The Art of Moving On

David Ulin

On the evening after the destruction of the World Trade Center, I was in a bookstore in West Hollywood, scheduled to MC a reading from Another City: Writing from Los Angeles, an anthology I’d edited featuring thirty seven Southern California poets, essayists, and fictioneers. I had put the book together as part of an ongoing process of transition: to remake myself from a New Yorker into a Californian, or perhaps more simply, to come to terms with the city where I had settled, a city that required me to exist in a nearly constant state of translation, as if it were a text I had to learn to read. Much is made of this, of course, the difference between New York and Los Angeles, although in many ways (arrogance, ambition, self-absorption) they are more similar than not. But for me, born and raised in Manhattan, the act of moving west – I left New York in 1991 – had provoked an interior dislocation that, a decade later, I was still trying to understand.

This was the point of the anthology, which represented what I saw then as an attempt to inhabit the soul of the city by getting to know its writers, to frame a narrative, or set of narratives, in a place where, conventional wisdom told me, there was no narrative to be found. I had started thinking about this before I’d left Manhattan, reading Joan Didion, Nathanael West, Raymond Chandler, Richard Meltzer, imagining LA as a literary landscape, in which the most important stories were the stories we created, but in the ten years since I’d come west, that sensibility had only grown more pronounced. I’d spent much of that time reading and writing about the city, and had found, in its literature, the substance of a vast collage, not one narrative but a thousand, all existing just below the inexpressive surface of its streets. Another City had been constructed to present that, with diffuse work adding up to a fractured whole. Yet here we were, on this night after the worst disaster ever to befall New York – not just myself but several contributors to the collection, all of us looking backwards, looking east. How were we to respond to a tragedy that seemed both of us (as it turned out, we had all lived in New York at some point) and not of us, that was, at once, immediate and indistinct? I remember sitting in that bookstore, wondering if anyone would come to a reading on such an evening, looking out at the quiet twilight, at the traffic on the Sunset Strip. I felt dissolute, disconnected. I didn’t know how to respond. Once I had lived in the shadow of the World Trade Center, had eaten lunch in its plaza and relied on it to orient myself when I got out of the subway, but on this uneasy evening in West Hollywood, all that seemed a very long time ago.

If you had asked me then, what I would have told you was that this felt like the moment New York disappeared for me. We talked about it that night, the contributors and myself, once our audience – a dozen or so shell-shocked readers, uncertain, like us, of how to react to a catastrophe a continent away – trickled in. One after the next, we got up and discussed what had happened, setting aside Los Angeles to reflect on where we used to live. For one of us, this meant recalling scenes from childhood. For another, it meant thinking about friends, what they had seen, what they had experienced, and our inability to imagine what that was like. A third took the idea even further, reflecting on how we interact with cities, the relationships we share with public space. It was impossible, he suggested, for anyone who hadn’t been there when the planes cut through those buildings ever to understand the impact, not just physical but psychological: what it meant to be a New Yorker now. This, it seemed to him, was the crux, the point exactly – that, at the moment of the devastation, the city we knew had stopped existing, leaving in its place a new New York, not yet defined, embryonic in its terror and its loss.

There is, from the perspective of the present, something glib about such analysis, something too easy, somethingnot quite right. What else is New York, after all, if not New York? It may be true that disaster can transform a landscape, but it is also the case that cities absorb their tragedies, that, as London did after the Great Fire or San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, they not only survive but also move on. And yet, the first time I went back, six months after the catastrophe, it was with the tentative concern of a distant friend.

I wandered my old neighborhood, unsettled by the absence of the towers, by the quiet edginess of the streets. I watched cars pull over to let emergency vehicles pass on Houston Street, a gesture so vaporous, so unexpected, I was certain I’d never seen its like before. I kept thinking about an essay in which Phillip Lopate had persuasively argued that the Trade Center attack was, on the most fundamental level, a local calamity: ‘The only banner I wanted to fly from our brownstone window’, he wrote, ‘was the orange, green and white flag of New York City, with its clumsy Dutchman and beaver’. I was reminded of my experience of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the Northridge earthquake, indigenous disasters that had offered an early sense of what it meant to be an Angeleno by functioning as a forge, a smithy of the social soul. In the wake of those events, it had taken LA a while to reconnect, to snap back, and I could recall those first few hesitant weeks and months of aftermath, when it felt as if a fever had broken, as if we had emerged (or were emerging) into a new kind of clarity, a clarity of which we couldn’t quite be sure. The salient sensibility, I realized, was one of vulnerability – the same as I was seeing on Manhattan’s streets. I had been raised here, lived here for nearly three decades, but until this moment, I had never thought about the city as exposed.

And yet, it was. And yet, it is. And yet, in its new aura of susceptibility, New York opened up to me again. I say that not to suggest that I am now anything other than an outsider; how could I be otherwise in a place I haven’t lived for twenty years? At the same time, this notion of the city as somehow conditional connects me to it in another way. Here’s what I mean: Especially during the early years – 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security made its unfortunate duct tape declaration, or 2004, when it suggested that al-Qaeda might target the Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden — I began to notice New York friends stockpiling canned food and bottled water, discussing preparations, escape routes. This wasn’t true of everyone, nor even of most, but it was true enough to strike me as an unexpected bit of confluence, by which my old home had begun, perhaps, to reflect the image of the new. In California, I’d had no choice but to reckon with the possibility of disaster, to accept the presence of forces that might assert themselves at any time. I knew the ground was always moving, that, in the least anticipated moments, I might need to find a passage to my children, to my home. If that had required its own sort of translation, eventually I recognized it as essential to the narrative incohesion, to the fragmented nature of the place. To confront such issues in New York was, by turns, exhilarating and disconcerting – a tension difficult to balance (terrorism, after all, is at first glance the furthest thing from an act of nature) until I realized that these reactions came from a shared psychological landscape, one defined by randomness and fear.

New York, of course, has never been immune from this. In his 1948 essay ‘Here is New York’, E.B. White put it succinctly: ‘The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions’. White was writing about the Cold War, but the point remains clear. And yet, for all its legendary toughness, New York didn’t really have to deal with the implications of White’s vision – until that September morning when the towers crumbled down. In that moment, the city moved not away from me but toward me, toward the Californian I was trying to become. New York was pushed, as I had been, to the awareness that catastrophe, real catastrophe, lingers in the shadows of daily life. For the last ten years, we’ve faced the fallout – not of terrorism so much as of our ephemerality, our evanescence, the awful knowledge that, as White writes, ‘[t]he intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sounds of the jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition’. What is the nature of such an intimation? How have we dealt with it and moved on? In the end, it has required yet another process of translation, in which the narratives that distinguish us are also those that unite us, and the most useful strategy has been to let go.

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