I Watched the Mighty Skyline Fall

Cleaning up the kitchen after dinner this evening, my wife Jessica had put on some Billy Joel to listen to, and asked what album of his I preferred to hear. Songs in the Attic, I replied, his 1981 live album intended as a way to introduce his older songs to an audience who has just become aware of him from 1977’s The Stranger. The performances of songs like “Streetlife Serenader,” “Los Angelenos,” and “Summer, Highland Falls” are far, far superior to their studio album versions. Perhaps my favorite song on the record, however, is “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).”

And then it hit me. Holy shit, I thought to myself. It’s 2016. Next year is 2017. That’s crazy!

Let me just quote Wikipedia for an explanation of what this amazing song is all about:

Joel has described it as a “science fiction song” about an apocalypse occurring in New York as a result of discussions that the city was failing in the 1970s. … He explain[ed] that the song depicts the apocalypse occurring in New York, “the skyline tumbling down, this horrendous conflagration happening in New York City.” Joel stated that the song is titled “Miami 2017” because many New Yorkers retire to Miami and the narrator is telling his grandchildren in the year 2017 about what he saw in the destruction of New York.

So in Joel’s sort of alternate-parallel-universe, New York City becomes an unfathomable disaster (“it always burned up there before”), its problems in the 70s running out of control, and some unmentioned authority sees to it that the city is simply wiped off the map. (“They said that Queens could stay,” of course, and someone “picked the Yankees up for free.”)

I assume that this urban apocalypse happens more or less contemporaneously with the time the song was written, the late 1970s, because in the song, 2017 is supposed to be the far future, when elderly retirees in Miami are thinking back on the event, “Before we all lived here in Florida / Before the Mafia took over Mexico.” But of course 2017 is no longer the far future. It’s five and a half months away.

It’s worth pausing to consider, as noted by Joel himself, that on September 11, 2001, we all, in fact, “watched the mighty skyline fall.” But it wasn’t a failed city that needed to be “dealt with,” as in the song, but a revived and ascendant city that was attacked by those who preferred that we all exist in a kind of Bronze Age hellscape.

But in both cases – the obliteration of the city in the song, as well as after the towers fell in real life – New Yorkers are and were defiant and resilient:

We held a concert out in Brooklyn,
To watch the Island Bridges blow.
They turned our power down,
And drove us underground,
But we went right with the show!

Luckily, in the real world, New York is still here as 2017 approaches. But there’s also the eerie line in the song about how “the Mafia took over Mexico.” That, of course, hasn’t happened as far as I know. But the intractability and unthinkable horrors wrought by drug cartels in Mexico today make the line disturbingly prophetic.

I wonder if Joel could have conceived in his dystopian 2017 that someone like Donald Trump might approach the presidency. After a year like 2016, it’s not hard to imagine a President Trump, fictional or nonfictional, deciding that the best way to deal with any hotbed of trouble and unrest, be it within or without our borders, is to lay waste to it.

In which case, we’d be looking back on it from, say, 2057. Not in Miami, of course, because by that time it’d probably be either under water or too hot to bear. But perhaps in Maine, forty years from now, a handful of us old folks will look back in horror and wonder, still alive, “To tell the world about / The way the lights went out.”

But of course, it’s just a song.

Listening to 9/11: My Experience of the Attacks from Brooklyn

In September of 2001, I had just decided not to go back to school. I had been agonizing over whether to return to the Actors Studio Drama School (then at the New School University) for my second year of training toward a master’s degree in acting. I had just moved from Edgewater, NJ to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn (about 45 minutes by subway from Midtown), and for a couple of weeks since this fateful decision, I had been hitting the pavement, searching for jobs — both relevant to my career and not — and learning what it meant to be a working (read: starving) actor in New York City, really for the first time. Looking back on it, I am sometimes surprised at the initiative I showed and the effort I put forth. I don’t know that I’ve matched it since.

I had interviews and auditions every day, sometimes several in one day. I would traverse the island of Manhattan, dressed for interviews, clutching a binder and notebook with my resumes (both theatrical and “professional”), making use of my new device, this cellular phone thing that all the kids were talking about, setting up new appointments. I was determined not to be a disappointment after having made this huge decision not to continue at the Actors Studio.

In the middle of the next month, on a Tuesday, I for once had nothing yet lined up. I had fully intended to make my way back into the city to resume my hunt for employment, but as of Monday night, I didn’t have any appointments. And as They Might Be Giants have said, “If I didn’t have disappointments, I wouldn’t have any appointments.” I could afford to sleep in on Tuesday, September 11.

I was 23 years old. In some ways, I was older than my years, but in so many more I was so much younger.

The next morning, no one woke me up. I’d straggled out of bed at about 9 AM and crept into the living room to find one of my four roommates (all female then) looking somewhat agog with the radio playing.

“An airplane just flew into the World Trade Center!”

What an awful accident. How could something like that have happened? It must have been some kind of terrible mechanical problem for something so destructive and tragic. The collision had disrupted the broadcasts coming through the towers, and we had no cable, so we could get no television coverage of the event. Phone lines were tied up, including our dial-up connection to the Internet. All of our information was coming over the radio. We were closer than almost anyone to the event, but we could see none of it. So we listened.

Then another plane hit, and it obviously wasn’t an accident anymore. Then one tower came down. Then the other. We never saw any of it. We could only listen as the terrible news was spoken over the radio. Like Pearl Harbor or the Hindenburg disaster. The madness, the death, the devastation had to be conjured in our imaginations.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when I would eventually see the images and footage, it was worse than I had imagined. Reality had outdone me.

I remember sitting on our couch, listening to the news as it unfolded, my brain went to the more abstract, and I found myself trying to think of what could possibly be a more important human event after this. A handful of Bronze Age religious zealots had forcibly knocked down the Twin Towers, and killed hundreds others almost slamming a plane into either the White House or U.S. Capitol; the fortress of mainland America had not only been invaded, but brought to its knees. What could ever occur to overshadow this event? Aliens was the only thing I could come up with. It would have to be humanity’s first encounter with aliens from another planet. That’d be it.

Later that day, another of my roommates and her boyfriend had made their way back to our apartment. It had taken her hours, as the entirety of the city was in the throes of panic and gridlock. All of us mired in a kind of morose shock, the boyfriend and I decided to make our way to the local hospital and give some blood. It would almost certainly be needed. This was a bigger deal than most for me, as even when I am simply having blood drawn in a doctor’s office, I always have a severe reaction in which I seize up, go into a kind of unstoppable panic, and then usually lose consciousness. I know, I’m a mess. But anyway, it seemed like something I could deal with given the circumstances. But much to our surprise, the hospital was full. Not with victims, but with people with the same idea, to give their blood. We waited for quite some time, and were eventually sent away. They had more donors than they could handle.

I never turned the radio off. That night, when everyone else was in bed, I was still sitting and listening to the news station, taking in every drop of information, every press statement, every ounce of the tragedy. Eventually, the news subsided, and stations changed from talk to emotion. One station out of nowhere played a gorgeously sung rendition of “America the Beautiful,” and of course it brought tears.

I was not in Manhattan at the time of the attack, so I was in no immediate danger, and I didn’t know anyone who was killed for injured, not that any of this was clear at the time. My mother, who lives in South Jersey, was in Ohio on business at the time. When the news came down, and she was unable to reach me, she simply rented a car and drove back toward New Jersey. Over the course of the next couple of days, as lines of communication were restored, a flurry of “are you alright” messages would be sent to and fro — after all, how could anyone be sure?

Days later, President Bush would address Congress. We would eventually get broadcast television reception on at least one network, and we gathered to listen to our new untested president. I don’t recall being impressed, but feeling like we had to trust him as something of a father figure for the time being, whether he was up to it or not. He wasn’t, of course, but he was all we had at the time. And it was something of a pity, looking back on it, that at such a momentous and heart-rending period, we did not have a leader who seemed to match the times.

I knew life had to proceed. I still had not seen any pictures, witnessed no footage. I didn’t know whether one could go into the city at all, or if so, where one could go. I had interviews still lined up for jobs, and even a major audition coming up for what would become my home for five years, Shenandoah Shakespeare. On Wednesday morning, September 12, I was scheduled to interview for an office job in Midtown, so I called the company’s number to see if the interview was still on, or whether it might be best to postpone.

“Thank you for calling,” the prerecorded message said. “Our offices are located at One World Trade Center…”

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The WTC Cross: Like it or Not, It’s a Piece of History

Among the many government-funded museums of New York, Washington, and other cities across the country, there are historical artifacts and pieces of art that are significant to their creators and to their later admirers for their religious meaning. From ancient Egyptian idols and glyphs, to Renaissance paintings of Christ, from the religious trinkets of concentration camp victims in the Holocaust Museum, to Bibles owned by American presidents, all these items have a place in our national memory and deserve to be housed and protected at taxpayer expense, not because they are religious, but because they help tell the story of who we are, and who we were. Regardless of our religious or nonreligious affiliation, they are part of our human story.

That is why that even as a hardliner secularist, even as an evil, arrogant, militant, fundamentalist New Atheist, I believe that the so-called World Trade Center cross belongs in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. American Atheists, a group with whom I have worked and whose leader, Dave Silverman, I know and deeply respect, is suing to keep the cross — two steel girders which emerged from the smoldering wreckage of Ground Zero in a cross shape — from being displayed in the museum on mainly constitutional grounds, lest it be accompanied by religious and nonreligious symbols from all sects that wish to have their point of view represented.

I think this is the wrong fight. As with the examples I mentioned in the opening of this post, the cross is a part of the story of the attacks and their aftermath. It so happens that we live in a predominantly-Christian country, and in the event of such a trauma, there will be a lot of meaning that surrounds the accidental appearance of such an object, and events will coalesce as they will. Yes, it’s meaning is religious, but its existence is historical.

Here’s a piece of American Atheists’ argument:

[Plaintiffs] find the cross, a symbol of Christianity, offensive and repugnant to their beliefs, culture, and traditions, and allege that the symbol marginalizes them as American citizens.

[ … ]

Plaintiff American Atheists opposed inclusion of a cross on the grounds that other religious groups were not given the opportunity for a similar faithbased memorial at the site of an American tragedy.

It would be different if a Christian-themed display were being constructed out of whole cloth just for the purposes of the museum. That would be a clear violation of the Constitution, and I would join American Atheists in opposition. But this is akin to suing to hide away Lincoln’s Bible. It doesn’t matter that Abe’s book was a Christian tome. What matters is that it was Abe’s. If he were also leafing through his own copy of On the Origin of Species, I’d want that saved, too.

To get a clearer picture of the intent, read the museum’s own description of its mission, and it’s idea of what the cross represents:

The mission of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, opening in September 2012, is to tell the history of 9/11 through historic artifacts like the World Trade Center Cross. In the historical exhibition, the Cross is part of our commitment to bring back the authentic physical reminders that tell the story of 9/11 in a way nothing else can.

In addition to the Cross, other religious artifacts that will be displayed in the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s historical exhibition include a Star of David cut from World Trade Center steel and a Bible fused to a piece of steel that was found during the recovery effort.

In everyday context, these things are purely religious. In the context of the events of that day, as the American Jewish Committee’s Mark D. Stern told the New York Times, “It’s a significant part of the story of the reaction to the attack, and that is a secular piece of history.”

And so it is. I don’t like the idea one iota that in a time of great tragedy, people find their hope not necessarily in each other’s goodness, but in the notion that an invisible sky-emperor took the time not to save lives or change hearts, but to stick a couple of pieces of debris in the shape of a T. I wish with all my heart that people did not waste their energy and emotions on a being that is not really there and never will or can do anything for them.

But I don’t have to like it. The World Trade Center cross was there, and the people of New York divested it with meaning, and thus it became a character in the story of the 9/11 attacks. Its placement in the museum is not an endorsement of Christianity, it’s a page in that story. Whether I like that part of the story or not.

Update: Katherine Fellows makes an excellent point on Twitter, one which I wish I’d made myself.