This Week's Post - Introduction                                                                                                           20th April 2013

  New York, New York - late September 2002                                                                                                     Part 1

e money

"CREDIT card, please," one of the women on the front desk said pleasantly.

"I don't have one at the moment," I replied, and I might as well have been pan-handling. New York slammed shut in my face. The woman was staring at me with distaste, as if I had appeared in the foyer offensively naked, having left my financial fig-leaf in the house.

The other activities going on behind the desk stopped momentarily and the staff glanced at one another in quiet suspicion. Then they too stared at the enigma that was myself. "Who is this guy?" their eyes seemed to be asking. "Not only does he talk funny, he doesn't have a credit card? Watch him."

I knew at once I had problems, though I didn't know how many yet. I realised that I might regret my recent high-handed altercation with American Express. They had been dunning me for a £10 bill I had naively thought I would leave to the next serious accounting. When they began to threaten me with legal action, I sent them the tenner and told them that my wild expenses would no longer be entrusted to them. I had neglected for the moment to get myself another card. It didn't seem like much of an oversight at the time. But I had offended against the god of credit. Here came the penance.

"So how," the woman said, "am I supposed to book you in?"

"I'll pay cash," I said.

Cash? You could see she had heard of it. It seemed to be a distant memory, though, one of those words she maybe wasn't sure had contemporary currency - like penny-farthing or doubloon.

"In advance," she said at last.

"Of course," I said.

But she didn't like it. Nobody behind the desk liked it. They didn't like me either. I seemed somehow to be a kind of affront to the system. In a world of virtual money that criss-crosses the globe at the speed of light through the purity of cyberspace, here was a mouth-breather coming out of his cave with grubby actual notes in his hands and grunting, "Cash!" How could you trust someone like that? Next thing they knew, I might be hitting some passing woman over the head with a club and dragging her to my hotel room by the hair.

Their distrust not only lasted throughout my stay at the hotel, it became more intense. I began to wonder if they'd thought I was sitting up in my room on the 36th floor painstakingly drawing $50 bills with my tongue sticking out. The more money I produced, the more suspicious they became.

The first night in the room, I decided to make some contact calls like a good reporter. The phone wouldn't work. The number would ring out a couple of times and then one of two things would happen. Either an amazing hubbub of sounds would invade my ear, as if I had dialled a demonstration against global capitalism - if I really had, I would have got the address from them and joined it - or a robotic female voice would speak to me. "The number you have dialled," she would say, and then she would clearly enunciate a number not remotely like the one I had dialled, "is an inaccurate number. Please dial again."

A couple of hours of that can leave you talking to the stranger in the mirror and asking him for advice. By this time the telephone operator in the hotel and I had established what felt like a life-long relationship. It was not a pleasant one. I'm convinced she simply thought I was innumerate. I'm surprised she didn't ask me to count up to 10, just to see if I got stuck at seven.

I gave up for the night. It was time to seek the solace of the mini-bar. But even the mini-bar seemed to have been warned about me. When I pulled at its door, little green words appeared along the top of it, as from a teleprinter: "This unit is locked." The green words marched across my vision and disappeared, to be followed by others even more final: "You have no credit." Room service didn't want to know me. No credit.

As I lay in the darkness quietly chewing the duvet, I understood how it would be for me during my stay in New York with no credit card: I would be sleeping rough in the Marriott Hotel at $150 a night. For cash buys only the basics these days. It is invisible money, the symbols of solvency like credit cards, which will give you access to the trimmings of modern life.

It occurred to me that John Law, Controller General of Finance for France in the 1720s and arguably the most famous Scotsman in the world at the time, had simply been a man a jump ahead of his day. He realised that the power of wealth lay in the idea of money rather than its presence in hard coinage. He flooded France with paper money, creating so many private fortunes that the word 'millionaire' was invented for them. It didn't last then, but he had foreseen the future.

Capitalism would become streamlined and it did, refining itself from base metal into a concept, moving even beyond the multiplicity of paper currencies to a single symbol of itself which has international legitimacy. Even wages tend not to be anything you can hold in your hand now but just financial ciphers which move from work to bank. Capitalism has become a global state of mind. It's hard to sustain an effectively functioning individuality apart from it. If you refuse to embrace its terms, you're out of the loop.

I certainly was in New York. Nothing I did could make me an acceptable guest in that hotel without a credit card. A hundred dollars left at the desk to cover any incidental expenses I might incur in a day didn't get me effective use of the phone in my room or access to the mini-bar. I was just some awkward maverick with money in his pockets. I was a glitch in the computer they wanted rid of.

I was an individual, for God's sake, and what I suppose they wanted were corporate clients, since they are liable to give repeat bookings and have big expense accounts. Corporate people are capitalism's new aristocracy. You can see how much the system is geared towards them in planes and hotels.

On my last night in the hotel a woman behind the desk said she would give me the cheaper rate and I paid it. Next morning, the manager said there had been a mistake. The room was $100 more. She had charged me the corporate price and I wasn't a corporate client. I had a receipt already but I paid the extra. It wasn't good capitalist practice, I know, but I was worried that the one person who had shown a little humanity might get into trouble and maybe even lose her job.

Now, if it had been one of those other robots, it might have been salutary for them to lose not only their job but their credit rating as well, giving them the view from the other side of the desk - to which my only response would have been: how do you like them big apples?

  New York, New York - late September 2002                                                                                                     Part 2

Crossroads for the World

The middle-aged woman in Times Square was saying into her cellphone “Yeah, it’s unbelievable, Mom.”  She was staring up at the buildings and the giant hoardings.  She didn’t seem to have noticed the man standing on the traffic island directly across from her.

He was very tall and muscular and bronzed and lightly tattooed, with long blond hair that hung lankly down his back.  He was dressed in a Stetson, cowboy boots and white underpants with NAKED COWBOY written on the rear.  The wordless front of his pants was making its own heavy statement.  He was striking statuesque poses in a depressing drizzle of rain, strumming his guitar and singing against the traffic and putting a dollar in his boots for every photograph of people posing with him.  There were plenty of them.

New York – still crazy after all this year but less than single-minded about it, especially with the approaching first anniversary of what is called here 9/11 (like the new number of the beast).  The naked cowboy was a passing irrelevance. Times Square itself, like every other part of New York, has yielded precedence in the mythology of the city to a patch of dead ground full of the ghosts, not just of the people who tragically lost their lives there, but of some old assumptions, like the impregnability of America.

There isn't much to see there any more, although people continue to come every day to stare into the emptiness.  At weekends they can make a crowd.  They take a lot of pictures from all kinds of angles, as if they think there might be a way of getting a perspective on the void.  Ground Zero is now only a vast pit where the twin towers of the World Trade Center were.  Even the eerie arched fragments which still stood after the multistorey rubble from the fallen buildings was cleared (and which looked like the ruins of some church of Mammon) have been demolished.  All you will see at the moment is a huge waste lot with diggers and cranes there and some workmen moving around.

But for anyone who stands there and isn't just a disaster-groupie, the place is so charged with a dark and still imperfectly understood meaning that its emptiness is likely to be peopled with a throng of confused and disturbing thoughts and emotions.  This is where so many expressions of our nature conflicted into ominous cataclysm.  Fundamentalism is one.  This was done by religious fanatics who believe that death is good for them.  They schemed and trained for years so that they could use the wrecked lives of thousands of people unknown to them as their passport to paradise.  And they did it in the most horrific way imaginable.

In the Bolivar Arellano Gallery on East Ninth Street, I saw an exhibition which showed what must be among the most hurtful images I've ever had to look at.  It consists of the selected work of 17 photographers in the wake of the falling towers.

Steven Hirsch, one of the photographers represented, was in the gallery when I visited.  He told me how, for the people who took these pictures, the camera hadn't provided the customary immunity to the event.  The horror came through the lens to get them.  Arellano, the owner of the gallery and himself an exhibitor, is not a significantly fragile man, Hirsch assured me.  He has covered war in Nicaragua and seen things you don't forget.  But it was New York in September that left him crying unstoppably.  Hirsch had thought his friend might break.

It would be wrong, though, to see the spaces where the twin towers used to be as commemorating only malignant inhumanity.  They are also a marker of the courage with which that inhumanity was met.  Everyone I spoke to in New York has expressed admiration for the courage of the firemen and the police.

Adam Hoppe gave me his personal testimony at his home in Willow Avenue, Hoboken.  He is an Australian who loves New York.  He and his American wife Karen were both employed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the north tower, the first one to be hit.  He was at his desk on the 73rd floor when the plane struck between floors 94 and 98.  Karen hadn't reached her work by then.

Adam says that the only thing remarkable about what he did was the speed at which he moved.  He was going so fast so soon that he went past the stairwell he was heading for and only realised it was behind him when he saw crowds of people rushing towards him.

Having made it out of the building slowly in the panic, he eventually reunited with Karen gratefully at home.  He is not a verbally florid man.  He is an Australian.  A compliment from him to his friends tends to be just an insult with its punches pulled.  He is also not easily impressed by risk.  As a sky-diver, he has known free-fall too often to keep counting.  Yet when he talks about the firemen he saw within that stairwell he is in awe.  Just their strength in moving around in those conditions, loaded with equipment, impressed him.  They are, he says, what he remembers most vividly about the whole experience – those men fatally courageous, walking towards what everybody else was fleeing from, and offering reassuring kindness as they went.

The lost firemen have become a public focus for the uncomprehending rage and grief that broke over New York like an electrical storm when the towers went down, taking 2,803 lives with them.  Like a human lightning-conductor in the midst of it, stood Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor of New York.  Disaster has strange by-blows.  One of this one's unforeseen results was the making of an American icon.

Iconic status air-brushed out the warts.  Two people who know Giuliani gave me independently the same sense of the private man: "Not a man you'd want to have a beer with", "If he hadn't been Mayor of New York, you wouldn't want to know him."  But both agree that, in the thick of the thickest smoke from the debris, when it was raining chaos, he has been the man.  While George W Bush was being furtively shuffled around the country by the security forces, like the ace you mustn't lose, Giuliani was seen to be gambling with his own safety.  One of the 200 people who threw themselves from the windows fell within 15 feet of Giuliani.  A fireman wasn't so lucky. He became the dead adjunct of someone else's suicide.

(Those images of people deciding to fall huge distances to become something that wasn't recognisably human are perhaps the images from those hellish events which have most haunted America.  In a country where life is so often reduced to reflexive optimism, it must have been a shock to the philosophical system to contemplate reaching places so bad that the best thing you can do is choose a horrible death.)

The USA lives largely by the image and there is one image of Giuliani which Steve Dunleavy of the New York Post insists completed his transition from successful politician to American institution.  It shows him back where the bad things are happening, on the street.  It shows him covered in that weird white dust which seems to have fallen everywhere like synthetic snow, as if man-made winter had come early to New York.  It shows a hard man coping with hard things.  It says: times are rough but we'll get through them.  Americans saw their own resilience in him.  "He became the Mayor of America," Dunleavy says.

Now, succeeded by Michael Bloomberg as Mayor of New York, he operates Giuliani Associates out of offices in Times Square.  It seems to be some operation. I was told he could be charging anything from $100,000 to a million for public speaking.  The second figure seems exorbitant but, any way you count, it's a lot of money.  Out of tragedy comes access to a fortune.  But that's America.

Giuliani and the firemen and the policemen have given America a focus for expressing both their grief and their pride in a public way.  But the deepest pain of loss is a private experience.  We may mourn together for a time, but when the ceremonies are over and the parades have passed we have to learn how to grieve alone.

Beside the Battery Park marina, an impromptu shrine to lost relatives has spontaneously grown from lines of photographs of the dead and baseball caps and badges and random objects left, such as a teddy bear.  It makes a haunting, informal collage of grief.  It is smaller than the one which extends along the railings of St Paul's Church on Broadway, but it is also more personal.

When I went, it was a quiet, wet Sunday – not many people gazing at the Hudson or forbidding their children to jump off a wall which is too high for them.  A woman stood by herself beside the display, which looked forlorn, a bit like a car-boot sale of sorrow.  Will anybody 'buy' my grief? That made it more poignant. The woman was cuddling a tiny dog as if she might smother it with need.  She repeatedly touched the same small photograph of someone, giving it finger-kisses.

She also kissed a small bible she was holding.  She was weeping utterly silently and utterly uncontrollably.  The tears seeped from her eyes as from a limitless source.  She stood in the soft rain, shaking her head again and again, as if she were still trying to deny an undeniable fact that was a year old.

I'll remember the profound pain of the woman in Battery Park.  I see it as an expression of how difficult it is to know how to go on effectively from 9/11.

Ground Zero is a crossroads for the world. The two exact spots where the twin towers stood are known as the footprints.  But they are very muddied footprints.  In which direction are they pointing?  Or do they invite us just to go round in circles? The decision is effectively America's.

On Wednesday coming, September 11, Americans will come together in what we are told will be dignified ceremonies of mourning.  It is right that they should acknowledge the people who died and the people around them whose lives have been so wounded, in the way that any death may wreak its collateral damage.  But these massive media events will have a sub-text, as the most powerful nation in the world reflects collectively on what one of the most traumatic experiences in history means: where do we go from here?

It could be to war with Iraq.  Don Majeski, a sports agent whose family have been New Yorkers since the 18th century and whose generosity with his contacts and his time connected me to some helpful people, tried to give me a sense of the fluctuation of public feeling over the past year, but he wouldn't forecast a decision.

Certainly a lot of rage remains in New York about the destruction of the towers and the attack on the Pentagon, not forgetting the plane which achieved no more than the immolation of the people in it, thanks to the courage of some passengers. You're aware of it often hanging around on the edge of the talk, ready to pre-empt further discussion, like a fist fight in a bar.

It finds many expressions.  Chelsea Jeans on Broadway, a shop which was shattered in the blast from the collapse of the World Trade Center, gets it into four words on a tee-shirt, the letters of which are printed as sections of the Stars and Stripes: These Colors Don't Run.

There is a book you can buy on non-working days near the site of Ground Zero called Terror in America.  It was obviously produced with the speed of silver dollars pouring from a mint and not by a committee of academics.  First sentence: "Here lies a souvenir of horror, a blazing abituary of American innocense."  But the single sentence on the cover gets it clear enough: "Allah may forgive you, but WE won't."  It seems to sell well.

The inevitably heightened atmosphere of September 11 may just give the Bush administration the emotional vote it feels it needs to carry it confidently into action against Iraq.  If I don't think this will be good news, it is not because I have any concern for the welfare of Saddam Hussein.  It is because it seems to me that this would be a war the gains from which can never be commensurate with the magnitude of the disastrous problems it will create in world politics.  It is too little too soon.
When some of the American people gather at Ground Zero on Wednesday, they will be able to see a large banner on the side of the site just under two adjoining skyscrapers draped in something which has the appearance of black muslin, as if they were two very tall mourners.  The words on the banner - WE WILL NEVER FORGET - can be read as either a promise to the victims or a threat to the perpetrators.  I hope when George Bush makes his promised statement on his final, final decision concerning Iraq, the threat hasn't turned into open war.

I hope those who are mourning there aren't inadvertently mourning for the future as well as for the past. If they pray, I hope they pray for the living as well as for the dead.  Ground Zero may be a hole in the heart of the American dream but that doesn't mean they should try to patch it up with the tissue of a living nightmare.

  On an earlier visit to New York



               Letting the Silence Speak

            There is a time to let the silence speak,
            the murmurs in the joists of where we live –
            the sleep-disturbing, constant steady creak
            as Africa seems to threaten to collapse,
            the plumbing making strange sounds from Iraq,
            the child that’s not our own we can hear weep –
            all asking: can we keep the mortgage up
            on the leaky world in which we go to sleep?

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