I Kept Looking
by Alexander Fabry
I don’t really remember that morning. The monotony of the
commute was unremarkable on the second day of our first full week
of school. Perhaps the dreadful normality of that morning made
everything seem all the worse. I probably talked to some friends,
did some unfinished homework. Not thinking about anything in particular,
I just let myself be carried beneath the city. Sometimes on the
subway I feel the proximity of people very strongly, and the strangeness
of traveling like this, and the industrial grandeur of these underground
trains. But probably not on that sleepy morning.
If I look hard enough at something, I often find that I am fascinated
and frightened by it. Not matter what I see, I can find something
larger than myself hidden in it. This is a peripheral sensation
for me, rather than an intellectual response. I can easily become
engrossed in the most trivial things, spending hours looking at
the different ways that a wave can crash against rocks, imagining
the awesome power of the sea, and wondering what is just over
the blue rim at the edge of my vision. Hence, I have a strong
feeling of some greater entity, some bigger force in the world.
Even by describing these events and remembering again this thing,
I feel the tingle of the unknown and the tightness of anxiety.
However, there are so many things that can elicit this response
from me — to a greater or lesser degree — that I feel
I need to search for something deeper, a moment when I felt that
my life was changing. Reading a well-written book sometimes puts
me into a state removed from the larger reality. I could be walking
down Park Avenue when I suddenly notice how tall the buildings
really are, and how many people there are, and how if I turn fully
around, I can see four concrete ravines leading to the encircling
horizon, that I feel alone, and feel the presence of something
After fourth period, nobody even thought of going back to class. There were nondescript, fuzzy announcements on the PA system. I don’t remember walking to pick up my sister, but next thing I knew, I was with her, calling home. I got a busy signal every time. I walked with a false sense of purpose and looked for people I knew. I escaped the nervous chaos of the school hallway and was offered a lift home.
The five of us — myself, my sister, Jane, Simone, and Nell — were waiting on the southeast corner of 94th and Park, waiting for Jane’s dad to pick us up. We had all taken the bus together in elementary school, and that commute had almost always been exciting and different. Or at least I remembered it that way. It was now early afternoon, and the sun was warm as we sat against the building. The air was quiet and hung loosely on everything around it. There were few cars on the street to break the silence.
Of course, we first talked about where we were when we had heard the news, what we had thought, and what happened next. But humor seems to come naturally at the oddest moments. We joked about our new teachers. One had a lisp. One gave too much homework. “Look, we have to read all of those pages in the new art textbook!” Someone giggled at a painting of a nude. “I’m going to be up all night finishing this reading!” Simone laughed too loudly. Jane laughed too quietly. I tried to laugh, but couldn’t force it out. My sister held my hand tightly.
But I felt the same as I had when I got up that morning. The sky was the same piercing blue as it must have been when I walked to the subway station. I stood up at the base of our concrete cavern and climbed into Jane’s dad’s car, which had just arrived.
Perhaps I hold everything at arm’s length, observing from far away, perhaps afraid of the indefinite, but always equally entranced — a defense mechanism of sorts. I find that often it is easier to withdraw from something that is larger than myself, easier to deal with if I don’t get caught up in it. I can witness life through a defensive window, but I don’t think I want to. I fantasize about living a secluded life, perhaps a hermit’s life where I can always keep these things at arm’s length and never really let them get to me deeply, but where I can appreciate what is around me. Where I can think abstractly and play with thought experiments and where I don’t have to get swept up in anything if I don’t want to. What I have noticed, even writing this rambling exploration, is that being alone has a great deal to do with this sense of something bigger. A cold winter night on a deserted street makes me feel small and alone and forces me to think about things larger than myself; reading a book is a solitary enterprise, and noticing how you yourself have changed is an experience entirely encapsulated by yourself. But I can keep these things away and let the feeling into my consciousness a little bit at a time; I can protect myself from the unknown.
* * *
On the way downtown, we listened to the radio. I looked out the window, noticing the sights familiar from the days of my school bus. We had the radio on, and Jane’s dad kept up a one-sided conversation. The radio talked about Pearl Harbor and sounded unreal. “This day will live in infamy,” he said, quoting Roosevelt.
“Roosevelt didn’t say that. That was Churchill.” I hadn’t actually been listening. “Winston Churchill: ‘This day will live in infamy.’ World War Two. Why do they have to mix these things up?” Jane’s dad continued his conversation. I had thought it was really Roosevelt, but I didn’t say anything. I just looked out the window, this time looking toward the front windshield instead of out my side window.
“You see that cloud?” I did. There was one large cloud directly south of us. Like a large thunderhead building in the afternoon sky, I had thought.
“You know what it is, don’t you?” I really didn’t know what he was talking about. It just looked like a cloud to me. I thought he had to be tenser than any of us.
“That’s all that’s left of them.”
We were stopped by police barricades at 14th Street, but since we live farther down, they let us continue south. We were stopped again at Houston Street. No cars below Houston. The only sounds were the moaning sirens. There were only people below Houston, confuse humanity, and they were moving in only one direction. We talked against the tide, toward home.
I had once seen the ticker-tape parade when the Yankees won the World Series, and there had been so much confetti that I could barely make out some of the buildings downtown. The confetti had floating gently up and down, looking like so many falling petals. Now there was so much smoke and dust that I couldn’t see any of the buildings, and a sandstorm right out of the Arabian Nights seemed to have blanketed the area. And the smell. An acrid stench choked the neighborhood. The smoke of the fires, the dust of the buildings, the bones of the dead. The smell bit at your nose and reminded you constantly, just in case you might have forgotten. Six months later, you could still smell it if the wind was right, and it would always make me pause mid-step. Then I would walk out the door and continue with my daily life.
Sometimes I want to travel the world and do nothing but observe.
I want to learn every language, I want to visit every place, I
want to know every person’s story, and I don’t ever
want to forget. And I don’t know why, because that scares
me. Would I like to be a modern explorer, a modern nomad, a modern
man living outside the present? I would and I wouldn’t,
for that would represent the last stage in separating myself from
the fabric of the world, as if I were on the moon and looking
at all these places through a telescope. I would get a sense of
the location, but I would be outside of the action.
Despite these funny daydreams of mine, I don’t want to be alone.
The television was on when I got home, competing with the sirens. I went to sleep with the television on that night, and I woke up with it on the next morning. My parents had seen one of the planes hit. They had seen the towers collapse. My clever dad had predicted they would collapse. He had taken two rolls of films and a video of the entire event. He gave me a scratchy dust mask with yellow elastic bands. I was to wear that. We didn’t know what was in the smoke. Who knows what the terrorists had brought on the planes with them? I went to sleep later with the mask on, too.
“I heard a loud thundering, and the whole building shook as the plane went by,” my dad said. “ZZHHEEWWWW. It was that loud.”
I went onto the roof.
I sat on the fire escape by myself and watched the smoke gently twist up and away; I watched the constantly changing patterns in the dust, the delicate swirls and eddies. The serpentine smoke climbed up and twisted and contorted itself. I couldn’t even imagine where the towers had been. I kept looking south for a long time, just sitting alone in the sunlight.
Later, my family went for a walk around SoHo and we met with our neighborhood friends. The streets were deserted except for us, and no one was walking north anymore. The little kids played ball, running up and down and shouting happily. There were the shouts, and the sirens, and the burning smell. There was a thin haze hanging over the street, and we walked in the middle of the road. I was breathing in the World Trade Center. There was fine ash on the fire hydrants, a thin coating of dust. I kept glancing downtown, then slowly looking back.
“I remember when SoHo used to be like this,” my dad
said. No cars. I wish it was still like this.” I felt like
hitting him. That night, I cried myself to sleep for the first
time in years.
There are things larger than myself similar to ones I have already described. But the most important, the ones that change your whole outlook, the events that alter you as a person and touch you deeply and emotionally are events that you cannot hold at arm’s length. They are things that carry you up and away, that occupy your mind without thought of anything else. They are things that you can’t distance yourself from. And while I didn’t really want to write about this subject, I almost feel obligated to because there has never been anything in my life that fits these criteria better. For me the most powerful and significant of these events is September 11.
A year afterward, I sat in the courtyard and remembered. I felt tears running down my cheeks. Again, I let myself cry. I felt sorry for those who, with typical cynicism, had forgotten, or who pretended they had forgotten.