By Colum McCann, Contributor
April / May 2002
They are still with us, the shoes. Tan-colored Rockports. Size tens. We have put them in a box and left them in the corner of a cupboard, although the reason why we have kept them is still mysterious to me.
On September 11th my father-in-law was in Tower One of the World Trade Center. Miraculously he managed to escape. Unable to return to his home on Long Island, he walked, instead, to my family’s apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. He came down the corridor, covered in dirt and debris. My four-year-old daughter, Isabella, ran to meet him. She jumped into his arms but then recoiled, didn’t say a word. Later – when her grandfather had changed his clothes and shoes – she snuggled in his lap.
“You don’t smell of smoke anymore, Poppy.” she said. And then she told him that, like the building on television, she thought he had been burning from the inside out.
The following morning my father-in-law returned to his home. Inside our front door his shoes remained: filthy, water-damaged, ash-covered. He wanted us to throw them in the rubbish. Instead my wife insisted we keep them. She had no idea why and neither did I.
In the month after the attack I have tried to make certain narrative flow of my emotions – the outrage, the loss, the bewilderment – but, in the increasing distance from the event, a strange moral complexity began to filter through my mind, so I no longer knew definitely where I stood.
Often I walked through my adopted city – as I have always done when empty or depressed or lonely – and I took notes, not so much to create a portrait of New York as to try and find a portrait of my own feelings.
Outside the fire station car was parked for two weeks. on the back seat there was a change of clothes. A sporting magazine. The stub from tickets to a Yankees game. For the first few days the car was ticketed until the cops realized who it belonged to – a missing firefighter who had neglected to put his permit on the dashboard. Then the car was garlanded with flowers and the orange of the parking tickets was all but obscured. It stayed for weeks, a deep reminder that hope still existed. And then one morning it was simply gone.
And yet, like a painting removed from a wall, there still seems to be a spot where the outline manages to exist: as if the car will be there forever.
It still sideswipes us in the most unusual way. At Isabella’s ballet class one of the young girls will not dance. Four years old, she sits in a corner on her own and stares. Her mother, outside the classroom window, mouths the words: “Please dance.”
When finally the girl performs a shallow arabesque the mother relaxes, turns, half-smiles, and feels the need to explain. She says: “Her father. September the 11th. you know.” And then her voice trails off.
The lone hydrant on 71st Street. Somehow it seems intimately connected with everything.
Snow in January and the cranes swing through the air. The workers are dressed against the weather, balaclavas and scarves. They seem tiny against the elements – the swirl of snow and the heaped concrete.
There is an ancient legend of thirty-six hidden saints in the world. They are charged by God to bear the sorrows of the world. They are ordinary people – carpenters, fishermen, cobblers. But one of the men is, in the legend, forgotten by God and he has no avenue of prayer towards his savior. Still, he bears the sorrows of the world, simply because he must.
The blizzard almost obscures the men so that it looks as if the cranes are operating all on their own.
I do not want to see a sculpture made from the rubble. I don’t want to read poems about the attack. I will never pay money to see a film about it. A selfish question: How, then, is it possible to be an artist in a time of terror – especially when art is not one of the things being terrorized? There is no proper way to write about this. Nothing is insignificant. The smallest image shoulders up against the most horrific and makes a level ground of meaning.
The painting that the child hung in the window on Second Avenue – two buildings with extended hands reaching out to each other – is as emotionally powerful as any great work of art I can recall.
I walk along, fearing for John Michael, my son, although he is only three years old. He adores fire trucks. Every time he and Isabella see a fire truck they wave and say “Thanks for saving Poppy.”
Allison’s father – whenever he recalls the day – can clearly see the faces of all the young men in uniform climbing the stairs past him.
The flags annoy me, as if we are at some terrible sporting event. I watch the protestors outside Grand Central Station. I want to join them out of solidarity for their separateness, but I don’t, I can’t. This ridiculous moral turmoil of mine. I just stay watching, as if this is television. And then an image occurs as if in a dream: an Afghan child wearing my father-in-law’s shoes.
The poster in the window of Wendy’s restaurant. Biggie Size. Such an American notion. Always bigger. The bigger country. The bigger economy. The bigger triumph. But now we have the bigger tragedy. As if everything big is rightfully owned here, even death and terror. All this chest thumping and U-S-A horseshit. And all this bomb-them-back-to-Stone-Age rhetoric. Will all of this terrible sadness become a selfish autograph of sorts?
Yet if I was face-to-face with some of the commentators in the Irish media who seem to suggest that we got what we deserved I would first of all take them for a walking tour of the city and then, after they have formed an attachment, introduce them to some local firefighters who would give them an unmerciful ass-kicking.
The terrible stories of things that have been found in the rubble, the ordinary mixed with the extraordinary: shirts, scalps, arms, a wedding ring nearly circling a thin piece of concrete. The cruel genius of war is its startling, almost beautiful, conjunctions.
Over and over in my mind the Elvis Costello, song written by Nick Lowe: What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?
At the Claddagh gift shop on 88th and Second Avenue the owner Liam tells me that, in early December, a customer came in who seemed vaguely familiar. He bought two Lucozades, two packets of salt ‘n vinegar crisps and then went down along the counter to where the candles are kept. He bought two candles with the Celtic design and the words For Our Wedding embossed on the front.
It was then that Liam realized that the man’s fiancée used to come in regularly to buy Lucozade and crisps. He had not seen her for a while. Then the reality dawned: she had worked downtown.
And then another customer realization: the customer was going home to light the candles on what would have been his wedding day.
The poster stayed on the church gates for months: Looking for Derek Sword. When it became sodden with rain someone covered it with plastic. It is now gone but, like the firefighter’s car, I think it will be there forever.
The children selling their toys on the street. For the firefiters Fund. They are no more than eight years old. Who is to say that there is no goodness in this apparently hellbent world? (Although, of course, one wishes they would learn to spell!)
I cannot bring it in me to go near the site. The tourists with their video cameras anger me. Why the fuck don’t they just go away? Then I remember that in the first days after the bombing I tried to volunteer to remove some of the rubble, but it was union work and I wasn’t qualified, so now I wonder if I wanted to work because I, too, was a voyeur?
I go into my children’s room. I curl up on the floor and watch them sleep. Nearby there is a photograph of their grandfather, taken just days after the disaster. And it is then that it strikes me – the miracle of the miraculous is that miracles sometimes still occur.
At times, during the past few months, my wife and I discussed leaving New York to live elsewhere. Instead we have decided to stay and have even bought an apartment in the city.
Once again, as we have done many times over the years, we will pack up our possessions. Added to the mix now, Allison’s father’s shoes.
They will go with us wherever we happen to be. A strange heirloom, but they will probably be passed on to my kids who may indeed pass them even further along the generations. The question might well be asked, years from now: What the hell are these? And our answer across the years may have something to do with war and its empty spaces, or it may be that we will talk of a great-great-grandfather who walked all the way from the tip-end of Manhattan to 71st Street on a September day when the sky was a very particular shade of blue. ♦