Saturday, September 10, 2011

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I wasn't going to comment on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Frankly, I never know what to say. I remember 10 months before the attacks feeling like America had a break in reality during the month after the 2000 election, like we'd passed into an alternate dimension. I still feel that way sometimes. Within 6 weeks of that election, my job at Stan Lee Media vanished.

I didn't take the loss of the company very well; being there had really fired up my imagination, made my art a thousand times better and I felt had made a lifetime's worth of friends. The energy of my companions at SLM had sustained and invigorated me and the loss of it had done the exact reverse. The collapse of the company was a very traumatic event for me and I found it difficult to recover. I've always had trouble with setbacks, even the daily reversals that occur in my artwork are wrenching events these days and can be emotionally draining, but for whatever reason, I hit trouble. Depressed, I see-sawed wildly over the next few months, latching onto anything I could, finally taking on a few storyboard gigs, one of them an independent film of a friend of mine. When he headed back to New York to film it, I threw caution to the wind and made plans to return to New York. Jesse was more than happy to return to the city - she loved it, and so did I. I especially enjoyed watching the city through her eyes, while I'd had an uneasy relationship with New York, Jesse had always flung herself into it, unafraid. I flew back to New York to secure an apartment in Williamsburg from a friend, made plans to leave L.A, packed everything into a storage container and the rest into the Cadillac. We left Santa Monica on September 10th, 2011. I remember standing outside the apartment on 19th Street, glancing at the beautiful sky, autumn in Santa Monica, I looked over the car roof at the woman I loved and thought, "This will be good, what can go wrong?"

Traffic was difficult through the desert - there was construction on the main highway and we had to wait for hours for an escort through what remained of the road. We only made it to Winslow, Arizona before having to pack it in for the night.

In the morning, as Jesse took her run, I turned on the TV to monitor the weather and got news of the first plane hitting the Trade Center. When the second plane hit, I remember Jesse called her father, a terrorism expert, and she discussed it with him. When the fire at the Pentagon was reported, I asked him if that was related and he bolted off the phone. Years before he and I had a conversation where he excoriated Bill Clinton for botching the looming terrorist threat. I remember vividly his explaining over Christmas dinner the threat of terrorists using planes as weapons, flown into buildings. Whenever I hear anyone say "no one could have known this was going to happen," I think, no. That's not true. Stephen knew, and he was busting a gasket over the possibility. I still keep an eye on the other things he mentioned - when the power went out in the southwest two days ago, my thoughts immediately turned toward our conversations - bridges, power grids, communications, all the weak points of modern existence. I'd known he was agitated about the turn of the Millennium and I knew that we'd avoided the terrorist attack on Los Angeles and Seattle by what I knew was a virtual accident. I wonder what he's thinking of today - Stephen was a brilliant dowsing rod.

Jesse and I travelled across the nation for the next few days, listening to the local NPR stations across the country. I saw no visuals of the events apart from the first footage, and only heard about the collapse of the towers once we were on the road. On the trip to New York, I felt incredibly guilty, as if I'd abdicated my responsibility to New York by my absence - in my dalliance with Los Angeles over the previous 20 months, I had left my city unprotected somehow - and I desperately wanted to get back there. It's ridiculous, I know, but that's how I felt. I'd grown up in the shadow of Manhattan all of my life, it's pull was the only geographical pull I'd even known and it was pulling me again. It was pulling the whole nation, as Jesse and I barreled across the country. Everyone was thinking, everyone was talking about where we were going.

I remember callers in Oklahoma being very wary of assigning blame to muslim extremism, there were a number of people who had been unnecessarily hurt after the bombing of the Murrah building before it was found that it was a local white boy and his friends that had done the deed, and that the locals had felt a kinship with New Yorkers. Texas was a different story, murder was in the air. I remember news of Sihks being attacked. By the time we hit the middle of the country, news had gotten out that it was likely the work of the Bin Laden terrorist network, a group I was familiar with from conversations with Jesse's father, and whom I knew liked to "double-up" on their attacks, the African embassy attacks being the sharpest evidence of their preferred M.O. Hit multiple targets multiple times at the exact same moment.

On the 12th, I remember gas station signs that said "We're coming to get you bin Laden." On the Pennsylvania turnpike there were electronic signs that were flashing patriotic messages to passing motorists. There was very little traffic, few trucks, almost no passenger cars. I remember the skies being empty of aircraft.

We arrived in New Jersey on the 13th. I'd planned to go straight to the new apartment in Brooklyn, but I knew multiple tunnels and bridges were closed and traffic restriction were making travel across the region difficult, so I thought I'd stop by my parents, check in with them and find out the best route into Brooklyn. It was there I first heard about the planned invasion of Iraq. My step-father was extremely agitated from the event, and I understood his perspective completely. My mother told me the local press was running video of spontaneous celebrations by local Palestinians in Patterson, which I thought was kind of strange, I still have no explanation of that - my old salesman job went through Patterson and I couldn't jibe that image with her story. Tim, my step-brother, a very level headed guy, had been in Midtown when the attacks struck and had photos from his ride across the river back to Hoboken, they were incredibly intense and I felt for him, going through that horror. Tim told me we needed to get Saddam Hussein because he was behind the attacks. My stepfather hammered that home - get Saddam Hussein. I was dumbstruck - it was the first time I'd heard Saddam Hussein's name linked to the attacks and it was bewildering to me. I felt trapped in the conversation, it was so loaded emotionally - any attempts I made at putting the brakes on what I felt were misguided expressions of hatred and anger, funneling it toward the proper madman I thought responsible, were met with deep suspicion. I recognized that action was required but felt it was important to find out exactly who perpetrated the deed and punish the correct individuals, what benefit could there be to raining down hell upon the innocent? An argument ensued, purple faced, my step father demanded I leave. It was the first time I understood what was going to happen. When the Administration shifted it's focus, after blowing the attack on Bora Bora, to Iraq, I felt I had seen the seeds in my own household.

If the trip across the country was notable for it's lack of aircraft, New York city was notable for it's omnipresence. When we got to Brooklyn on the night of the 13th, it was a city suffering in incredible trauma. A thick billowing cloud, the width of 10 city blocks and miles long was billowing out of lower Manhattan. Jets flew sorties up and down the island all day. The neighbors were skittish, Jesse and I were unknowns, and were suspicious for our sudden appearance, linked as it was to the terror attacks. We loaded our lives into the new apartment, walked down to the river to get a better understanding of what was going on. Jesse's brother was down in the thick of things, he'd managed to get past the blockade, and was helping out emergency crews who were searching through the pile. After a few days he was evicted from the makeshift post after the man he was working for was ousted as a fraud, pretending to have clearance amidst the chaos to provide aid, and weeded out after a few days once clarity came to the command structure.

Late at night on the 13th, we settled into the new place. It was an awful apartment; crumbling, worn down, frail. Built during the Rutherford B. Hayes Administration, the building was leaning against the buildings on either side for support. The windows on the west were crooked, and forced into a 10 degree angle, warped by the loss of the structural integrity of the building and faced the billowing cloud, surrounded by black night (parts of downtown looked to be without power), the billowing cloud was illuminated by the klieg lights from the 24 hour rescue mission on the pile. Our windows were cracked open. That night was the first night I smelled the smoke. I'd catch whiffs of it in various locations around town for months afterward. The pile burned though February. We couldn't lock the front door the first night, because we'd been given no key. After midnight someone burst into the lobby broke the mail slots and stole the building's mail. The neighbors castigated us, they were understandably freaked out, but it made the stay at that apartment one notch worse. When the landlord threatened Jesse over October's rent, she left.

I parked the Cadillac across the street from the new apartment, by morning, it was covered in the dust from the Trade Centers. It was like that, every day, for weeks. Little flags started appearing on cars all throughout the region. I felt that since I already had an American car, I didn't need to put a cheap little flag made in China on my Honda to prove I was an American.

The movie shoot in Bayonne went on regardless of what was happening in New York. The director didn't want to wait and we started production on the 17th. The first Monday after the attacks it was raining and I never saw traffic like I saw on the streets of Brooklyn. I watched a 20 foot truck barrel down the sidewalk at 30 miles an hour, Williamsburg Hassidim fleeing for their lives as the driver drove across the right-hand sidewalk, broke out into the traffic on the cross street and made a left turn. Trucks had not been allowed into the city for nearly a week, all traffic was shut down from below Houston and the bridges were shut down for the 6 days after the attack. The Battery Tunnel never opened when I was there. My commute from Williamsburg to Bayonne took me across a highway that had a perfect view of downtown, it was almost like a postcard, and I watched the smoke billow out every morning and every evening for the entire month the movie filmed. For the first two weeks, traffic crawled along this route, agonizing. People often would pull out cameras and take pictures. I was incredibly angry at this behavior, I thought it was very disrespectful, although I can't pinpoint why, it just felt very tourist-y, very "lookit the carnival," although I wish I had a photo from that commute now. It was such an unbelievable scene. Once the movie wrapped, I never returned to that road.

I tried to get the director to incorporate the mood of the times into the film, as a document of what was happening around us, but no luck. It felt insane to me to be filming but not pay any attention to what was uppermost on all of our minds.

During a location shoot near the Bayonne Bridge, a fireman from Bayonne proudly told me some of the loot he and others in his fire brigade had stolen from the scene downtown. Some paper bonds, promissory stock notes, personal effects from the dead that they had gathered as mementos, squirreled away in defiance of the proper authorities. He showed me a comb he had stolen from the pile. I was aghast - whose widow could have been comforted from the DNA remains of that comb? I was sickened by his attitude toward the theft, he was virtually preening, showing off his bloated importance, and I was reminded of other reports that firemen rotated in from other fire companies in the region had looted the local bars and restaurants within the cordoned off area for liquor, food and money. When I found out Bernard Kerik was using one of the lofts dedicated to the rescue effort as a fuckpalace with Judith Regan, it made complete sense to me. The grief of the local firemen and the madness of the scene downtown, as well as the cordoning off of the area from local traffic, and the general confusion of overlapping governmental authorities had turned it into a scene from Mad Max. The worst behavior probably didn't last a week, but it stuck with me, especially when faced with that preening fireman. To this day, while I am respectful of those who lost their lives trying to save people from the burning towers, and saddened immensely by the losses that their families endured for their heroism, it is tempered by the behavior of the jackal I met. Humans are incredibly complicated, I don't think there is any benefit in disguising it.

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