Linsey Abrams, Faculty, City College
The New Century
Living in New York, you think you’ve seen everything.
Not that 14th Street, your street, had seemed a likely
frontier. You knew global warming was going to flood
Manhattan, making all downtown a shipwreck. Some
day. But this?
And not that if you’d been that guy in the subway in
Washington, D.C., and everyone’s cell phone started
ringing, you’d have known what was going on either.
Not that a manual on flying a commercial jet is the
same as flying it. Not that Venice, Florida, with its
shitty little rental cars, should be confused with Venice,
Not that the Mayor’s emergency bunker under #7 World
Trade Center was such a good place to hide. Not that
you cared to make further criticism of that government
idea or any other at the moment. Though why someone
would form a motorcade to a secret location, unless it’s
a decoy, is a mystery. Not that decoy had been a staple
vocabulary...except as referring to duck hunting,
which you’re against.
Not that your young mother, working at the Pentagon,
had expected the highest clearance. Or to know about
Pearl Harbor hours before she could tell. Not that
everyone wants to hear immediately about tragedies.
Not that a drill is the real thing. Not that the real thing
is readily recognizable.
Not that it wasn’t bad timing that your lover’s father
had been moved from Florida the day before—by the
two of you—to the Bronx.
And not that it wasn’t puzzling to have paid September
rent plus deposit, $3900 each, to install him in assisted
living, only to be asked a day later to move him out.
Not that people with Parkinson’s can always help
Not that you’d have planned your last communal
experience before it happened, to be at Ikea buying him
Not that you were offended at first by Attack on
America. The same tag line for every program you could
get on TV. Meaning cable and only CBS of the
broadcast channels, since they hadn’t ever taken down
the old antenna. On the Empire State Building, from
when it was the highest
skyscraper. Before the new ones were affixed to the
Not that you’d ever paid attention to the Woolworth
Building, featured in the first hour of coverage, and
certainly not to its height, dwarfed twice at the tip of
Manhattan. Frankly, you were concerned about the
ground level Woolworths, disappearing like black holes
that sucked down into them all the little tools and
objects of the universe. Not that you remember half of
what those were now.
Not that you hadn’t complained about your lover’s 45-
minute showers. Not that you’d have been with her that
Where would you have been? On the map of uncanny
places...not where assassinations take place, for
example, but where you were when you heard. Empire
of a single tourist.
Make a dot for Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, with
the imposter Goofy and the imposter Donald Duck. You
hadn’t intended to feel sad when they closed it.
Not that you thought postponing an election—even a
local mayoral primary—was a good thing.
Though not that the last election—for President in
2000—topped your list of outrages now.
Who ever thought they’d wonder where Air Force One
Or in their lifetime visit www.fbi.org? Defend the Stock
Market’s right to exist?
The Japanese proverb that didn’t apply: Fall down
seven times, stand up eight.
What wasn’t the marathon: a horde of people fleeing
across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Not that everyone was Caucasian and not that everyone
was old, who escaped hair to shoes frosted
Imponderables: The one who had cramps and drank the
vodka, the one on vacation, the one who told the boss
go fuck yourself and quit. The one who veered off for the
bagel. The one who was always late. The one who
voted come hell or high water....The one whose dog
wouldn’t pee. The mother who time-shared. The
screenwriter so broke she took the bus to LA instead of
the airplane. The one who in the eighties became a
coke-head and never worked again. The one who had a
terminal illness anyway. The chef of Windows on the
World, floor 110, who
stopped to buy eyeglasses. All that
And the destiny of paper: reams prematurely to the
shredder, all documents in the Disaster file. Passports
and drivers licenses unnecessary for impromptu free fall.
postcards: Wish you were here crossed out.
Written in disappearing ink: a window washer.
Floor 25, BlueCross BlueShield: Forget your
Not that they let stand the remark that it happened in
New York because of all the abortionists, feminists,
lesbians and the ACLU. Not that you’d thought of
controlling world politics.
Not that they let stand the e-mail sent to seventeen
thousand people on the Left Media List: I am pleased
to report that it is NOT TRUE that 4,000 Israelis did
not show up for work at the World Trade Center on
forgive my mistake! Love and Peace and
name withheld in poem to avoid lawsuit.
In a flash poll, 61% of Americans favored waging war.
62% weren’t sure on whom. Your lover said, Between
evil people and idiots, we’ve had it.
Children are the only logicians: The girl who said, So if
they didn’t like New York, why couldn’t they just ignore
The boy who when told there were people missing
asked, Are their mothers looking for them?
Driving back to the City, three days later, from an
emergency trip to your own mother in Boston, you were
mildly surprised to pass a check point. Not that you
expected warships in New York Harbor, where your
ostentatious friend had rented a boat for the
Bicentennial. Everyone got seasick from the wake of so
many pleasure crafts and threw up their fancy dinners. It
was 1976, the last time you saw so many flags.
The Javitz Center reminded you of Woodstock. Minus
the music, admittedly. All right. Plus the National
Guard. But there were the reserves of food stacked to the
spirit of communal destiny and the unilateral high hopes
of youth. Still, those helicopters weren’t about to
download ten cases of artichoke hearts from the now
defunct Concorde Hotel in the Catskills. An acid head’s
feast. You saw two girls in hijabs and tight pants riding
a sawhorse from a barricade, being cruised by two
Hasidic boys trying to outrace their coats. A pair of
debutantes accepting free Cokes from their ghetto
counterparts, who magnanimously threw in a straw
each. Everything comes in twos, apparently.
The Twins as celebrities. The most recent subjects of
serial neighborhood murals: RIP Lady Di, Mother
Theresa, JFK Jr., Selena the pop star shot dead, and
Lisa shaken by her crack head step-father. Or was it
Marta? Well, anyway, one of those poor little girls.
Like Greek tragedy, no joke.
Union Square was the opposite of a rogues’ gallery:
Thank God for scotch tape and color xerox and digital
For part-time actors’ headshots and for
yearbooks. For ugly rejected passport photos, for
albums of the divorced. Also authors’ book jackets,
expired IDs, last year’s family Christmas cards...the
calendar from Fotomat, the Polaroids. Thank God for all
flat surfaces in the Park. Before it was understood that,
like those on the 4 airplanes, no one would be found:
Hung from a retaining wall, a king size bed sheet with
the names in Magic Marker of the permanently sleeping,
captioned: American Proud and Tall. United Through
it All. And underfoot, Ode to a Flight Attendant, on
cardboards taped haphazardly to the ground. A kite tail
too heavy for the kite.
Grief is like a dream in which all wishes of the dead are
granted. A mother now writes of her daughter,
Distinguishing Features: tongue ring, fish tattoo.
Your own mother can’t remember if she’s taken her
pills or where she lost either plate of her dentures. Both
pairs. But she remembered where her hair dresser was.
She cleaned out her bank account, not to pay him or
contribute to the
$2000 replacement teeth but to hand over a
Social Security for a cruise that she was offered over the
phone for free. Not that that could be attributed solely to
dementia. How could it be free? my brother yelled at
her, if you gave them $1200?
Not that you could call all the makeshift morgues ghost
towns exactly...since no one had ever lived there. And
that those towers were our redwoods if you’re being
Not that a human chain is the best metaphor for a
policeman leading a whole floor of people by hand down
95 flights of a pitch-black stairwell. Maybe picture
DNA, so unfathomable as to be beautiful. Or something
ordinary but almost crazy, like a conga line.
Not that one woman who wore a placemat over her face
to breathe, actually thought it was Afghanistan. Though
try running for your life in a burqa.
And not that the Taliban—who blew up the two largest
Buddhas in the world—merited special consideration
anyway. Unless everyone deserves a second chance? Fair
enough. Pick a number between one and 110.
So if we’ve had the disappeared and the homeless, is it
now the pulverized? The minced-meat? Previous to this
associated body parts with serial killers, one problem
New York doesn’t have. Not that you could have
imagined in your wildest dreams your lover saying, It’s
the bodies, after
you commented that the workers were
cooking again in
the basement below your window. The wind
shifted. OK, so you’re not a pacifist any more.
42, 000 windows. 16 acres. 5,843 dead or missing, a
week later. The devil is in the details.
spelled with four x’s
Funkmaster Flex and Boris
You wanted to be superheroes
But ended up Rap DJ’s
on a billboard.
Imagine a better resume:
your upon-a-time grand plans seeing daylight.
Desired job: rescue worker
When available: immediately
How do you see yourself in five years?
Capable of heroic measures.
TV interview at the site: Myself and EMT Ramos are
part of a trained force. We’ve been treated with oxygen.
We follow orders. Did you see any deaths? I witnessed
a disaster beyond my
wildest dreams, ma’am.
Your friend, older than your mother, who climbed down
43 flights of stairs and was finally elevated back up was
asked by a reporter: if she’d known at the time that
everything in her apartment would be destroyed what
was the one thing she’d have wanted to save? The view,
your friend said.
Further evidence of ruin: the name Mohammed Islam on
a hack license.
Can the personal be tragic?
Is one the loneliest number?
Not that fitting your mother with a diaper that weekend
was as bad as the devastation at home. But not that a
part of you—and her—didn’t wish she’d been blown to
smithereens too. Not that she would remember thinking
In the Bronx your father-in-law (in a better world) was
the same irritating man. Falling out of his wheel chair
trying to pick up a paper clip...hording electrical cords
without plugs...using batteries with just enough charge
to ruin music.
Not that his movers, meanwhile, driving via New
Jersey, had planned to run their truck into the George
Washington Bridge. But clearly, ripping a hole in your
own roof is not a terrorist act.
So three of the terrorists turned out to be from Delray
Beach, Florida, where your father-in-law lived...where
you spent September 8-10 packing up one old man’s
final treasures. The same place where soon they found
the Anthrax. If you think life isn’t a mystery, ponder
Or the randomness of sweethearts:
someone clasping the nearest hand to jump with that
person off a roof
a man on a cell phone connecting to 911 and his soulmate
operator from a plane.
One rumor was the shower of gold rising from bullion
reserves buried under the buildings. Survivors imagined
this as a miracle. For them it was.
And the rest, hardly more credible. The special dogs
scrambling over the smoking rubble, who when being
bathed and re-hydrated strained to return? How they
could identify the traumatized workers—though maybe
that was everyone—wasn’t explained. But their paws
became so sore and inflamed that Patagonia donated
little pads. Where is that again? I asked my lover, who
was reading aloud the paper. The company, she clarified.
They donated gortex pads. Patagonia, the company.
Forgive me for thinking
The new grammar:
A flight attendant is not a stewardess
A fire is not a paring knife to remove a person’s skin
An airplane is not a yo-yo. It can go down but that’s
the end of up.
A subway is not a chute to hell. It’s hell.
A gap in the skyline is not an amputation.
An amputation is nevertheless not by custom performed
with an airplane.
Disaster Zone is not a good sign for your nephew’s
bedroom door now.
People can’t say, and mean, that they were lucky to
have survived high school.
Honestly, analysis never prepared you for this.
Other things you never expected but secretly may have hoped for:
The Queen of England to sing the Star-Spangled
Elizabeth Taylor to slip into the Armory on Park
Avenue to visit the families.
The Gurkhas to be sent on assignment in Afghanistan.
How often have you heard Whatever happened to the
Gurkhas? Not often enough.
The high school marching band from Huntsville,
Alabama, that played, standing stock still, at the site.
The psychic in Brighton Beach who came out of
retirement to help find the living then stayed to contact
the dead. The mother and son who drove straight
through with crawfish from Louisiana. The Oregon
tourists who refused to cancel.
So what if Kate Smith commissioned God Bless
America to have a hit.
So what—you half mean this—if the Yankees lose the
And so what if your cell phone won’t work from the
subway never mind a 747.
It’s a cliché: location, location, location. And yet
Suddenly nothing else matters.
How could all that happened
Have fit into one week for one reason in one city?
Because this is New York.
Where else would the 21st century have begun?
September 11—December 6, 2001
—Linsey Abrams, City College