September 11, 2015KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEthicsRemembrancesUncategorized

Septembers

I think my hip hop band, The Wick, had a rehearsal the evening of September 11, 2001. I know I had British Literature with Dr. Summers. We had planned on discussing some lengthy section of Paradise Lost, but instead, the few of us who had arrived to class before learning that everything in life was canceled for the day, sat on the tables and watched CNN coverage on the classroom TV perched in a corner above the blackboard. I sat there with my backpack still strapped on, stuffed with my 8-pound Norton Anthology and a Developmental Psych textbook, a tome on mysticism, and probably a slim volume of poems by James Tate or Kevin Young or Ai or somebody else strange and wonderful. The ideas in those books didn’t seem to matter as much as they did the day before, and at the same time they seemed to matter more than ever before. That’s contradictory at worst, paradoxical at best, but whatever you call it, it’s true.

Strange things happened that day and in the days following. The whole university gathered in the auditorium, but no one stood on the stage. One student who was always cool, snarky, guarded, broke down crying in front of the entire university as he talked about how his mother worked near the World Trade Center and he hadn’t been able to reach her by phone. The geography of my home city swiveled around, places I’d gone as a kid becoming something different. I heard that the Defense Supply Center in Whitehall, which contained a rec center where I’d spent many Saturdays as a kid swimming in the outdoor pool, playing basketball, lifting weights, destroying my father on the ping pong table (he might tell the story differently), was the largest military storage installation in the country. I heard that the CIA’s billing was handled there, near where I used to stay the night at my best friend’s dad’s house, where his dad would blast old tapes of Turkish music from when he was a radio DJ, where we’d walk down East Main to the Hawaiian shaved ice kiosk, chat with the Ethiopians eating takeout from the Blue Nile on the front steps, play soccer behind the building. I learned about what they make at Battelle; one of my literature professors even ran down a quite vivid dystopian disaster scenario depicting what would happen to Ohio State’s central green space “The Oval,” where bikinis and beach towels are still the order of the day in warm Septembers, if the Battelle buildings were bombed. Someone—we’ll probably never know who–hacked my roommate’s computer, accessed a political poem I had written and saved there, and sent it out to everyone on his contact list as an attachment, the body of the email a simple message: “Hey, what do you think about this?”

No, I don’t think we had a band rehearsal that night. But I do remember walking up Drexel Ave. with Johnny K and asking each other what was worth doing now. Johnny K, who turned a few bars of Debussy into a hip hop loop on guitar, whose bookshelves held Hesse’s Siddhartha, The Collected Poems of Yehuda Amichai, the Miles autobiography, a collection of old Blue Note covers we would later tear out and post on the walls of our apartment. We concluded, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it still made sense to make music, to write, to draw and paint. Beyond that, we weren’t so sure. But with the passing weeks, everything pretty much normalized again, and we were up to the same things we were up to before, and the days seemed rather predictable again, and the books in my bag again took on the figurative weight they’d once had.

That October, I was in New York, serving as a coach for the Urban Debate League in the South Bronx, staying in an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, then Bronx Park East, shifting from one debate coach’s couch to another. I remember when one of our crew decided we should all go to Ground Zero, and one of our hosts, a New York native, overheard it, and she launched into a tirade about people treating it like a tourist site, taking pictures and posing in front of it. “It’s a grave,” she said. “And when you get off the train, you’ll have to walk for a while and from blocks and blocks away it’ll start to smell like death.” She pleaded with us not to go, out of respect for the dead, not to contribute to the fanny-packed forces making Disneyland out of the site of a mass murder. We assented, went to Times Square like good Midwesterners, then got lost in Brownsville around midnight, but that’s another story, another memory.

That September day, and the months following, has been remembered a million times and a million ways. I remember the release of Ani DiFranco’s “Self-Evident” and all the people who loved it and all the people who hated it. I remember watching The 25th Hour for the first time and falling in love with it, dazzled by the way David Benioff (now super-famous showrunner of Game of Thrones) and Spike Lee rendered those childhood friendships bent out of shape by adulthood and workaholism and obsession and greed and lust of every kind (having a cast that includes Brian Cox and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton and Barry Pepper doesn’t hurt). I remember those shots that look down out of a window in Frank’s (Barry Pepper) slick, nearly empty apartment in the Financial District onto the gouge of Ground Zero, and how Frank defiantly remarks that he’ll never move, that he paid too much good money for his place.

I remember a year and a half after 9/11, sitting on the banks of the Guadalquivir River in Seville, Spain, the palms and orchids and crumbling baroque facades a perfection of life, and looking at the front page of a UK newspaper, the entire sheet a single photo of the bombing of Baghdad, the first night of the “Shock and Awe” campaign. I remember how the gardens in that city make you want to be in love, and how the exclusive tents of the feria make you want to be someone who is born in that city and lives long there and dies there. I remember the protests in every major square of every city we visited that spring, the marching and dancing and drumming and wineskin-tipping that blocked the Calle de los Reyes Católicos in Granada. I remember Santa Maria la Blanca in Toledo, a chapel that looks like a mosque because it was originally a synagogue built by Islamic masons.

I remember shopping for olives and Armani shirts in the medina in Meknès, Morocco a month after the launch of this Iraq war, where I learned a new definition of hospitality and friendship. I remember Saad translating the Al-Jazeera coverage for me over mint tea in the lobby of his dad’s hotel. I remember the hammam, the orange juice on a rooftop, the Turkish coffee and moonlit busride through the desert, the tagines, the police approaching us to ask what we were doing by the reservoir at night. They weren’t harassing us–they said that it can get sketchy at night in that area, and that they’d be happy to give us a free ride back to a more populated, well-lit section of town. So we rode in the back of the paddy wagon, and got to save a few dirhams on taxis. I remember Zerya, Swedish-born daughter of a Kurd from the Iraqi side and a Kurd from the Turkish side, explaining why the U.S. bombing of Iraq was wrong, while the American on study abroad listened, dumbfounded, as the inert example she’d always used to condemn Saddam came alive and started talking back. I remember the Roman ruins at Volubilis in what’s now the Moroccan countryside, the way some of the Latin names on the gravestones are all but weathered away.