When I was in college, I had this amazing professor named John Stilgoe. Stilgoe’s classes taught you how to look at the world. We examined cities and towns, train stations and shopping malls, billboards and magazines, trolley tracks and cereal boxes. After his class, I looked at everything with new eyes.
Stilgoe often talked about unlikely disaster scenarios. “What would you do if the country shut down, and you had to get back home? What if the roads were closed? What would you do?” At times, he seemed a bit odd. A bit out there.
Then 9/11 happened. So. Not so “out there,” after all.
The following is a letter I wrote to him in early October of 2001.
This September, as we turn to the possibility of yet another Middle Eastern war, my thoughts and prayers are with those still suffering the after-effects of 9/11 . . .
…Which is most of the world.
October 9, 2001
Dear Professor Stilgoe:
How are you? I am fine, if you put fine in quotes (“fine”) and take it to mean, uninjured, without any personal losses. Which I am…
I’ve thought of you a lot these past few weeks — suddenly everyone seems to remember that the interstate highway system facilitates troop movements, and all kinds of infrastructure debates — which never happen in normal times — are on radio and tv and the news. This would certainly be a time I would enjoy sitting in on one of your classes. I think I would hear something different than everything else I hear around me.
Things are completely surreal here, and since every day of news brings with it not a fading into memory but a renewal of anguish and fear, I, like many of my friends, have taken to avoiding “news” (propaganda?), or at most, looking at it guiltily. Every time I look I feel worse, and I berate myself – “Why did I do that?” I knew I would feel worse afterwards!”
On Sep. 11th I saw the second plane crash in, looking from my lovely expansive view up in Brooklyn. Throughout that afternoon came a slow, steady stream of refugees from the financial district, each with their own story to tell and faint white coatings of ash on their shoes and hair. Like they’d had a sitcom-style baking accident.
In the grocery store I met a man who was a businessman from L.A., and had been staying in the Marriott across from the WTC. I ended up taking him home with me, to my tiny 11 x 18 studio apartment. At the time I felt like I was doing him a favor, but it was really a favor to me, too. We stayed up that night and, too wired to sleep, we played gin rummy till 3:30 in the morning. Then the next day he rented a U-Haul (all the cars were rented), and drove it to St. Louis before finally being able to catch a plane.
But that whole thing, that happened four weeks ago, seems like an epoch ago. Each week is like its own discreet era. Like, “I remember when we didn’t know if bridges were going to be hit next,” or, “I remember when the country was in mourning, but we hadn’t retaliated militarily yet,” etc. I feel like I’ve lived a year for every one of the last four weeks. I guess that makes me 30 now.
I’m writing this at work, but I’ve given up on trying to concentrate for more than 10 or 15 – minute snatches. It really is too hard. And every day I find out someone else I know has been devastated by some unendurable loss. I feel completely at a loss as to what to say, but then . . .
Well. I’m still making art, poetry and song. This helps. The only drawback is it helps whatever I’m feeling then — and what I’m feeling keeps changing drastically, as world events change.
I hope that you and your family are continuing as well as could be expected, and that the alumni of your classes are unharmed.
I wish you well,
– From New York, where, in the midst of everything, I am surprised to realize that something as mundane as the mail is still functioning normally,
P.S. it still smells like smoke here.