This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

September 23, 2001 — "My wife and I were staring at this dumbly and suddenly the whole thing gave a little quiver and disappeared," said John Updike. "It sank down as if somebody had yanked it."

Colson Whitehead recalled watching both towers become engulfed in smoke, then "The wind shifted for a second, and where the second tower should have been, it wasn't. I had assumed that the smoke had merely hidden it, but it hadn't been there at all. And then Tower 2 sighed. The top floors buckled out, spraying tiny white shards, and the building sank down into itself . . . ."

Both men witnessed the attack on the World Trade Center — not even two weeks ago now — from vantage points in Brooklyn, where Whitehead lives and Updike was visiting family.

"To actually be seeing it not a mile away was very moving, disturbing, unsettling," Updike told the BBC News service. "It's like the bottom fell out of your own existence somehow."

Whitehead, writing in the New York Times, said, "I shouted, 'Oh, my God!'"

The most terrifying account I heard was sent to my Web site by poet George Murray, who said "I work" — he hasn't quite gotten all his new tenses right yet — in a building "directly under" the World Trade Center.

"It's a long story," he wrote, "but it includes walking out of my building to see an entire airplane tire blocking the front door, actually SEEING FULLY the second plane crash into the south face as I stood 150 metres away looking straight up at it (running for cover as the debris and bodies fell down), seeing all kinds of gore and awful human suffering as I tried to escape (people jumping from the top floors on fire and landing nearby), and being 1 1/2 blocks away as the first tower collapsed behind me. That raging dust cloud you see on CNN with all the people scattering in front of it? That was EXACTLY what I saw over my shoulder! I was engulfed in it. I really thought that was the end . . ."

The horror hasn't exactly departed, either. Novelist Linda Yablonsky, who lives in lower Manhattan, wrote to me about walking along lower Sixth Avenue three days after the attack.

"I passed several firehouses," she wrote. "All had pictures of their lost and many, many candles and offerings of cards and flowers in front . . . I wanted to say something sympathetic to the firemen on duty, rather listlessly staring out from where they were standing, hanging very close to their trucks, but I couldn't speak. At the firehouse at Sixth and Houston, there is a pickup truck pulled from the rubble with a sign from ladder company 5 (the one that got wiped out in the collapse) on the traffic island in the street and a truck from that company in the garage."

A little further on, around St. Vincent's Hospital she noted "the many, many flyers from families with missing relatives taped all over the facade on either side of the emergency entrance and all over the bus shelter across the street . . . ."

"By that time," she wrote, "it was impossible to fight back tears, once again . . . I see many people in the street with tears in their eyes as well, or just staring downtown at the hole in the sky."

Meanwhile, as far as she can tell, the populace "seems quite divided between those who can't get out fast enough and those who are committed to staying put and rebuilding."
David Lehman, who lives in Greenwich Village — "near the edge of the war zone" — wrote to me that "Many friends are visibly shaken, don't want to be alone, have nightmares; some of us feel besides sadness and vulnerability a strange exhilaration at being a witness to history."

John Updike's observation of the mood of the city is that, "There is now a great deal of anger and indignation but the enemy is ghostly and elusive. And were the principal conspirator to be removed I think the same forces that conjured him up would conjure up a successor."

"A lot of people," notes Linda Yablonsky, "seem to be afraid that any move we make they'll counter with Anthrax in our water."

Still, says David Lehman, "There's no place I'd rather be than downtown Manhattan."

Last Week’s Column: 9–11 Stray and desperate thoughts of literature while watching tragedy unfold . . .


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.