Friday, August 10, 2018
Dispelling the Magic
After last night’s rains, the morning sunshine and blue skies are a pleasant surprise. The air is clean and bursts with life’s electricity, as Jazz, my 4-year-old son, and I arrive early in Washington Square Park with my guitar and harmonica, setting up between the fountain and the arch. On days like these, I can rely on a steady stream of tourists for my songs and stories. Sometimes I photograph them too, posing them within the renovated arch, so, from the south, the Empire State Building glistens behind them.
Life as a street performance artist has its advantages. It is like playing in life’s theater as it plays for you. You learn to guess the roles of the other actors by their shoes. They are a dead giveaway. The woman sorting office mail doesn’t wear Louis Vuitton high heels or boots as she passes through the arch or races up the narrow subway steps. The park’s Greenpeace canvassers use this shortcut when they choose their “stops.”
“Hey, thanks for stopping,” says one. “I’m Fareed. What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Travis. I’m with Greenpeace, the world’s largest…”
Travis is already racing away in Air Jordans.
“Hey! Come back, Travis! You know you can afford it.”
Fareed shrugs and moves on to the next in the parade. Regulars like him are my extended tribe. Besides the canvassers and performance artists—jugglers, magicians, musicians, slam poets, statues, and phony superheroes—there are street vendors. I buy our favorite meals from Omar’s halal cart. He is an Egyptian who illustrates the story New York tells itself, that one where any hard-working bastard can have a big slice of the Big Apple’s success. Jazz loves the chicken tenders, broccoli florets, and turmeric-seasoned rice, while I prefer a salad with fat-free dressing or lamb with papaya puree. We eat beneath the sycamores growing beside buried Minetta Creek. This is where Mark Twain met Robert Louis Stevenson to talk about consumption and where fictional Morris Townshend pursued Catherine Sloper in Henry James’s novel.
Today political canvassers have invaded.
“Have you voted?” a narrow-faced man asks as I play an Edie Brickell hit from the 80s. He looms over me, perhaps expecting me to cease playing to discuss the election. I ignore him and am relieved he is gone when my song ends.
“Bob Dylan tunes beside Greenwich Village,” a Frenchman in a sports vest says, and I squirm despite myself. His mustache is interesting, a thin line twisted at the ends, and his shoes are elegant loafers. I always find French accents flirtatious. “Right where it all began.”
I study the lines of his face while conjuring the right response. He is only a few years older than me but belongs to a different world. Jazz makes eye contact with him and elicits a smile.
“Clovis,” he says. They clasp hands, and I marvel how fast he gains my son’s trust. Jazz is typically reserved and even suspicious of tourists. The man he will become wants to protect me.
“That’s why Greenpeace can win the fight against Star Wars and the defense industry,” Fareed says, filling my awkward pause. “Because we don’t take money from corporations—“
“I know about Greenpeace,” his stop says. She speaks with a Midwestern accent. Maybe she is from Ohio, my home state. “I just didn’t know you did disarmament.”
I strum a chord for a Blind Faith number, and my smile seeks Clovis’s approval. He stands stone-faced looking north. Jazz’s finger points the same way, skyward, uptown past the arch. Following his finger, I see an approaching jet, white and graceful as a swan, yet intrusive, far too low and loud as it passes over us. All eyes follow its path. Seconds tick, each longer than the previous, as it reaches over Sixth Avenue, and I breathe a sigh of relief, for it has survived its insane traversal of downtown Manhattan after all! Then it twists towards the World Trade Center, and a heartbeat later, there is a sickening thud, as fire and black smoke burst forth from the North Tower.
“Mon Dieu,” Clovis says, and then everyone is speaking at once.
Seconds later, I hear shrill sirens, and they become the background soundtrack for the rest of the day. I reach for Jazz, expecting to find him afraid, but he is not. Eyes riveted on the burning skyscraper, he climbs upon the brick wall behind us, determined to get a better view.
Keeping his eyes lowered, Omar mutely packs his cart, as if the day has ended. Fareed and the other Greenpeace canvassers no longer accost the passers-by. A family photographs the burning tower, and I must silence my insane urge to suggest they pose on the other side of the arch with the fire and smoke as their background.
I survey the scene in quiet amazement and tremble. Am I the only one panicking?
“I must see,” Clovis says and I stare, mouth open, words dead on my tongue. “Will you come?”
“But my son…”
“I want to see too, Mom,” Jazz says. “Take me with you.”
I leave my guitar at the Marlton, the 4-star hotel where Clovis is staying, and we hurry south on McDougall, Jazz perched upon the tourist’s shoulders. Jazz’s winsome smile contrasts with the tide of approaching distressed faces.
By the time we reach Duarte Square where Avenue of the Americas meets the Holland Tunnel, the traffic is a gridlock and a steady rain of dust falls upon us. We are marooned upon a spear of sidewalk, surrounded by trapped vehicles and an approaching phalanx of north-bound pedestrians. One driver deserts her car to join the migration of walkers.
An angry mob of commuters emerges from nearby subway stairs, separating us. Their tangle of bodies forces me into Canal Street against a stalled Nissan. Horns honk, sirens continue to blare, and now someone pushes me against the hood just as the car comes to life. I topple forward, tumbling to the pavement and witness an impossibility, another plane twisting in flight to impact the South Tower in a devastating blow.
A scream wells from within, but I cannot hear myself. All I see are shoes of trampling feet: sneakers, hi-heels, sandals, boots. They all look the same. I cannot tell who is rich anymore. An arm returns me to the current. Clovis, still bearing Jazz upon his shoulders, holds me as we struggle forward, seeking the path of least resistance. We are almost in Tribeca Park before I realize our error: We are walking towards the disaster!
Around us, the parade has taken a dark turn. An apocalyptic sheen of dust coats everyone. Many are also injured and bleeding. Even the uninjured are sometimes splattered with the blood of other victims.
“Are you all right?” I ask a plump businessman in a tattered suit. His raw burned skin and pale eyes leak blood. He reaches for me, but I shrink away as if his injuries are contagious. After a few seconds of self-recrimination, I let him lean on me, bearing his weight a few steps. I am dizzy, afraid of falling again, so I let him go.
“Tell my wife I am alive,” he says, hastening forward, and in the seconds I hesitate, the press of the crowd separates us. Clovis holds Jazz only ten feet ahead. I cannot reach them. Instead, I am squeezed against a fire hydrant and a garbage can unable to move. Something slices my leg, and I grimace, rejecting the pain, while the swarm of humanity shoves me off the sidewalk. I am lodged against a truck now, but I work my way around its hood and climb up on the bumper to search for Clovis and my son. They are far ahead turning a corner into a side street leading east.
The sirens’ blaring drowns out my desperate calls. I claw on and find their street narrower and even more gridlocked than Avenue of the Americas. People here are climbing over the parked cars. Halfway down, Clovis and Jazz sit atop an abandoned taxi drinking water bottles, handing them to victims passing by, and I see the man with the seared skin getting one. They still have one left for me when I arrive.
“I stole them from an overturned cart,” Clovis says, his tone unapologetic.
I can only cry and hug Jazz. Then I swallow half the bottle in a few gulps.
“If we become separated again, we shall meet at the Marlton,” Clovis says.
He unfolds a tourist map, one of the expensive ones. I watch his finger tracing over familiar streets and think of the planes flying overhead.
“Let us head east to Broadway. From there we must turn north and return to Washington Square.”
“Everything will be normal soon,” I say as a woman passes us coated with ash.
“How will I ever clean my jacket?” she says to no one in particular. I cannot guess what color it once was, but it is zombie gray now, just like me. We are the color of death.
“You are bleeding,” Clovis says, and for a moment I believe he must have spoken to someone else, but then I remember my gashed legs.
“No, not there. It is your pretty face that needs mending.”
“Mom,” says Jazz. “Are more planes coming?”
Before I can lie to him, Clovis saves me.
“We cannot know,” he says. “But if one does, brave boy, we cannot be here. Come! I shall guide you to safety.”
Jazz mounts his shoulders.
“Can’t we please wait for help?” I say, mortified because I sound like my father’s daughter, the submissive girl I had tried to leave behind in Ohio.
“Look around you,” Clovis says. “No help is coming. Do you not see this for the war zone it is?”
My weakness sabotages our progress. It takes half an hour for us to reach Church Street, where the relentless stream of refugees engulfs us. They are breathing through shirt sleeves and collars, but of course, I am wearing a dress. Clovis removes his linen shirt. I stare open-mouthed, struck dumb, for his torso is sculptured in bristling muscle like Michelangelo’s David.
“For you,” he says. “Come now! We must escape.”
He reaches for my hand, just as an earthquake knocks me off my wobbling legs. Clovis raises me again. The panicking but orderly crowd now stampedes north, so I lose my grip and stumble, tripping over a fallen man. Behind us, a colossal cloud of dust rises over the Financial District, obfuscating all but the tallest skyscrapers. Then it descends like a pall, rendering everyone into dreary, shadowy figures.
An hour later, I stagger into a café beside the Marlton, where people gather to watch CNN broadcast their version of our reality. Clovis is eating a croissant and drinking espresso, and Jazz, safe beside him, watches the reporters interviewing people like us. I learn the towers have capitulated and the body count will be staggering. People are furious. They hunger for revenge.
Jazz and Clovis have no injuries. I have a sprained ankle, the ugly gash on my leg, and almost a hundred shards of fiberglass in my cheek and lips, but these are minor compared to many other survivors. I learn the government has closed the subways, bridges, and tunnels, so Jazz and I are unable to return to the garage I rented in the Bronx. Clovis offers us lodging in his suite: Jazz gets the roll-away in the main room, while we share the king-size bed. I wait for him to finish his shower, naked beneath silk sheets, nervous with anticipation. He does not even kiss me.
“You see, I am already in love,” he says, and I hate her.
Meanwhile, the city no longer casts its spell of allure upon us. Every day there are vigils in the park. Images of the fallen surround us. Their friends and family gather desperate to find them, but are always disappointed. A few days later, Jazz and I board a bus for Ohio and quit New York City forever. Our journey is over. We are going home.