Suburban Soliloquy #45

My family moved out of the Bronx when I was five years old, yet I have been brought up to think of myself as a New Yorker. Visiting the city, when I put my foot to the city's pavement it is as if I am Antaeus and vitality is restored to me, drawn out of the city of my inception, the seed of my identity and character. I love New York.

I have been to the top of the World Trade Center three times. The first time was a snowy night in March of 1978. I was still married to my first wife and we were the guests of dear friends who invited us to dinner. Perhaps because of the weather, someone had canceled their dinner reservations at Cellar in the Sky, a restaurant with a waiting list that extended months long at that time. Our friends had the foresight to anticipate a cancellation and called.

Cellar in the Sky is - was - a restaurant within a restaurant. Windows on the World, the primary restaurant, occupied the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. Cellar in the Sky was enclosed inside the Windows on the World, forsaking the view, but offering a prix fixe dinner with a different wine matched to each course, and included in the price. That snowy night nothing was to be seen through the windows but snowflakes falling up. It was the first time in my life that I walked into a restroom that was occupied by an attendant. His presence embarrassed me. It seemed demeaning to have someone stationed where the air is usually foul. Of course this fellow required a tip. I wasn't sure how much to tip for being humiliated by having someone else to turn on the spigots at the sink I was expected to use and then stand by with a washcloth. Well, the restroom didn't actually smell bad; it was scented, marbled, and larger than my parent's living room.

The second time I visited the top of the World Trade Center was when my present wife's family came from Britain to visit. A truism for many New Yorkers, you don't usually visit the Statue of Liberty or the observation deck of the Empire State Building (and later, after 1972, the World Trade Center) until the day comes when you are entertaining guests from out of town. It was the first time I had been up to the observation deck. The group of us next walked out onto the roof, the world's tallest outdoor promenade. (The brochure said "highest" promenade, but any promenade on the 13-storey Potala Palace at Lhasa is evidently at least 10,770 feet higher.) We stood on a large, square platform that seemed to be floating high in the sky over Manhattan. It was eerie for me. Even the pushy wind made me feel insecure.

My last visit to the top of the World Trade Center was when Ms Keogh (my more significant other) was attending a conference on Estrogen Replacement Therapy held by Columbia University. I dropped her off in the morning and was waiting for her that afternoon at the bar on the 107th floor, drinking Tanqueray and tonics while eating excellent sushi. I have written about that experience, elsewhere, "[the] view is unimaginable for those of you who haven't been there or in similarly high structures, and just how many of those can there be? … At that height one expects to be flying and not still anchored to the earth. The floor to ceiling windows allow you to walk right to the edge. Place your nose against the glass and beyond your toes there is nothing to obstruct your view down. The building is a sheer drop for over 1300 feet. Of course the glass prevents you from leaning out. I don't care how thick the glass is, I find the experience daunting and have to stand back a foot while bracing my hands against the window frames.. To the south the bay was clear of fog and I could see toy ships making trails in the water. Extending my arm, I could hide the Statue of Liberty behind my pinkie."

On the second of September 2001, we saw the World Trade Center for the last time. I was driving my mother and Ms Keogh into New York City. My niece and her boyfriend were visiting from California, were already in the city, and we were planning to connect with them on the sprawling staircase of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

We were on the New Jersey Turnpike's approach to the Holland Tunnel for the view. I usually enter the great city by the Lincoln Tunnel. Ms Keogh has a two-person show coming up in October with her colleague, Lisa Mahan. Ms Keogh's entries for the show are to be a series of local cityscapes, works she is presently painting. The Manhattan skyline was to be included. My choice would have been the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in midtown. I've always thought the World Trade Center ugly, a blotch on the skyline. Still, Ms Keogh wanted the World Trade Center in her painting, with the Statue of Liberty at the other end of the long panoramic scene.

When the downtown and Ms Liberty came into view on the far side of the Hudson River, I pulled the car onto the shoulder and stopped. Despite the perils of traffic, in the name of art, Ms Keogh climbed from the car and snapped shots using two different cameras. Seeing our activity on the side of the road inspired a passing car to pull over and also take pictures. We then drove on to a marvelous Sunday afternoon in New York.

On the eleventh of September, thousands of innocent individual lives representing more than eighty nationalities, different races, different ethnic groups, people with different causes and opinions in their minds, were subjected to terror and then brought to death. My older sister called me from California within a few hours of the World Trade Center atrocity. The city of our birth had been attacked - not a military target, but a diverse cross-section of the world engaged in the pursuit of their livelihoods. We feared our own Nation's response. We worried how this could further hamper the Palestinians' cause and were anxious for the welfare of Muslims living in America. We talked of the possibility of our country, the most powerful empire ever to exist, and now in conservative hands, how we might overreact with a vast retaliation. At the same time, there was no consolation for our loss. Revenge can never restore us.

Although as the crow flies we live sixty-five miles from the catastrophe, distant friends and relatives called to be reassured that we didn't happen to be visiting the World Trade Center that day. Or else they called because with so many suffering the loss of a loved one, they wanted to exercise the fragile privilege still remaining to them. Everything but an embrace felt more trivial after the destruction. I'd cling to Ms Keogh and she would feel fragile in my arms as I consider the dissolving mass of two gargantuan buildings. Even my ex-wife emailed me from Japan. She felt equally violated and disconsolate. Although she was born in and was again living in Tokyo, yet New York City was an intimate part of her life.

The next couple of clear-blue days, when I stepped outside from time to time to view the beautiful sky, the sky was empty. There was not a single plane nor a single contrail. Even now, more than a week later, planes remain fewer. Mail is taking longer to reach me.

The afternoon of the calamity, I drove Ms Keogh into Center City Philadelphia to her job at Planned Parenthood. We both suspected the offices to be closed, and she tried to call, but calls would not go through. All circuits were busy. We went into the city to bear witness to the day. Her office was closed, the museums closed, the libraries closed. Before going home, we stopped at the Oxford Valley Mall to pick up a second batch of remaining photographs that were being developed, the very cityscape view she was planning to interpret into paint, that included the World Trade Center. The malls were closed.

The original title of the two-person art show was to be a pun on their names, Keogh and Mahan, "Chaos and Mayhem", that title being my contribution. Now, because of the tragedy, they have changed the name of the show to "Urban Scenes", and yesterday afternoon Ms Keogh was pasting new labels to cover the old title on a thousand publicity postcards.

Consider the journey of the masses trying to escape tyranny and oppression and starvation, arriving to New York City seeking freedom and opportunity. My grandparents left their shtetls, where the future held no promise, and merged with the vortex that delivered them onto the streets of New York City, the city of refugees, where they thrived. All those many people and their descendents, and new ones who continue to come, these huddled masses yearning to breathe free, gasped on the 11th of September at the slaughter of innocents by an implacable evil in the city of refuge.

Lamentations 3:16-18
He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, "Gone is my glory, and my expectation from the Lord.''

Bruce Bentzman

This is the forty-sixth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
For further reading, Mr Bentzman's book "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman" is available from Amazon.