There are maybe ten days a year when it's gorgeous here, and this is one of them. It's clear and temperate and wonderfully dry after several straight weeks of what felt like living in somebody's armpit. It's just before serious harvesting starts, when the pollen's at its worst; a good percentage of the city is stoned on Benadryl, which as you probably know tends to give the early morning a kind of dreamy, underwater quality. Timewise, we're an hour behind the East Coast. By 8:00 everybody with a job is at it, and just about everybody else is home drinking coffee and blowing their nose and watching Today or one of the other A.M. shows that broadcast (it goes without saying) from New York. At 8:00 I personally was in the shower trying to listen to a Bears postmortem on WSCR sports radio in Chicago.
The church I belong to is on the south side of Bloomington, near where I live. Most of the people I know well enough to ask if I can come over and watch their TV are members of my church. It's not one of those Protestant churches where people throw Jesus's name around or talk about the End Times, which is to say that it's not loony or vulgar, but it's fairly serious, and people in the congregation get to know each other well and to be pretty tight. Most of the congregants are working-class or retirees; there are some small-business owners. A fair number are veterans or have kids in the military or – especially – the various Reserves, because for many of these families that's simply what you you do to pay for college.
The house I end up sitting with clots of dried shampoo in my hair watching most of the actual unfolding Horror at belongs to Mrs. Thompson,† who is one of the world's cooler 74-year-olds and exactly the kind of person who in an emergency even if her phone is busy you know you can just come on over. Her house is about a mile away, on the other side of a mobile home park. The streets are not crowded but they're not yet as empty as they're going to get. Mrs. Thompson's is a tiny immaculate one-story home that on the West Coast would be called a bungalow and on the south side of Bloomington is simply called a house. Mrs. Thompson is a longtime church member and a leader in the congregation, and her living room tends to be kind of a gathering place. She's also the mom of one of my best friends here, F–, who was a Ranger in Vietnam and got shot in the knee and now works kind of unhappily for a contractor installing Victoria's Secret franchises in malls. He's in the middle of a divorce (long story) and living with Mrs. T. while the court decides on the disposition of his house. F– is one of those for-real combat veterans who doesn't talk about the war or even belong to the VFW but is sometimes somber in a haunted way, and always goes quietly off to camp by himself over Memorial Day weekend, and you can tell that he carries some very heavy shit in his head. Like most construction guys he has to get to his job site early and was long gone by the time I got to his mom's, which was just after the second plane hit the South Tower, meaning probably around 8:10. In retrospect, the first sign of shock was the fact that I didn't ring the bell but just came on in, which normally here one would never do. Thanks to her son's trade connections, Mrs. T. has a 42" flat-panel Philips TV on which Dan Rather appears for a second in shirtsleeves with his hair slightly mussed. (People in Bloomington seem overwhelmingly to prefer CBS News; it's unclear why.) Several other ladies from church are already over here, but I don't know if I exchanged greetings with anyone because I remember when I came in everybody was staring in transfixed horror at one of the very few pieces of video CBS never reran, which was a distant wide-angle shot of the North Tower and its top floors' exposed steel lattice in flames and of dots detaching from the building and moving through smoke down the screen, which then that jerky tightening of the shot revealed to be actual people in coats and ties and skirts with their shoes falling off as they fell, some hanging onto ledges or girders and then letting go, upside-down or writhing as they fell and one couple almost seeming (unverifiable) to be hugging each other as they fell all those stories and shrank back to dots as the camera then all of a sudden pulled back to the long view – I have no idea how long the clip took – after which Rather's mouth seemed to move for a second before any sound emerged, and everyone in the room sat back and looked at one another with expressions that seemed somehow both childlike and horribly old. I think one or two people made some sort of sound. It's not clear what else to say. It seems grotesque to talk about being traumatized by a video when the people in the video were dying. Something about the shoes also falling made it worse. I think the older ladies took it better than I did. Then the hideous beauty of the rerun clip of the second plane hitting the tower, the blue and silver and black and spectacular orange of it, as more little moving dots fell. Mrs. Thompson was in her chair, which is a rocker with floral cushions. The living room has two other chairs, and a huge corduroy sofa that F– and I had had to take the front door off its hinges to get in the house. All the seats were occupied, meaning five or six other people, most women, all over fifty, and there were more voices in the kitchen, one of which was very upset-sounding and belonged to the psychologically delicate Mrs. R–, who I don't know very well but is said to have once been a beauty of great local repute. Many of the people are Mrs. T.'s neighbors, some still in robes, and at various times people leave to go home and use the phone and come back, or leave altogether (one younger lady went to go get her children out of school), and other people come. At one point, around the time the South Tower was falling so perfectly-seeming down into itself – I remember thinking it was falling sort of the way an elegant lady faints, but it was Mrs. Bracero's normally pretty much useless and irritating son, Duane, who pointed out that what it really looked like is if you took some film of a NASA liftoff and ran it backward, which now after several reviewings does seem dead-on – there were at least ten people in the house. The living room was dim because in the summer everyone keeps their drapes pulled.*
Is it normal not to remember things very well after only a couple days, or at any rate the order of things? I know at some point for a while there was the sound of somebody mowing his lawn, which seemed totally bizarre, but I don't remember if anyone said anything. Sometimes it seems like nobody speaks and sometimes like everybody's talking at once. There's also a lot of telephonic activity. None of these women carry cell phones (Duane has a pager whose point it unclear), so it's just Mrs. T.'s old wallmount in the kitchen. Not all the calls make rational sense. One side effect of the Horror seems to be an overwhelming desire to call everybody you love. It was established early on that you couldn't reach New York; 212 yields only a weird whooping sound. People keep asking Mrs. T.'s permission until she tells them to knock it off and for heaven's sake just use the phone. Some of the ladies reach their husbands, who are apparently all gathered around TVs and radios at their workplaces; for a while bosses are too shocked to think to send people home. Mrs. T. has coffee on, but another sign of Crisis is that if you want some you have to get it yourself – usually it just sort of appears. From the door to the kitchen I remember seeing the second tower fall and being confused about whether it was a replay of the first tower falling. Another thing about the hay fever is that you can't ever be totally sure someone's crying, but over the two hours of first-run Horror, with bonus reports of the crash in PA and Bush getting rushed to a secret SAC bunker and a car-bomb that's gone off in Chicago (the latter then retracted), pretty much everybody either cries or not, according to his or her relative abilities. Mrs. Thompson says less than almost anybody. I don't think she cries, but she doesn't rock her chair as usual, either. Her first husband's death was apparently sudden and grisly, and I know at times during the war F– would be in the field and she wouldn't hear from him for weeks at a time and had no idea whether he was even alive. Duane Bracero's main contribution is to keep iterating how much like a movie it is. Duane, who's at least 25 but still lives at home while supposedly studying to be an arc welder, is one of these people who always wear camouflage T-shirts and paratrooper boots but would never dream of actually enlisting (as, to be fair, neither would I). He has also kept his hat on in Mrs. Thompson's house. It always seems to be important to have at least one person to hate.
It turns out the cause of poor old tendony Mrs. R–'s meltdown in the kitchen is that she has a grandniece or something who's doing some kind of internship at Time, Inc. in the Time Life Bldg or whatever it's called, about which Mrs. R– and whoever she's managed to call know only that it's a vertiginously tall skyscraper someplace in New York, and she's out of her mind with worry, and two other ladies have been out here the whole time holding both her hands and trying to decide whether they should call a doctor (Mrs. R– has kind of a history), and I end up doing pretty much the only good I do all day by explaining to Mrs. R– where midtown is. It thereupon emerges that none of the people here I'm watching the Horror with – not even the few ladies who'd gone to see Cats as part of some group tour thing through the church in 1991 – have even the vaguest notion of Manhattan's layout and don't know, for example, how far south the financial district and Statue of Liberty are; they have to be shown via pointing out the water in the foreground of the skyline they all know so well (from TV).
This is the beginning of the vague but progressive feeling of alienation from these good people that builds throughout the part of the Horror where people flee rubble and dust. These ladies are not stupid, or ignorant. Mrs. Thompson can read both Latin and Spanish, and Ms. Voigtlander is a certified speech therapist who once explained to me that the strange gulping sound that makes Tom Brokaw so distracting to listen to is an actual speech impediment called a "glottal 1." It was one of the ladies out in the kitchen with Mrs. R– who'd pointed out that that week was the anniversary of the Camp David Accords, which was news to me. What the Bloomington ladies are, or start to seem, is innocent. There is what would strike many Americans as a bizarre absence of cynicism in the room. It doesn't once occur to anyone here to remark on how it's maybe a little odd that all three network anchors are in shirtsleeves, or to consider that it's possible that Rather's hair being mussed is not 100% accidental, or that the relentless rerunning of spectacular footage might not be just in case some viewers were only now tuning in and hadn't seen it yet. No one else seems to notice Bush's weird little lightless eyes seem to get closer and closer together throughout his taped statement, nor that some of his lines sound almost plagiaristically identical to statements made by Bruce Willis (as a right-wing wacko, recall) in The Siege a couple years back. Nor that at least some of the shock of the last two hours has been how closely various shots and scenes have mirrored the plots of everything from Die Hard I-III and Air Force One to Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor. Nobody's edgy or sophisticated enough to lodge the sick and obvious po-mo complaint: We've Seen This Before. Instead what they do is all sit together and feel really bad, and pray. Nobody does anything as nauseous as try to make everybody all pray together of pray aloud or anything, but you can tell what they're doing.
Make no mistake: This is mostly a good thing. It makes you think and do things you probably wouldn't if watching alone, like for one thing to pray, silently and fervently, that you're wrong about Bush, that your view of him is distorted and he's actually far smarter and more substantial than you believe, not just some weird soulless golem or nexus of interests dressed up in a suit, but a statesman of courage and probity and ... and it's good, this is good to pray this way. It's just a little lonely to have to. Innocent people can be hard to be around. I'm not for a moment claiming that everyone in Bloomington is like this (Mrs. T.'s son F– isn't, though he's an outstanding person). I'm trying to explain the way part of the horror of the Horror was knowing that whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my own – mine, and F–'s, and poor old loathsome Duane's – than these ladies'.
†Editor's Note: Some names have been changed, and some details have been altered.
* Mrs. T.'s living room is prototypical working-class Bloomington too, by the way: double-pane windows, white Sears curtains w/ valence, catalogue clock with a background of mallards, magazine rack with CSM and Reader's Digest, inset bookshelves used for Franklin collectibles and framed photos of relatives and their families, two small tasteful knit samplers w/ the "Desiderata" and Prayer of St. Francis, antimacassars on every good chair and neutral, wall-to-wall carpeting so thick that you can't see your feet (people take their shoes off at the door; it's basic common courtesy).
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