Monday, September 11, 2006
In Remembrance Of 9/11
Regardless of the pitfalls of the white collar identity, and of whatever happens to white collar workers during their work lives, time spent working is still time spent living - with all the impressions, emotions and memories that such time conveys. For a few years in the late 1980's, I worked off and on in the World Trade Center, at a British investment firm on the 30th and 31st floors of the South Tower. The company that employed me was converting their portfolio trading system, and I was one of the programmers involved. I remember the people I worked with, most of whom had long since left the towers before 9/11 - or at least so I assume, or hope. I remember the blood red carpeting at the base of the elevators, the bronzey, almost gold-colored gleam of the elevators themselves, and the strangely Arabic contours of the towers' facades. I remember sitting in the plaza in front of the towers on a cool bright autumn day, waiting for my girlfriend, the towers epitomizing the bright promise of the future as they thrust into the blue sky overhead.
Yet once, on a Saturday afternoon while I was working overtime, I felt - or imagined that I felt - the tower sway in the autumn wind. I was mildly disconcerted, but I consoled myself with a complacent trust in American engineering. They planned for it to sway, I thought. The towers could never really be in danger - could they? For years after I worked in the South Tower, I commuted through the World Trade Center every working day. I shopped for suits and ties at Alexander's on the concourse, I enjoyed cocktails and pretzels at the Commuter Bar, I climbed up the escalators from the PATH and walked underground through the Chambers Street station. I worked in a building on the corner of Broadway and Duane, and the fire station that was featured in the film made by those two French brothers was right outside my window. When the company I worked for began to fail in the first "white collar recession" of the early 1990's, I was laid off and had to leave New York. I didn't want to go. On my last evening in the city, in the middle of July, I strode down to the World Trade Center and wandered about the complex. As I stood watching a fountain glitter in the twilight, the red glow of the sunset gathered around me like the very warmth of reminiscence, and I thought to myself that this city was incomparably beautiful. I will never work in a place like this again, I told myself - and I was right, I never have.
Years later, I brought my wife to New York. I was no longer a "worker" in this city - no longer someone who "belonged" here, who had "business" here - but just a person with the transitory and slightly ridiculous identity of a tourist. This was 1999, and New York itself was pretty much the same. The towers still stood. I took my wife to the plaza, and she told me that she wanted to go inside, all the way up to the top. But workaholics on vacation are still workaholics, and I had a tight schedule of what to see. We had MOMA to visit, and we could not linger. "Next time," I told my wife, and smiled. "Next time we're in The Big Apple we'll go inside." I raised my eyes, squinting while I smiled, and thought to myself that this place with its towers, unlike my house, my neighborhood, or some garden variety office park, would last forever, unchanged. I was certain it would outlive me, and I was utterly at peace with that notion.
The towers would never survive the ages to become the pyramids of New York. Fanatics destroyed them, but I know why they did it despite their fanaticism. They hated wealth, capitalism and globalization - all as crystalized in the towers and in the culture of the American people. I am an American, and I know firsthand how greed and materialism have corrupted our society, but I deplore the destruction of the towers as much as anyone else. I think of all the people who were killed, and realize that I could have been one of them. That is the one irreducible and ultimately frustrating paradox of striking against any power you despise. You will not destroy the power, you will only kill its servants - the very people whom you wish to liberate. Violence is the never the right path. Peaceful change and compromise always trump annihilation.