The Big Chill

And so a month has passed. Thirty days that feel like a lifetime. And for a moment-just a moment-maybe it’s time to pause and take stock of who we are, where we are and how we’ve changed.

Or how we haven’t changed.

In the past four weeks, along with the stories of epic heroism and unfathomable loss, we’ve read that irony is over, action films are history, the culture of gossip and celebrity is finished and-according to no less an authority than The Economist magazine-the era of American corporate globalism has ended.

None of this, of course, is true.

As my friend Kurt Andersen says, “Trauma has a half-life.” We move onward. And with each passing day, we attempt to achieve some semblance of normalcy as we struggle to bridge the before with the after.

This is not to diminish or trivialize the grotesqueness of what happened, or to dismiss the threat or real fears of what may come in response to our attacks on Oct. 7. But just as some people rise to the occasion, others just as surely fall to predictable lows.

Just as Jerry Falwell would try to blame the attacks on gays and abortion, Al Sharpton would, of course, go one analogy too far, braying that “even Bozo” could have brought the city together.

Mark Green would, of course, claim that he would’ve done just as good a job, if not better, than Rudy-proving, perhaps, that he reached his true level of competence by calling press conferences to announce yet another crackdown on overcharges at Korean salad bars.

And Tina Brown would, of course, continue to display her own now-confirmed tin ear. First, making sure we all read in The Times that she brought coffee to the rescue workers; then, touting her own heroic efforts to remake the new issue of Talk . (Strange: Didn’t she use the same breathless prose to describe her last-minute decision to put Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane on the cover in July?)

Yes, round up the usual suspects, and they can forever be counted upon to act in the usualself-aggrandizing manner.

Did we really need all those celebrities acting like ground zero was some kind of V.I.P. room-as if their presence there was an entitlement, some part of their perk package?

Did we really need to know how much effort and energy and money went into making a new episode of The West Wing , so we could all be treated to a preachy lesson in civics?

And then there was the new Ralph Lauren ad: tasteless and creepy from someone who should know better. But there he is, wearing an American-flag sweater and an unseemly grin, accompanied by text that begins, “I have always been inspired by America and its heroes-the cowboy, the soldier and now the firefighters, police officers and rescue workers.” What is he trying to say here? He admires these people? His spring fashion line will feature yellow hi-viz stripes? Or is it “Don’t worry, Ralph is still here to make the world safe for designer logos”?

Beats me. But please, please, please, spare all of us the once and future Benetton ad that will inevitably juxtapose pictures of Palestinian children with New York City firefighters.

In Los Angeles, where I am writing this dispatch, the mornings have turned cloudy with the onset of fall. The Hollywood Home Depot is sold out of respirators, the National Guard is patrolling LAX. And when the ground rumbles-as it just did-you now wonder whether it’s an earthquake, or something worse.

In Westwood, an artist has covered the side of an 18-story building with a Trade Center tribute that’s roughly the equivalent of Elvis on velvet: It portrays every possible cliché, from an exhausted rescue worker to the fireball erupting from the south tower to a single tear rolling down the Statue of Liberty’s cheek. It’s also in violation of local zoning laws.

Predictably, the artist is screaming about his First Amendment rights-conveniently forgetting that he was cited this past summer for using the same space, and similar imagery, to promote the film Pearl Harbor .

In the entertainment business itself, deals fall by the wayside. One studio-where I saw the development list-had at least five scripts being written involving Islamic terrorism and carnage in New York City. Another had a picture close to getting made that was actually described as “Osama bin Laden blows up an airliner with Tony Soprano’s daughter onboard.” And what you didn’t hear in the days following Sept. 11 was the general annoyance among the less-than-$20-million-per-picture crowd (read: middle-class Hollywood) about the celebrity telethon. “Any one of those guys could have easily written a check for $10 million,” went the general complaint. Or, as a studio executive put it: “Hollywood woke up on Sept. 12 and found that it wasn’t the center of the universe anymore. We had to find a way to insinuate ourselves in this. Chances are that Microsoft and G.M. and Boeing also received warnings from the F.B.I. about possible attacks-but only Hollywood alerted the press about it.”

I lost two friends on Sept. 11. I won’t traffic in my grief or their loss here. But, like you, I have my own memories of those buildings. My father’s 60th birthday party at Windows on the World; the summer I worked for the Port Authority, cutting the grass on the runways at the Newark airport, watching the façades rise, floor by floor, on the still-unfinished towers in the distance.

Six days after the attack, a doctor friend of mine arrived at his office in Beverly Hills to find the F.B.I. with a subpoena for the records of one of his patients, who may or may not have been one of the pilots on the plane that hit the south tower.

Looking out of his office window, my friend asked, “What did they see here that they hated so much?”

The answer: a country where we all have the right to be trivial and gossipy and tasteless and self-promoting.

And the right to nail someone for it.

The Big Chill