WHAT DO I DO NOW? For lack of anything better, I make
my way downtown, to the shoot I have scheduled with Bruce, a Canadian director
premiering his new film at the festival. It occurs to me, of course, that
everything's been cancelled, but I'm grateful for the chance to move, to
leave the television, the pile of papers filled with old news. K. is getting
dressed, on her way to church to pray, before heading off to work. Her
section, entertainment, will be thin today, and she's prepared to do damage
control in news.
The bus north to the subway is silent. No one reads, or
talks. Eyes staring straight ahead, out the windows. Thoughtful -- I like
to hope -- thousand-yard stares, vain attempts to read the future; tomorrow,
next week, next month, or maybe just escapes into peaceful places in one's
No one rushes for the subway entrance. Is it me, or is
everyone moving with a hint of solemnity, an instinctive reverence for
the terrible moment? I grab a paper -- more old news -- and wait on the
silent platform. The subway finally comes. Every seat is taken except for
one, next to a young woman, an African muslim in a black hijab.
I take the seat, smile at her briefly. I have nothing to read. I glance
over to see that she's doing her homework, for a nursing course of some
sort, in a looping, girlish hand, the letters printed with strokes that
curl with a flourish.
OUTSIDE THE HOTEL, a crowd stands, most of them on their
cellphones, bent over, intent, turning slowly on their heels, some with
one finger in an ear. At the press office, I'm told -- no surprise -- that
all interviews have been cancelled for the day. Of course. And now my day
opens up, free to contemplate the news without distraction.
In an empty conference room nearby, a t.v. is set up,
a ring of chairs in front. I take a seat and watch as the first new footage
is presented, the familiar plane from a new angle, the collapse of the
first tower, a long telephoto shot, shivering as the floors disintegrate.
I reflect on how modern it all is: jet airlines slamming into skyscrapers
while we watch it on television, real Tom Clancy shit.
After a half hour in this room, silently watching in the
company of strangers, I walk across the hall and phone Scott. My day's
been cancelled, I tell him. I'm downtown -- would you like company?
"Sure. Bring a couple of black coffees."
Scott is on the phone, the t.v. tuned to CBC, a half-composed
e-mail on his computer. He's been trying to reach a couple of people he
knows in New York. I head out to the balcony for a smoke.
We sit, looking at the city, and wonder whether this is
what September 3rd, 1939, or December 7th, 1941, felt like. On the t.v.,
new footage is being shown, amateur and professional shots of the second
plane, the collapse of each tower. Bush stiffly addresses the press. His
choice of words feels uninspired; hobbled metaphors; "these folks"; a poor
show of rage. For the rest of the day, almost every official statement
feels just as inadequate, FDR's "day that will live in infamy" artlessly
twisted and re-moulded, along with the inevitable references to Pearl Harbor.
Scott is restless. He feels agitated, helpless. He can't
sit around any longer, and heads off to give blood. My brief trip to Britain,
just over three years ago, prevents me from doing the same, so I leave
him at Church Street and walk down to pick up a cheque on my way home.
The streets are full, the usual traffic of students and shoppers and workers
on lunch breaks, but it feels still, subdued. The sky, I finally notice,
is empty, not a single flight in the air, the background rumble of ascending
and descending flights into the city's two airports absent. On the ground,
no one runs, or shouts, or laughs. Conversations are hushed. It's like
any other day, really, except that the normal's been kicked out of it.
My old employer is across from St. Michael's, the Catholic
cathedral. I take a few steps north, toward the bank machines in the Eaton
Centre, then change my mind, and walk around the corner to the entrance
to the church. I walk halfway up the centre aisle and find a seat, drop
my camera bag onto the pew and slide onto my knees. I look around, at the
handful of kneeling figures in the side aisles, at the rows of candles,
most lit now, in the dark corners of the cathedral, at the cardinal's hat
hanging far above the altar, underneath the peeling mural on the ceiling.
I don't know how long it's been since I've prayed. I don't know where to
|Oh God, I pray for mercy. There has been enough dying
today, and enough grief, to tear the world apart with anger. I pray that
vengeance will be blunted, that innocent lives won't be swallowed up in
chaos. I pray that if some horror or loss is inflicted on me or someone
I love, to have the grace and dignity to avoid the comforts of hatred.
Hardly the most eloquent thing I could have said, I think.
More inadequate rhetoric on a day when words are both necessary and cheap.
AT HOME, THE STORY IS EXPANDING. More footage has poured
in, from an unexpected shot of the first plane sliding into the north tower,
caught from the far end of one of Manhattan's long, canyon-like streets,
to a vivid perspective, from the base of the towers looking dizzily up,
as the second plane dissolves into the side of the south tower. I'm amazed
at how the plane, a massive Boeing 767, just disappears into the wall of
the building, atomized into fire and smoke. I remember standing at almost
the same spot, many years ago, wandering around the business districts's
twisting streets, taking pictures for an album cover.
I'm mesmerized by footage taken by a doctor, a handycam
in one hand, a medical bag in the other, as he makes his way through the
dust cloud between collapses. A rumble as the north tower dies; he looks
up at the looming bloom of debris heading for him and pleads, quietly,
over and over, before taking shelter behind a car:
"I hope I don't die. I hope I don't die."
Tony Blair looking grim and purposeful. Another performance.
Jacques Chirac stunned, almost pleading. Blocky, stuttering videophone
footage of a Taliban official denying Usama bin Laden's guilt. Yasser Arafat,
his lips shaking as he expresses his shock. On the streets of East Jerusalem,
a woman in a black hijab wails with joy, mad-eyed children jump
up and down, men fire automatic rifles into the air. That can't be doing
any good, I think to myself. Vengeance starts here, in the bitter jubilation
of the angry, the ignorant, the desperate.
I watch people leaning out of windows, a few storeys above
the smoking wound in a tower, moments before collapse. I see bodies falling,
making quick progress down the elongated grid of the building's skin.
I sit and watch late into the night, numb and, mostly,
emotionless. It's been hours since I watched the second tower collapse
and found myself shouting: "Oh Jesus no! No no no please God no." Since
then, the day has been almost dreamlike, no action seeming to be related
to the next, no consequence of any significance. Over and over, in my head,
one question repeating, with minor variation:
What just happened? What did I just see? What happened