Spring 2002

The Mourning Paper

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By Thomas Mallon


 

For the past seventeen years, I have had an apartment in New York, just a few hundred yards from the United Nations. I spend a night or two each week there, and in the months after September 11, I required an alarm clock as I never had before. The noise of truck traffic always used to get me up, but it was gone after the Trade Center attacks. With the U.N. a possible terrorist target, my block was barricaded at either end by sand trucks, concrete dividers, and out-of-town policemen who had come to Manhattan to help out. The sudden silence on this cosmopolitan, international street was eerie and suburban: its residents were now living on a pedestrian mall.

Throughout the fall, I myself closed off a street, a personal one, down which I might have proceeded in response to this calamity. I decided not, except in my diary, to write anything about the attacks. When a couple of publications asked me to comment upon what the writer’s role ought to be in such a time, I found myself saying that more writers might consider silence on this subject. That choice seemed to me more eloquent than some of the hasty, self-regarding pieces by cultural commentators and novelists that I was seeing in so many magazines. There were, of course, exceptions, but I found that I was keener to read the work of tabloid journalists—who at least did some reporting, retrieved information, told a story—than the abstract musings of literary mandarins upon a place (the Trade Center) and a population (the ordinary white-collar denizens of the financial world) that had rarely interested them before last September.

Like most New Yorkers, I had never been to the Trade Center except with out-of-town visitors who wanted to see the city from the observation deck on the 107th floor of the South Tower. Sure enough, in a long-ago volume of my diary, I can find the account of one such touristic ascent. Up on the deck, I noted, “acrophobia is completely done away with: one is so high up that one feels there would be plenty of time to pick and choose where one wanted to land should one fall.” This visit occurred on June 8, 1977, during New York’s period of bankruptcy, arson, and panic—the Taxi Driver era. The diary says that my friend and I took note of some burnt-out buildings—up in the South Bronx, I imagine—even though “taken as a whole” the city appeared “as neat as a Monopoly board.” The current irony of this observation—our looking at a part of the city that would be largely rebuilt by the time the Trade Center was destroyed—is so surefire, so easy, that it can only be deemed cheap, unworthy of the event that finally produced it. And that is how most literary writing about September 11 struck me.

The city’s publishing world, like most other components of New York, resumed its routine only gradually, and with a certain nervousness, as last fall wore on. The season of book parties always starts right after Labor Day, like the school year, but the first such gathering I remember going to after the attacks came on November 8. I was there at Elaine’s, a decades-old venue for such affairs, because I’d written a short introduction to the book being celebrated: an anthology of obituaries by the New York Times’s Robert McG. Thomas, a gentle master of the art who had himself died, at the age of sixty, the year before. Thomas’s offbeat subjects—the inventor of Kitty Litter; the minister who had to conduct Lee Harvey Oswald’s funeral; “Toots Barger,” the legendary champion of duckpin bowling—had prompted me to call him “a lover of the far-fetched and the overlooked” and to quote an observation, from his Times colleague Michael T. Kaufman, that Thomas had “singlehandedly humanized the paper.”

Kaufman’s remark came back to me when someone at the party observed that without Thomas’s lasting influence we might not now be experiencing the Times’s “Portraits of Grief”—those two-hundred-word thumbnail tributes to victims of the World Trade Center attacks that were now filling a full page of the paper every day. These Portraits were, it is not an exaggeration to say, the talk of the city, as much a conversation staple—and as much a matter of pride—as the city’s transformed mayor. So when someone pronounced Thomas their guiding spirit, I nodded and concealed the fact that, even though I read some of the Portraits every day, scanning the small pictures and the names, dreading the moment when I’d learn that some long-ago classmate or student had perished, I actually disliked these vignettes, and disliked them more all the time.

I seem more or less alone in this judgment. The Portraits of Grief project has been profiled and praised in Vanity Fair; on PBS’s News Hour; on C-Span, and in The New Yorker, where Mark Singer gently pointed out that the rubric “seemed a misnomer. Wasn’t what made these stories so engrossing, individually and collectively, the textured and concise way in which they captured lives before grief set in?” In fact, the title was accurate: these squibs were, in the end, less about their ostensible subjects than about the people reading them. But insofar as they had to do with grief, it was a feel-good, aren’t-I-sensitive grief: manageably poignant, and no doubt useful in reaching “closure,” as we like to say in America, without much idea of what the word means, if it means anything at all.

“A number of New York Times metro editors were sitting around a few days after the disaster, trying to figure out how we could memorialize this extraordinary event,” reporter Jan Hoffman told C-Span’s Brian Lamb last November. This was “not traditional journalism,” she explained. When Hoffman interviewed friends and family of the dead, she told them that the paper would only be “reflecting what you tell me … we are really mirrors.” By late November at least thirty people had contributed squibs; Hoffman described an enthusiastic “newsroom-wide effort to say yes” to the project.

The Portraits of Grief operated according to their own quickly developed set of tropes, substituting, in most cases, treacle for essence. Day after day, a dozen personalities were obliterated with the Grief team’s pastels. To read the Portraits, one would believe that work counted for next to nothing, that every hard-charging bond trader and daredevil fireman preferred—and managed—to spend more time with his family than at the office. “‘He always returned to family. That was his No. 1 interest.’” “‘He often said he would rather be with his family than anybody else.’” “He spent all of his free time on his wife.” The refrain is so endless, a reader can only conclude that the “kinder, gentler nation” once called for by the first President Bush has actually been here all along. It’s the same with baseball; one would think from the widespread, intense fandom invoked by the Portraits that the national pastime is in the same tip-top shape as the American family.

In the days after September 11, I realized that I loved New York City enough to die, or kill, for it. But I do not recognize the city I have lived in or next to, almost all my life, on the Portraits of Grief page. The Times has repopulated Ground Zero with the citizens of Pleasantville, and the “newspaper of record” has been patting itself on the back for constructing the world’s largest sympathy card.

The thousands of people who worked in the Twin Towers toted with them, every day, along with their share of blessings, their share of bad marriages, maxed-out credit cards, and Type-A heartbreak. They were people, not the smile-button cyborgs of the Times, where anyone depressed over his weight became a “gentle giant” and every binge drinker was the life of the party. A surprising number of the dead have been infantilized, with much of the Times’s two-hundred-word allotment going to Disney World trips or toy animals: “Mrs. Ehrlich had a soft spot for useless frog paraphernalia. ‘As long as the frog wasn’t too cartoonlike,’ her husband said.”

As the Portraits accumulated over weeks and months, I began performing mental translations, from a sugary base 8 to a real-life base 10. The fifty-four-year-old vegetarian office temp, a bachelor with “strong opinions” who preferred “short-term jobs,” was, I would bet, an absolutely impossible man; but I would prefer to have known him rather than the bland reincarnation forced to share a page with other murdered souls under headings like “The Joys of Fatherhood” and “Perpetual Motion.” These titles, set in larger type than the victims’ names, are relentlessly sentimental and soporific: “Prankster With a Heart,” “Modest Winner,” “Instiller of Love,” “Faithful to Family,” “Touching Everyone,” “Many Best Friends,” “Mr. Generosity.” At a certain point I wanted to parody them, but the editors had pretty much done that job themselves: “Multilingual and Multinice.”

If Rudolph W. Giuliani had perished in the attacks, as he nearly did, he would be remembered in the Portraits as a rabid Yankees fan who sometimes liked to put on lipstick.


I can’t help feeling that this enterprise became, in the end, as much about winning a Pulitzer Prize as it was about anything else. In an article bidding farewell to the Portraits as a regular feature, the Times noted that reading them had become a daily “ritual for people nationwide”—making one think of those gauzy, upscale TV commercials touting home subscription to the Sunday paper: “She goes straight for ‘Arts and Leisure.’ I check out the Magazine.” The Times was sure it had succeeded in bringing the Trade Center victims to life, citing plenty of support for that view from readers—and writers. The novelist Paul Auster declared: “One felt, looking at those pages every day, that real lives were jumping out at you. We weren’t mourning an anonymous mass of people, we were mourning thousands of individuals.” Jan Hoffman told C-Span that the Times wanted to show how “every victim mattered … that they were not numbers.” And yet the emphasis was always on numbers—how the Times had the resources and the space to memorialize every victim whose family would cooperate. (About 20 percent of those contacted declined.) New Yorkers speculated on how long the project would continue, the way they might guess an HBO series’ chances of renewal.

For all the intention to individualize the victims, the result was homogenization. It could not have been otherwise, given the emotional agenda of those who wrote the Portraits and those who consumed them. Preparing them, said Hoffman, provided “an experience of falling in love and then having your heart broken every single time.” A caller to C-Span said the vignettes showed how “ordinary life is a matter of being heroic.” If either Hoffman or the caller is right, I fail to see why either love or heroism is a condition sufficiently special to require a name. In fact, love would be worth nothing if most people didn’t inspire our indifference; heroism would be cheap indeed if you needed it to cross the street.

And yet the Portraits impelled their readers, time and again, to express their extravagant admiration. Three months after infuriating many New Yorker readers with a short piece that conceded the “courage” of the September 11 suicide pilots and deplored the way politics had been “replaced by psychotherapy,” Susan Sontag was back to tell the Times: “I read the ‘Portraits of Grief,’ every last word, every single day. I was tremendously moved. I had tears in my eyes every morning.” Hoffman revealed that the squibs had even become talismanic to some frightened New York commuters: “I’ve spoken to a number of people who say that part of their morning ritual, as they approach a bridge or a tunnel, is [to] pull up the page of the ‘Portraits,’ and … read them as a way of sort of protecting themselves.”

Less mystically, one caller to C-Span complimented Hoffman on the series’ “beautiful, sensitive” writing. I wonder if that would include: “The lost echoes of her full-throated laughter. The memory of her smile across the dinner table. Her postcards mailed from distant countries. That is all that remains of Ms. Chalasani.” Hoffman would point out that, as “mirrors” of the survivors being interviewed, the reporters are mostly reflecting language other than their own. But the Times’s attempts at indirect free style (“Oh boy, would he”; “let’s not even talk about the memorabilia”) are often so tone-deaf as to remind one of how badly the paper relates to the outer-borough world from which so many of the victims commuted, and of why a large number of the Portraits’ subjects were, one is pretty sure, more regular readers of the Post and Daily News.

The connection that some Times readers are making between the “Portraits of Grief” and the spirit of Robert McG. Thomas is, I believe, a false one. Thomas generally wrote about lives that had reached some sort of quirky fulfillment: “Hal Lipset, a storied San Francisco sleuth who helped elevate, or rather reduce, electronic surveillance to a miniature art, died on Monday at a San Francisco hospital. He was 78 and was best known as the man who put a bug in a martini olive.” Thomas was, in fact, not good at dealing with violence, certainly not the kind that incinerated lives in the space of a terrifying hour.

The Times’s desire to individualize the Trade Center victims is part of a new national desire to remember those lost in any large catastrophe as unique people instead of aggregate carnage. The panels of the AIDS quilt; the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington; the 168 “chairs” for those who perished in the Oklahoma City bombing: these memorials all result from an understandable impulse toward the singular. And yet they make one ask whether the calamities that were their first cause—disease, war, and terrorism—won’t become, for future beholders of these monuments, a kind of blurred and blended Death, Inc. Should we not somehow, in creating these memorials, ponder the scourge as much as the victims?

I don’t know the answer to this, but I do know that I line up with Mayor Bloomberg, and not with former Mayor Giuliani, when it comes to the question of what monument should be erected at Ground Zero to the victims of September 11, 2001. The new mayor wants any memorial to be incorporated within a rebuilt commercial environment that emphasizes business over commemoration; Mr. Giuliani would—wrongly, I think—devote the whole site to a tribute. It is Mayor Bloomberg who is being true to the spirit of New York, which has always been about moving onward and—literally—upward. In their new book, Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City, Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana di Zerega Wall point out that “unlike the nation’s other early cities or many of the well-known Old World cities that exude a cherished past, New York rarely uses its history in constructing its identity.” The authors note, for example, that the long-buried remains of an early-seventeenth-century Dutch merchant ship, the Tijger, may have been destroyed during the 1960s as construction proceeded on the World Trade Center.

My midtown street is once again open for business and life. Within five years, if the city is true to form, Ground Zero will be a neighborhood name, a real-estate designation as familiar as Tribeca. The three thousand New Yorkers who died there will live on not in the microfilmed sentiments of the New York Times but beneath the feet—ambitious, sore, and human—of other, newer New Yorkers—profane, imperfect, and real—who are rushing over their ashes, filling the buildings, jamming the elevators, going to work.

Thomas Mallon is a contributing editor of the Scholar and the author of seven novels and seven works of nonfiction. His writing appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and many other publications.


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