September 18, 2014
The altimeter reads -252 feet on landing; I can see it on the monitor in my seat. One of the privileges of technology, the ability to follow in real time, to access information I don’t know what to do with, intended (I suppose) to reassure me when, in fact, it does the opposite. I don’t even know why I am watching, except that it is there and I cannot keep my eyes away. For the last fifteen minutes, I have tracked our descent into New York: first the slow sweep out over the Atlantic, then the parabola back towards land. I can see airspeed, altitude, compass heading; I can see the ground (or a computerized simulation) rush up to meet us like a greeting hand. No buildings, though, none of the topography of the city, which makes for a jarring incohesion when I look out the window and glimpse the apartment towers of the Rockaway peninsula, the broad boulevards of Queens. It’s like New York as theory, simulacrum, more a concept than a memory.
Still, what else does New York provoke but memory — for me, anyway, who hasn’t lived here for more years than my children have been alive? Another lifetime, another city, another set of unreconciliations, all the things I’ve left behind. In that sense, -252 feet seems just right: sea level, the runway must be that far below sea level, but in New York, I often feel immersed. Partly, this has to do with the city and partly with my family, with whom I stay when I’m in town. Mother, father, my old bedroom, although it’s been decades since it resembled the room I used to sleep in, since it in any way felt as if it belonged to me. I can remember being fourteen years old in this room, those four Avedon portraits from the White Album — George, John, Ringo, Paul — arranged in order of my preference, collage of news clippings pasted up between the windows, marking out my interests, my obsessions: rock ’n’ roll, the counterculture, conspiracy. In one, a full-page illustration razored out of New York magazine, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia grimaces in incomprehension after being shot in the face by his nephew, Faisal bin Musaid. The king’s assassin was later executed, but that is not the point here: It remains the moment I can’t get beyond. I haven’t seen that image in nearly forty years, but I can see it … the King’s startled look as he begins to fall away. There is a spot of red (on his forehead, I recall, although Wikipedia tells me he was shot first in the chin, and then in the ear), and the flashing of the gun. What? you can almost hear him thinking. But we are flesh and blood.
New York is like that for me also, missed connections, jagged blur of memory. I spend time with my parents, xeroxes of their former selves, slower, frailer, still working although at times it seems they’re barely holding on. They are preoccupied, distant, worried not about aging so much as a more general loss. They offer harsh judgments, if not of themselves (at least, not directly) then of everyone else. One evening, discussing an aunt who suffers from dementia, my father tells me she deserves what has happened to her. I look at him as if he has fired off a gun. Not because I am fond of this aunt — she was (or is, since she’s still living) meddlesome, troublesome, competitive, the sort of relative who makes family a minefield — but because she is a human being. This is what we lose sight of, what we go out of our way to lose sight of, because otherwise the ramifications are too great. I remember years ago, at family functions, growing anxious when she walked into a room. I was a particular target because of my failures, my disorders: suspended from high school six days before graduation for drugs and other acts of disobedience, receiving my diploma in the mail. We used to mock her, my father and brother and myself, deriding her intelligence, the way she carried herself. From the perspective of the present, I wince at this, although it would be a lie to say I want to take any of it back. Yes, a lie, a lie to say I think of her, to pretend I have any intention, not even for a fleeting instant, of visiting, of paying my respects to her or to my uncle, neither of whom I have seen in many years.
And yet, and yet, and yet … and yet she is a person who is dying, which means she has, must have, a certain dignity. This is the argument I have with my father in the study where we have been arguing since I was an adolescent, in a home that is and is no longer mine. I have, to be fair, felt these dislocations for what feels like forever; when I was eighteen, I wrote my parents a note apologizing for hiding out in my room, for not wanting to engage with them. It has always been this way for me, pull of the group and pull of the self, the wish to be apart and a part. I feel it less now, but also more: the desire to share their company, to be a good son, to behave as I would like my children to behave with me, but at the same time, attentive to the circularity. How many times have I sat in this room and listened as my father judged this woman? She was a shit to you, he says, as if to justify his attitude. That this is true does not make it any less irrelevant.
I’m not referring to forgiveness, nor even to forgetting. What I’m referring to is double vision, a means of looking forward by looking back. I feel this in New York all the time, more with each year I do not live here, as the city goes on about itself without me, leaving my history frozen and distinct. One night, I find a shopping bag of family pictures: my grandmother’s eightieth birthday, my brother’s law school graduation, a few loose artifacts (me, at six, bowl cut bangs and an uneasy smile, on the porch of my grandparents’ house in Connecticut) … pictures of the gone world, discarded like the detritus of another life. There is my aunt, not yet fifty, younger than I am, no indication of what will happen to her. A day or two later, I take my daughter (who has come with me on this trip to celebrate her sixteenth birthday) to Times Square; she Snapchats photos to her friends. Here today, gone today, images devoid of memory. Afterwards, we buy pretzels and Cokes for fourteen dollars, exactly like the tourists we are. She has never lived in New York; for her, it is a city of landmarks as opposed to memories. For me, it’s a lesson in the uselessness of holding onto things. Times Square looks as it must have after World War II — updated, of course, all those LEDs and digital graphics, but full of tourists, money, New York’s desperate paean to its inviolability. That this is a myth (and always has been) goes without saying: The city for the first time in its long history, is destructible, E. B. White wrote in 1948. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
This island fantasy: What it has always been, for my family. My grandparents came from Russia, settling in Brooklyn; my parents made the move across the river to Manhattan, a decision with both geographic and metabolic weight. My brother and I left New York for California, and despite some noise from both of us, we don’t appear likely to move back. Time moves on and time stand still, and New York is a testament to both. One night, over dinner in Soho, before a reading by a writer I do not know in a bookstore that hadn’t opened when I lived here, I try to explain this to a friend. It feels as if I’m walking through a map I’ve lost the ability to read, I say. I remember the streets, the buildings, but I can’t recognize the neighborhoods. That’s especially true in lower Manhattan, where I lived for a long time, which makes the displacement more acute. One afternoon, walking south on University Place, I am confronted by the Freedom Tower, rising in the near distance like a ghost of the World Trade Center, whose destruction (burn the towers) fulfilled White’s vision of apocalypse. A decade ago, I watched from this same angle as the Towers of Light commemorated one anniversary or another and felt unfulfilled because they only made the absence of the buildings more distinct. Now, I long for those thin, spotlit cylinders, their transience, their wishful thinking, their insistence that we are little more than fleeting beams of light. I recall my first few visits to New York after the towers fell, when it felt as if a fever had broken, as if the city had emerged (or was emerging) into a clarity of which it couldn’t quite be sure. The salient sensibility was one of vulnerability — which I had never previously associated with New York. This tower, though, it is the opposite of vulnerable; it grows out of the ashes on a foundation built of ground-up bone. It is not a gravesite, in other words, a memorial, so much as it is a collective gesture of forgetting, an erasure (self or otherwise) of the city’s DNA.
As it happens, I am prey to such forgetting also … or not forgetting so much as distance, a better word. For me, born and raised in Manhattan, the collapse of the towers marks the moment New York ceases to be mine. How to inhabit it, or even to understand it, if one wasn’t here? I ask this not only in regard to New York but also in regard to everything, those loose lines of recollection, King Faisal and the Beatles, the lingering despair of family. That monitor on the plane, the one that lets us imagine for an instant that we are in the cockpit, is intended to make us feel safe, to let us see that everything is going to be okay. And yet, the effect is more a sense of overload, too much information, provoking not reassurance but anxiety. After a while, I have to look away, but not before I confront my own submergence, as if the past had swallowed me alive. I watch as the plane sinks below the surface, and I am brought face-to-face with everything I no longer recognize. Home, they say, is where the heart is, but what happens when your heart moves on?
DAVID L. ULIN is the author or editor of ten books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship.
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