1) Inside the Skeleton
The growing debate over whether to rebuild the World Trade Center recalled to me an afternoon I spent inside the skeleton of the Twin Towers when they were still under construction. An afternoon back in 1970 when they hadn’t yet been topped out and the upper floors were still open to the sky. An afternoon that made me feel a connection to buildings the architecture aesthetes have long decried. (Back in 1980, one prize-winning critic went so far as to call the Twin Towers a reason for “mourning.”)
On a blustery January day, I got to ride a makeshift lift up to the realm of bare girders and planks on the hundred-somethingth floor, where you felt that the winter wind whipping though the framework could blow you out to the harbor if you didn’t hold onto something, but there was nothing to hold onto except girders covered with a shaggy coat of asbestos foam. (More about that asbestos in a moment.)
My official reason for making the dizzying ascent was to view black people. Let me explain. I had been doing a series for The Voice about the lax enforcement of minority-hiring requirements in the traditionally lily-white construction trade unions in the city. The World Trade Center, the largest construction project in the city’s history, was a focus of this controversy.
The press rep for the Port Authority, which was building the W.T.C., invited me to accompany him up to the open top of the towers and witness for myself the presence in the work force of “actual Negroes.” (He didn’t say it in those exact words, but that was the gist.)
When we got off the lift at the hundred-somethingth floor (I forget which tower; I think we went up both), I encountered one of the many ironies of the Lindsay administration’s “tragedy of good intentions,” as it’s been called.
Speaking of irony, a momentary digression about the virtual war, the fatwa, against what is often mischaracterized as “irony.” I was particularly startled to see a professor noted for his scornful skewering of pieties in the media become a spokesman for piety by making a death-to-all-irony pronouncement. He was joined by an essayist in a news magazine whose jihad against irony turned into an attack on anyone who had ever been less serious-minded than himself. All topped off by the rock radio network whose list of don’t-play suggestions included Alanis Morissette’s “(Isn’t It) Ironic.”
I would respectfully suggest that many of those who have launched attacks on irony are often talking about sarcasm, about sneering, about “attitude,” all of which are unsustainable in the face of the horror and the heroism. If that’s what they’re talking about in the attacks on “irony,” that’s perfectly understandable.
But tragedy should not mean the abandonement of all distinctions, particularly about a concept at the heart of the civilization under attack. Irony, in its deepest sense, does not lack gravity; irony is grave; irony is about tragedy, about the tragedy of limitations. All of our great tragedies, from Sophocles to Shakespeare, partake of what is referred to, with good reason, as “tragic irony”: the humility imposed by respect for the profound and cruel uncertainties of fate, of existence itself.
Irony is not sarcasm so much as a skepticism that undermines those who proclaim or preen about overconfident certainties and pieties, either religious or secular. The Sept. 11 attack was not the work of ironists; it was the work of pietists, of those who take piety to the extreme. Islamic versions of Jerry Falwell types who say, in effect, secular-ironist society deserves to die. It seems to me exactly the wrong response to join them and indulge in a holier-than-thou McCarthyism of piety, one that replicates the values of the mullahs.
But to return to the Trade Center and the irony of good intentions: The ironic results of the Lindsay administration’s laxly enforced program to promote minority hiring were evident up there on the hundred-somethingth floor of the Trade Center. The good news was that some minorities had been hired; the bad news was that many of the ones I saw had been hired as asbestos workers.
This was before asbestos was banned from buildings, before the asbestos link to the extremely deadly, long-developing chest and stomach cancers known as mesotheliomas had been established.
The asbestos workers on the hundred-somethingth floor wore white suits and what seems, in retrospect-when you consider the moon suits that asbestos-removal workers wear these days-pitifully inadequate facial masks.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack, there was a story in one of the New York papers about the dangers to the Trade Center rescue crews from asbestos, a story that referred to the fact that asbestos is “believed” to have been used in the Trade Center.
Believe it. To walk through the hundred-somethingth floor was to walk through clouds of white particles which swirled out from the hoses the asbestos workers were using to coat all the support beams with foam. The clouds made the hundred-somethingth story almost like a snowy winter wonderland, like Superman’s snowbound fortress of solitude, inhabited by white-soot-covered creatures who included, that day, me. With one difference: They never gave me a mask.
As I understand it, medical opinion is divided on how much or how prolonged asbestos exposure must be to cause the mesothelioma cancers. According to one Web site on the question, “some individuals can develop problems based on exposures that are relatively limited.” In part, it seems to depend on the type of asbestos fibers: “Amphibole fibers such as amosite and crocidolite are very dangerous due to needle-like fibers which burrow into the lungs and can remain indefinitely.” Reports on asbestos in the air at the W.T.C. rescue site speak of low levels of chrysotile fibers which are “less hazardous and unable to remain in the lungs for long periods of time.” I think that’s good news, although the reports don’t say whether they’re not measuring for the “needle-like” crocidolite fibers because they weren’t used in the W.T.C. or because the instruments are only designed to measure chrysotile. I’m hoping for everybody’s sake it’s the former.
But in some way, whatever the remote medical consequences, I don’t regret having gone up inside the Trade Center. I’ve always felt an attachment to the building, having been up there inside the skeleton during its construction-an attachment I feel even more after its destruction. (Of the various suggestions for monuments and rebuilding, the one thing I’ve seen that I feel should be done is the retention of that seventeen-story skeletal fragment that’s still bravely standing now.) In any case I feel I will always carry a piece of the Trade Center-well, fibers of it-inside my skeleton. We all do now.
2) ‘Two Giant Fuck-You’s to the Sky’
Here’s another story the fall of the Twin Towers brought to mind: a story about a remarkable gesture one of the builders of the Trade Center made.
But before I tell this story, I have another digressive remark I’d like to make about storytelling-or “narrative,” as it’s been so portentously called recently. One of the fascinating things I’ve noted in the special issues about the Sept. 11 attack is how many writers feel the need to leap into print to tell us about the important task that is going to be done by-surprise, surprise-writers like themselves.
The way this is done without seeming to be obviously self-promoting is to dwell endlessly on the “importance of narrative,” the importance of “the stories we tell.” Somehow, by calling what everyone does in terrible disasters “narratives,” it suggests that this is a kind of specialist task, one that can only be handled by the pros (i.e., writers). This mystification of “narrative” reminds me of a story about the fellow who said he was surprised to discover that he’d “been speaking prose all my life.”
In one day-after dispatch a prominent critic quoted a shrink who told him “the more pain we’re in, the more we’re driven to narrate,” as if this were a stunning insight. In The Times’ online special edition of the Sunday magazine, a prominent novelist-one whom I have enormous respect for-told us: “We are … as confined by our narrative as the murderers are confined by theirs. History is a story we have accepted; our lives are the stories we tell ourselves …. [The Trade Center attack was] the violent assault of one narrative system upon another.”
This smacks a bit of postmodern relativism, the belief that there’s no such thing as historical truth, that everything’s a matter of the perspective, of the narrative one is imprisoned in. And that all narratives are equally valid. If we are all puppets, prisoners of narratives, it makes irony all the more important because irony questions self-satisfied narratives such as that of the terrorists. That’s why they hate it.
And then in another online dispatch, a novelist I’ve admired enormously informed us that “The Attack … is a web of narratives that buckles at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon …. ”
Well, yes, but is that all it is? It’s so postmodern and detached to reduce the human stories to a “web of narratives,” to bits and bytes. This writer ended his narrative by telling us, “Then we shut off the television and got to work. To make sure that the voices of Americans would ring out in this next darkness.”
I don’t know … this comes close to suggesting that the writers are somehow like the genuinely heroic rescue workers, serving our nation’s cause by giving us narratives.
So I offer this next story not as a narrative, but as a memory that surfaced. I’m not sure what to make of it; it may have something to do with irony, but I’m not even sure of that.
The woman who told me the story had been flying first-class from LAX to J.F.K. This was back in the mid-70’s; she told me the story in the mid-80’s. She was flying back from the Academy Awards, where she’d just won an Oscar. She wasn’t an actress; let’s just call her a “woman in film.” She was someone who wouldn’t have made up this story, although I think I’ll omit her identity and that of the guy who approached her in the first-class cabin.
She had taken out her Oscar, still finding it hard to believe she’d won the golden statuette, and a guy across the aisle, in an almost competitive way, started to tell her about his big achievement, his twin statuettes, you might say: He was one of the builders of the World Trade Center, he said, and while he wasn’t the name architect, he was a name she recognized in connection with the Twin Towers.
And after a few drinks and the intoxication of his own achievement, he encapsulated all his pride and hubris into a single gesture: He shot his arms and fists into the air straight up like the Twin Towers and crowed aloud that they were “two giant fuck-you’s to the sky!”
If one were inclined to be ironic-which I’m not-you could almost say that the sky recently sent two fuck-you’s back to the Trade Center or to that guy. But, of course, it only came from the sky; it was sent by pietists who believe that, with God on their side, any crime is forgivable.
3) The Endless Wake
The third story that has surfaced in my mind about the Trade Center concerns a wake I attended there. A wake for a friend who loved the Towers, who had once wanted to move his business there, to the top of the world. But it hadn’t worked out that way, he killed himself in fact, and after a very wild and very sad party in a suite on top of the tower, several of us were witnesses to the moment when his ashes were thrown from the top of the tower to drift to earth.
That’s all. Not much I can do to turn it into narrative or irony, except to say: ashes to ashes. We’re all living out a wake now, one that, in some ways, may never end.