A Short Essay
I kept a 911 diary from September 11th, 2001 to May 26th, 2003. I
finally put it down after returning from
The rookie cop with the juvenile face pounded his fist at the
side of the car. The
I also knew that Lenny was reliving a portion of those dark
times at that moment. It was unreal for me too, part of the
nightmare that began when I climbed to my rooftop on the South
Brooklyn waterfront on September 11th and saw, across the nearby
Hudson, under an incredibly calm, almost luminously blue sky, the
smoke-wreathed towers of the doomed
Had it not been for this nightmare I would not have been in
the car at that moment. I would have been in my loft, working on my
latest and greatest. But only vehicles with two passengers or more
were permitted over the bridges into
In retrospect I should have said, “Lenny, have your license
in your pocket so you can just pull it if the cops stop you,” but I
didn’t. Not even as we were diverted onto the gridlocked Prospect
Expressway when the
At the hairpin on-ramp to the
Two cops waited at a security checkpoint by the turnoff ahead, their car on the greensward, lights flashing. They glanced our way. Finally the car ahead sped up, passed the turnoff and shot up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. As we rolled onto the ramp, past the watchful police, I turned to look at the car that had been blocking us. I caught a glimpse of its passengers. Bandanas tied around heads and ball caps worn backwards. Now I understood.
But this was before, on our way in. Now, barring our way home, the green cop, the rookie working traffic, harangued the combat veteran for not stopping.
“What are you, blind? What do I look like, a lamp post? I tell you to stop, you STOP!”
Lenny stammered out a reply. The rookie kept on baiting him.
The fact was, the cop had appeared out of nowhere as the light had
changed. There had been no sign, no indication of any kind whatever
that we were in fact approaching a police roadblock.
But I had reached my limit. Someone else might have chosen different words, might have said something about my friend’s Vietnam War experiences, about how we were not terrorists, and that this should have been obvious. Or maybe I might have said something about it being wrong to hassle a retired man who had worked all his life for the American dream. Others might have even tried being polite about it. Or said nothing at all.
But I came up in Bensonhurst, and in times of trouble the kid
who knocked around those deceptively middle-class but actually
knuckle-bustingly tough streets emerges, and throws off the veneer
of the adult’s painfully acquired culture and education. What came
out of my mouth was delivered in the accent of my youth, which is
I looked the rookie straight in the eyes.
“Hey, show some respect,” I advised him.
The phrase may need some explanation to those who did not grow up where I did, because its meaning is rich in nuance.
In Bensonhurst, there are, and have always been, three or
four key phrases; “Show some respect,” is one of them. It has a
plethora of meanings. With the Wise Guys, to be warned to show
respect is to be issued a stern rebuke. It means more than, “You are
out of line.” It means that you have passed limits of tolerance and
you have put yourself beyond the pale. That you have ceased to act
like a human being and become -- another
The cop caught my meaning. I was sure of it. Caught it to the full. Maybe he was from the old neighborhood. It’s possible. We did have some who’d become policemen there.
The rookie bristled. Then he did something strange. He yanked on the handle of the passenger-side door, and it flew open. He stood there gaping at me for a moment or two with his hand on the door as I glared back at him. Then he sheepishly shut it again. I don’t think he’d known what he was doing, or expected the door to have been unlatched. I think he’d simply been acting out. Then he recovered, and once more donned the mantle of authority.
“Just for that I’m not letting you through. You turn the car around and go the other way,” he shouted at us both. To me, “And you better learn to show some respect to a police officer if you wanna be smart.”
“When you stop playing Gestapo.”
We were already rolling, down
In the driver’s side rearview, I looked back at the rookie. He had turned toward the fleeing car. He was gesturing wildly, flailing his arms, probably ordering us to immediately halt. But my friend Lenny didn’t see the cop. The former Army truck driver who’d made runs under fire along what they’d once called the Trail of Tears had his pedal to the metal. He was intent on putting distance between us. I said nothing. Let whatever would happen, happen. I half-expected the caterwaul of sirens, but in the end it never came.
Later, on Canal, we heard an ambulance wail behind us, and
I’m sure that Lenny thought the same as me: the cops had sent the
paddy wagon to come and get us after all. It would be an episode of
But it wasn’t the law on our tails. It was only an ambulance,
on its way to someplace else. We turned right on
Crossing the bridge toward Brooklyn, I again thought back to
the morning of September 11th, when I stood on the rooftop of the
old factory in which I lived and looked across the
Our freedoms would be challenged in the aftermath of the atrocity, of this much I was certain. Later, I flashed on another image, that of bacterially multiplying rhinoceros heads, the cental image from the Ionesco play “Rhinoceros, ” a play about a society on the edge. Like crystals forming in a shock wave, like microbes on a glass slide, ordinary people were being transformed into rhinoceri, day by day. They had lost their identities as humans, traded them away for conformity in the surreal police state portrayed by Ionesco. Become, as the Bensonhurst phrase goes, “animals.”
There’s a lot of unfocused, surly anger in this city today. It is ready to lash out at anything that might present a target of opportunity. That which doesn’t conform to expectations can become a target. Since September 11th, I have experienced several rage incidents, ranging from the gray-haired man in Bermuda shorts who glared and snarled a curse as he deliberately shouldered past me at a supermarket, to drivers seemingly bent on suicide by intentional head-on collision, as if attempting to stage a martyrdom mission by automobile instead of jetliner. Some manifestations have been subtle, others disquietingly obvious.
Maybe it’s my own fault for doing my shopping and even buying
my gas in
But it’s also a kind of
Here the flags are draped everywhere, and with them has come
the anger. Most claim that the flags are emblems of solidarity and
unity. They are that, but they are also emblems of rage, of a
collective hysteria that lashes out blindly, like Kronos reaching
out to grab his own children and hurl them to his mouth to devour
them, and the faces behind the windshields of cars that pass in the
streets of Does national trauma mean we have to
suddenly shift into reverse? Look in the rearview, there's a wall
Does national trauma mean we have to suddenly shift into reverse? Look in the rearview, there's a wall behind you.
I have no plans to change my routine. Nobody will bully me. I am allergic to bullies. I will do as I see fit. I will not give in.
I find that I have doubled my workout routine. I carry Mace.
I have not been physically attacked and I don’t believe that I will
be, but believe I’ve come close since the attacks on the
Let them show me some respect. Or let them face the consequences.
Ultimately, a backlash may set in. I believe it has already
begun. Our freedoms have been taken; the majority of us, I am
certain, want them back, despite the hysteria that drowns out sanity. The threat
to our society cannot be underestimated. History is filled with
precipitating acts that have profoundly altered societies for better
or worse -- shock waves that have crystallized cultural vortices
into something adamantine. The Renaissance gave way to the
Reformation and Enlightenment. The battle of
There are many other such threats we now face. But the new
order does not crystallize without precursors. Its formative
elements must exist to provide the stellar mass from which it coalesces.
I cannot help thinking that the terrorists had chosen just
the right moment to strike. A time in
We may never know. But I conjecture that, just as we underestimated their ability to have executed a coordinated action of such devastating magnitude, we may too underestimate their ability to have placed it into a theoretical framework of long-term impact on American and global society.
If we do this, we can conjecture something even more
chilling: Mohammed Atta and his murderous accomplices
I am concerned that those who would strip us of our freedoms, those to whom diversity is anathema, those who -- until September 11th -- have openly expressed loathing for everything that New York City stands for, will use this horrendous tragedy as an excuse to impose a police state on this nation, just as I am concerned that New Yorkers, in their fear of further terrorist strikes, will agree to its implementation in the false hope of lasting security.
I am concerned that next week, next month, next year, my talking back to a police officer who was clearly harassing my Vietnam veteran friend may have become, in and of itself, a crime punishable by a jail sentence. I am concerned that roadblocks and identity checks here, in this city, and elsewhere, will become commonplace, even -- I shudder at the word -- normal. I am concerned that a new polarization will take root, and that this city and our country will again find its vital energies drained by contention and dissent. I am concerned about all the many fine variations of what may be done to us in the name of “protecting” us.
It is bad enough living on the edge. It may be worse should we cross that edge. I hope we do not. Yet I fear that, given time, we just well may.
Copyright (C) 2011 David Alexander