Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nine-Eleven Skies

One day this spring, the New York sky was so shockingly blue and cloud-free, I commented to some friends, "It's a 9/11 sky." They groaned and told me I had ruined a perfectly nice day. Still "too soon," I guess. But the fact is, that's my strongest memory of the day, how disarmingly perfect it had seemed.

Well, it's another day like that today.
And I find myself thinking again about the Flitcraft Parable,
which has stuck with me ever since I read it in college. It's an anecdote Sam Spade tells in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, about a man named Flitcraft who is nearly killed by a falling beam and then disappears on his family:
"The life he knew was a clean, orderly, sane, responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them."
On 9-11-01, I biked my older daughter to school, voted in the primary, and arrived back at my building feeling like life was pretty good. Then a woman walking out the door told me a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. I thought she meant a biplane. 
I went upstairs and turned on the TV, and saw the second plane hit live. 
I remember hearing the TV morning-show announcer, way out of her depth, blurt, "Well, there seems to be some kind of problem with air-traffic control..." Nobody knew how to process what they were seeing. I called my then-wife into the room and her first reaction was to worry the subways would stop running and prevent her from getting to work, where there now would be news-related imperatives.

We went ahead with the morning plan to walk our younger daughter to her nursery-school orientation, and people on the street -- just six miles from the Twin Towers -- seemed evenly divided between Those Who Knew and Those Who Didn't.  The whole process at the school was surreal, with the adults trying to be all cheerful, the teachers, who'd been there since before It Happened, not really clued in about it. 

Then on the way back a woman told me the Pentagon had been hit, and somehow, even though that was farther away, made it seem like things were more out of control. The following day was my anniversary -- it turned out the last one I would celebrate. 9-11 did make me reassess everything, like Flitcraft. 

In an eerie bit of synchronicity, my friend Mark -- who also had a 9/12 anniversary, and is also now out of his marriage -- just posted this photo on Facebook of us [right] taken in Bryant Park in spring 2008, our first time getting together after my mother had died (suddenly) in October 2007. I have no recollection of this, but I guess we were concerned about falling branches. 

Last night, driving back from the U.S. Open, I was initially shocked to see the "Towers of Light" again illuminating the heavens. I had actually forgotten, for a moment, that it was September 10, and that the next day would be the anniversary -- the reading of the names, the Facebook and blog postings of Where We Were That Day (last year I posted the Ryan Adams video [embedded above], which was shot a few days before 9-11, and took on a completely different meaning by the time it was edited together). 

But that moment of forgetting and the shock of the remembrance had me wondering. As time passes, will 9-11 become a day like JFK's assassination, which only is recalled by those who experienced it? Will it become embedded as a national day of remembrance like Memorial or Labor Day, which still have some nods to their origins but mostly signify vacation? 

In the intervening nine years, I have gotten divorced, started a new career, moved back and forth between Los Angeles and New York three times, had five jobs come to premature ends, but I have also settled down with a terrific loving woman, and remain devoted to my kids and creatively inspired. 

In the end of the Flitcraft parable, Spade discovers the man has eventually moved from Seattle to Spokane, and has reengaged and set up a second life. 
"He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."
In retrospect, perhaps my attempt to classify a piercingly blue sky as a 9-11 sky is not as cynical as it might sound; I am trying to say, in a nutshell, that there once was a sky like this, and then the most horrible thing could still happen, but then it's over, and the sky is again blue.


tom goldstone said...

Never heard of the Flitcraft parable - fascinating. Will have to re-watch the Maltese Falcon.
Great post Handelman!

David Handelman said...

I am pretty sure it is not mentioned in the movie. It's not part of the "plot" per se.

Maria Grasso said...

Love this post. My take away is the power of human beings to process and heal. We're aware of what can happen on a day with a perfect sky, and yet over time that knowledge doesn't keep us from enjoying the simple, pure beauty of nature.

bruce said...

I, too, have referred to perfectly clear blue skies as 9/11 skies, regardless of the time of year. When these beautiful skies show up in early September, the quality of the light seems to bring back even stronger memories of the 9/11 sky of 2001. Yesterday's 9/11 sky was kind of eerie, as it seemed to be the clearest since 2001.

Bruce P.

Unknown said...

Lovely post David.
I recall standing in a Cambridge playground with other parents that afternoon, watching my then 3 year old daughter on the slide, thinking with profound sadness, (and fear, frankly), that never again would it be possible for me to look up into a piercingly beautiful blue sky and think of it as--simply-perfect sky. Yet worse things have affected our family directly since then, and a perfect, sunny day can still exhilarate me. Must be the Flitcraft effect.

Profesora said...

My office at the time was in a building at the east end of a large athletics practice field. My view across the field to the west were two twin towers: offices and dormitories always tall against the big, open sky. This part of campus was on a flight path as planes came down in their descent toward the airport a few miles to the east. After 9/11 I could not see a plane approaching the towers, without startling and worrying. It took me a couple of years-- I do not exaggerate-- to lose a lizard-brain panic whenever I looked out my window and saw a plane approaching.

David Handelman said...

I currently (2016) work in a twin-tower building, whose design originally included outdoor decks but because of the attacks were deemed off-limits before they even opened. It took a while to realize that the city's (and economy's) symbolism of the WTC was what made it the target, not just the fact that it had two towers.

Profesora said...

Yes, of course! And of course it was not the first time that the WTC had been targeted, for just the reasons you note.

Susannah Greenberg said...

I remember those skies. And I remembered them again this 9-11. Those hands can write. Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

Paul said...

Love your story and the way you tell it. And I feel what you're trying to convey. Thanks David.