I started this post sometime last week, or maybe the week before even and abandoned it. It's a post I've been writing in my head for months now, and I've been frustrated by how impossible it seems to logically connect everything that I want to say. It's rife with complexities, contradictions and inconsistencies. In other words, it's human and I speak for no human other than myself. Ultimately, it's not one post, it's several and I'll try to stick with it and post the other parts too.
It's about the war - the moments of my own experience that have defined it for me, and how those moments sit in my memory. It's a messy explanation of why I decided to show Nina Berman's work, and how it's important to me and how a couple of photos have defined the war for me, and changed everything about how I see it. This particular part of the story doesn't have a photo to go with it, but there are images in my mind that go along with it that are indelible.
In Summer 2001, less than a year after returning to NY, I was at dinner with a group of friends. We were at Lombardi's, just up the street from where I'd open my gallery a few years later. We were sitting upstairs around a large table, outdoors but under an awning.
We were young and educated and optimistic. We talked about war at that dinner, marvelling at the fact that we'd lived thus far with no major conflict as part of our personal histories - Vietnam was only the vaguest of TV memories for most of us, if at all. We talked about Bush the First's Desert Storm, the first cable TV war - graphics packages and theme music and endless updates about nothing new. We'd come into adulthood without war as a defining aspect of our experience. It seemed unbelievable and great and I think saying it out loud made us all a little uneasy, like we'd jinx it or something.
I can still remember how the air felt that night, warm but not too much so. I remember feeling fortunate for everything, for my friends, for the Summer night, for the leisurely dinner and the red wine, for the contentment. I felt safe and privileged and grateful. Looking back now, I also seem hopelessly naïve. I'm still grateful for that night - it's my before memory to a much more complicated and tragic after.
A few months later, one friend at that table would be evacuated from his apartment near the World Trade Center via a tugboat. Another would choose to sleep in, planning on arriving at a conference later than the people on his team, skipping the breakfast at Windows on the World. From home, he'd receive a series of frantic emails sent from their Blackberries as they desperately tried to figure out how to get downstairs to safety.
I myself don't really have much of a September 11th story. I don't remember a lot of it. I remember that I was sitting in my apartment waking up slowly, when my friend John IM'd me from London tell me to turn on the TV. I ignored him. Then again, he said so more insistently. I did, for a moment and then I went up on to my roof with my neighbors. I stood there dumbly for a while, looking at the flaming gash in the tower and wondering how they'd rebuild the floors above it, since they were so very high in the air. I remember thinking that maybe Zach, my neighbor who was about 5 at the time, shouldn't be seeing what we were seeing.
More people came on the roof and I went downstairs. I was looking at something that I'd see on TV over and over and over again. I knew that my memory of seeing it was likely to become indistinguishable from what I was going to be shown. I took Ollie for a walk. My parents called, begging me to leave my East Village apartment and come home. I was home, and so I didn't leave.
I was happy to wake up the next morning and go to Astor place and line up for a newspaper. It felt like a snow day, the muffled quiet, the empty streets, except those were Humvees going down 2nd Ave, not snowplows. People walked around like zombies for a few days, many of us with silent tears streaming down our faces. And that smell. That fucking smell. I can't remember it anymore, but I remember it was horrible.
My friends and family were accounted for quickly. I think I watched a lot of TV. I never went to Union Square. I never once went to gawk at the hole in the ground. I cried in front of firehouses a few times. I looked down Second Avenue at the plume of smoke that climbed into the sky for days, maybe weeks. I tried to remember what the skyline looked like before the smoke, with the towers, and realized that I'd never actually paid much attention to that view.
Walking your dog in NYC you look down a lot. Seven day votive candles in thick glass jars burned for weeks at the bases of Gingko trees, makeshift memorials for the lost residents of the buildings they stood in front of. I'd look from the photocopied "Missing" flyers tacked up on the trees, to the candles, to to the bikes locked to the racks adjacent. I connected them all. I still, to this day, look at what were once perfectly nice, shiny bikes with the fanciest Kryptonite locks on them and wonder if their owners had died at the Trade Center. Why else would they have left these nice bikes to languish like this?
So far as I can tell, logically speaking, there is no reason for me to connect the bikes to the candles to the flyers. Similarly, there was no logical reason to connect what happened in New York City to the war that we're in now. It didn't make sense then, and it doesn't make sense now either.