May 04, 2006

Smoulder City

A very slightly modified version of this essay I wrote is in the May 2006 issue of India Today Travel Plus. Some of the photographs accompanying the print version are by my friend Sam Hollenshead.


The Statue of Liberty is off in the distance, at 11 o'clock. Gorgeous orange and wispy clouds light up the morning sky; helicopters mutter overhead; the waves of the Hudson River go peacefully by and across the water are the lights of the Jersey shore. A pair of runners glide intently past. Behind them, a jogger with an interesting contraption: a rod connects her waist to the handle of a stroller, in which there are twins. As she gets near, I see she is pregnant. Forgive the uncharitable thought, someone, but it does come to me: More punishment? More joy?

I sit here, soaking in the head-spinning feeling of being in this humming city, this throbbing ode to humanity, and it's impossible not to think of the void that's only a few blocks behind me. That vast pit, now cleaned and tidied up, but once filled and smoking with a terrifying, indescribable pile of rubble. Rubble that used to make up what was previously on that spot: two soaring silver towers.

How long will it be before a casual visitor can spend a day in this city without a thought of what happened to those two towers one September morning?

Here and now, it's impossible not to be aware. Had I been here that morning instead of this, I might have looked over at the Statue of Liberty, then at the Jersey shore, then at the joggers, then heard some unusual sounds, then turned my head to catch my own vision of apocalypse. It's hard not to tell myself that had I been sitting here that morning, it's possible I would not have lived. Freedom symbolized over in that direction; terrorism falling out of the sky behind me. What does it take to get used to that idea, as this city and country must?

New York is a sensory overload: not just because of sights and smells and sounds and people, but sometimes with memories of fear, thoughts of terror, as well.

Still marvelling at the pregnant jogger as she vanishes into the distance, I get up, stretch and stroll back in the direction of my hotel. On the way, I run into some more memories -- not mine, but still. These are in one of those intriguing things you run into in this city, one of the ways it marks out its history.

From one angle, this is a nondescript if pleasant hillock that takes up about half a city block -- a neat garden that slopes down from the seaward, or New Jersey, side of the block. Neat, yes -- but so nondescript that you'd pass it without a thought. But if you do stop and wonder what it's about, you might wander around the structure, up the street on the side, heading towards the Hudson, the slope rising as you walk, then turn the corner ...

... to find a yawning cave-like entrance lit with tubelights, strips of backlit inscriptions along the walls. Two miles -- no typo, they add up to two miles -- of backlit inscriptions: quotes from letters, recipes, autobiographies, and much more. Here in the built-up heart of Manhattan, this strange little hill with its tubelights and words. What is this place anyway?

It's the Irish Hunger Memorial, remembering the victims of the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th Century. It takes its name from the Irish name for the calamity, "An Gorta Mor", or "The Great Hunger." This was an epic tragedy, and it left a mark on the psyche of the Irish that, arguably, they still bear, over a century-and-a-half later. Ireland was a booming country when the Great Hunger struck: population and economy growing apace. But the famine killed the Irish in droves, and drove many more of them to emigrate -- so much so that Ireland's population plunged steeply and has never since touched the heights it reached in the mid-1800s. (Is there another country of which you can say today that its population is substantially less than it was 150 years ago?)

Most of the emigrants fled to the USA. They entered through what New York's Governor George Pataki, dedicating the memorial in July 2002, called "the great harbor and city that welcomed so many survivors of the famine to new life, new hope and a new day for themselves and our country." I found that "our country" deeply moving. In this city of immigrants, in times when immigrants are everywhere reviled, what a thing to say about immigrants -- that they brought new life and hope to a country. Yet how true a thing to say.

And as you stroll through and read those quotes, you think once more of apocalypse. The vast pit only a few blocks away, then there's this little memorial: both reminders of great tragedy. In its time, the potato famine must have seemed just as arbitrary, cruel and inexplicable as 9/11 did. The Great Hunger killed more slowly than the jets of 9/11, but on a wider canvas, a vaster scale.

And 9/11, too, has left its mark on the psyche of a nation.

Here in the built-up-heart of Manhattan, I cannot help but wonder: 150 years from now, will that mark persist?

New York: questions at every turn, meaning wafting around every corner.

In search of the merely mundane one evening, I walked past the vast pit and south. Within minutes, I stumbled on an entire block that was given over to a crafts fair. Stalls on both sides of the street, the block barricaded to cars and thus crawling with pedestrian shoppers, music of every variety blaring, little handmade things of every description on sale. I picked up two tiny tortoises, heads bobbing in an unnervingly real way. For my son, the tortoise freak. From the same vendor, and this time for me, I also picked up a set of ... boxer shorts. Bargain price, excellent quality.

Where else in the world would you find one person selling both underwear and toy tortoises, but nothing else? How did he come up with this particular selection of goods to put on sale? ("Hmm, what should I stock up on, to go with these handpainted little animals? I know! Undies!")

I was, yes I was, in search of mundane.

The evening ended at a pub, with a friend. "It's my favourite place here", he told me. Partly because it was him, but also because this was NYC, I expected a loud, smoke-filled, hopping establishment. Instead, through the entire three hours we nursed beers there, we were the only customers. Did that have something to do with the fact that it sold only -- yes, only -- Belgian beers? I'm not sure. I would hardly have expected tiny Belgium to produce more than one or two brands of beer. But here we were, surrounded by a near-cornucopia of labels, attended by a lugubrious monk-like man who served us silently and shuffled back to reading a voluminous newspaper at the counter. He hunched there, this figure out of a medieval landscape, while we worked steadily through a noticeable fraction of a small country's beers. Yet surely even our best guzzling efforts could not have been enough for this establishment to pay its bills. How did it do so?

Yet that's New York. Not even in Belgium, I imagine, would a bar devoted entirely to Belgian beers survive. But in this smouldering city, there's one that not only survives, it seems entirely plausible, entirely appropriate. Complete with a homegrown Hunchback of Notre Dame-like character.

In the space of an evening, I have found a vendor selling only tortoises and boxer shorts, another selling only beers of Belgium. I fully expect them to join forces soon. This is NYC, after all.

Late that night, I walk back to my hotel once more, along the shore where I can look across at the lights of Jersey. Taped to a bench is a handwritten note. There is just enough light to read it. This is what it says:
    On 9/11 this marble bench saved us from the South Tower collapse. I helped two people out of the water then I got you on the last boat out of here. Hope you are well. Call me, 212-xxx-yyyy. P.S. Your son-in-law lives in Hoboken, you live in Queens.
In New York, some things still smoulder.


Vikrum said...

This is really outstanding writing Dilip. I really enjoyed it. I will forward it to a bunch of New Yorkers.

angerdux said...

Beautifully written.

Please read my blog on 9/11 under "Casual Writings" by Angelica Kiedrowski. Parts of it were published in my local newspaper The Times Picayune. I am a native New Yorker living in New Orleans for 15 years now. My brother in-law is a NYC firefighter. With Katrina at the heels of 9/11, it has all been very, very hard. I would so appreciate your readng my blog. Best--