Sunday, September 11, 2011

Trying to Comprehend the Incomprehensible: Artists and Musicians Coming to Terms with 9/11

9/11 Tribute - Photo by David Kidney
September 11, 2001, started out as a very ordinary day. Woke up to the radio, had my shower, cereal for breakfast, took the bus to work. It didn’t start to get weird until just before 9am. I received a phone call from one of the technicians in my office.

“A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!”

I laughed. “Joe, New York City is a ‘no fly zone,’ planes don’t fly over the city!”

“Well it was on the radio.”

“You must’ve misunderstood … what was it, a Piper Cub?”

Twenty minutes later he called back. “Dave, another plane crashed into the World Trade Center!”

Now you have to understand about Joe. He’s a clever guy, but he doesn’t always get the information right. He had recently spent almost an hour explaining to everyone how by changing our pays to bi-weekly instead of monthly meant we were going to be getting two more pays a year, meaning more money for everybody! No mathematical formula would convince him. So, when Joe gives you a news story, you want to check it!

Trouble was, our office was in the sub-basement of the building, virtually a bunker, and radio reception was pitiful down there. I decided to walk over to the University Bookstore where they had a television for sporting and cultural events. A large crowd had gathered. It was nearly 10 o’clock. I pushed through the crowd, just in time to watch the tower collapse. The tower collapsed! I can see it now. The fucking tower collapsed! And black smoke was billowing out of the other one!

A friend of mine was on assignment in NYC that day from the National Post. He later described the scene on the street, the smoke, debris, chaos. I was later to read Art Spiegelman’s version of the event, In the Shadow of No Towers (2002-2004), and felt my lungs clog. I have been an asthma sufferer my whole life. I’m sure that dust would’ve incapacitated me. My journalist friend, and Art the artist confessed that they ran.

I stayed in the Bookstore long enough to watch the second tower collapse. It was unreal. I wandered back to the office dazed. It was like the day I heard that John Lennon had been shot. Or before that when John Kennedy was assassinated. Those days will live in infamy, but also live in your memory, a communal experience.

Artists and musicians tried to respond. For years they’ve tried. novels, short stories, movies, and songs have been written about 9/11. From Paul McCartney’s single “Freedom” to Bruce Springstein's album The Rising (both immediate responses), to the recent album by John Hiatt which includes “When New York Had Her Heart Broke”:

On that fiery day when the towers gave way / New York had her heart broke / New York had her heart broke / Many heroes died trying to save someone inside ...

The quality of these songs ranged all over the map. Perhaps the most moving was Tom Paxton’s “The Bravest.” He describes his reaction…

As I sat and watched the horror unfold on 9/11, I could smell the acrid smoke drifting south from the Pentagon. There was a never ending line of cars heading away from Washington. With the rest of the world I watched the towers come down and among the victims were 343 New York firemen. I'll never be able to look at a fireman or woman again without knowing that he or she would lay down their lives for me without ever knowing my name. We can never thank them enough.

But the whole point of my story is in this small detail. Artistic and musical were not the only responses. There was a different, visceral response on that day. I spoke to the manager of the Bookstore, who told me that shortly after the collapse of the second tower he had to turn off the television and put it away. Factions had formed, two distinct groups each one blaming the other for this act of terrorism. Students who sat beside each other in class were accusing each other of guilt in this heinous act. They were screaming at each other across the aisle. It doesn’t matter who these groups were, the fact that their immediate response was to blame the other guy is the key.

Steel Girder Cross - Photo by David Kidney
I visited Ground Zero two years later. It was a big hole in the ground. There was a cross made from steel girders. In the neighbourhood, fences were decorated with photos and remembrances of those who died. We attended a service at St. Paul’s Chapel (a tiny Episcopal Church that became a relief centre) and were moved to tears. We ate our lunch in a quiet little square dedicated to the firefighters who gave their lives trying to save others. The firehouse was right around the corner from this square. We couldn’t help but think about those firemen as we ate.

September 11, 2001, started as a very ordinary day. It became a turning point.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife

No comments:

Post a Comment