Issue #18, 2001

What's the Story #18

Beyond 9/11

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #18

I was returning to Pittsburgh through New York’s LaGuardia Airport—my first visit since the September 11 terrorist attacks. The security guard, a short, slender Latino in his late 20s, quickly rifled through my clothes and papers, but it was my shaving kit that attracted most of his attention. I had arrived an hour and a half before my scheduled flight, hoping to go standby on an earlier flight leaving in 25 minutes. So I was conscious of the seconds ticking away.

This man was intense and meticulous. He opened the top of my water-resistant, metallic blue Mini Mag-Lite and examined the batteries. A half-dozen years before in Washington, D.C., I had been trapped in a hotel on the 14th floor during a 26-hour blackout and almost killed myself in the pitch black trying to pack my belongings and subsequently locate the stairs and the emergency exit. Now I carry a flashlight wherever I travel.

But the guard found a second flashlight, a white plastic rectangular miniature from the Western Pennsylvania Cardiovascular Institute—a place I’d never heard of. The batteries were corroded and had leaked onto the case, so I threw it away.

He also discovered two nail clippers with miniature nail files about an inch long with moderately sharp points. If I intended to keep the nail files, he would have to check my shaving kit, tag it and send it separately as baggage, he said. I suggested he break them off from the clippers and discard them. We also trashed the cuticle scissors I use to trim my mustache.

Next he unscrewed the top from my After Bite Itch Eraser, housed in a plastic tube the size of a ballpoint pen. It had a metal clip to attach to a shirt pocket. He touched the tip of his finger to the roller-ball applicator and glanced up at me suspiciously. I shrugged my shoulders, and he turned away.

He opened my cinnamon-flavored Blistex, my Advanced Formula Krazy Glue, my waxed CVS Dental Tape and my styptic pencil, and he sniffed my prescription-strength Curex cream (for jock itch). I also had a small bottle of Listerine in the bag, an Arrid XX Ultra Clear Anti-Perspirant & Deodorant Solid and one NaturaLamb condom.

He did not open the Tic Tac box in which I store my emergency medications—aspirin, Motrin, sinus pills and laxatives—and did not ask me why I had three half-used toothpaste tubes, two travel toothbrushes, two Gillette Mac 3 razors and one Schick disposable razor. I couldn’t have answered. I just put things in this kit spontaneously, whenever it occurs to me that I might need them. I always try to be prepared.

This is a very small, black canvas shaving kit by Edge Creek, which manufactures compact equipment for backpackers. It has three parts that fold into a bulky little package about the size of a paperback pocket dictionary. Unfolded, it has a hook to hang on a tree branch, and a tiny mirror to use for shaving. 

Not that this man cared about the origin of the kit or the reasons for any of its contents. In light of the September 11 catastrophes at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in Somerset County, Pa., he had a suddenly high-profile job to do—a responsibility completely unrelated to revealing anything about my identify, other than the search for contraband that could endanger my fellow passengers or alter in any way the safe completion of my flight.

But I couldn’t help feeling, as I stood at the table near the security area with people waiting behind me to have their bags checked and simultaneously observing what I had in mine, that my life was not an open book and that I had somehow lost a significant measure of my privacy and dignity.

Of course we have all been faced with a foreboding and growing sense of loss since the horror of September 11, and I don’t intend to compare the minor indignity that I suffered at LaGuardia to the major devastation of those who lost lives, loved ones or livelihoods.

But every day since September 11, we have discovered ways in which our daily lives and the freedoms we have taken for granted have been substantially altered by Osama bin Laden and his death-squad fanatics. Extra security and delays at airports are more than minor annoyances: They are symbols of an increasingly altered and dangerous world. Our feelings of safety and comfort are forever diminished.

I was fortunate to know only two people directly affected by this horrible tragedy. Fred is a high-ranking executive in a major international financial institution with a large Wall Street facility. Lynn, his wife, is an artist whose bold canvases electrify their sprawling, high-tech Tribeca loft.

The first plane literally buzzed their loft before crashing into the WTC. Lynn was in the shower and heard the sickening sound of collision. She said to her husband, “Something terrible must have happened down in the street.” He went to the window and then shouted for her to come running.

They sat on their living-room sofa, screaming and weeping and watching tiny figures—real people—leaping out of windows 60 stories above the street, with American Airlines Flight 11 hanging precariously from the WTC, piercing the heart of the financial district. Friends from neighboring lofts joined them. Together they witnessed the second collision and experienced the paralyzing and petrifying horror of the blitzkrieg.

Later, as survivors covered with inches of searing ash fled the devastation, Lynn and Fred rushed into the street and escorted the dazed victims into their apartment so they could wash themselves and call their families. Soon after the buildings collapsed, the water that came from their tap turned brown.

Writing in the New York Times nearly three weeks afterward, N.R. Kleinfeld talked about the aroma of the ash and of the ceaselessly smoldering buildings. “It’s the odor of a burning computer. Or a burning tire. Or burning paper,” Kleinfeld observed. “One person said it was the scent of unsettled souls.”

When I visited Ground Zero that week, the aroma continued to pervade the air. It clung to my lungs like a living organism. Now, weeks later, I can still feel it, a scratching, haunting residue of those innocent victims whose lives were stolen from their children, families and countries. It is a tragedy and a crime that reverberates far beyond the barricades and the police and National Guard checkpoints surrounding the crime-scene perimeter.

Kleinfeld said, “A few people had their jacket collars pressed against their noses. A few others had tied handkerchiefs around their faces, bandit style. One young man simply pinched his nose with his fingers as he walked. A middle-aged woman had folded an American flag over her mouth.”

This searing, sensory grimness is shared—and embraced—daily by a hoard of observers. The day I visited, tourists were pointing and clicking disposable cameras at the smoldering ruins partially concealed by Dumpsters and dump trucks. Police and National Guard in camouflage were everywhere, as were the media—notebooks in hand. TV reporters stood on makeshift platforms so the rubble could be seen behind them as they talked.

Paralleling the aroma, an all-pervading quiet hung in the air. In contrast to the usual noisy cacophony of New York—a symphony of horns, trucks, traffic, hucksters, cell phones and people shouting to be heard over every distraction—there was a startling edge of restraint. The boldness that characterizes city life was missing at Ground Zero and virtually everywhere else I visited in the city. 

Earlier that day at Café Europa, a favorite midtown morning haunt across from Carnegie Hall, the wait staff were unusually friendly, greeting me as if I were a long-lost friend, though I am certain they hardly remembered me. They presented a free chocolate cookie with my portobello sandwich. A man in a purple sweater, yellow jacket and silk scarf sang to the music, smiling warmly over his tuna-salad sandwich. It occurred to me that I had never heard music at Café Europa before, perhaps because the place was usually mobbed at breakfast and lunch. Now, at 11:45 a.m., there were just six patrons.

I won’t soon forget the scene at Europa or the aroma of which Kleinfeld writes, the water turning brown in Lynn and Fred’s loft or the crusts of ash clinging to the people stumbling from the wreckage—not only because the reality of the experience is so stark, but also because the images are so specific and intimate.

This is a lesson that writers of all genres need to know—that the secret to making prose and poetry memorable and therefore vital and important is to catalog with specificity the details that are most intimate. By intimate I mean ideas and images that readers wont easily imagine—ideas and images you observed that symbolize a memorable truth about the characters or the situations that concern you.

In the introduction to his breakthrough 1973 anthology, “The New Journalism,” Tom Wolfe writes about how Jimmy Breslin, a columnist for the new York Herald Tribune, captured the realistic intimacy of the experiences by noticing details that could act as metaphors for something larger and more all-encompassing that he wanted to say.

Wolfe describes Breslin’s coverage of the trial of Anthony Provenzano, a union boss charged with extortion. At the beginning, Breslin introduces the image of the bright morning sun bursting through the windows of the courtroom and reflecting off the large diamond ring on Provenzano’s chubby pinky finger. Later, during a recess, Provenzano, flickering a silver cigarette holder, paces the halls, sparring with a friend who came to support him, the sun still glinting off the pinky ring.

Wolfe writes:

The story went on in that vein with Provenzano’s Jersey courtiers circling around him and fawning while the sun explodes off his pinky ring. Inside the courtroom itself, however, Provenzano starts getting his. The judge starts lecturing him and the sweat starts breaking out on Provenzano’s upper lip. Then the judge sentences him to seven years, and Provenzano starts twisting his pinky finger with his right hand.

The ring is a badge of Provenzano’s ill-gotten gains, symbolic of his arrogance and his eventual vulnerability and resounding defeat.

Although we can’t achieve such symbolism each time we capture an incident, writers who want their words to be remembered beyond the date on which their stories are published or broadcast will seek to capture the special observations that symbolize the intimacy to which they have been exposed.

The details the security guard revealed about me by unpacking my shaving kit in front of a half-dozen strangers were not so shockingly intimate, but they were specific and revealing. You can piece together snatches of who I am and the way I am by thinking about my flashlight, my Itch Eraser, my Cruex and my triple toothbrushes and razors.

It is true that I am a bit absent-minded and also somewhat cautious. I back myself up with flashlights and salves so as to avoid situations that may annoy me or curtail my activities. If I confessed these traits to you in an essay, you would not necessarily find them memorable, but now, with the specifics of my shaving kit, a porthole into my personality has been revealed.

The earlier flight I had hoped to make was boarding when I was finally released by the security guard, and I rushed to see if I could get on. But I suddenly stopped to consider: It was a gate that I had never used at LaGuardia for a Pittsburgh flight. I had used this gate to go to Washington, D.C., to Baltimore and Boston, but never Pittsburgh.

The flight was open. I could have gotten on and arrived back home to see my 10-year-old son before he went out with his mother. If I waited, I might not see him until the following morning when he returned to my house. But something told me the vibes weren’t right. For no reason whatsoever, except for the gnawing feelings of foreboding inside me, I knew I shouldn’t take that flight.

So I retreated to the U.S. Airways Club, nibbled on snack mix, sipped coffee for 90 minutes and stared out the window. My flight departed from Gate 12—the gate I almost always use when flying from LaGuardia to Pittsburgh—and I felt a lot better about traveling. Needless to say, nothing eventful occurred on the earlier flight—I checked when I got back to Pittsburgh—but now you know something else about me. I am cautious, but above all else, I listen to my instincts, no matter how illogical they may seem. 

Why did I go to New York in the first place? Because I felt compelled to get on a plane in order to break the spell of hesitation and alienation cast by September 11. Normally I am on the road for a day nearly every week, but after September 11, I remained in my neighborhood for more than a month. It was time to see my friends and to experience New York, to understand that in almost every respect it was the same city as before—more sober, wounded and scarred, but inherently unbreakable.

***

The essays published in this issue also, like New York, represent survival and change, expressed through dramatic stories and intimacy of detail. In “Second Chances,” Melissa Block, a breast-cancer survivor, is off on her own quest to Vietnam with a crew of plastic surgeons, while Philip Gerard’s journey, “Adventures in Celestial Navigation,” captures the intimacy of sailing and seeing blindly at night. Aine Greaney travels with her father on a mission of connection and maturity through a sensory panorama of Ireland. In “Bridges,” Sarah Massey-Warren thrusts her readers into the stark and vivid reality of Elko, Nev., while Russell Tomlin, in “Two Years,” leads us into Togo, West Africa, on a Peace Corps mission.

Jennifer Jeanne Patterson’s “White Girl in Harlem” daringly captures the author’s paranoia and helpless bigotry, while the intimate details reported by Ruthann Robson in “Notes on My Dying” capture the fear, heartbreak and confusion of her own impending death.

An interesting offshoot of this issue: While our associate editor, Tracy Ekstrand, was involved in our upcoming Diversity Issue, we turned to Susan Messer for help with copyediting. Her “Dots on the Page” is about the challenge and process—and details—of copyediting. The use of specific and significant details in writing and teaching, especially in relation to the events of September 11, is also discussed in Rose Toubes’ column in the Between the Lines section of this issue.

The September 11 tragedy has delayed the publication of the JPMorgan Chase-sponsored Diversity Issue until March 2002. The winner of the $10,000 Walter Shipley Award, however, should be announced by the end of the year. We have also introduced a vehicle for expression and a forum for clearly articulated ideas about September 11 and its broad and unceasing impact by establishing an online “Living Issue.” 

Author Bio

Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative... read more

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