Old Feelings in the New World

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Letterman consoles an emotional Dan Rather


Imagine. This time I was going to write about sweet songs from silly old movies — tunes like "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "Jeepers Creepers," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," "Thatís Amore" — all of them composed by a man you may never have heard of, Harry Warren. Some might say it would have been just the latest in my weekly series of retreats into archaic irrelevance, and as remote from the wracking preoccupations of the moment as each of my That Old Feeling columns has been from the current, dominant pop culture, in all its rambunctious vitality and drawling sarcasm.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Iíll save Harry Warren for next time. Itís hard to write about cheerful tunes when one has a broken heart — when almost everyone does. These days a lot of people must think their regular jobs, even jobs they love, are irrelevancies, paid chores, drudge work. It wastes precious time that might otherwise be devoted either to helping others dig out of their depression or simply to keeping up with the news when there is, for once, real news.

I admit that discovering a new Old Feeling to press on you each week isnít even my day job; itís merely my consuming hobby. I have found that I do love writing about the popular culture of the past — about how inventive '50s TV comedy was, how gleaming some Golden Age movies were, how potent cheap music used to be and, implicitly, how everything was so much better ... once upon a time.

For a lot of Americans, Once Upon a Time was any time before 8:48 a.m., September 11, 2001. We lived in a kind of Fortress Disneyland, a land of tremendous natural and economic resources, with friendly nations north and south of us and bulwark oceans on either side. We dwelt in what may seem an Eden of innocence. Or was it ignorance to think we were immune to attack? In fact, we didnít think about it; the thought of a terrorist invasion never occurred to us. No novelist had the ingenuity to imagine the four-part kamikaze raid that some sick genius conceived and his determined soldiers executed: planes used as weapons to destroy the twin icons of Americaís financial might and put a crippling cramp into the American economy.

And so we strolled through our dream, as I tiptoe each week into the beckoning arms of cultural nostalgia. We didnít think we would ever live in a mood of jangled anxiety, wary of any sudden noise, any plane overhead, a stranger walking toward us. That was for unfortunates beyond our field of vision — for civilians in Northern Ireland, for Palestinians and Israelis, for Africans and Colombians and Bosnians and Sri Lankans and, if we gave it a vagrant thought, for Iraqis and Afghans. That was for nearly every European in the first and second World Wars. But these unfortunates have hardly troubled our sleep, or our sleepwalking. Now we awake to the nightmare that tens of millions of faraway innocents live every moment. September 11 was the day we joined the rest of the world. The real world.

Even I, a Rip Van Winkle of popular culture, couldnít ignore the events of the past fortnight. I live eight blocks from the World Trade Center. Our neighbors survived and our co-op building didnít buckle, but to get home I must be ready to present my papers to the police at various checkpoints. The firemen and other Samaritans pass by me on their way to and from their desperate, splendid work. One block from my home I see the convoy of rescue trucks and news vans parked within sight of that monstrous junk heap, that ad hoc crematorium, that was the World Trade Center. I need only inhale to detect the acrid smell of vaporized steel and flesh that still chokes Lower Manhattan. Random body parts have landed on the roof of a building a block away. On this almost uninterrupted string of startlingly gorgeous September days, I sit on the stoop of my building and have a hint of what death tastes like.

And in the first days of what it being called the Post-Innocence Era, I still get a twinge of that old feeling. A week ago I walked with my wife through Greenwich Village. We were on our way back home for the first time since September 11. A New York Police Department truck passed, with sawhorses on its flatbed and a large flag flying over the cab. Two cops standing near us gave their brothers in the truck a solemn peace sign — the two-finger salute that could also be a memorial for the Twin Towers. And at that instant, bizarrely and aptly, a tune was running through my head: "Remember My Forgotten Man," a 1933 Harry Warren song about Americans who had served in the World War only to become beggars in the Depression.

Remember my forgotten man,
You put a rifle in his hand;
You sent him far away,
You shouted, "Hip, hooray!"
But look at him today!

I donít think that song trivialized the moment. It gave it a reverberation, connected the ache and heroism of New Yorkers today with the suffering of men three generations ago. Similarly, I see this column as a plea to readers to expand and enrich their lives by looking back and sampling the banquet of 20th century entertainment, as it has been made so widely available through the technology of the 21st. To scavenge the past is to discover what amused and enthralled our parents and grandparents, moved them to laughter or tears. If we give it a chance, it may have the same effect on us.


When September 11th exploded into our consciousness, many news organizations were as unprepared as the public was. They had depleted their foreign bureaus and reduced coverage of world news to near nil. The implicit argument for this dereliction of journalistic duty was that Americans didnít care about events or personalities that werenít American. The press bosses were giving us what we wanted — familiar sensation, delivered at strident volume — and not force-feeding us the spinach of global news. Well, thatís changed, at least for now. Networks scramble to send their news studs to Pakistan; maps of Central Asia are the essential graphic on local news shows; Osama bin Laden is the new O.J. Thereís nothing like a near-declaration of war to wean the cable news networks from their infantile all-Chandra-all-the-time habit.

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