bombed; four commercial jets hijacked on suicide missions. The bridge was overflowing with people streaming out of Manhattan, a line as wide as the bridge and as long as Manhattan itself. If you looked out to the left, there was a big plume of smoke over downtown Manhattan. You couldn’t see that the Towers were not there.
And it didn’t seem possible that this had happened either.
Even with all the people streaming out, and the small clutch of us walking back to the island.
The FDR drive below us was empty, with just the occasional emergency vehicle. The UN Secretariat building looked naked, vulnerable. Why wouldn’t a plane smash into that while we walked across the East River.
The skies unnaturally clear of airplanes, though every once in a while you hear the ominous swoop of a jet overhead, presumably military. Once in Manhattan, the entrance to the bridge was mobbed. But walking west, people were quietly hanging out on street corners. Most of the avenues were cleared of traffic, except for the sirens or an ambulance or fire truck racing downtown.
While the phones are not working very well (so much of NYC communication is streamed through the World Trade Center), the email is working fine. There are notes of disbelief and worry from people from all over, especially Europe. My friends Misko and Dubravka from Beograd write and I remember their emails when their city was under fire. And various friends we had just seen on our recent trip.
As I was walking home, about half a mile from our apartment, I stopped by the storefront hair salon of Andrew, who lives upstairs in our building. I had been trying for a couple of hours to get Susan on the phone, to see if she had picked up Felix at school. But neither the cell nor land phones were working. Andrew said Susan and Felix had just walked by and were heading home. He said he was going to stay open just because he thought people would want to have him there, standing in front of his shop.
At about 6, Felix, Susan and I walked down to the Hudson. I wanted to see New Jersey, to see the George Washington Bridge. The sun gleamed on the water. The bridge was calm. Folks were bicycling and rollerblading. The scene was almost serene; just five miles from the Trade Center.
Uncanny is the word.
What I can’t describe is the reality; the panic; the horror.
I keep turning on the TV to hear what I can’t take in and what I already know. Over and over. I don’t find the coverage comforting but addictive.
This could not have happened. This hasn’t happened.
This is happening.
It’s 8:23 in New York.
—Charles Bernstein (September 11, 2001)
In the weeks after September 11, when this issue of Geist was going to press, all of photography seemed to have been effaced by one or two images of that day etched into the consciousness of millions of people. When this text by Charles Bernstein appeared in the Geist email (forwarded from the Poetics List of the Electronic Poetry Center, where it was first posted at http://epc.buffalo.edu), it seemed to fall naturally onto this page, which is usually reserved for discussions of photography. —Mandelbrot