GREY MATTERS: Union Square 9-11-01

by Matthew Seitz
September 10, 2011 6:18 AM
1 Comment
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By Ian Grey
Press Play contributor

It’s messing me up to write this. Then again it might be worse not to write it. But then again it’s in the nature of these 9-11 pieces to injure, so what the hell. It’s not like I can escape. Right off, I need to acknowledge that no matter how damaging the attack and the slow poison of its aftermath were for me, others had it far, far worse and in ways people who are not New Yorkers never hear about.

At the same time, I’ll be damned if I’m going to under-sell how much I hate the fact of this monster’s teeth still digging into my own hidden injuries, even after a decade.  But like all people in the ‘at-risk’ category—before 9-11 I was already being treated for bipolar disorder and PTSD—I have to be vigilant. To block out TV. Especially news. Avoid most websites. Make certain not to even glance at the front pages of the Daily News, Post and Times.

Even then, triggers are everywhere. They’re in the hole in the skyline downtown. They’re in the sky, with every plane a potential invader, seen through my eyes seen as in a movie, in shaky cam and zoom-ins of ratcheting panic.  As the day gets closer so does the black dog of depression. I isolate with movies: Spaceballs, Margaret Cho: Beautiful, Louis CK: Chewed Up, The Iron Giant, the Anna Faris comedy Smiley Face—three times. My love of fashion is a bone-deep need for beauty — beauty for its own holy sake. It fights a bottomless, ghastly, ugliness. And so I glut myself on couture cinema, on Valentino: The Last Emperor, Seamless and Lady Gaga videos.

Days pass without leaving the house.

But at the same time it’s true that you can’t completely cut out the world without a bone fide panic room, you must respect PTSD as a very patient life-taker. Every New Yorker, with severity increasing with proximity to Ground Zero itself, has experienced varying degrees of: Flashbacks, insomnia, panic attacks, numbness, muscular and skeletal pain, rage, paranoia, guilt, shame and self-blame, migraine, vision disturbances, depression, suicidal ideation and suicide.  

Still, I think there's power in reporting things that bear witness. After all, I’m finally past the point of forced hospitalizations and being doped out on massive anti-psychotics.

Then again, as I write these words, today isn’t anniversary day. But, it's coming.

September 11, 2001

Anyway, this is me, and for me, 9-11 started like a movie.

At 9:15 AM on September 11, 2001, I exited the N train at Union Square in downtown Manhattan and saw hundreds of people standing stock-still and pointing towards the Wall Street area.

Some part of my brain instantly revolted against such intrinsic wrongness—getting hundreds New Yorkers to do anything at once truly is like herding kittens.

At moments like this, you don’t have language. It’s all light-speed fragments: Hundreds of people. A film? SF movie? A Body Snatchers thing with alien doubles ratting out the last real people, pointing, pointing and screaming?

No. Everything was dead silent. There were no cameras. I started moving uptown.

Somebody yelled, “Attack!” and I ran.

There was nobody in the office where I worked as a copywriter. Unattended monitors glowed on screensavers. Window blinds shivered in the wind. Everything was already so On the Beach.  

I saw the first images on my computer. I looked in my wallet. I still had my World Trade Center security ID.

I saw the Towers go down. Half of my clients died in an instant.

Once it was clear my life-partner Keri was safe — she worked in the Con Edison building, a high value terrorist target, I felt the first jack of absolute terror: was something just starting?

At about noon, the first survivors appeared, covered from foot to face in a fine grey dust of compressed cement and god knew what else.

They trudged up Fifth Avenue South, silent in deep shock, still holding bags and brief cases, like they were in The Day After or Threads.

I found Keri and we found an Irish bar. A stout red-eyed woman greeted us silently with free beers just as the third building pancaked and then 9-11 started for Keri as she began to shudder and weep.


Film

As anxiously terrified as I was those first months, I was always tired. Because fear never sleeps.

Like other city compatriots, I’d stare at the 24/7 WTC collapse and Ground Zero imagery, a compulsion that in itself became a sickness of its own. I ate Ativan like candy, drank too much and still suffered panic attacks — ones that had me falling to my knees in strange bathrooms.

At home, Nick Cave’s “No More Shall We Part” was on the CD player for weeks on infinite replay because there are few things more focused than the part of you that catalogues all the minutia that seem connected to your continued survival, no matter how ridiculous.  

Everything was all too much all the time. The armed troops on every subway. False attack warnings. Constant overhead whir of helicopters. The afternoon Keri and I ate lunch as we numbly watched the military swiftly evacuate the park so as to make way for a clunky black bomb squad vehicle straight out of an ‘80s action film. The sound of bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace" mixed with the overhead whir of helicopters. Too much.

So I watched The Big Lebowski. Repeatedly.

What made The Big Lebowski powerful medicine was that it asserted that the most inept, powerless fuck ups would abide and even manage an acid piss on a horrible world. Well, except for Donnie.

But for a while the movies just made things hugely worse.

Because I was also working full time as a film writer, I couldn’t escape those parts of Manhattan where such screenings took place — like Times Square and Midtown — all of them high value terrorist targets .

The first film I wrote about was the Michael Douglas thriller Don’t Say a Word. Everything except for the film itself was unforgettable.

I remember I took a different subway car — one that I usually don’t take for that screening room. I knew that seriously mentally ill people do very poorly with any change from habit. I know now I had joined their ranks. I couldn’t breath, my heart was beating like it had a brain and that brain was on dirty crystal meth. Every slight rumble of cars was rewritten in my mind as the roar of sequenced smart bombs.

Then, during the film, a sad, weird thing.  We see Michael Douglas piloting a skiff over the East River. And then, the Trade Center, standing, intact and…

There’s this remarkable moment in “The Body” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Buffy has discovered her mother Joyce, dead on couch in the living room. The EMT techs have given up on trying to revive Joyce when suddenly she wakes up and the EMT guy says “It’s a miracle!” and Buffy is suffused with joy and relief.

Until a shock cut reveals this is Buffy’s escape fantasy and Joyce, of course, is still a lifeless body.

That is, I believe, the process behind that happened when the World Trade Center appeared behind Douglas.

The audience applauded wildly, like delighted children, as if this entire week had been a terrible mistake of some kind.

It’s a miracle!

And then reality slammed down like an iron door and everyone became quiet as one.

At the screening of John Dahl’s Joy Ride there was a scene in the film where a car hit a wall and there’s gunfire. It was the first violence anyone had experienced since the attack.

With thousands of us dead a quarter mile away, it was horrible and nauseating, it made me angry at the film, at film, knowing that This what we are to do now. To re-learn how to play ball, cynically, without reaction, in the relentless virtual blood sport that defines American cinema.

I hated my job at this point. I sought out extremes of humanism and beauty wherever I could find them.

I didn’t care that The Man Who Wasn’t There didn’t make much sense, I loved its dedication to being silvery. (And again, sustenance from the supposedly cold Coen brothers. Go figure.)

I fell in love with Tom Twyker’s The Princess and the Warrior, which felt like a cleansing spirit-bath in life-crazy romanticism with a vibrant color palette to match. I was grateful to Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, to the way it didn’t shy from the cruel quickness of things that was our new verite.


Coney Island Baby

A month or so after 9-11 it became time to get the hell out of Dodge.

For Keri and I, that meant Coney Island. It loomed large in our legend. One of our first dates was seeing Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream — that tale of addiction, self-obliteration and delusion on the boardwalks of Coney and Brighton Beach. Hey — what’s not to love?

But Coney Island has another pull. To the low of income and the strange at heart it was a gloriously wrecked magnet to the City’s honestly odd. Even in 2001, Coney still felt like it looked in the film Imitation of Life, a place that age became, the home of America’s final for-real freak show, of the rusted glory of rides like Wonder Wheel, Parachute Drop and the Cyclone.

What we wanted was Coney’s off-season, under-the-radar stillness. We wanted Ruby’s Bar and its deep dark recesses. No terrorist would know Ruby’s, I assured myself, ridiculously.

So, Keri and I and two other friends took the long train to Coney. It was a ghost town that night, with Ruby’s nearly empty. I dropped quarters in the juke and in a gale of cleansing feedback, there came the Jimi Hendrix of Michael Wadleigh’s hippie hagiography, Woodstock, deconstructing the hell out of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, finding something intrinsically, even heroically wrecked in that famously ridiculous melody. Suddenly no music could sound more now than this.

I banged my head softly against the wall as Hendrix ripped truth in barely controlled distortion and nervous breakdown vibrato during the “in the land of the free” part, near the end, where it sounds like Hendrix’s Strat itself in on the verge of madness.

I was so fucking angry! At being so afraid all the time of a smart bomb, another plane crashing, of a subway sarin gas attacks like they suffered in Japan. Of the other shoe falling.

The only solace was watching people play with their dogs at whatever park I could find (I’d spend hours doing this) and in music.

I see me leaning against a cool aluminum listening post at the Virgin Megastore, now a Chase Bank, eyes squeezed closed, listening to The Doves’ “The Last Broadcast”, Low’s “Things We Lost in the Fire” to Johnny Cash’s new one, NIN’s “Hurt”.

But it’s David Bowie, for some time, a downtown New Yorker, and his song, “Sunday”, from his 2001 CD Heathen, that will always summon for me exactly what New York felt like during that first year. The only thing that comes close is Spike Lee’s film, The 25th Hour.

All on-edge loops, halting vocals, and never-resolving chords, “Sunday encapsulates the gluey sense of slow motion panic, of looking into the reflective glass carapace of a skyscraper and wondering if you caught the mirror image of a jetliner flying too low, of the damned sun that was always too bright.

For in truth, it's the beginning of nothing /and nothing has changed/everything has changed

I’m freaking myself out, thinking about this. The black dog’s hungry. Scar tissue forms randomly and imperfectly as parts of you just get a little numb, the slow Novocain of passing time.

But from all this awfulness, I see this glimmer as to why I can finally write this, how I’ve gotten through nine to make it to this tenth celebration of the worst day.

It’s Keri and I, after our night at Ruby's, after sleeping at a skeezy hotel, finding a lawn sale in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach.
She fixates on these two really old tweed suitcases filled with half-century old linens.

She drags them to the immaculate, ocean-wind-cleansed boardwalk. The surf is high.

Even as we’re halfway back to Coney Island she’s still dragging them and I yell, “Why are we doing this?”

And she yells back, “I don’t know!” And “Won’t you help me?”

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column "Grey Matters" runs every week at Press Play.

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1 Comment

  • Violet Bassett Mathy | September 11, 2011 6:29 AMReply

    Wow! Another great piece, Ian! It really brought home what New Yorkers went through. I know everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news but I think we, on the West coast, just can't fathom what it was REALLY like. Thanks.

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