MOST OF US know the ritual. Usually the personal remembrance happens ahead of the 9/11 anniversary, over drinks, among friends, after references to 9/11/2001, to ‘the morning of.' "I remember where I was. . . ." Often, in my circles, it's triggered by a charged comment by me. "Now we have this Syria-insanity," I say, or something along those lines. Not that the day of 9/11/01 and its human toll and our military's global vengeance, in 9/11's endless wake, are on my mind. Except when they are. Like breaking news.
Whenever I listen to people recite the narratives about the 'morning of,' September 11, 2001, I find they are recalled with a convincing memoirist’s zeal, and often set in time zones and locations thousands of miles from New York City. And when it is my turn, I think of my own 'morning of' story as too banal to share. The stories other people tell involve how they related to or were with other people as "it" happened. But I was at home alone with two cats watching TV. My 9/11 story is so boring that I have, in more unethical flashes, considered inventing a whole new ‘morning of' story for myself. "Would you believe it? I was escorting tourist friends in the elevator toward the top of the
building when we heard. . . ." Empire State
A native New Yorker I am old enough to recall the curiously macho grade school bragging in the Bronx about our city having "the biggest building in the world" back in the mid 1970s, when the Towers were almost complete. On a school trip I was taken to the roof of one of the towers. Like millions of other New Yorkers, I'd lived with those twin, often brightly lit, boxy behemoths my whole adult life, especially when I needed to navigate south and west from confusing parameters of lower
. That much is
true. But on September 11, 2001, I was at home in lower Manhattan Westchester.
Tuesdays were my day off from teaching that Fall term. My girlfriend at the
time, who was in the habit of watching morning TV, wasn't there with me, yet,
from a habit I'd picked up, I had the TV turned on as if she were. Martha
Stewart's homemaking show, if I recall correctly. Background noise. I looked
forward to a non-teaching day, a reversion to summer—a day home, blue skies,
warm temps, and a half-assed plan to work on some story drafts and read
Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma, which had just been republished.
This is far as I get in recounting my morning of stories. It's boring.
It lacks any of the inter-human drama I hear in other people's stories—viewing
the event live before a family dinner in France,
or watching it at a pub in Australia,
past midnight, or crossing the with coworkers, in
horror. Even days after the attack, I heard harrowing stories from friends
whose lives were in genuine danger—one who watched people dive into the water
near the Staten Island Ferry slip to escape the torrential downpour of debris,
and another who spoke about colleagues on the 80-something floor of the south
tower who were told that the fire in the opposite tower was no reason to
evacuate their own offices. Brooklyn
But my story? I was off from work. My cats cried for morning food. I was resisting being their manservant, letting them pace around and cry. I was about to get on with the day when CBS News interrupted to display a live image of a smoldering gap at the top of one of the
. Still I very nearly turned the
set off—not another if it bleeds it leads distraction—nothing's more
abrasive to a creative writing day than absorbing the manipulative hysteria of
TV news alternating with laundry detergent commercials. Animals needed to be
fed. Pretty big hole, there, I thought, maybe no one was in those offices yet.
Then onscreen, live, an explosion in the neighboring tower. Rewind. "Can
we run that again, Sam, in slow motion for our own eyes for the eyes of our
viewers at home?" Huh? Was
that an airliner banking into an office building? You bet it was, wing and all.
My wide open day was closing in fast. I thought, that 1993 truck bomb attack
on the WTC. Back then I was actually living in Twin Towers —I had a better day of
story for that attack. Now, I realize, they’ve come back to
finish the job. Keep the TV on. Manhattan
A few phone calls didn't go through, neighbors knocked on my door and for a few minutes I viewed the spectacle from the roof—a distant skyline with two smoking chimneys. Leaving the rooftop, I came back to the apartment, the cats still paced around, more irked, more hungry, oblivious to the abstract human plotline, their only connection to these human commotions an occasional twitch and flick of their ears as first responders' sirens, even in lower Westchester, began to scream and head south. I watched TV. “Our keeper is staring at something move on that box of light," the cats might have deduced, "he's absent from here." After the towers fell and I shared disbelief by phone and had made sure my family and friends were safe, I got around to feeding the cats. One can and a half of 9 Lives. They had almost forgotten feeding, or given up on me getting to it. Stepping up to feed them, surrounded by their excited cries, their long waving tails and up-gazing eyes, and then crouching down to their level to put the dishes of food on the floor, running my hand over their fur as they dug in and ate, a sense of sudden consolation and proper companionship and genuine existence eradicated the unfolding attack and flooded me with peace. Watching them eat, I was somehow back within the world as it is. I was present among creatures who don't commit interspecies homicide, let alone suicide. I had thoughts that seemed childish yet faultless: animals don't build skyscrapers or pray to God or organize Pentagons. Cats don't invade countries or hijack jumbo jets and, more ludicrously, crash those planes into buildings in order to kill other cats.
Later that day, after visiting family and soaking up the televised, ever evolving narratives—box cutters and flight schools and Dick Cheney and How This Changes Everything—I returned to my apartment where the cats were curled on chair cushions sleeping peacefully in fetal positions. For some reason, their docile, present figures reminded me of a paranoiac scene near my street that day, namely a single Westchester cop car that stood guard at my local train station, as if he were expecting a team of terrorists to hop off the 5:38 train to
I'd fed the cats so late that morning; they weren't yet hungry by evening. I made one last round of phone calls and turned off the TV and watched the cats sleep. If there's a moral to this non-story, its clarification is going to take time, years maybe. But I thought of the cats on 9/11 when I read, or re-read poet Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies. In the eighth elegy the speaker articulates the profound unfavorable differences in the consciousness about Being that separates humans from animals. Mindful of Rilke's other famous poem about the eye of the panther, I always read this elegy as referring to cats when it alludes to animals. That in turn conjures my own morning of 9/11/01. As the poem describes human beings as those who are trapped in a state of looking rather than being, of expecting rather than immersing, I think back to that bizarre spell of disoriented hours in front of the TV, where my own being was in abeyance, tormented by anticipation and memory, running through histories that were mine or not, feeling dread and anger about living in other people's stories. A magnification of every day existence filtered through a political attack. All this displacement of consciousness that morning had been in contrast to my ever-present cats and their poised behavior and their assertive prowling. They moved around me perpetually indistinguishable from their existences. Lucky them.
If I understand the poem correctly, Rilke writes of the animal's consciousness as superior to that of humans because the animal's being is its essential alertness to its worldly existence, moment to moment. The animal is. And is not introspecting about that existence. The animal is not cursed by alienated self-analysis that marks human beings as largely bystanders to their own being-here. Compared to animals, we are but half-alive slaves to a future we keep imagining or straining after:
But its [animal] own being
is boundless, unfathomable, and without a view
of its condition, pure as its outward gaze.
And where we see future it sees everything,
and itself in everything, and is healed for ever.
The poem is, I think, optimistic. By following the animal-exemplar, we might regain a form of being as pure aliveness. But instead, we seek through anniversaries and announcements, or from personal essays and declarations of war, a specter of a life. We attend to spectacles that are themselves signs of the same divorced condition; we expect "breaking news," both inwardly, through constant reflection, and outwardly through updates and bulletins, all to try to settle an ongoing disturbance between expectation and a universe that treats us like a guest. In the world but not able to be of it. Rilke writes:
We know what is outside us from the animal’s
face alone: since we already turn
the young child round and make it look
backwards at what is settled, not that openness
that is so deep in the animal’s vision. Free from death.
Rilke's poem goes on to compare the animal to a child who somehow stays in the womb forever. This isn't the same as his saying that the animal is a fetus that hasn't been born into the world; the living animal's utter participation in the world is as unchanging and as reciprocally immediate as the fetus' relation to the enclosing womb.
The uninhibited gaze and pace of my two cats on the morning of 9/11/01 reveal that "boundless unfathomable" capacity which is signaled by the animal's unsealed eyes and its unrestrained ambulation. Here, without qualification, without a TV. That animal presence confronts us with our human absence. We are absent because of retrospection and anticipation, absent in a retreating spectatorship, absent in figurative and literal wars with this world, in a constant bracing against the environment, in a frustrated withdrawal from surroundings. "Hunker. What's going to happen next? Nothing will ever be the same."
Not unlike the day of the JFK assassination, whose 50th anniversary approaches with its own morning of, afternoon of, evening of stories of its generation of witnesses sure to flow, 9/11/01 was, in the end, for me, a day of non-stop repulsive spectatorship. That out-looking was shared by all human beings who had the perverse luxury of a few hours of access to a television set, if they weren't being shot at or bombed or starved by other human beings. Animals surely are inherently better than all that.
When we share morning of 9/11 stories we might be sharing an unspoken, pan-human embarrassment about what it is we humans do with existence—and even now, what we (that is, we as America) do with it still, in extremis, onward. The President has something to say about the
East. I bet he does. We tune in. Unlike the animal's gaze, Rilke
writes, "our eyes are/as if they were reversed." We've glued our
existence to inner and outer screens.
What consoled me about the otherwise banal act of feeding my cats on 9/11 is that they weren't watching Breaking News out of lower
; it wasn't their cataclysm
and it wasn't their structures crumbling. Instruments like a television
set and airplanes answer human existential need for distancing, a need from
which animals are exempt. Manhattan
We describe those who maim or rape or kill fellow human beings as "acting like animals." I know for a fact I thought of that absurdity as I fed my cats that morning. As the fire sirens blasted and a military helicopter flew over the
Cross County Parkway
and my cats ate their food, that phrase hit me—acting like animals—and
almost made me sick, a hypocritical libel against animals. Which it is. Worse
than animals, some say.
Perhaps those two animals I was lucky to live with and Rilke who I have been lucky to read, show me, in some way, that 'my morning of 9/11' tale isn't as meaningless a story as I had assumed:
And we: onlookers, always, everywhere,
always looking into, never out of, everything.
It fills us. We arrange it. It collapses.
We arrange it again, and collapse ourselves.
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Tim Keane is author of the poetry collection Alphabets of Elsewhere (Cinnamon Press). His award-winning writing has appeared in Modern Painters, Shenandoah, Denver Quarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Reader (UK) and numerous publications. He teaches writing and European literature at BMCC, CUNY, in lower
Image: Robert Corless, Untitled (Sleeping Cat), 32" x 48" oil on canvas, ca. 1968-1973, photo Paul Moran, 2013, © estate of Robert Corless
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