Dear readers, if you haven’t read the previous post (“In Memory”), have a look. It’ll orient you to what follows.
© Larry Towell, Magnum Photos. Used with Permission.
A man is standing in soot and debris, reading. He’s wearing glasses, a business suit, a shirt open at the collar. The photo shows a desolate scene — paper strewn everywhere, the air itself so gritty with dust that only the foreground is visible. This man had been walking eastward on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, but moments before the camera found him, he’d picked up a sheet of paper, its edges singed. In the picture, he’s gazing at it, oblivious to empty space, to the few people left on the street.
A decade after the events of September 11th, 2001, the strangeness of this image continues to speak to me of a difficult year that unfolded in my life. The picture — by Canadian photographer Larry Towell — only hints at catastrophe, at utter dislocation. Yet in his intensity of feeling, this dazed man will never vanish. He offers us a human face, a profound stillness. He augurs a year of long thoughts, of quiet space.
It happened that my brother Phil would die within the year.
Unprepared for either event, I felt like that dazed man — compelled to read, needing to think, desperate to penetrate the fog, to see some truth beyond the eye’s reach. Before me were the poignant facts of time passing and things neglected. How strange it felt, to be a native New Yorker, stranded outside this photo of a familiar street, unable to identify its buildings, images fading through the passage of time, through a life and career in Toronto and the normal run of busy inattention. My past had all but vanished, bits of it snagged on a splinter of memory like a dream you can’t retrieve in the morning. A pyre was burning in downtown New York, and its destructiveness made more acute the small losses that a life accumulates — its missed opportunities, its lack of connection, the inability to offer solace. The effort to come to terms with all of this would ask time and patience of me, and a certain stillness, also.
In this moment of crisis, it seemed that time dissolved, space collapsed, and the dead walked with the living. My husband Brian was with me, but so were my departed parents. Strange things happened. The New York Times reported that a Greek Orthodox church on the southwest corner of the Trade Center site was destroyed in the attack, its small cache of saints’ relics mingling with the ashes of the victims at Ground Zero. Shortly afterwards, a man stood in the soot and dust, picked up a charred piece of paper and began to read.