My day started as usual, making pancakes for my daughter while she watched cartoons. She came into the kitchen in her pajamas, and complained that the TV wasn't working, so I gave it a professional swat on the side, then changed the channel and quickly found the problem: The World Trade Center was on fire. We put shoes on and headed for the waterfront, about a block away. Someone said, "They must be making a movie." I wondered how they got a permit to do that. A million pieces of paper drifted over the harbor. Watching those towering infernos, I was certain it would be days before the firemen could douse the flames. Never for a moment did I expect the buildings to fall. When the first one did, I looked at my daughter, who had just watched perhaps the most memorable event of her life unfold. After years of death rays and purple monsters on The Powerpuff Girls, she wasn't that astonished. She wanted to play tag, so I tagged my little girl and ran toward the house. "You're it," I said. She smiled and chased me gleefully.
We were downwind from the fires and soon the thick, yellow smoke chased us out of the playground and back inside. I closed the windows and turned on the air-conditioner, but in an hour our apartment smelled like like death. The television barked reports of four more planes in the air and I kept wondering, where the hell is the military? The first F-16 didn't fly over Brooklyn until an hour after the attack. I could have taken a taxi from JFK faster than that.
The following days felt like the biggest funeral in the world. Union Square became an altar of candles and flowers. Missing person flyers were taped all over the city, walls of them; family photos of smiling people staring, anonymous and haunting. Karlheinz Stockhausen called the attacks on the World Trade Center "the greatest work of art ever." Germans were outraged at his candor, and he was forced out of Hamburg in distress, but he was right. He was so right. All great art is provocative and leaves us speechless for a time. It stirs our heart, makes us cry, makes us angry, makes us want to take a pen in hand and seek revenge. The novelist A.M. Homes once said that if you don't get a bad review in Kirkus, it must not be worth reading. In other words, if your work didn't send librarians into a tizzy, what's the point?
When I think of great literature, I think of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's treatise on virgin pussy, which still gets people all aflutter, or Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, which definitely gets a shot in the arm toward the top ten after this turn of events. That crazy bastard took on the Muslims and ended up with someone looking to kill him, and who still might. The last guy who had a fatwa cast upon him had his head sliced off by a man with an axe while waiting for a subway in London. It was the surrealists who espoused the notion that suicide was the greatest artistic act. Those gloom-and-doom Frenchies were pushing buttons, but they too were right. When Kurt Cobain pulled that trigger, he made the front page of The New York Times. In the end, he's most famous for taking the American dream and splattering it all over his playroom.
The men who hijacked those planes and slammed them into the twin towers were so diabolical, our only reference to such a scheme is the movies: Batman, no less. This was the work of a Penguin or a Mister Freeze.
I rode my bike with a friend at 2 am Saturday morning down to Liberty and Broadway to see the wreckage for myself. Oddly, it looks like any other New York movie set; policemen standing around, barricades along the avenues, big lights on cranes illuminating the scene. Only the knowledge that over six thousand bodies were still strewn across that mess allowed me to get a sense of the true drama. My local firehouse in Brooklyn left eight of its men there. Most everyone left a piece of their heart there as well. There was life before the attack, and now there is life after the attack. There's no going back to that other world. The party is over. Big time.
Michael Hornburg a former Portlander, is the author of Downers Grove, Bongwater, and lives in New York City.