August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
September 11, 2001, was my daughter’s first day of kindergarten—a new school a long subway ride up the spine of Manhattan. Rebecca’s inaugural school day consisted of half an hour meeting other children, followed by a four-hour walk home. When the school opened again, her teacher told me, “She’s going to build something. Just watch—they’re all going to be building things.”
I nodded, not quite knowing what she meant. But sure enough, before long Rebecca pulled out from the most desolate reaches of her closet a canvas bag full of big wooden blocks in which she had never before shown the feeblest glint of interest, and went to work in the living room. Soon there was a persuasive little city there, dominated by two tall wooden shafts standing close beside each another. “Don’t touch it,” Rebecca commanded her mother and me, and we didn’t.
A couple of mornings later she appeared with a carefully folded paper airplane, a line of windows with passengers behind them crayoned along its sides. “Watch this.” She sailed it into one of the towers. It snubbed softly against its target and dropped to the rug. “There,” said Rebecca. “That time nobody got hurt.”
So my daughter, along with several million of her neighbors, began the process that the cant of the day called “getting on with their lives,” and, with a more succinct but also somehow more irritating piety, “closure.”
Irritating, perhaps, because that “getting on” suggests that September 11 can fall away behind like a motel on the highway. But of course, as we get on with our lives, September 11 gets right on with us.
This is reflected in Jeanette Baik’s photographs in this issue. An Assistant Editor here, she is keenly interested in photography. Last winter she went out for a day in her Northern Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights and began recording examples of a quiet new ubiquity: the efflorescence of the American flag. That began in what had been a most unflag-waving city that Tuesday afternoon—flags in deli windows, on bicycles, on fire hydrants, on dumpsters, and so thickly on buildings that we seemed to have re-created a long-gone era, in which, if the old trade cards are to be believed, every parapet on every department store was ablaze with Old Glory.
These flags, great and small, were not raised as emblems of dominion, of even necessarily of national pride. They were signals sent back and forth between enterprises as different as Donald Trump’s newest edifice and the busy hot-dog cart in front of the Holland Tunnel that we were all in this together.
On an unseasonably hot Thursday evening last May, people hurried past Engine Company 65 on West Forty-third Street. A bronze plaque to the right of the door explained that the company had been organized here in 1898; a plaque on the left commemorated its casualties: Matthew Ward had died fighting a fire the day after Christmas in 1915; John J. Frein, on January 4, 1918; Thomas S. Finn, James F. Greene, and John H. Cosgrove, on August 1,1932. And then there is Thomas McCann, September 11,2001.
A sign—not a plaque—asks Thomas McCann to “come home soon, we’ll leave the light on for you.” And the light was on: a well-tended candle, its flame faint but steady in the bright early evening.
You can see improvised shrines like this in firehouses all over the city; after all, one in every ten who died that day was a firefighter. A lot of them have little flames burning, and seeing the light in front of 65 made me think of a transitory monument on the site of the World Trade Center. For a few days some months ago, two slabs of white light, each about the dimension of one of the towers, and placed close together just as Rebecca’s blocks had been, rose into the night sky. I thought it was a lovely memorial, suggesting with the greatest economy the wrenching contradiction of presence and absence.
Now there is a great deal of wrangling about what’s going to go where the towers were. I’m sorry they didn’t leave those pillars of light; but my guess is that when they build whatever they do, people are going to hate it at first, and then get fond of it—just as they did the murdered towers.
In the meantime, and despite the confounding dolors of the struggle September 11 ignited, the flags wave everywhere among us. We’ve gotten used to them, hardly notice them at all any more. But each one is a light calling Tom McCann back home, and these lights will burn for a long time to come.