Illustration by Russell Christian.
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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
Business as Usual
Sept. 26, 2001--On Sunday, Sept. 16, shortly before noon, Morgan and I were walking south toward Canal St. The streets were emptier than I expected them to be, given that the day before the Mayor had opened the area south of Canal to foot traffic again. A few blocks here and there were cordoned off, but nobody was making that much of an effort to get past them.
We passed a few quiet shrines along the waygroups of small candles in front of unmarked doorways and on windowsillsbut we were the only ones around to notice them. Most everything was still closed.
Earlier that morning, Id heard that Al Sharpton was going to be doing something or another at Canal and Broadway, and we were curious to see for ourselves just what that might be.
When we reached the intersection, though, there was nothing there. A news crew, but they could be found most anywhere. A few small clusters of people were standing around, but you find those everywhere, too. We shrugged, and headed back east. Then I suggested a turn to the south. I dont know whybut if the area had been opened, why not? Neither one of us had been down that way since everything happened.
Going south, we started hitting the t-shirt stands. "I Cant Believe I Got Out," read one, beneath a picture of the skyline superimposed over an American flag.
"Five dollars," the woman behind the table told us as we passed.
There was a time, you know, when tackiness that profound and that deep wouldve thrilled me to the core, and I wouldve snatched up a bunch. This time, however, I could only shake my head.
After only a block or two, our footsteps trailed to a stop, and we turned around. Most significant event in American history since the moon landing or not, we knew that we really didnt want to see anything, and we didnt want to be there. We werent vultures, after all, so we started heading north again, past all the t-shirt salesmen.
The double-decker tourist buses were back, Morgan pointed out, but few were carrying more than two or three German tourists. There was a time I wouldve made a joke out of that somehow too. A funny, cruel onebut I just wasnt feeling all that funnynor had I in a while.
Wed spent much of our time since Tuesday morning outside, just wandering around the city, and in those days, wed felt the vibe change from one of sharp panic to one of general anxiety to one ofas everyones been encouragedbusiness as usual. People occasionally started talking about other things again. More stores and restaurants had reopened, and they had customers. There were regular breaks in the news coverage. We were dealing.
Yet on my way to Morgans place that morning, I looked around myself, looked around the subway and the neighborhood, and felt a change. It may not be affecting everyone, but I sure as shit felt it.
Suddenly things that had been little more than irksome affronts to my sensibilities in the past struck me as obscene. Posters advertising musical records. Television commercials in general. People trying too hard to be East Village "characters" (though Morgan assures me that several of them were simply displaced members of Lower Manhattans insane community).
I was relieved when my friend Grinch called and left a message on my answering machine without making any jokes about what happened. Tasteless jokes following tragedies are his bread and butter. Others had noted the lack of jokes, too, at least during that first weekthen I remembered that most of those jokes originate from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
There were several projects I was in the middle of, but suddenly they all seemed kind of pointless. Another interview with a pornographer? A couple silly-assed books? Other little essays and what have youthings people were expecting to be "funny." Well, theyd have to wait a bit, I guess.
"Business as usual" is fine. A good thing even. Get back to work, distract yourself somehow, if you can. But still, when "business as usual" means plying ones trade in dark comedy shtick, well...
So we go to bars and sit in parks and watch televisions and flip through the newspapers. Then go to other bars, where they still show the news on the tv, but the volume stays down and the music plays again.
Monday morning, I was awakened by people from fucking Portland on the radio telling me that "human beings are, by nature, peaceful animals," and I wondered to myselfas Morgan had wondered a few days earlierif theyd be saying the same thing if they lived here. Later, I hear another young woman say to a friend, "I know its supposed to be this terrible tragedy or whatever, but come on--he was calling at 8 in the morning!" and I want to hit her with a brick.
That might be kind of funny.
This feels wrong. Of course, laughing at much of anything right now would feel wrong.
That afternoon, we were at the corner of 1st Ave. and 5th St., on our way to another tavern, when I felt a light hand on my elbow. I turned and faced a man maybe five years older than me. He said a very nice and touching thing about my stupid stories. Initially, I thought he was kidding or insane. What, the thing we need now more than anything else is more stories about bitter blind men getting drunk and falling down? That doesnt seem right. But he seemed so damned earnest about it, so worried about what had happened to the world. Maybe he did mean what he said, even at a time like this. And maybe he had a point.
Then I remembered the previous day. After we stopped ourselves and turned back north, we went to get a bite to eat. The place was still too far south to be getting much foot traffic these days, so they were happy to see us. Two firemen sat at the bar over a couple beers. They were laughing, relaxed, chatting it up with the waitress. Only rarely did vague references to the Pile slip into their conversation. They talked, in fact, about almost everything except the Pile.
"I had this really weird dream the other night," one of them said.
"Yeah?" the other fireman asked him.
"YeahI dreamed I was being attacked by ducks."
Everyone in the place laughed at that. A few made quacking noises.
"Yeah," he said, after things died down a bit, "what the hell dyou suppose that meant?"
We all laughed again, and I had to admit it felt good.