Down in the Subway, I Read Dante Describing ‘That Beast Without Peace’; Then I Looked Up

So it began at the dry-cleaners, at a smidgen past 9 a.m. last Sept. 11, when someone said a plane had hit the World Trade Center, and Chris, the Jamaican tailor, turned from his sewing machine in the front window (he had a radio on low) and said, “Two. Two planes have hit the towers. Both towers.”

The dry-cleaner is Le Kang, an Asian name, and the woman who broke the news is the Korean lady who runs the place. She is assisted by an older Asian woman, and another Asian woman her age, as well as one or two or sometimes three Latinos, and on busy Saturdays in the tiny plastic-baggy space behind the counter, the bunch of them crawl and glide around each other like walruses hoisting themselves with fatty grace over sleeping mates to slide from rock to sea.

I walked to the subway in a daze: air-traffic control, I thought. Someone fucked up or went crazy and brought those planes in like that-I was preparing myself for the version of the story that we would all prefer, that there is a Madman, and the Madman does something Mad, because he’s touched, irrational or, worst of all, religious, and always alone, oh yes, that’s the important one, he’s all alone. It’s not a movement, it’s not a trend, it’s not an idea: It’s a Madman.

But there are politics in the world-not the politics of bad talk-show appearancesandexpensive orchestrations of the inane, but actual politics, in which what we do, what the state does, what we as a nation do, matters. In which what we do matters even to the degree that others might feel themselves compelled to do something back.

Madison Square Park, along Fifth Avenue at 25th Street, is one of those spots in New York that I long loved (Sixth Avenue around 10th or 11th was another), where you would turn, arrive, look up, and there they were, previously invisible, suddenly lined up with the avenue and looming, enormous silver matchsticks down at harbor’s edge. They changed in the light, from blue to pink to iron gray.

And every time I look at that sky now (I work two blocks from there), I see the drama of an empty sky: That empty sky is a narrative for those of us who live here. Often, as it was that day, it is an intensely beautiful-looking sky: beautiful yet filled with pain. When I got to this spot near 10 a.m. last Sept. 11, after a long, much-interrupted and finally abbreviated subway ride, there was only one tower still standing. It was engulfed in smoke. All along the park we stunned humans stood, alone or in twos and threes, staring and trying to use our cell phones. After a few moments, the smoke kind of lifted in a wind. I will never forget how beautiful a day it was, how blue and cool and filled with a promise of restoration. The smoke lifted and there it was, one tower with a hole of astonishing matte-blackness, jagged and infernal, and my stomach fell away and I thought I would throw up, the bad stomach of a roller-coaster ride taken too late in life. Tears came, and for once I let them: slow tears for all that death. Prayers came-small ones, hardly verbal-and I let them, too. Then I put my head down and walked. I got to my building, and five minutes later the second tower fell.

That evening, back at home, my best friend, a reporter, called with his ghoulish humor to say what he’d been thinking all day and knew he could say only to me, because no one else would understanding jokes at such a moment.

The voice goes Brooklyn-Jewish: “So everybody has to be an architecture critic?” Then he told me that among cops, fire and emergency workers, between 400 and 500 were thought dead. For a good many years and several papers, he had covered cops, fire and emergency; he’d covered corrections; now he covered City Hall. He was at the triage center on Greenwich Street-where, notably, there were no survivors to work on. He sounded different, changed. The other unforgettable and moving thing I learned on television Tuesday night was that, of the many people who jumped, preferring flight to immolation, two were lovers-perhaps they’d only been lovers for a few minutes, in circumstances of emotional and spiritual compression that most of us will never understand, but they were lovers nonetheless-and they elected to depart a high floor together, sailing through blue sky and dust holding each other’s hands.

I had been reading Dante on the subway-it was my new pretentious fend-off-midlife project at the time, reading Dante on the subway, working slowly on my abysmal Italian-and before getting out to see the towers, I’d been working on this passage:

And how it is, when one glories in wealth and acquiring, And then the times make for enormous loss So that he weeps with every thought and fills with despair; So it was with me, when it met me face to face, That beast without peace, and little by little Drove me back to the silence of the sun.

The Italian for my awkward “beast without peace” is la bestia senza pace , which would really read more easily in English as “restless beast”-but all day, and ever since, when I heard the words in my head, la bestia senza pace , I thought not about the killers but the killed; I thought, as another friend reminded me, of Malcolm X’s chilling remark, when Kennedy was shot, that “the chickens have come home to roost”; I thought about the United States in the world and how our ease and comfort and ignorance come at a price which, like all colonialists, we prefer others to pay. I kept thinking of being “without peace.”

We watched though the evening, my three sons and wife and I, and then I put the boys to bed. Paul, the 9-year-old, said he would have nightmares. “You very well might,” I said.

“I’ll dream that the building next to ours gets hit by a plane, and it falls into our building, and I will be killed but you won’t,” he said.

“I don’t like that arrangement,” I said. “You’re much better-looking than I am, so you should live.”

“You’d be happy to inherit my Mickey Mantle card, though,” he said.

“That’s true,” I said.

In the morning, he told me that it turned out he’d had some other important dreams and so didn’t “have time for the nightmare.”

Vince Passaro’s novel, Violence, Nudity, Adult Content (Simon & Schuster), will be out in paperback next year.