This essay, by the late novelist David Foster Wallace, appeared in the October 25, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone. We reprint it here to mark the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Location: Bloomington, IL
Dates: 11-13 Sept. 2001
Caveat: Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock
In true Midwest fashion, Bloomingtonians aren't unfriendly but do tend to be reserved. A stranger will smile warmly at you, but there normally won't be any of that strangerly chitchat in waiting areas or checkout lines. But now there's something to talk about that outweighs all reserve, like we were somehow all standing right there and just saw the same traffic accident. E.g., overheard in the checkout line at Burwell's (which is sort of the Neiman Marcus of gas station/convenience store plazas – centrally located athwart both one-way main drags, and with the best tobacco prices in town, it's a municipal treasure) between a lady in an Osco cashier's smock and a man in a dungaree jacket cut off at the shoulders to make a sort of homemade vest: "With my boys they thought it was all some movie like that Independence Day til then after a while they started to notice it was the same movie on all the channels." (The lady didn't say how old her boys were.)
Everybody has flags out. Homes, businesses. It's odd: You never see anybody putting out a flag, but by Wednesday morning there they all are. Big flags, small flags, regular flag-size flags. A lot of home-owners here have those special angled flag-holders by their front door, the kind whose brace takes four Phillips screws. And thousands of those little hand-held flags-on-a-stick you normally see at parades – some yards have dozens all over as if they'd somehow sprouted overnight. Rural-road people attach the little flags to their mailboxes out by the street. Some cars have them wedged in their grille or duct-taped to the antenna. Some upscale people have actual poles; their flags are at half-mast. More than a few large homes around Franklin Park or out on the east side even have enormous multistory flags hanging gonfalon-style down over their facades. It's a total mystery where people get flags this big or how they got them up there.
My own next-door neighbor, a retired CPA and vet whose home- and lawn-care are nothing short of phenomenal, has a regulation-size anodized flagpole secured in 18" of reinforced cement that none of the other neighbors like very much because they think it draws lightning. He says there's a very particular etiquette to having your flag at half-mast: You're supposed to first run it all the way up to the top and then bring it halfway down. Otherwise it's an insult or something. His flag is out straight and popping smartly in the wind. It's far and away the biggest flag on our street. You can also hear the wind in the cornfields just south; it sounds the way light surf sounds when you're two dunes back from it. Mr. N–'s flag's halyard has metal elements that clank loudly against the pole when it's windy, which is something else the other neighbors don't care for. His driveway and mine are almost side by side, and he's out here on a stepladder polishing his pole with some kind of ointment and a chamois cloth – I shit you not – and in fairness it's true that his metal pole does shine like God's own wrath.
"Hell of a nice flag and display apparatus, Mr. N–."
"Ought to be. Cost enough."
"Seen all the other flags out everywhere this morning?"
This gets him to look down and smile, if a bit grimly. "Something isn't it?" Mr. N– is not what you'd call the friendliest next-door neighbor. I really only know him because his church and mine are in the same softball league, for which he serves with immense precision as his team's statistician. We are not close. He's nevertheless the first one I ask:
"Say Mr. N–, suppose somebody like a foreign person or TV reporter were to come by and ask you to say what the purpose of all these flags everywhere after the Horror and everything yesterday was, exactly – what do you think you'd say?"
"Why" (after a brief interval of giving me the same sort of look he usually gives my lawn) "to show our support and empathy in terms of what's going on, as Americans."*
The point being that on Wednesday here there's a weird accretive pressure to have a flag out. If the purpose of a flag is to make a statement, it seems like at a certain point of density of flags you're making more of a statement if you don't have one out. It's not totally clear what statement this would be. What if you just don't happen to have a flag? Where has everyone gotten these flags, especially the little ones you can put on your mailbox? Are they all from July 4th and people just save them, like Christmas ornaments? How do they know to do this? Even a sort of half-collapsed house down the street that everybody though was unoccupied has a flag in the ground by the driveway.
The Yellow Pages have nothing under Flag. There's actual interior tension: Nobody walks by or stops their car and says, "Hey, your house doesn't have a flag," but it gets easier and easier to imagine people thinking it. None of the grocery stores in town turn out to stock any flags. The novelty shop downtown has nothing but Halloween stuff. Only a few businesses are open, but even the closed ones are displaying some sort of flag. It's almost surreal. The VFW hall is a good bet, but it can't open til noon if at all (it has a bar). The lady at Burwell's references a certain hideous Qik-n-EZ store out by 1-74 at which she was under the impression she'd seen some little plastic flags back in the racks with all the bandannas and Nascar caps, but by the time I get there they turn out to be gone, snapped up by parties unknown. The reality is that there is not a flag to be had in this town. Stealing one out of somebody's yard is clearly out of the question. I'm standing in a Qik-n-EZ afraid to go home. All those people dead, and I'm sent to the edge by a plastic flag. It doesn't get really bad until people ask if I'm OK and I have to lie and say it's a Benadryl reaction (which in fact can happen).... Until in one more of the Horror's weird twists of fate and circumstance it's the Qik-n-EZ proprietor himself (a Pakistani, by the way) who offers solace and a shoulder and a strange kind of unspoken understanding, and who lets me go back and sit in the stock room amid every conceivable petty vice and indulgence America has to offer and compose myself, and who only slightly later, over styrofoam cups of a strange kind of tea with a great deal of milk in it, suggests, gently, construction paper and "Magical Markers," which explains my now-beloved homemade flag.
* Plus selected other responses from various times during the day's flag- and Magic-Marker-hunts when circumstances allowed the question to be asked without one seeming like a smart-ass or loon:
"To show we're Americans and not going to bow down to anybody."
"The flag is a pseudo-archetype, a reflexive semion designed to pre-empt and negate the critical function" (grad student).
"What they do is symbolize unity and that we're all together behind the victims in this war. That they've fucked with the wrong people this time."
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