Discover more from Homo Vitruvius by A. Jay Adler
September 11, 2001
Around the devouring flames, shadows writhe in mortal combat for an instant of time and then as suddenly disappear, and the blind, fingering their eyelids, cry out that this is history.
Albert Camus, The Rebel
Only days earlier, Julia had saved me from death-by-steak in the middle of a Paris, Latin Quarter Café (Le Be Bop), popping a thick slug of viscous beef from my throat like a champagne cork, in celebration of not choking to death on vacation. I thanked her by marching her mercilessly through the streets of the capital – Hemingway’s haunts, cobblestone paths the Terror’s tumbrels followed – ending the final day, after seven hours, at the Arc de Triomphe under a fading sun. She was a game gal but she then told this New York boy, no, he’d have to climb to the top of that thing himself, buddy, she was calling a halt. I did, too, almost killing myself a second time and schvitzing my weight in proud foolery.
At the top, reaching the open-air summit, I breathed and cooled and circled the Arc, from which I saw, in all directions, twelve grand spokes of tree-lined Parisian boulevards converging on the Étoile below. To the west were the lush green Bois de Boulogne and the Tour Eiffel, to the north the storied rise of Montmartre. Holy Ambition, it was magnificent, the grand designs of men to rise above themselves and the earth, to inscribe upon it, in ascent, a human, artful grandeur to compete with that of nature.
I raced to the eastern prospect, exhilarated by the rolling, twilight beauty of the ages below. I looked far down onto the Champs-Elysees, where I had left Julia half an hour before. I found her, so small in the distance at rest on her bench, gazing easily in all directions. I waved to her. She didn’t see. I waved again. She looked about. I waved. Her head turned. I waved and waved, and her arm went up, and she waved as I waved, it came in waves in the soft blue night, and she lay on the ground and pointed the camera and snapped the shot.
She captured the image.
Now we were driving through Germany, not this time a destination, rather a route to Prague, but we would stay in Nuremberg along the way, and I thought I would visit the Nazi rally grounds. I thought as I drove (100MPH, but repeatedly passed, on the Autobahnen, as too slow) how challenging it might be – was for me – for a historically conscious Jew to pay a first visit to Germany without experiencing a kind of reverse and uncanny homecoming, as if to the sight of a calamity you missed only by chance or to the habitation of the bogeyman who once occupied your dreams, rendered now harmless. And Adler is a German-Jewish name, after all.
When we arrived in Nuremberg, however, I learned further that the site of the historic tribunals still serves, remarkably, as a functioning seat of justice, with tours available on weekends. Our timing propitious, I paid a Saturday visit. The “tour” consists of a half-hour lecture, followed by a fifteen-minute video and Q&A, all in the courtroom itself, and all in German, which I do not speak, so I had nothing to do but look and think.
I sat in the famous courtroom and tried to feel the force of all that history. At about forty-five by ninety feet, the room appeared very much the way it did fifty-five years earlier in all the newsreel footage and photos. The dock that held the twenty-one prisoners remains. The television that showed the video stood just in front of the space that the witness stand had occupied during the trials, so when Hermann Göring appeared on the stand it was as if I could see him sitting before me in the courtroom. (“The victor will always be the judge,” he had written on his copy of the indictment, “and the vanquished the accused.”) I felt, then, hyper-realistically transposed through time: to occupy space, to be, in the room where once and finally Göring and Hess and Speer and Von Ribbentrop and all the others received, one way or another, their too meager and non-compensatory justice converted a connection merely hypothetical between them and me to one now supernaturally real. Fifty-five years later, in this strange nexus of time and space, they and I had shared the same space, the bogeymen made to face me and the disturbance of my presence in their absence.
We arrived in Prague on the rainy night of September 10. The day of September 11, however, was clear and sunny, and as we walked the early morning streets, charmed by all we saw, Julia – who was scheduled to teach a photo workshop in Provence later in the month – imagined, now, teaching one in Prague. She knew a young Czech photographer, Isabella, living in Los Angeles, who might serve as interpreter and guide. It seemed a swell idea at the start of what became a decade of Jula’s travel workshops around the world. What serendipity it seemed, then, when half an hour later, on some other street, in a city where all were strangers to us, we heard a voice call Julia’s name. We turned. It was Isabella! She was visiting family! What joy at the fortunate crossing of paths, and with plans set for dinner together the next evening, Julia and I walked on with slow pleasure across the Charles Bridge, over the Danube, on the way to Prague Castle.
Winding our way back from that visit over unknown streets, the dream of outdoor seats at a café in Old Town Square growing, we passed on the other side of the street a building projecting an American flag, flown above its door. Just then, a flurry of military vehicles suddenly drew up in front. Soldiers with automatic rifles at the ready quickly leaped to the street and took positions outside as officers entered the building.
“I think that’s the American embassy,” I said to Julia.
We stood and observed a while but saw no developments, and with no idea what the situation might be, and fairly sure that two casual tourists stood little chance of learning, we moved on to our imagined mid-morning refreshment . . . .
* * *
For some, the first image is that of the planes, stark apparitions of a cold reality in the instant before the strike. For others, it is the buildings’ linear collapse and retreat to the earth that bore them. For me, it is hands. The hands of our waiter at the outdoor café on Prague’s bustling Old Town Square deliver our latté and Coke, then hover in front of him, nearly joining as if to begin an appeal. Where do we come from, he asks. We tell him. And he tells us. With his hands.
One hand, held out, back from the body, barrels down from the right, the other tears across horizontally from the left, two planes filled with people, descending from the sky at shuddering speeds like the lightning strikes of a fierce and terrible God.
Then the hands make a sweep of the air.
“The World Trade Center,” says our waiter, eyes reaching out to us, “is no more.”
Our waiter’s hands. The hand that rose to my mouth as it never had before. The hands that held the wheels to steer. The hands that slit the throats. Hands that steer a true course, hands that steer you wrong. Hands that clutch at armrests, clutch at seats. Hands that cross and meet to pray or hold another’s tight. The waiter’s hands. My hands. Their hands. Dialing numbers. Shielding eyes as horrific buildings loomed. Hands wrestling wheels from hands. Hands that write.
Homo habilis – dexterous man – lives on: homo sapiens – man the wise – loiters still in the evolutionary brain.
I dashed off to the nearest café on the square with a TV. An American and some Germans were already gathered around watching. My credulity continued to be strained even as I saw the tape of the second tower’s collapse. Outside a huge storefront window, thousands still busily touristed the square. The American had already assumed the role of hometown expert for the Germans. He lived, he said, not far from the Pentagon. For some reason, his proximity to the developing drama – though he stood now so many thousands of miles away – the fact that he was from there, where the death and destruction had occurred, conferred upon him, in his own mind and that of the Germans, some special status. He seemed to need it, to need to draw the horror closer to him, as if he were a kind of survivor, which in a way he was. The Germans seemed to want it, too. They stood beside a potential victim. None of them (but for the very bad luck of being a foreign worker or visitor at one of the Trade Center towers) might have been victims: they were not Americans. He, however, was, and might have been killed for it; that was a part of his identity now – the locale of our habitation, sheer geographical contiguity, and conscious association all being parts of who we are – and he claimed it.
Similarly, more than a week after the attack, in Verona, Italy, Julia mentioned to a saleswoman, during our inevitable exchange, that I am a native New Yorker. I think the fact that I didn’t then live there was lost between the languages. As the saleswoman walked us out of the store in friendly conversation, she shared with several coworkers the poignant fact of my nativity. The coworkers gazed at me with a mixture of horror and sorrow, as if my lungs, too, might now be choked with the dust of human flesh and buildings. Were they wrong? I’d been farther from the disaster than they, yet I had walked those floors, frequented the restaurants and bar, gazed out at the world from the observation deck, worked, at times, in the shadows – stood in awe at the daring of Phillipe Petit walking a highwire between the North and South Towers. My entire adult life had included in its skyline those two buildings, which before I left Rockaway to move to “the city,” I could see across Jamaica Bay and the New York harbors from twenty miles away. I no longer live in New York, but I have only to open my mouth for many Americans to know I’m a New Yorker.
But back in Prague, we fled the square for our apartment, to watch CNN and send urgent emails to friends and family. Our parents and siblings all lived out of New York by then. Everyone else was safe. (Though, Lee Adler, who had two brothers, Jay and Aaron, did die in the North Tower, in the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, just above the impact zone.) Of the many messages sent and received that day, three stood out.
9/11/2001, late, from K, a fellow writer and teacher
Curious what the reaction in Europe is to today's events. Most arrogant americans are thinking kill, kill, we did nothing to deserve this, we’re perfect… the rest of the world loves us, we're the best, how could this happen... i think the chickens are coming home to roost
9/12/2001, early, from P, a colleague, from a listserv
Make no mistake---the GOP and Democrats will, within days, react to the Pentagon-and-Towers attack with stupidity and brutality. They---the U.S.---will massively and genocidally attack civilian populations, as they did in Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War ll, then Korea and Vietnam….Tactical radioactive missiles, and/or other new and unconventional weapons, will be unleashed.
9/12/2001, from our dear friend Ashley
Our thoughts and prayers are with you. I can't believe I can't speak with Julia during something so devastating. I'm glad you two are together and safe and that all of your friends and family in NYC are okay. I'm still waiting to hear from a few friends, but I'm praying all is well. We are experiencing an unprecedented world event and you are seeing and hearing it from across the sea. Your impressions, your musings, your perspectives will be so different, yet so important. Please continue to keep us all posted on what you are experiencing. I love you!
Not until nearly midnight did Julia and I finally surrender to hunger and seek food. But Prague is a late-night town to make a New Yorker happy. We were somber and drained, but glad for the fresh air. We found a crowded restaurant with a jazz band. The square buzzed with activity. Beneath the music, conversation crackled at the tables. And I thought, then, of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”: “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters; how well they understood/ its human position.” Auden notes: “how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.”
The next night, we attended a vigil at Wenceslas Square, where before the statue of St. Wenceslas, crowds had been gathering to light candles, leave flowers, and hang banners opposing terrorism. While Julia worked the angles with her camera, I looked on with Isabella. An agitated and disheveled looking Czech suddenly appeared before me, interrupting our conversation. My New York instincts made me wary, but Isabella, translating, learned that the man had heard our English and wondered if I were American. He had been searching the streets for an American. He was very emotional. He looked at me intently and said that today he, too, felt like an American. That was all. I thanked him. (Who was I to thank him? For what, that had anything to do with me?) He walked on.
From the start, we felt bad to worry about Julia’s students, all American, canceling out of the Provence workshop. But, not yet three years old, the Julia Dean Photo Workshops survived on hand-to-mouth cash flow. Refunding all those tuitions would likely put it out of business. Fortunately, every student braved the overseas flight within a month of the attack.
I spent a couple of days with Julia in St. Remy and then drove on by myself to Normandy. There, I stopped to see the Bayeux Tapestry, a 230-foot-long cloth work of 58 scenes created in the years soon after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Among its many notable qualities are the details of its creation, believed to have been designed and embroidered by Anglo-Saxon artists and needleworkers. The Tapestry, depicting the Norman story of the conquest, survives then as perhaps the most outstanding example we have of history told from the perspective of the victors in which the defeated have been compelled to tell the tale.
My true destination in Normandy, however, were the D-Day landing beaches and the American cemetery. The cemetery moved me as I knew it would. I gazed, too, down the cliff of Pointe du Hoc, amid the bomb craters that still remain, and envisioned the scaling journey up them under rifle fire. I visited Omaha Beach and read the dedication there to the American National Guardsman who died on its sands. I sat on the patio of a café overlooking the beach and, hungry, ate an onion tart. Then I took a long slow walk down to the waterline and turned there, as if landed, to stare at the low sandy, grassy cliffs, not so very high, not very distant, and the historic moviola that always runs in my mind played its scenes over the screen of my imagination.
To be alive, to live a life unmolested by history, was a gift beyond calculation.
Julia and I had been talking about our parents and what the attacks meant in their lives. My father, then 90, who would die in 2005, had been born in a Ukrainian shtetl just ten miles from the Medieval city of Kamenetz-Podolski. By the time he was twelve, he would survive, all around him, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, famine, and pogroms that from1917-21 killed somewhere between 50,000-200,000 Jews. My mother, 86, with only two years left to live, had been fortunate enough to be born, also of Ukrainian Jewish parents, into poverty on the Lower East Side of New York. No doubt, that was one reason, I, their youngest child, was born, too, on the Lower East Side, in Beth Israel Hospital, founded by Jews near the end of the Nineteenth Century because other hospitals in New York would not provide them care.
My parents had lived to survive all that, to raise children, in the post-WWII boom, who would never experience such deprivation or face such horror. My parents’ own lives of struggle and sacrifice, recompensed by family love, had enjoyed second halves in a place and at a period in world history, at least for a majority of its citizens, almost surely unparalleled in fortunate deliverance from the ills and evils of this world. And now this had happened. What did they think? How did they feel about what it meant, for the world and about their lives, as they were surely readying in their minds to leave it? I couldn’t say for sure. But I knew that they had seen too much ever to be lulled into a commentariat’s fantasy of innocence – even just an American innocence, which apparently could be lost over and over again, when Nixon resigned and the Kennedys and MLK were assassinated and during the Second World War, and which even managed to survive slavery and the near extermination of the American Indian. And if you were a Jew, you’d have had your innocence-cherry popped a thousand times more in the history of this world. I knew very well that life had well-steeled Meyer and Helen Adler against disappointment in their fellows on this planet, the discovery, over and over again, of what they were capable of.
To know is one thing, however: read the books and study up. Experience is something else again.
All through the month and into October, Julia had been glad that we weren’t back home; it was all so overwhelming to her as it was. I did wish we were home – even wished that I were in New York. I wanted to be among my countrymen and women at a threatening time, for the comfort of solidarity. I wanted to be among people, I thought, who would “watch my back,” as I would watch theirs, simply because we came from the same place. The back I had the instinct to watch might not be one I liked very much. I wouldn’t know, though, before coming to anyone’s aid, just as any fanatic who tried to kill me would not have bothered to ask my politics or even my religion, or whether, indeed, I were a Muslim, instead of – ah, what a lucky strike – a Jew.
My touring done, I drove back to Paris and waited at the home of friends for Julia’s return from Provence. In a couple of days, we would fly back home. The night before we did, in bed, I concluded some thinking I’d been doing on a separate track. Those who didn’t experience it may not understand the rattling uncertainty that shook Americans for days after, into months. What might be coming? What might happen on any flight? I had made the hard determination, if the situation came to it, that I would not die a helpless victim. I told myself with finality that if anything did happen, in order to free myself for action, I would consider myself dead that very moment. I would not hope and fear to survive, only concentrate on how to act. I anticipated the security to come – what turned out to be three body and bag checks just between the gate and the plane – and knew it would be very hard to get a weapon on board. But I had a plan, a tool – one that I had used, in fact, to plan the department’s schedule of classes and teaching assignments during the spring semester. It wasn’t sharp, but it had a point. It wouldn’t cut paper. But thrust with fury and fear at the rear, soft underside of the jaw, it would go in. It would do damage.
I would be armed.
The atmosphere at Charles de Gaulle Airport was tense. The lines were long and slow. We chatted at the gate with a guard from Senegal, who seemed to be doing well in his immigrant life – but “America – it is the dream,” he said.
Aboard the plane, we sat amid more tension. Talked a little. I thought a lot. I saw in my mind’s eye a newspaper headline:
“English department chair on sabbatical attacks stranger headed to bathroom on overseas flight with Palm Pilot stylus.”
“’Fucking French steak!’ he was heard to cry out, jabbing at the man’s neck.”
The flight proceeded without incident. We had crossed the Atlantic.
I had gazed from my window at the grids of American cities and towns below. Now, Julia and I stood in the baggage area of Pittsburgh’s international airport, a US Airways hub, home at last, waiting to collect our baggage and pass through immigration and customs before boarding our flight to Los Angeles.
Home? I had been to Pittsburgh only once in my life, for a weekend, more than a decade earlier. The place where I was born and had lived most of my life was hundreds of miles behind me, the place I lived now, over two thousand miles ahead. If I’d walked out the doors into the October air to make my way, I’d have known no one.
Still, however senselessly, though a strange matter of sense, I felt it. I would rather live in Paris than Pittsburgh. But I felt it. We looked around, understood every scrap of conversation, read every face. We gathered up our bags.
Standing in line to pass through immigration, we awaited readmittance. A formality. Yet it is not a vacant doorway. Someone is there to judge, to assess compliance with the terms. Of reentry as well as entry. One has rights, of course. But rights, if one calls them civil, are the entailment of a system that affords or recognizes them; rights are not the absence of governance, a free passage. Rights are conduct exercised, not ignored. For the right to be recognized, the system must operate. So even if for no other, concrete purpose, someone stands at the door. Someone stands at the door to say that there are distinctions, borders, lines of demarcation. Once, between what we now call nations, these were only ideas, made real by the assertion of power and control. Then there were markers, on land or paper. And laws that encoded these marks, rendered ideas once again. Whence we come to the transcendence of those borders, which is an idea too. But like the laws that codify the borders, their transcendence – their elimination – must be agreed to, as well as the terms of the elimination, the new reality, the new idea. One cannot surrender one’s difference in the name of unity – out of either love or guilt, for that is not a synthesis but a submission, a form of slavery. Justice among people is negotiated; it is not given as a gift. So someone stands at the door, and one is reminded, as one rarely is without going abroad, that residence is the source and product of dualities: citizen and non, part and apart, legal and illegal, in and out, here and there, home and away.
It was our turn now.
Julia and I handed the immigration officer our passports, along with the forms that listed the countries we had visited. The official glanced up at us, expressionless. He looked back down at the documents. Julia asked me what countries we had visited, when she realized she had forgotten to list a couple. Like the good Nebraskan she is, she said so. The immigration officer, never looking up, continued to peruse our passports with his best official poker face.
“Well,” he said, “we’ll let you back in anyway.”
He flipped the pages of the passports. There was nothing more for him to see, to consider. It was just the process, a reminder of the process. It is not a vacant door.
The officer exchanged a word or two with Julia. She softens everyone, even if only a little. And then from Julia – I no longer remember what provoked her to say it: “It’s good to be back home.”
The officer handed us back our passports.
“It’s good to have you back home,” he said.
“I was not sleeping, you are not waking me.”
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