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9/11/13

New York City. September 11. Heat Wave.

Today is September 11. Today the temperature is 93 degrees.
Mourning the victims and fearing another black out have rolled up together. Here are two of my texts that touch upon those two calamities that had befallen this city.

Blackout
[2004. Sunnyside, Queens, New York City. GEORGE, a Romanian–American man in his 30s, does the maintenance to his bike. He speaks with gusto, relishes remembering. He talks to a few neighborhood teens gathered around him. He lubricates the bike chain.]
I’m telling you, this is the most reliable means of transportation. The Chinese aren't fools. I bought this bike after the blackout. Where were you when it happened? Man, that was something! I was in the subway, stuck one stop from home! One stop! Now whenever I have an important meeting I ride my bike. Manhattan is not that far! During the blackout my girlfriend walked all the way to Queens. She didn't know how long it would take, half a day, God knows, but it was just about an hour. That's it. One hour.
[He aligns the frame of the tire.]

There was this Asian guy on the train, with his bike. [Laughs] He was holding his head the whole while. [Imitating a generic Asian accent.] "What the fuck! What the fuck! I've got the only transportation that works and I'm stuck in this damn train with it!"
It was something!
I was as usual reading the ads over the windows, "Trim spa. Before and after. The ultimate come back. Be envied." Then the paranoiac one, "If you see a suspicious package or activity, don't keep it to yourself. Tell a cop! Or call the toll free Terrorist Hotline."
And the train stopped!
Usually when a train stops, they go cha-cha-chaaaa-chaaaa-smooth-stop… but this one was cha-cha-njooobooom-njoooo -screechy-halt! Lights off. Then the emergency light kicked in. Oh, my God, not the terrorists again! But a few minutes later the conductor announced it was just a power outage, you know, we should be patient, we would be evacuated, first they had to take care of people in the tunnels. Alright.
A guy asked me if he could smoke. Come on, man, this might be your last cigarette, of course you can smoke! Give me one too! He opened the window and we both puffed at them.
We were lucky. No weirdoes on the train. Imagine being shut in for two hours with this woman I once saw on the train with a bagful of smelly cats? Their round heads were bobbing out of the bag. Imagine if they escaped her sac, running around all over us. I would have choked.
[Takes his hand pump. Cheerful, absorbed in remembrance.]
What I remember most is a Romanian family: grandma, daughter and the little boy. The grandma was frantic. They couldn’t speak English, the daughter understood a bit, tried to calm her down, but the grandma was trembling…
GRANDMA DIDINA
Terrorists! That’s what it is! Now they'll start shooting again! Say your prayers, they'll be throwing bombs now. Why did you have to come to America?
GEORGE
Her daughter was yelling…
IRINA
Was it better at home?! Have you forgotten how back at the revolution bullets whizzed by my pregnant belly?
GEORGE
In December '89, days before we caught and shot Ceauşescu… Ceauşescu our president! He was a tyrant that starved us to death because he wanted to pay back the foreign debt! Anyway, there were rumours that he’d hired Middle Eastern terrorists. We saw some dead ones on TV, dressed in black with ninja caps. They scared us on TV: terrorists were shooting in the subways. But I boarded one around midnight, I had to go cross-town. A ghost train, all lit up, no one in it, no one at the train stops. Still the rumours said terrorists were hiding behind secret doors that led to a network of secret underground tunnels. Squads of well trained terrorists with top notch weapons.
GRANDMA DIDINA
[Shouts in distress.] Terrorists! Terrorists!
George
It’s just a blackout, the long, hot, dog-days drained the power. Too many air conditioners and refrigerators.
GRANDMA DIDINA
[Not comprehending.] You can speak English! Tell them to move the train! Move the train! Împingeţi-l! Împingeţi trenul! Împingeţi! Daţi-i ghes!
[GEORGE laughs despondently. Tightens the pump on the tire.]
GEORGE
[Bubbly.] These old ladies live in their kids' apartments and don't have a clue what's going on. Water the geraniums, feed the cat, cook hearty Romanian food and talk about the past. My aunt was like that.
The grandkid had to pee so they put his choo-choo in a coke bottle. The sound of the abundant pee made the poor Asian guy grab his crotch. At least I didn’t need to pee!
[Pumps air into the tires.]
Then after about two hours the conductors told us okay, we could leave the train, we could get out by walking within the tunnels, on the tracks. We got off. It was pitch-dark. I then understood what it meant to be so dark you can't see your hands in front of your face. I was clinging tight to the next one ahead, a hand grabbed my shoulder, another hand was grasping my shirt. A lot of rubbish in the subway. I hit my toes on coke cans and broken glass. The urine stink was suffocating. Luckily the rats didn’t bite us.
It was baffling. We were so friendly inside the train, but as soon as we got out we became strangers again, going our different ways.
The streets were full of people.
They were sweaty and happy. Did you notice how homeless people were directing traffic and no one seemed to think it odd? They all got those orange jackets and they were waving their hands at intersections and did a good job. They handled it like pros!
[Tightens up the seat.]
That night we partied, like we partied in December '89 when they showed on TV the dictator and his wife dead on the pavement in a pool of blood. We figured it would be Bounty Land from then on, no more starvation,--though in truth everybody had supplies, huge freezers in every home. We emptied our fridges and feasted on pork chops and stuffed cabbage! We were sorry later on when it became obvious things wouldn't change overnight.
Done! This is a good bike!
[He wipes his hands on his rag, gathers his tools.]
It was just like that at the blackout. People were happy it was not the terrorists. I met neighbours I'd never met before. A lovely way for a day to end! I had a huge party at my house; like back then. We went on the roof, scented candles... We ate the food so it shouldn't spoil, after things got back to normal we could fill the fridge again, no worries.
Not in Romania. Not in Romania.
Well, I’ll take this baby for a spin in the park!
[Blackout.]

A Few Years Later Seemingly Untouched By September 11 Goes the Neighborhood
You assigned me to take pictures of signs, traces of September 11, 2001 in my neighborhood: Fresh Pond Road in Ridgewood, Queens.

I walk my neighborhood on September 11, 2004, a Saturday morning, and, please don’t take it ill, but there is no trace of September 11, 2001 here. The sky was clear, first shiny but then it got cloudy. Cathedral steeples with green roofs tower over ugly buildings and sleepy trees. People are downcast too, but I cannot tell why. I tell. They are not talking about September 11.
I want to photograph the time passing for you, the green grass of hope and life growing on the four-year-old graves, but the grass in my neighborhood is singed. It is autumn. The leaves on the pavement I want to photograph for you, hoping they are red, the blood of murdered people, so that we won’t forget, but the leaves that the wind rolls about are not red, just a muddy greenish-brown and they are all mixed with debris. I want to photograph for you the apples that I picked up one rainy morning from the pavement, as I went to work. These apples, green and red shining in the rain, were like no apples you find in American stores. They were the wild apples of childhood in my village in Romania, and of perfumed fall and of my mother in the foggy rain when she took me to the orchard and there was a mountain of apples and a tribe of women picking them. But the apples I find now on the street, under the M subway line above the ground tracks, are putrid with worms coming out of them, disfiguring my memory of sweetness fresh.
I want to photograph the emergency phone pole, painted thickly in red like a rich Chinese robe, like a monument of bravery for the firefighters, but it’s not possible to photograph it. Shabby cars surround it and I cannot photograph their ugliness. I’m picky about my picture composition… My picture should have been like a Roman column, a triumph pillar. Its line simple and elegant.
I want to photograph faces of people; see what their eyes tell me about September 11.
But people go about their Saturday morning business: an old lady with a flowery dress sweeps the leaves in front of her house. I want, I want to photograph her sad face, but she threatens she’ll go inside if I take a picture of her. I don’t, I don’t have the heart to photograph her. I fear she might be more than simply shy about her weathered looks.
I fear she hides from the world and doesn’t want her picture in the papers. I fear.
See, people on Fresh Pond Road are coming from lands that for centuries were under wars and tyrants and know about cruelty and the insanity of hate and killings and treason and how fragile is survival. And I don’t know who came here, and why. I’m sure many of them are not angels, but they want to forget and start a new life. They don’t want to be noticed, many are illegal immigrants.
I also can’t take pictures of the woman who leans on the windowsill, above the Indian printing shop, though her mien is dolorous.
I can't take a picture of a woman waiting on the street corner, in her pink slacks and her old, suntanned skin, wrinkled under a golden anklet.
I can't take pictures of the South American man at the fruit stand who unloads mangoes and plums and papaya. I cannot because these people are all mine, illegal and fearful.
I should have taken a picture of the Chinese father rocking his baby boy on his knees. Take a picture of the joyous child and his laughter who makes all passers-by turn around and smile. But I fear joy is offensive, after all, on the grocery store TV screen, the poor old mothers recite the names of their dead sons live from Ground Zero.
I want to take a picture of the four-year-old twin girls with hair like sunshine, rushing by me, holding hands, but I cannot because the TV screen is mourning.
I pass by the Romanian Orthodox Church of Mother of Mercies and its door is locked.
I pass by the Emmaus Lutheran Church and its gates are shut.
No litany comes out in commemoration. Maybe tomorrow at Mass…
I want to enter the War Veterans’ Center’s widely-opened gate, but I fear the old warriors inside will be bitter about how nothing has been done about punishing the terrorists and the President is despicable. I fear I will not be responsive enough, because where I come from, at the '89 anti-communist revolution, young people were killed in the street by order of Ceauşescu, our loathed tyrant, and most of the criminals are still governing our state. So what can I say to forgotten heroes? We had our share of disenchantment and our patience and trust was cheated upon by politicians who promised justice would be done. What can I say to them?
That time passes, that I am grateful we can forget. Let people clean their cars on Saturdays, drink their beers and smoke their cigarettes. Let them do the laundry and walk their poodles and chat about manicure prices.
Let us be reminded we are but humans, incapable of prolonged focus or sustained passions.
We are humans, nothing lofty about us. Why should we be asked to be lofty? 
We do our modest share, but then we get side tracked. We forget.
The world’s misery competes for our attention. Earthquake in Japan, flood in China, hurricane in Florida, terrorists and strong men killing children in Russia.
It’s enough we survive and we adapt to anything. That’s heroic enough. Forget quickly and prepare yourself to face the next horror around the corner. It will come.
Each time I watch these world's horrors, there is a tinge of remembrance for the poor people dying four years ago. Each time I see ashes drop from a cigarette there is remembrance of that day in my heart. That day people walked staggering through the drizzle of ash and I could not take pictures of them. I could not snap the cold camera, poke in their wounded hearts.
I could not then and I cannot now.
I guess that makes me a bad photographer....
There are no traces of September 11 in my neighborhood. At least no kitschy memorabilia, no loud motorcades coming to pay their homage.
People walk around worrying about how to make a living, forget about getting rich like they dreamt when they came here, how to get their papers, how to pay the lawyers, how to take care of their children when they get sick. How to ship their old mother’s coffin and bury her in the old country village.
I have no heart to take noisy pictures of them.
Bad photographer. Bad photographer.
Still, my heart takes these word-pictures for you...
Let the widow marry again. Let her dance.
Let the widow live.
 
New York
September 11, 2013
  
 
Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, witnessing democracy, freedom of speech and faith, and engineering social change thru art being some of them, I’d be grateful.

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