too much typing—since 2003

5.11.2004

It's odd how unpredictably events affect you. When I first heard about the events of September 11, 2001, I was on my way to teach. The university didn't cancel classes until the afternoon, and so I tried holding my two morning classes, while students huddled around one student with a portable radio and tried to figure out what was going on. Needless to say, we talked far more about the attacks than about anything else. Undeniably, I was affected by what was happening - but at a certain remove, I guess, in that I didn't know anyone directly affected, and as soon as I knew my friends in NYC were okay (one of whom had seen the second plane hit from the roof of his building), I think my habit of moving things to an analytical register took over very quickly. I didn't have to wait long, that is, to find myself thinking about the events politically; and I think because that was something I could, at least potentially, do something about, it was an easier place to inhabit than a more directly emotional engagement.

So a day or so ago, I'm watching the DVD of Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns, the TMBG documentary, and one scene has the band playing a midnight in-store at Tower Records in New York City to promote the release of Mink Car. And then a caption establishes the date as September 10, 2001. I suddenly realize that, within ten hours, the lives of the people in this audience will be changed utterly. How many of them would be dead, or would have family or friends die? And of course, none of them have the first idea, as we see them on the screen, that anything eventful is about to happen to them. In one shot, I think, we can see a policeman in the doorway, presumably on crowd-control duty. I'm not even sure whether he's a real cop or just a security guy (I didn't look that closely), but I imagine him as an NYPD officer, getting off his third-shift duty, going home, falling asleep, and being awakened the next day, probably to try to save people, almost certainly discovering that several of his friends are dead.

It's odd, isn't it - but I suppose not surprising - that even seeing mere images of people in close proximity to death makes those people more vividly alive, more breathingly human, and thereby translates the abstraction of death into emotional legibility, felt in the body itself. And I wonder at my reluctance to look at, even to see, images of the atrocities in Abu Ghraib: am I forestalling a real human engagement with the victims, or (as I like to tell myself) merely following a decent urge not to gawk at evidence of how appallingly some humans can behave?

And I recall an article I read once on homeless people: several of the homeless who were interviewed said the thing that angered them most about public reaction to them, even more than abuse or condescension, was when people looked right through them as if they weren't there, as if to deny their very existence.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I also was just watching the TMBG doc the other night, and noticed the date of that in-store appearance. I thought it was crazy that things could change so quickly and drastically. I was at work when the attacks started, and by noon I was outta there and running around to check on my friends. I think you bring up an interesting point in that knowing that a tragedy is so close to the people at that in-store makes them that much more alive, and happy. what a crazy fucked up world.



jay holler - particle zoo
pzoo.com

velvet lane said...

Beautiful and moving post, FF.

Still, I can't leave well enough alone. This is somewhat off-topic, but:

several of the homeless who were interviewed said the thing that angered them most about public reaction to them...was when people looked right through them as if they weren't thereI would ask the homeless people in this documentary, is there something you or your buddies may have done to cause this reaction?

If you're homeless, you're a wild card. You could be perfectly nice and down on your luck, you could be delusional and want to kill me, you could have a knife, you could be a rapist, you could just be really annoying and needy. Why should I make conversation with you if I don't have to?

I don't know about other cities, but in NYC, people ignore each other all the time. There are too many people to deal with for everyone to be engaging each other all the time.

2fs said...

Hey Vel: You wrote, "If you're homeless, you're a wild card." True - but I don't think they meant you had to sit down and chat with them, only the most basic acknowledgement of their existence: looking at them (should they be in your field of vision), rather than through them. Still, it's true in a city you can't do that with everyone, some people go apeshit if you do just look at them, and I purposely wrote to leave questions hanging in the air, rather than accusing myself (or anyone else) of anything. Probably homeless people are more sensitive to such slights - because they often are ignored, consciously, even though many times people might be "ignoring" them in the way much of what surrounds you gets passed by - by never really entering your consciousness. To a large extent, that distancing and psychic armoring is necessary: we quite literally can't process everything we potentially might take in, and we certainly can't take in and feel everyone's pain: we'd go nuts. (There are at least two episodes of Buffy that deal with that idea, to cite scripture - or what passes for it around here...)