Living In the Altered World

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In the old world, nine days used to be a long time. Much might happen. There would be a lot of laughs, hardly any tears except from the babies, some highs and some lows. The kids would grow older. Caroline would produce perhaps as many as four new paintings or collages at nursery school. Jack and Mary Grace might add a word or two to their vocabularies, a new solid food to their diet and three or four steps to their march across the family room carpet. Luci and I would rent a video on Friday night. We would barbecue on Saturday afternoon. I would attend the Red Sox' spectacular September fold in the sports pages, and would grudgingly prepare myself for another Yankee October.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]In the altered world, nine days is nothing, and nothing happens. There are no highs. Every day but Thursday is sunny and mild, and every Thursday it rains. Caroline makes paintings and you say "That's nice" and give her an earnest hug that used to be about her accomplishment and that, now, is about something else altogether. Jack and Mary Grace might be walking or talking more today than they were last Tuesday. I don't know. Luci and I haven't watched any movies, but we have watched a PBS special on Osama bin Laden twice through in its entirety. (I realize that in other people's altered worlds, there are more videos and more movies, to distract. I've read about this. I can only report on our altered world.)

In our altered world, everything is tense and sluggish. Nine days is a short, sad, uneventful drone. It's a strange, sunfilled world seen through a tear-stained lens.

That's my overriding perception anyway. In analyzing the period more minutely, it becomes clear that some things have happened. Even, indeed, that I have managed to get a few things done.

Nine days ago in this electronic space I wrote an account of a day in Mount Kisco, N.Y., a town 54 commuter-train minutes north of the city. A couple of friends have suggested that the column was irresponsible. I've looked back at it and decided that, clearly, it was. The piece involved a lunchtime meeting at a pizzeria with a little girl named Julia and "Julia's mom" who confided to me that her husband was a New York city fireman. At column's end I wrote: "I learned from the news that a third Trade Center building, Number 7, had collapsed in the early evening. I didn't know the woman's name, only that she was Julia's mom, so there was no way to find out."

I must not have been thinking at the time, for that was certainly a cruel thing to put before any reader, and surely there were ways to find out. There were ways, and if I was disinclined to do some real reporting, I shouldn't have written the piece at all. Anyway, once a few old instincts had returned, I e- mailed the weekly newspaper in our neck of the Westchester woods, The Patent Trader, and wondered whether anyone there might know something. I received this response from Eugene Driscoll, a very good reporter at the paper: "We received your message. I talked to the mayor of Mount Kisco this morning — she said that all the NYC firefighters from Mount Kisco were okay." I was relieved to hear it, and am grateful to pass it along. Thank you, Mr. Driscoll.

What next? Returning to the office, I first answered the forty e-mails and forty phone messages that I, as a New Yorker, had received from friends in far- flung places, most of them back home in Massachusetts but some in Hawaii, London and Australia. There were so many expressions of concern that I was tempted to select-and-copy the "We're all okay. . ." sentence into subsequent e-mail responses, then determined that the subject matter somehow demanded each memo be distinct.

As I work at a magazine, the rest of the week was pretty busy. Nights — often, early a.m.'s — were spent hovering over the cribs of the sleeping twins, or hugging Caroline to near-bruising.

What else? Decisions were few. I spent too much time choosing which of six funds to contribute too, trying to guess whether the firemen's relief effort might not be overflowing, and if the policemen needed it more. I didn't watch that Letterman show, though wish I had. I drank an awful lot of coffee. Three or four times each day, I caught myself staring out the window.

As I work at a magazine and have worked in New York for two decades, I looked forward to receiving the next New Yorker. Over the weekend I re-read my old copy of "The Wild Flag," a collection of E.B. White's World War II "Talk of the Town" pieces. I wondered what the current team might do. When the magazine arrived, I dived in. I thought Art Spiegelman's black-on-black cover was brilliant, and was surprised and pleased that John Updike had been in Brooklyn on 9/11/01 and not in Beverly Farms. I thought the "Talk" items were uniformly smart and interesting. I felt Susan Sontag's admonition to a citizenry being "stupid together" was not needed just now, but then figured: she's a lot smarter than I am.

A second wave of e-mails awaited on Monday morning. New Yorkers had all responded to their friends afar, and were only now realizing that they hadn't checked in with one another. My wife, too, was hit with this aftershock phenomenon, and called me at work: "Have you heard from Mac?" I'm Mac's boy's godfather, and I hadn't called him. Luci works at the same banking conglomerate as Mac, so was able to e-mail him (she assumed she couldn't reach him by phone, since his office had been downtown). We were relieved — to an extent — to get this response: "Hi Luci! I've been meaning to call you guys. I'm at 270/39 until 1 CMP reopens. Last Tuesday morning at CMP was interesting to say the least. We were finally evacuated around noon. Walked up to Grand Central and got a train home. Never so happy to embrace Marjorie and the kids. We are looking forward to getting together with you soon when the craziness abates. As you might have heard, one fellow I knew from Investor Services is missing and another died of a heart attack after evacuating 4 NYP. Also, a lawyer I knew who left our Department and joined Cantor Fitzgerald is missing. So much sadness for so many."

Luci and I had what we New Yorkers were calling, in shorthand, "the six- degrees thing" with the missing. Mac obviously had something closer.

I wrote in this space nine days ago: "Mount Kisco lies 15 miles north of Northern Westchester Airport, a stone's throw further from LaGuardia and another from Kennedy. There are few distractions here, but there's always a plane or four overhead . . . . Coming back up the driveway, I looked up at the moonless sky and watched for a good long while for a plane. Nothing. The sound of crickets was overwhelming and disturbing." Last night as I walked up the driveway, I paused and sighted three planes against the black sky. I listened hard and heard them hum. There were crickets, too, but since it's now nine days closer to autumn and the nights have turned cool in Kisco, they were fewer, quieter.

I've watched a few minutes of baseball on TV this week. The game has seemed surreal to me. When the Mets' Shingo scored in the eighth, sliding into home to make it 2-1 in a crucial game as Atlanta was losing on the outfield scoreboard to Philly, there was no exultation in the Mets dugout. That seemed appropriate, which in turn seemed weird. Baseball was forcing athletes out of themselves somehow. Singers can sing even better when moved by grief — that "Battle Hymn of the Republic" from the Washington memorial service still echoes — but athletes cannot properly do what they're supposed to do, which is, after all, play. I think baseball, at present, might be the best example in the country of the notion that all joy is on hold, pending the passage of time and the unfurling of events. When a baseball player behaves like a baseball player — a guy arguing a foul ball so vehemently during Tuesday's Yankees' game that he got tossed — he seems absurd, ridiculous, outrageous.

Having said that, I will add: Today, nine days on, I tried a joke. I said to a friend, "Did you see The New Yorker? I can't believe it! They hit me with all this grief about the Trade Center, then, as if that weren't enough, the only scheduled piece they run is Roger Angell's about the Yanks demolishing the Sox up at Fenway!" I don't know; it wasn't a great joke, and maybe it was that I used the word demolished. In any event, my friend didn't laugh. In our altered world, it's not yet time for jokes.