The Aural Memory Project

When the future looks bleak…

People turn to the past. Perhaps that’s the driving force behind the aural memory project, something I’ve been doing since 2000… hm… interesting… since Bush was elected. Well, our sitting president – tempted to add an H to that at risk of being childish – represents a lookback philosophically, but aside from that it’s just advancing age or whatever.

Nut of it is to recapture the soundscapes of various periods of my past… pop and non-pop music, soundtracks, theme songs, sometimes even ad jingles… to reproduce mental states long trod over by newer engrams. Theory is that within each of us is every alien person through which we phased as we grew, and using secondary sensory tools (since vision is “primary”) we can sneak up on our minds and recapture our previous alien mental states. Useful for writing.

The actual performance would be to assemble the old songs and sounds package them together to typify a particular moment in personal time. Then play them and regenerate the old mental state, or at least a simulacrum of it, and using that old me for a writing purpose.

Ozymandias, or living in NYC

—–Original Message—–
From: Wirelessreport@aol.com
Sent: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 5:13 PM
To: Ferrante, Bob
Subject: hope you are okay

Heard the awful awful news from NY and hope you, friends and family are all okay,
Best,
Barry Zellen
Wirelessreport.net

—–Reply—–
From: Bob Jude Ferrante
Sent: Wednesday, September 12, 2001 6:24PM
To: Zellen, Barry
Subject: hope you are okay

Barry–
Thanks for your kindness. Family alive and home OK. I witnessed the plane hitting Tower 2 and its aftermath, from a train on the Manhattan Bridge, even then it had the feeling of something – a “moment in history.”

But we are back to work tomorrow… actually been working from home all day.

Best,
Bob_Ferrante@ibi.com
Sent from my Blackberry pager

***

You might know me from my column here on WirelessReport called Wireless@home. Or not. The column takes place in Brooklyn. The ‘we’ in this article means ‘we Brooklynites’ or ‘we Americans’ or ‘we humans,’ take your pick.

I really live in Brooklyn and the colorful characters that happen to play with mobile technology in the column are real people that live around here. So the colorful characters have been living a strange fever dream the past four weeks.

***

The Blackberry beeped. The email said there would be an InterFaith gathering Friday at Newkirk Plaza (think ‘Town Square’), sponsored by Midwood Park, Fiske Terrace and Ditmas Park. Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and Moonie leaders would all speak of tolerance, mutual respect. A solemn gathering. Not a party.

***

In Brooklyn we are 2½ miles from Ground Zero. We are the closest boro to downtown and we all work in Manhattan. Until 9/11 the World Trade Center was always there over our heads: Two big grey buildingtops squatting just above the roof. A nasty brutish (but not short) engineering marvel. At nineteen when the World Trade Center was going to be there forever, I wrote a bad poem where they were the topless legs in Shelley’s Ozymandias. You know, “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

We needed no TV to see what was happening. Ashes fell on us, burned memos clogged our trees, charred file folders swarmed our sidewalks. The smoke stayed three days: black the first day, grayblack the second, gray the third. There are still Auschwitz survivors living in Brooklyn. Some, whenever they close their eyes, still see smoke.

Then the wind shifted toward Jersey.

***

Brooklyn has a huge concentration of Muslims. Pakistanis occupy a rectangle from Argyle to E. 10th and Newkirk to Avenue J, right next to one of the many Orthodox neighborhoods. Driving down Coney Island is a hateful experience because Pakistanis jaywalk… well, everyone jaywalks in NYC, but Pakistanis are the worst.

Since they published the photo of Mohammad Atta, though, the Pakistanis stick to the sidewalk, walk fast, furtive, head bowed. Brooklyn’s Pakistani population did not dance on 9/11, no matter what anyone says. They lost family, friends. And now with every shout, every horn honk, they jump a little. They have every reason to fear the worst. But we’re all like that now.

***

We used to joke that going to work was going to war. Now it’s no joke. Maybe an exaggeration… we have pilots and soldiers on Afghan soil, really at war. But Subways, airports, office buildings, train and bus stations, landmarks that were once grand are now targets. F-16s scrawl overhead, destined for carriers offshore. On every corner there’s heat: Cops. Troopers. Marshals. Rangers. Soldiers.

We go to work, eat out, see shows and movies, but always with a look first overhead then all around. Before, rushing to get to “war,” sometimes I forgot to say goodbye to the people I love. Now I always do.

***

In 2000 NYC did a campaign, “NYC, Capitol of the World.” Friends scoffed at the arrogance. But in dark moments now we know it’s true. We are NYC, Capitol of the World, under siege.

***

9/11 began for me at 9AM. Window seat, Manhattan-bound ‘Q’. As Subways go, Q is pretty magnificent. It goes over the Manhattan Bridge, clear or cloudy, day or night you get (1) a great view of the City (2) a chance to catch up on phone calls.

I take out cellphone and pager and wait for sunlight. In the dark between DeKalb Avenue and the bridge, the Q stops. One minute. Two minutes. Five minutes.

The conductor comes on the PA. Another preachy sound bite from the Giuliani-era MTA: it’s Good to not hold train doors, Good to give seats to the elderly. Or maybe it’s an apology because a kid pulled a brake somewhere, or a passenger needs medical attention at Grand Street, hence the delay.

But no, it’s: “Q train service is delayed. There’s a report. Uh, a plane hit the World Trade Center.” Imagine this: All you do is drive a train. Suddenly you have to tell 800 people some really bad news.

Bang, commute trance ended. We look up from our books, adopt the NYC “what’s this shit?” look (patent applied for). Conversations spring up. How bad could it be? A B-25 hit the Empire State building. 1945. The building got fixed. Did ATC really mess up bad this time? The system is old… needs to be replaced… hey, who gets the contract? The truth occurs to nobody.

The Q climbs the bridge ramp, creeps out on the bridge, warm blue late summer, sunlight ladders march up the “graffiti proof” key-scratched windows. How bad could it be?

The World Trade Center tears into view. And it’s… a hole fifteen stories high, punched through Tower 1. Dark grey smoke plumes out slow in a thick marker line stretching five miles over Brooklyn. From the broken tower’s windows people lean, tiny suits and dresses, tiny arms waving.

Awed whispers. This is a mistake massive as Bhopal. Jesus Christ. Are these people gonna make it? The whispers die. The conductor comes on. “I think we should all take a moment and say a prayer for those people.” Everybody looks down, then eyes are drawn back up – the sight is riveting – just as a huge BOOM rips through the south tower. Glass, steel blow out, float in glittering clouds, torn by angry walls of fire.

Everyone on the train goes apeshit. Wo, wawazat? Did the fire in one tower catch the other tower? To try to explain, to map it, is just futile. Sitting there above the East River, we can’t see the plane that tore through the South Tower on the opposite, Hudson River side.

Now both towers bleed debris, fire and smoke. But still they stand. The fire can be extinguished. The train, still stopped, sways with the bridge. That’s when we realize, we are hanging in the sky 150 feet above the East River and all it would take would be…

The train lurches again. It heaves. It goes and as we pass slowly into the tunnel leading to Canal Street we take a look back. They will get the fires out. It will be OK. They will fix the towers. They will reopen. We made it through 1993 (when a bomb blew out the basements under the Towers) and we will make it through this. In the dark, wanting to say something to someone, but no one to say it to. The Q reaches 34th Street.

***

Just outside 2 Penn, a good friend stands chain-smoking cigarettes. I walk up, light one. “‘Sup?” I ask.

“The Pentagon. They hit the Pentagon.”

The loop closes forever. No systems failure. A they did this and it was huge and it was intentional. It must have taken years to plan… lives now ended in plumes of smoke and fire… years to plan and execute the operation, to kill 5,000 people who showed up for work.

Up the elevator to the 28th floor just as we get the evacuation order. 2 Penn is right atop Penn Station, which pretty much screams ‘target.’ Dan Ortolani, a compassionate VP, helps me rush the floor, to tell everyone, get the hell out, we are closed, go home to your families. They are mostly crowded at the south side-great view of south Manhattan from the 28th floor-transfixed by the sight of the planes hitting, of the flaming towers, of people jumping.

We get loud; “YOU HAVE TO LEAVE NOW! NOW! NOW!” And suddenly they are all shouting… “It’s going down! It’s falling! Jesus, it’s falling!” as the South Tower collapses in a pancaking cascade. They won’t be fixed. It won’t all work out. And the dead will number not in tens or hundreds but thousands.

Later came the news hundreds of onlookers, just as curious and awed as the group on 28, and just as buried when the building fell. And the man that rode the building, rode it over 80 floors to the ground, like some standing wave, and the bill was two broken legs.

Then evacuation is complete. So we elevator back to Plaza level and join thousands of evacuated commuters who have all been told, “get the hell out, we are closed, go home to your families.” But everything’s shut. There’s no way home. The MTA posts workers but no answers, except that the trains will run again, probably soon.

Then through the crowd headed south. It seems that on every street corner a parked repair van or ice cream truck blares WABC Newsradio or Bloomberg; news is ubiquitous, everyone knows the current story, and everyone wonders, who did I lose today?

We are skilled software engineers, product people, and architects. But that’s pretty much it. We are not surgeons, EMTs, or Civil Engineers. The city is already turning away volunteers without essential skills. If you can’t help, fight. If you can’t fight, hide until the Subway reopens.

The bar we choose to hide in looks inviting. In fact we see a couple friends. But it happens to be across from Morgan Stanley’s mid-town offices. Downtown, Morgan Stanley leased about half the north tower and this bar is where many escapees have congregated to be counted. 25 year-olds, just out of their last no-pay summer internship, being trained how to broker. White ash on $300 Men’s WearHouse suits. They got out eleven minutes before it went down. Told to meet at the usual bar hangout, they immediately pound beers. I can’t fault them for that. I was a mile-&-change away and am totally ready to start drinking.

We down a round. It’s making us nuts. We have to know. We buy them drinks and desperately grill them: What it’s like, did they hear the planes, did people get out, how close were you. Josh, trembling with fear and drink, represents:

“First day in Broker training up on the 84th floor. The plane hit the north tower, the building shook like anything. Me Stan and Brett started to get the fk out. Then Security came on and said, everyone go back to work, the building is secure. But we said, fk that. When the second plane hits our building, we’re in the stairs, the building is shaking like it’s gonna come down. We got a ‘fast lane’ down the WTC stairwell. Man, there was old people, there was pregnant ladies, guys with crutches, I don’t think they got out. Eleven minutes after we cleared the door, it came down.”

Please give up your seat to an elderly person as you run for the exit.

Mark, a sales rep from work, fumes. “Bastard kid, walked past those poor people, they coulda used him, used his help, and all he thinks about is getting his ass the hell out.”

Ach. Hard question. How would the kid know the tower was coming down? Police and firefighters didn’t think so on their way up-the kids passed them on the stairs. OK. You’re 24, just out of school, it’s your first paying non-restaurant job. The economy sucks, the job might evaporate. It’s your first day of training and a plane hits your home office and you realize, it’s time for eight years of lacrosse to pay off. The kid made it out. If he stopped to help, he might be lost. He wouldn’t be here to smoke every last damn one of my cigarettes.

***

It could have been worse. The WTC could have been filled to capacity. It could have been worse. Neighboring buildings could have been full. It could have been worse. The planes could have been full. It could have been worse. The fourth plane could have reached the Capitol or the White House instead of a handful of passengers crashing it in Pennsylvania. It could have been worse. There could have been no contingency plans in place. It could have been worse. The MTA had trains running that day, only slightly delayed, and the delay was well-spent, routing N, R, 1, 2 and 3 trains away first from burning skyscrapers, later from destroyed stations. The MTA sustained us through the Cold War and Nuclear Age and is probably more prepared for disaster than many of us. It could have been worse. The Office of Emergency Management, NYC’s FEMA, was located in 7 World Trade which was destroyed, but was back in operation nearly immediately at Pier 92. It could have been worse.

***

The night of the 12th, George W made a speech. Among the points he made was that Americans should practice tolerance with those of Middle Eastern extraction among us. Not to hate people that looked like the attackers, some of whose photos had just been published in the paper. And I wondered what came over him. A sign of… leadership? No. Can’t be.

***

That email about the InterFaith meeting… it’s a noble message, that we all need to go out in public and say “I respect Islamic people, especially those who know the Prophet loved peace.” But would that help or hurt? Would Americans look weak, saying “tolerance?” Would they look strong, if they could say “tolerance” after sustaining such a grievous wound?

And what would be the final public reaction… Americans barely had grief and they are already doing anger. Would folks go rampant, drag people out into the streets? Never, no, never, not in NYC anyway, not with its huge Muslim population and long history as a melting-pot. No Krystallnacht here.

Though I volunteered to help out, the celebration didn’t happen. Everyone is too messed up. We lost too much to get the liberal spirit up this first week. There’s a memorial broadcast from Yankee Stadium that Sunday, a larger version of what our celebration would have been. We listen to the preachers and politicians speak, blink at the wounded skyline, think of what’s lost.

We must imagine what our celebration would have been like. Free meatball heroes from Lo Duca’s. Kids dropping tomato sauce on their Tommys. It’s winding down. Catholic and Jewish ministers done; Muslim wrapping up, Moonie’s on deck. You take a brownie, and I in my turban take a frosted vanilla bar from the Hindu-Pak bakery. Two ladies, one Jewish, one Mexican, make banal cell phone patter in different tongues. “I’m at the door. A guy’s in the way. Excuse me. I’m losing you, this is a crappy signal.” The turbaned cookie man has an email pager like mine; it beeps, he reads a message, fires off an answer. Federal computers comb the content, looking for Jihad, bomb, Mullah, fatwah. Now this article is listed too.

***

George W! We have to feed the starving Afghan people. Starving people are close to dead, so dead isn’t as scary. A starving man doesn’t think clearly, or learn right, or get your point. The perspective of ‘three squares’ incurs rationality. So don’t just drop 30,000 K rations a couple times and call it a day. Before a show of American force, show American meatball heroes and American potato salad.

***

Osama Bin Laden, man behind the curtain, was trained by allied agencies working for American Intelligence, but that excuses nothing.

Bin Laden is the VC for the expansionist ambitions of the Islamic fundamentalist movement. It’s possible his hands are even ostensibly clean. The evidence against him took a lot of doing. He’s a really silent partner. Bin Laden trades dollars for fear. Fear is a weapon, but only if your foe doesn’t grok it’s standard issue.

Fans of Tony Soprano wonder, is this a vendetta against the Bushes? The sins of George, visited on George. That’s a more possible reason than the narcissistic “they hate our way of life.” Hitler’s first move was to garner unchallenged control of Germany’s sphere of influence and restart its economy. Make the land pure German, defining ‘German’ wide enough to make a nice big nation.

Bin Laden has simple needs — to overthrow the house of Saud that rules his ex-homeland. From that powerful stronghold spawn sister governments. Eventually you replace every moderate Middle Eastern government with a Fundementalist one.

The Fundamentalist consortium then sets the price for oil – because we still depend on oil – and eventually either buys us or buys a military to smash us from the center of the board. Fundamentalism of every stripe is always a political ism. Geopolitics is its real God.

***

A week after 9/11, I take my wife out for our anniversary and we take the Command bus home to Brooklyn. It goes through Ground Zero, which we haven’t seen in person until then. The mayor’s asked us all to stay out of the way of the rescue effort.

Rising from the pit, smashed buildings all around, unearthly bright light emphasizing its lunar aspects, sits the twisted pile of steel, aluminum and glass, still burning, that used to be the World Trade Center. And then I repeat Shelley’s words:

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

An old man drops a grocery bag. It bangs to the bus floor. Nobody stops to help him pick up the groceries. They are diving for the exit.

***

Eight blocks from home, a Pakistani man jaywalks carrying a smiling baby in a Gerry pack. The man bounces. The kid bounces. The kid giggles. The man smiles. They are there to tell you, live as if the world is good, stay ready in case it isn’t.