'I will never forget the smell'
By GEORGE MURRAY
`I will never forget the smell of burning metal and plastic and people that was on the air for months afterward,' recalls Canadian poet GEORGE MURRAY , who was one block from the towers when they fell. Until now, he has been unable to write about what he saw, hanging up angrily when one magazine editor asked him for 750 `dramatic' words. This essay, published here for the first time, tries to describe what happened to him that day because `it's as close as we'll get to sharing, and being connected'
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 7, 2002
Oddly, I remember most of it in silence, as though I were alone, in an old film without the title cards. I remember the physical pain of the noise, the fear of the noise, but not the noise itself. Or rather, I remember bursts of cacophony as though someone was spinning a loud radio with blown speakers down the dial, skipping past station and static alike. I remember the sound of the plane screeching in above me, but as I watched it strike the tower and the flaming debris began to rain down, everything went silent.
I can't call the sound to mind at all. I just see a plume of metal, fire and smoke. I remember swearing, but can't hear it. I remember the bodies on the street and a snippet of someone crying hysterically, but mostly there was just the sound of my own breath in my ears.
I remember trying to call my wife, Ailsa, from a payphone while watching people jump from the top floors, some of them smoldering as they fell, but I can't hear the people around me screaming as they must have been, or bodies smacking the pavement just a few hundred feet from us.
I can see the crowd reaching out as though to break the fall, but I can't hear them crying. I can smell the piles of singed paper and ash, see the twisted chairs, feel myself tripping over the countless shoes, but again there is only the sound of breath in my ears.
As the first building fell, I remember the ground shaking beneath my feet, the pavement jumping up at me. I remember crouching over a friend, but I can't decide if the deep rumble was actually audible or only discernable in the shaking of my bones. I was on Broadway, one street over from the first building when it came down. I started running. I saw the cloud of debris coming at me. It enveloped me. Something hot hit the back of my head and went down my shirt. Store windows were blowing out. There was a pool of blood with broken glass in it: cause and effect. Or is that effect and cause?
It got darker in front of me. A very heavy shoe flew out of the smoke and hit my ankle. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman lying half under a car. I was past her in the dark before I could go back. I thought the building was falling on me. I remember thinking: try to take it in the legs. An old man fell. We stopped and swept him up. I was running farther and faster than I had in years, trying to cover my mouth with the sleeve of my shirt. Through all this, people were screaming. Maybe I was screaming. I don't know. I remember only my own short breaths.
Don't get me wrong. This isn't odd. I am an unusually forgetful person. It's as though I've been training for senility since childhood. The problem is, I can't forget this sequence of events. I've told the story to so many friends and family and walked the same streets to work every day since. Having passed it each morning, I have the image of the skeletal remains of the south tower just up the street etched in my brain. It was like living in a Life magazine photo spread. I will never forget the smell of burning metal and plastic and people that was on the air for months afterward.
I suspect that Sept. 11 will be one of those anniversaries on which people of our time exchange stories of what they were doing when they first heard the news. It's the kind of event that notches a hole in your mind. One friend of mine was in a pub in Spain. Another was watching on TV, trying to call me at work. Others stopped cold in various stages of their morning.
I, on the other hand, can't remember exactly what it was I was doing when I first heard that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. I never will, precisely because I was there.
Here's what I do know: To avoid the destitution of living as a poet, I work for an agency that oversees campaign finance reform for the City of New York. It was Primary Day and I had been in my cubicle since 8 a.m., working away, listening to tunes on a headset.
This is where my memory goes fuzzy. I can't remember if it was Journey (Any Way You Want It), Styx (Come Sail Away or Mr. Roboto) or Supertramp (Bloody Well Right). I would like to say it was The Clash playing Rock The Casbah, but, alas, history is not always so neatly ironic.
A colleague ran in and said, "An airplane just hit the World Trade Center." I said, "The World Trade Center? Get the fuck out!" Nobody called it WTC then. "They think it was a tourist plane, like a Cessna," she said. When I got down stairs, there was a tire ripped from the landing gear of the first airplane in front of my building. The rim of the tire came up to my hip. "That's no Cessna," I said, before rounding the corner and walking toward the flaming tower.
That night, as Ailsa sat picking shards of glass and metal out of my scalp and ears, we called friends and family to say we were okay. My tongue and lips had small cuts from the crushed glass, my hand was scraped and slightly bloody, and I had pulled muscles. We thought my foot had been hurt because my shoe was covered with blood, but on inspection at home the blood turned out to be someone else's.
In the days and weeks after the disaster, various news organizations asked me to either write or speak. An editor at a major magazine wanted me to give him 750 words and asked if I could "make it dramatic." I hung up on him. A television network asked me to appear on their morning show. I pretended I didn't get the message.
In the year since 9/11, I have tried to resume a normal life in a city quietly bereft of confidence. No one speaks of the disaster in anything but the toughest or most cynical tones, yet it directs the course of life. The newspapers are still running obituaries for the fallen. People still walk to work down Nassau instead of Broadway to avoid the tourists at The Pit. Conversation at parties still dies when out-of-towners ask how we're all feeling.
Sales of drugs such as Prozac and Zoloft have gone through the roof. The news doesn't report this. It doesn't tell you that one-way rentals at U-Haul are up. But the signs are there, literally. There are city-sponsored ads in the subway: "Need help coping?" There are counsellors who come to your cubicle opening with clipboards. There are posters that say, "New York Needs Us Strong" signed by Mayor Bloomberg. Hints that perhaps we are not.
In August of 2001, we had been here a year and were just getting over the New York hump: that period in which you get accustomed to the city and its frenetic vibe. It's when you quit converting dollar amounts and raging at the cost, when you finally make a few friends who aren't nutso, when you develop a routine in sync with the city.
I had been gearing up for a fall of poetry readings, art openings, drinks with new friends. Immediately after the disaster, we went home to Toronto for a week and are just now recovering from homesickness. It's as if we started over completely. I went to a few poetry readings in November, just as part of my "brave New Yorker duty." Then I stopped socializing until July of this year.
I had been writing a book of poetry since April, 2001. Coincidentally, it was about the nature of cataclysm and apocalypse, history and prophecy. It took a bit of a left turn after 9/11. I was determined to keep any direct reference to the disaster out of the book, but people tell me it has crept in, in subtle ways.
With the approach of the first anniversary, when asked again by so many news outlets to write about my story, I was hesitant. When I asked people how they felt about all the attention, my friend Jonathan surprised me by saying, "Some might say that as an artist and a witness you have a responsibility to write this." It rang true.
But what is an artist's responsibility, exactly? Is it a responsibility to appease people's curiosity? Is it a journalistic responsibility? Is it to make something most saw on TV more real? Is it a responsibility to you, the reader? Why would I want to give that to you? Why would you want it?
And why me? Why not the dusty accountant I walked along 5th Avenue from 45th to 86th with on 9/11? He escaped the debris cloud by hiding in a tiny pizza joint with about 10 other people, eating cheese and pepperonis, drinking Cokes. No one asks accountants to write about what life is like now. No one asks my wife what it's like to teach the New York University students who were removed from residences downtown. No one asks the guy who sells me coffee each morning what it's like to serve coffee to dead-eyed Dilberts trying to forget they are sitting in cubicles a couple buildings over from a smoking hole.
My guess is, the reason we ask artists what life is like in a "post-traumatic" environment is because we think they might provide an answer. Or at least a more succinct answer. As you can see, they don't.
Before this month, the act of writing itself felt not only predatory, but also redundant. It seemed as if enough was being said, being written, being pictured. A cottage industry has sprung up, making money and fame off the tragedy, not only in the news media, but on the streets as well. T-shirts, photos, paintings are everywhere, and the Web is full of God-awful poems. After struggling for a year to intercept memory before it could infiltrate my poetry, writing directly about the events is both a strain and a relief. I have to relive the events to fulfill my "obligation" as an artist/witness at the same time.
What does this say about what our culture expects of its artists? The culture that grumbles about funding them on sunny days and turns to them in the rain? When the news cameras are there with an unblinking eye to capture every facet of tragedy with obscene clarity, why do we need artists to tell us what life's like now?
I suppose it goes something like: We weren't all there, but if someone can help us find the emotional truth of being there, it's as close as we'll get to sharing, and being connected by, the burden. I really don't know that I can be that person. I can tell you what happened, but that's it.
If you're looking for real blood and guts, turn on your television. Your TV has a better, wider-angle lens on it all. The news can pull the camera back and show you what's happening around the world or zoom in lasciviously on a man's face as he falls 80 storeys to his death.
And there's sound.
George Murray's latest book of poetry is The Cottage Builder's Letter (McClelland & Stewart).