Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Emily in Pascagoula and Thoughts on Loss

What do you do when 'home for the holidays' prostrates you forcibly at the ankles of a force bigger than you can grasp? Emily writes, and evocatively.

dad drove slowly. i sat in the passenger seat as we rode down the beach and cried. cried for several reasons... first, and most powerfully, because what i saw wasn't the remains of houses, it was the remains of homes -- memories, investments, loves, struggles, morning cups of coffee, evening dinners. houses now wear their addresses in spray paint, alongside names of insurance companies or FEMA identification numbers. front steps lead to barren foundations. it's a wasteland, a demolition site, a clusterfuck.

another reason i cried is because i honestly can't remember how it used to look. my memory has lost the details, the intricacies. i know the beach by its landmarks. i know the houses in relation to each other. well, when all of the houses are gone, it becomes pretty easy to lose your bearing. how many times have i driven down that beach? hundreds? thousands? how many nights did i sneak a cigarette while driving alongside the water, car windows down all the way, radio up loud? never again. it will never be the same drive. it can't be. i cried because i can't remember how it used to look. i cried because this is how it looks now.

dad said, "this looks like some sort of forest out of harry potter." it does -- it's a fantasy, unreal, dark, spectral. the trees are full of stuff that used to be in living rooms; curtains, sheets, clothes, upholstery -- dragged by the wind through limbs, caught on branches. dad said, "some of these areas are likely never going to be cleared completely."

I cannot know her pain, or how overwhelmed she must be. I wish there was something I could say or do to make it better.

Her writing, though, puts me in mind of my worst post-9/11 moment, when I first really wrapped my mind around the absence from the New York City skyline of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Oddly, this didn't occur on Saturday, September 15, 2001, when the nearly empty plane I was on angled up the East River on its approach to LaGuardia, providing a breathtaking view, from perhaps 4000 feet, of the smoking ruin of Ground Zero. The perspective was too unfamiliar, the destruction remote, incomprehensible.

It's not that I was unmoved that day. My entire trip, from the agonizing process of deciding whether to travel at all; to the anxiety regarding whether LaGuardia would be open (it had opened on Thursday, and then closed on Friday); to the slow, contemplative early-morning flight over Pennsylvania shared with no more than a dozen other flyers, to the pilot's curt announcement over central New Jersey that "the plume" was visible ahead of the left wing of the plane; to the apocalyptic view below the wing as we descended over the East River; to the funereal march of we few passengers through a jetway and into an appallingly empty and quiet concourse (only someone who has put serious time in in New York-area airports can begin to understand the profound displacement induced by silence and emptiness in such a place); to the driving of a rented pick-up truck east on the Long Island Expressway, the overpasses teeming with crowds waving American flags and similar penants, the left-most lane on the westbound side reserved for emergency vehicles only, which streamed into the city in the hundreds and indeed thousands -- my entire trip left me stripped and revealed, pared down to bone and ganglia, humming like an overtightened guitar string about to snap. It's just that my mind wasn't ready to accept the most tangible aspect of the destruction effected on Tuesday of that week.

Instead, it took a more familiar approach to fully reveal the scale of the hole in the sky of my childhood. Returning to New Jersey for Thanksgiving in 2001, I offered to drive a law school classmate directly to Hoboken from Pittsburgh. In Hoboken, he would catch a train into New York City and meet family. Thus, in New Jersey, rather than exiting eastbound Interstate 78 for the Garden State Parkway, as is my custom, I continued on toward the Holland Tunnel and Hoboken.

Just before reaching the Pulaski Skyway, a bridge lifts the roadway high over a polluted river, several straight-line miles from the southern rim of New York City. As we crested the bridge, my friend and I, the darkness looming over the blocks and rows of houses and industrial buildings laid out before us like the viscera of a cancerous beast -- the road curving just above the structures to the horizon like an artery -- tightened and oppressed, recalling teenage nightmares in which a room too dark to distinguish even the most obvious feature grew impossibly darker, the absence of light palpably pressing inward on my wide-open eyes, and I raised a hand without explanation imporing my friend to silence.

The towers, which had dwarfed everything between themselves and the bridge on every other occasion I'd driven this way, were gone. Gone were their thousands of lights winking arrogantly down at the world from impossible heights; gone the hint of edges like fine bas relief against the sky, implying rather than declaring the buildings' contours and full dimension; gone the peculiar gravitational attraction of paired monoliths streaking skyward with the inexorable force of human enterprise itself. Just gone.

Through the tolls that signaled the end of our brief stint on a spur of the New Jersey Turnpike and marked the commencement of our transit across the Skyway down toward the mouth of the Holland Tunnel, a trip I'd driven hundreds of times before, the top of the Liberty Science Center appeared just above and to the right of the roadway, and Lady Liberty's torch glimmered gold just beyond. After that, though, nothing. Formerly, from this perspective, the Towers had brooded impossibly tall, given their distance across the harbor where the Hudson yawned toward the Atlantic Ocean past Sandy Hook. Now, the sky was darkest where they were absent. The sense of gravity emanating from their former acres of skyscape remained, but now it was the lightless gravity of a black hole rather than that of a star.

Tears gathered in the bottoms of my eyes, and I snuffled them back as best I could, refusing to wipe my eyes, or my nose, or my clammy palm against my thigh. My companion, a nice man but not a terribly close friend, kept his own counsel. I made no effort to explain myself, nor to invite him to the peculiar and intensely personal hall of horrors this drive had become. It was an invitation I wouldn't have extended even to my worst enemy (who was, at that unfamiliar moment of profoundly martial sentiment, any motherfucker I could get my hands on who had raped the sky over my home).

All tragedy is personal. And I know all too well how inadequate photography is (and words are) to memorialize profound loss. Nevertheless, Emily has posted revealing and devastating photographs from her trip, harrowing photographs, here and here.


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