In David Roth’s new version of Groundhog Day, it’s been September 12th for ten years now.
It is going to be a very full train and everyone on board knows what that means, although I suppose that isn’t necessarily a reason not to remind people of what it means. And I suppose, too, that the conductor who gets on the PA to remind everyone what it means, first at Boston’s South Station and then three minutes later at Back Bay Station and then five or so minutes after that at Route 128, can’t really do anything about the sound of his voice, which arrives to the (very full) train car through his organ-pipe sinuses and the tinny Amtrak speakers. But the words themselves make me recoil, because they are a savage and unwitting parody of the muscled-up, flubby-formal copspeak that has emerged as something like our new national language of authority.
You know what this sounds like by now, this opaque and faintly menacing combination of dim authority and flabby extraneousness. The conductor’s pronouncements and re-pronouncements—not-really-alerting anyone that the café car is FOR DINING ONLY… AND DRINKING, DINING AND DRINKING ONLY and not for doing your homework or setting up your computer; that it’s one seat per ticketed passenger (except at Back Bay, where it’s “one ticketed passenger per seat”)—are guided home by weirdly formal “in this matter”-s and “for this purpose”-s tacked onto the sentences’ end. We are told, for reasons known only to the conductor, that there are a lot of families on board, although context suggests that this may in some way intensify the need to use the café car for its intended purposes (ONLY).
The conductor delivers the same bad news over and over – if you are looking to make a connection, you should expect delays (on that matter) because of heightened security concerns (at this time) on New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Railroad. He walks through the train car, which is by now teetering towards Providence, then returns with another conductor. That one has a pair of sunglasses hung backwards, Guy Fieri-style, from his ears. As the second conductor follows his authoritative co-worker out of the car, the sunglasses give his shaved dome a jarring, eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head aspect. Although, really, it was only jarring because all of this happened on September 11, which means I was maybe looking for it and also already kind of jarred. The conductor gets back on the horn to thank everyone for their “voluntary cooperation” on the no-lying-down-on-the-seats issue. Another of his breathy beats. “Please do make it voluntary,” he adds.
At that time a day earlier I was firing an AR-15 at a gun range an hour outside Boston during a friend’s bachelor party. This is the same gun American soldiers carry, our firearms instructor noted. “It’s like ‘American,'” he said with hand over the AR-15, before dramatically sweeping his hands over to the AK-47 lying next to it, “and ‘Taliban.'” Back on the train, I see that the blunderingly authoritative Amtrak conductor’s ID swings from a Marine Corps lanyard, which would make him the second Marine to tell me what to do in two days, if also the opposite of the voluble and capable and wildly funny Eddie, who is undoubtedly the guy you should go see if you want to shoot assault rifles in North Attleboro, Mass. So: where is all this going?
It is going back to New York, eventually. But first one more thing, please. First let me tell you how I met my wife. It was ten years ago on September 11, on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn. I spent a lot of time there that day. I rode a bus down Fifth Avenue with a roommate that morning, with all that smoke and ash glowering like a grotesque new planet over the river and above the low rooftops. We watched things on television with some other people in downtown Brooklyn, and then I walked back down Fifth Avenue to my apartment, where I got to work on getting drunk. I was nearly there when I walked down Fifth Avenue again—it might help to read this bit in the voice of Grandpa Simpson, but it was 20-odd blocks from my apartment on the fringes of Sunset Park to a decent bar back then. And it was then and there that I met my wife, who was on her way to my place with a friend of hers to watch some more harrowing television with another of my roommates. They were still there after another Fifth Avenue walk, and we watched the commissioner of the New York Fire Department dissolve into tears together. I remember the look on his face as he slid towards that collapse, how he recognized that what he told us would end with him in tears and how he moved on and into it anyway. What I can tell you about Kate, on that night, was that her beauty cut through the doom a bit, that she re-filled the Brita after drinking from it, that she cried at times and laughed at others and was in general as close to a symbol of possibility and hope as anything I would see again until I saw her next, nearly a month later. When I showed my not-then-wife and her friend out at the night’s end, we saw that our garbage cans were sugared in pale ash. Scorched bits of paper had settled here and there—singed memos from Merrill Lynch, a page from what appeared to be a computer science textbook. My roommates and I gathered them up and brought them inside.
And now maybe we can go back to New York, and towards today. There was, in the days before this most recent September 11, a deep impatience palpable in the city. Which is admittedly not the most noteworthy or novel mood for New Yorkers, but which also seemed a reaction to something more than a desultory bag-check at the subway or the body-armored sentinels with their (oh hey) AR-15’s who have faded back up from the background, and whose sunglass-blanked glares have thanked us for our voluntary assistance in this matter for a decade now. There were those most recent maddeningly vague press-conference ominousnesses—regarding what may have sort of been known about terrible things that were or weren’t planned for the city on the anniversary—which didn’t help. There was also the suffocating pomp and ponderousness of all those looming National Looks Back, and the private memories to face down, in private. But this wasn’t that, I don’t think. There is a greater, darker persistence, something too big and too present and too awful to Never Forget about.
If you were close enough to it, wherever you were, what happened on September 11 is on you still. We wear it as a livid scar or a phantom limb, wrestle it as a nightmare that haunts in daylight or an older ghost that breathes chaos into our dreams at night, but we wear it, we wrestle with it. But for all the shadowy constancy of what September 11, 2001 subtracted and extracted, September 11 is also gone, and all those facile Never Forget rituals only push it more and more profoundly away from us.
There are those flags the size of football fields and fighter jet flyovers, the memory-sanctifying resolutions that sail cheaply through the House of Representatives in shouted unanimity. There’s Michelle Tafoya on NBC, asking New York Jets coach Rex Ryan after the team’s Sunday night win how the significance of 9/11 “impacted the game,” and Newt Gingrich using the word “celebrate” to describe the tenth anniversary of the 11th during a Republican debate a day later. So we haven’t forgotten anything so much as we’ve misplaced nearly everything. And the culture—not you or me or your neighbor’s or mine, but the bigger thing that is our politics and our economy and the author of the line items of our myriad and massive debts—is now moved not so much by the terrible thing itself or the terrible things that came after, but moved by how moved we are. It’s September 12 as I write this, and it has been September 12 for ten terrified, terrifying, mostly terrible years.
Among the Perpetual Seether segment of the populace, 9/12 has a resonance that has strangely little and strangely much to do with the day that preceded it. During his weepy, marker-smudged ascent, Glenn Beck asked his viewers and listeners to “remember who you were on September 12” and told them that those 9/12 selves were who and how they really were; he held 9/12 rallies and 9/12 groups sprouted on their own and, as usual, he made bank. And Tea Party Astroturf-farming concern FreedomWorks scheduled its watershed Taxpayer March on Washington, with ardent but opaque purpose, for September 12, 2009.
Whatever dry-drunk fantasia of righteous purpose Beck associates with September 12, the perverse echo of 1963’s March on Washington offered by FreedomWorks in 2009 feels more apt today. In ’63, a diverse group of Americans braved the risk-unto-certainty of public- and private-sector violence to voice their belief that America could not be what it should be without the liberation of less-than-free Americans. The group that hit town during both the chronological and constant September 12 a couple years ago did so in fatuous resistance to notional state violence—imaginary tax hikes, a dozen different fantastical and false socialisms—and more generally to argue against the very idea of a common good or shared purpose or responsibility; for all the teary Beck-ian unity talk, this was more the against-them fellowship of the sleeper cell than the gracious and great-hearted and hopeful fellowship of ’63. The liberation this new Army of September 12 demanded in 2009—and which they have already, in many ways, won—was from each other, everyone else, anyone else; they were demanding a safety that they could not have unless or until they were left very thoroughly alone, barricaded and border-fenced and home-protected against everything and everyone else out there.
The whole avalanche of bilious bad faith that has followed is, finally, a bleak affirmation of Beck’s piteous/cynical soft-sci-fi worldview. That army of the terrified converged on the nation’s capital, demanding a permanent September 12, and they have it. We have taken up residence in that long shadow, lived in and with the frantic inertia, the intermittent intimations of something terrible, the inward-turning fear at all those vague but implacable loomings. A new political class of howling, shit-scared know-nothing bullies that believes the only tough-minded response to anything is an unyielding “no;” a popular culture curled babyish around an atomizing and anomic materialism it detests and knows well it cannot afford; a thousand inexpressible and unexpressed fears and mistrusts—how we live now is a disheartening extension who we were then.
And for all the frazzled purpose of the first September 12—the various enrollment and enlistment booms, the desperate searches for a place that would take our blood or somehow let us help—the dominant feeling in the bright, still-burning city in which I awakened that day was finally one of terrible aloneness. Some of the trains were running, and some of the offices were open. I took one to my job around Union Square, and I sent emails to everyone I could, or who I thought might care—to my friends in Washington D.C. asking if they were all right, to my friends elsewhere telling them that I was. And then I let myself out and walked downtown, past one checkpoint at 14th Street and into an emptied-out Greenwich Village. I walked down the middle of the street. I remember being aware of the absent pulse of the subway under Broadway. I remember the streets being harrowingly and absolutely ghostly, and being thankful for the periodic appearance of random people just doing whatever they were out there doing—walking to or from, dazedly riding a skateboard along the double lines in the middle of Eighth Street, signing a piece of paper spread on the sidewalk outside an Army/Navy store. (“Dear Anthony,” someone wrote, ten years ago today. “Good luck in the war. I love you, always and 4ever”) I remember quiet, and sirens, and the terrible sadness and anger at the lives lost. I remember, too, thinking that it would be nice to see the woman from the night before again, that she seemed kind. I remember how precious that kindness seemed.
But mostly I remember, in this most life-full of cities, a profound bottomlessness and emptiness that left me feeling terribly alone on those so-silent streets. You may have been on the streets of your city late at night or early in the morning or after some blanking blizzard, and enjoyed the solitary feeling; I have. This was different than that; this was an aloneness that had a sense about it of the irretrievable and irrevocable. The strange and unfathomable smell and heavy air that pushed uptown and the police officers that finally stopped my ramble southward reminded me of what all this really was, and why it felt so sad. It was the feeling of a drained city, its citizens either fled or locked in or otherwise elsewhere. It was quiet, but it was not peaceful, and it was not home.
If we must Never Forget anything from that not-quite-passed present, let it be the actual truth of September 12 and the days after—the way we receded from one another and ourselves, all those great and frightened distances we made, how unrecognizable everything was without everyone else there, and how awful all of that was. The terrified, traumatized non-choices we made then and have made since are not necessarily ones we’d commemorate or honor or (Newt, Newt) celebrate, of course. But memory has a higher purpose than commemoration, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it have to?
This post originally appeared on David’s personal site.
Main photo Flickr/vxla
AR-15 photo Flickr/U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region