The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

May 23, 2016

The Ninth Ward and 9/11: American Grief Tourism in New Orleans and New York

A few months after the destruction of the World Trade Center, an event that I did not watch on television but out the window at work as it happened, then walked through, then got laid off about, then wrote poetry about (see my short collection Counterterrorist Poems (Pudding House Press, 2002), Americans lost their abject fear of New York City. That fear had been a long-standing terror predating Osama Bin Laden, previously consisting of fear of muggers, rapists, people with punk-rock hair and piercings, and rude men in expensive suits shoving others out of the way  to grab a cab.  They decided for reasons that I fail to comprehend to come in droves to the fenced-in Ground Zero, still slightly smoldering its asbestos cauldron of carcinogens, to gape and to lament.

I understood the Billy Graham Ministries red-vested prayer teams that stood in subway stations praying for the grieving New Yorkers, the fire fighters who, bless them, filled the sudden hundreds of vacancies on a temporary basis that the FDNY experienced when so many brave men were crushed by rubble.  I am grateful to this day to those who came to lend a hand to my hurting city, whether they understood our needs or not.  I am not baffled by the charity of those good people.

ground zero tourists

These people aren’t in New York in early 2002 to help the shell-shocked Manhattanites. They are there to take pictures and gawk at a gaping hole where thousands of people they don’t really care about died.

I am rather baffled by the people who came to see our wounds and stare without offering a hand.  What might motivate them?  Some of them cried.  If they were there because they lost a cousin or childhood friend who moved to the big city from their small town, I understand perfectly, but those who had no body in the  rubble?  Those who had never much cared for New York, except possibly for a couple of shows and shopping, who wanted to see a hermaphrodite or a woman and a donkey, then return to their safe suburbs and decry us?  Why were they there?  Why were they crying?  How DARE they take what happened to us, not them, personally?

I had an estranged step-mother who had the nerve to write me in a note two months after September Eleventh, “Thank God we didn’t lose anybody that day!”  In the same note, she enclosed a book that was supposed to be self-help but which showed a woman on the cover who looked crazier than anybody who could be of assistance to anyone else, and she told me I needed to reconcile with my father, the implication being that I might die at any minute from another terrorist attack, and then how would it be for me to go to  my grave if I hadn’t apologized  to my father for wrongs she perceived I had committed against him?  Indeed, I owed no apology, and she would offer none for the obvious offense.  I sent the book back, told her how unimaginably insensitive it was to send such a note to a New Yorker in November 2001 who had actually been there, and that she needn’t ever contact me again.

I marvel to this day at the temerity and the total lack of human compassion that allows some suburban gum-chewers to consider the tragedy of another as an occasion to pack a suitcase, to board a discounted flight, and to take a tour bus.  I know that Ground Zero was filled with the ashes of thousands, but I fear that Hell awaits the torment of the tens of thousands who did not come to help but only to gawk and to personalize selfishly somebody else’s pain for something like a personal catharsis of no benefit to anybody else.

This didn’t just happen to New York, of course.  The same thing happened to my new city, the Crescent City, New Orleans.  After Katrina, thousands of Americans, many in church groups, came to help clear away debris, offer food and water to those rendered homeless, to comfort, to hold, to hammer, to pour concrete, to roof, to wire, to plumb.  Those people, I imagine, retain the immense gratitude of those who were assisted by them.  But what about the Katrina Tourists?

Tourist_sign

A sign in the Ninth Ward, 2006.

I cannot imagine boarding a tour bus to rubberneck at the condemned buildings while frantic people try to reconstruct their lives. I cannot imagine staring and not getting out of the bus (even if had been drunk on Bourbon Street when I had boarded the bus), not running over to hug, to pray, to help, to get my hands dirty, to give out money, to apologize, even though it all was not my fault.  What kind of brain-dead habitual sodomizer of livestock, what kind of certifiable sociopath, can imagine making a family vacation out of a community’s devastation?  This happened.  Americans in particular did this to Americans.  9/11 didn’t just happen on TV. Neither did Katrina. Are Americans indifferent spectators to the sorrows of other Americans?  Has reality TV done this to us?  Or is this the same crowd who used to be in regular attendance at public hangings and the burning of witches?  Are human beings just so very awful?

We are all our brothers’ keeper.  God is watching.  You shouldn’t watch impassively from front row seats the next time a national tragedy happens.  If you must go see it for yourselves, bring blankets and coffee for the freezing, lumber and copper pipes for the homeless, prayers for the hopeless.  Pray for America while you are praying, because some ugly element of our national character shows in this phenomenon.

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September 19, 2010

Don’t MAKE me come up there, New York City!

So here I am, New York, one of your expatriates,  now living in Mississippi, forever assuming that  I had left the place of ultimate tolerance for a place still wrestling with civil rights issues.  While I’m off minding my business down here, I find out from Farah Akbar of The Gotham Gazette and others — the sweet elderly couple down the street at CNN, those crazy neighbors of ours at Fox News, and basically everybody else — that you’ve gone and pulled a switcheroo on me, New York City.  Down here, I’ve yet to witness a hate crime or hear about one recently committed in my environs, but up there, you’ve gone all Klannish on me!

Farah Akbar wrote the following:

“A 37-year-old Queens resident, who does not want his name used, thinks that he may have been the victim of a hate crime. On a warm August evening, he was taking the routine four-block walk home from the Jamaica Muslim Center after completing his prayers. He was wearing a traditional outfit from his native Bangladesh, which consists of a long overflowing shirt that reaches the knees and baggy pants. Two blocks shy of his home, five men surrounded him began punching him.

‘I kept saying, ‘Don’t hit me. Take what you want, but don’t hit me,’ he said. The men did not ask for money or for his watch. In fact, they did not say a word to him throughout the entire ordeal. The victim, an information technology professional, had to take two days off from work to recover from his injuries.

Officials from the Jamaica Muslim Center believe that this was a hate crime. ‘He was wearing Muslim garb, he was not robbed and he was only two blocks away from the mosque,” said Junnun Choudhury, general secretary of the center.'” — The Gotham Gazette, September 2010

And then there’s the guy who drunkenly took a whizz on prayer rugs in a mosque in a different part of Queens, a part of Queens where I organized a pro-diversity literary reading within a year of 9/11 that was well attended!

Why are the people of Astoria, Queens, in what must be the most diverse portion of the most diverse county in the whole world, seemingly more angry at Islam today than  they were in January, 2002?

Is this what you do, New York, when I leave you alone in the house like a grown-up?  If I had discovered you had thrown a wild party with a lot of friends over who broke stuff, that would have just been business as usual for you, and we wouldn’t be having this talk right now.  This is a sad surprise, to say the least.

And then, let’s take a look at this winner, who celebrated September 11th by protesting the Islamic center they want to build at Park 51:

Wait -- I'm in Mississippi and THIS GUY is in New York?

When I was contemplating my move down here, New York City, didn’t you warn me that if I went to Mississippi, I would run into a pack of half-wit racist scumbags with horrible taste in men’s hats?

Is this your idea of a joke, New York?

New York, it’s not just the ninth anniversary of September 11th when this guy was walking around like this — it was during FASHION WEEK that he was looking like this, too. Have you no shame?

New York, my Irish great-great-great-grandmother would have said the following to you:

  1. You’ve gone “beyond the beyonds” — which means pack your bags, no Carmelite nun’s prayer can save you — this is the kind of behavior that lands you straight in Hell.
  2. She would remind you of the controversy that existed during her lifetime about the building of  Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, as one wouldn’t want to encourage all that anti-American papist hooliganism supposedly inherent in the worship practices of that upstart immigrant group, the Irish Catholics.  I refer you to Martin Scorcese’s film, The Gangs of New York, for a reenactment of another jingoist protest against an immigrant group’s house of worship being built.
  3. You have abandoned your wonderful principles.
  4. Osama Bin Laden wins if we become hateful or even distrust our own ideal of a diverse society.
  5. Given that this man has “Guinness” written on his tacky cap, there’s a pretty good chance the guy in the photo is Irish-American.  What would  his Irish great-great-great grandmother have to say to him?  Irish eyes would not be smiling.

New York, what’s going on  up there?  Are you just acting out because you miss me so much?  Have I really  moved to a place of greater tolerance for difference and individual choice than your overcrowded streets?

Don’t make me come up there, New York City!  If I come up there, and I don’t see things back the way they were when I left — a reasonable attitude between all groups of people, a total rejection of the attitudes that inspire hate crimes, and — don’t forget — the best-dressed men in North America, you will have to answer to me.  I remind you of the many demonstrations I organized when I lived there.  I remind you of the several makeovers I performed.  You don’t want to get me started again, do you?  Don’t make me come up there.

June 4, 2010

Sex and the City in the Country

Yes, that movie, the second one, bombed.  Yes, the characters, so compelling in the series, became sad caricatures instead of  women who had learned something valuable from the variety of hard knocks they had had over the years.

So what?  Women where I come from, New York City, still identify with them, perhaps more than we should.

The girls with whom the country girls don't identify

When I worked in publishing years ago, there was an editorial assistant there who squealed, after I delivered some diatribe in New York irony regarding cocktails, my shoes, and women’s priorities in New York, “Omigod!  You are so Carrie Bradshaw!”

I did not understand.  Who was Carrie Bradshaw?

She made me, absolutely  forced me, to watch season one of  the show, which I had never watched — I wasn’t slutty, and why would I want to watch a show called Sex and the City?  I wasn’t looking for sex in the city — I was married, so I wasn’t stalking men, and what could possibly make me identify with women in such a show?

I sat and watched episode one.  I was sufficiently entertained to watch episode two.  In the middle of episode two, I jumped off the couch and screamed.

Someone had been spying on me.  I really was Carrie Bradshaw, I mean I was not just like her, I WAS her, at least for a few moments on the screen.

Carrie is talking to Charlotte in that episode, and Charlotte says these words:

“Anal sex?  That can’t be!  I went to Smith College!”

A year earlier, I had had tea at the Plaza Hotel’s Palm Court with a girlfriend, and that girl, who really WAS Charlotte for fifteen seconds of episode two, had uttered those words precisely to me.  She had said them loudly enough to be overheard by somebody else.  Writers in New York keep notebooks to jot down what others say to use  such phrases later in other creations.  It most definitely was overheard by one of  those notebook-toting writers.

What’s more, I had a  lot of clothes, too many for my apartment closet.  I had shoes, and in that moment, before 9/11, at the tail end of the dot com bubble, I kept buying them, nice ones.  I had cocktails with girlfriends regularly and networked even more regularly in the art world over cocktails.  I had a friend who was an astonishing nymphomaniac, another friend who was pampered and aristocratic, a number of friends with powerful careers that made them fearful  and cynical — in short, I was, whether I liked it or not, one of the city’s many  Carrie Bradshaws.

My friends and I never discussed the series together.  We apparently all got privately hooked, however, because when the first movie came out, we went to see it together, along with the crowds and crowds of us who had gotten privately hooked.  The theater rang with that breathless recognition, when one’s life was splayed out on the wide screen.  We knew these girls.  We were, all of  us, these girls, whether  we liked it or not.

And it’s not just my generation in New York that has experienced this phenomenon — the one that follows us is more convinced that these women are who they should become, not just who they are but who they are truly meant to be.  Note  the continued paucity of real female role models, even today, Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice notwithstanding.  I was interviewing interns a year ago, and a young woman told  me it was her goal to become Samantha Jones.

She qualified it when my eyebrows rose: “Not that I want to sleep with so many guys, just that I want to own my own PR firm and be in charge of my life.”

Oh.  They are seeing other things about the forty-year-old, fifty-year-old girls than the girls, that is, we who are them despite ourselves, than we generally see, like Samantha’s emotional immaturity and self-centered outlook.  They see independence and strength.  Are we independent and strong?

Other young women in the city love every episode, see it as an Emily Post for a complex world of male-female relationships which is off-road at best and a survivalist nightmare at worst. 

I’m sorry, younger women. To the extent that I am Carrie Bradshaw, I apologize.  We should have been stronger, more moral, more nurturing of  you.  The shoes weren’t as important as your school books.  Big is nobody’s perfect match, and neither is any other man who has that many issues  regarding commitment.  We didn’t teach you  this.  I, as a spokesperson for the generation of Carrie Bradshaws that somehow emerged on the island of Manhattan, I apologize to you.  I wish we had given you something more admirable to admire.  If you think we have it figured out, we  don’t.  If we look confident, we’re not.  We’re boxing shadows everywhere, and while we look marvelous, much better than our own mothers at this age, and we have had many brilliant experiences, do not assume for a minute we know what we are  doing.  We are piloting this plane without training.  It may crash into those looming towers any second.  We have not meant to be terrorists in your lives.  I fear we may be nonetheless.  Please forgive  us.

Because I am to some extent Carrie Bradshaw, I went to see the movie number two, right here in Vicksburg.  The theater, this on the weekend it opened, was entirely empty when  I arrived a few minutes  before show time.  I wandered  down the aisle toward the front.  I was astonished by the cool emptiness.  I parked myself in the sixth row, where I like to sit, where the screen overwhelms one, and I heard a few others behind me shuffle quietly in over the next few minutes.  I nibbled popcorn and could hear myself  chewing.  I heard neither  gasps nor  laughter of recognition.  I know the second movie wasn’t very good.  However, the girls in New York know they are still Carrie Bradshaw, even on a bad trip to Abu Dhabi.

On September 11th, I escorted that editorial assistant down the fire stairs of the building where we worked and had watched in horror as the largest buildings in New York melted down like  fast-burning cigarettes.  I miraculously got a cell phone signal to call her near-hysterical mother,  who  had been sure that her taking a job in Manhattan was a death sentence before the attack.  We walked by the tents in Bryant Park.  They  had canceled fashion  week.  Eventually, I got her to a subway, finally working, and she took the long trip home to the end of the line.

The next day, I lost my job.

This week, after the weekend debut, I got a text message from one of my cocktail-mixing Manhattanite friends.  She wrote: “Am about to see Sex and the City.  Wish you were here.”

I make no more sense  in Mississippi on some days than Samantha  did in Abu Dhabi.  I am alien to this  landscape.  Slowly, I am  making a few friends.  But who am I kidding?  I don’t have designer shoe money as I get my PhD.  I have a home where it is sometimes lovely, but then the air conditioner breaks, my husband breaks the window and thinks that  duct tape  is a perfectly good solution, the dog poops in every room, my hair frizzes past the point of recognition.

Who am I kidding?  I am alien.  Yet, I belong here.  A PhD will be valuable in my career.  Despite the duct tape and the pretzels he  left all over  the carpet last night, I love my husband.  Somehow, this has got to be my  home.

After September 11th, New Yorkers cleaned up and got on with work.  I got a new job, finished my Master’s Degree.  A wonderful cop told Osama Bin Laden at Madison Square Garden, after losing hundreds of colleagues and no sleep, that he could kiss his royal Irish ass.

My ass is Irish.  I’m not sure who to tell to kiss it.  However, I think it is time for me to shout such a thing.  Who is the enemy here?  Where are my towers?  Where are my shoes?

Mississippi?  That can’t be!  I went to Sarah Lawrence College.

Tomorrow I’ll be glad of the beauty that surrounds me.  Tomorrow, I’ll be glad for  the time I have to write.  Tomorrow, I’ll be thrilled again at my big kitchen where I bake and cook whatever pleases me.  Tomorrow, I’ll be glad at the unpretentious way things are done around here.  Tomorrow, I will be thrilled again that this is a place where my  Christian worldview is welcome.

Today, I miss Samantha. and Charlotte. and Miranda.  They are fictional characters, and I am not in fact Carrie Bradshaw, and yet, I met them everywhere.  I mourn for us, we fictional characters, become caricatures of our  former selves.

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