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Afterword

Little Bitches
by Published on

“Three days before it happened, man, I had this dream that my balls were being bombed. My testicles. And since it happened, I’ve been having the dream every night. Man, I can’t take it!”

–Male New York City resident’s report to a phone hotline, set up by this writer after September 11, inviting New Yorkers to document their dreams.

The World Trade Center as testicles. The sense that the dream foretold the attack. Such things frighten me. And intimately related to this fear: George W. Bush on TV, like some globalized Elmer Gantry turned to Islam, teaching us the true meaning of the Qur’an. The “Koran,” he tells us in his teleprompter sincerity, says that it is a sin to kill. So the “tairists” have violated their faith by slamming into the Towers and the Pentagon. He, of course, neglects those basic passages that prescribe human slaughter, such as this verse, dealing with women accused of what English translation renders as “whoredom.” “Against them bring as witnesses four from among you; and if they testify to the whoredom, shut those women up in the houses till death take them or Allah appoints a way.” It doesn’t take a mullah to find such a passage. Nor does it require a preacher to flip through Leviticus for “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, he shall be put to death.”

Jerry Falwell played the New York-as-Sodom-and-Gomorrah card as he blamed the World Trade Center rubble on men who lie with males, as well as on women accused of whoredom–i.e., feminists. The card came up short: For American bumpkins these days, Babylon is a place on Long Island, not the Book of Revelations. For this we can thank cultural currents such as endless “Seinfeld” reruns. For those not into sitcoms, CNN showed endless video of New York City’s virile white rescue workers–the cops and firemen Pete Hamill calls the town’s noble Irishry, who effaced the fundamentalists’ usual Big Apple fantasies of buggerers, harlots, and shadow-skinned folk. So Falwell, too, bombed. Good. What scares me, though–terrifies me–is the epidemic of magical thinking, the sense of supernatural presentiment and ordainment. That this all happened because of our sins. Because of my sin?

New York is still a Jewish city, still sucking Jews like me in from the hinterlands like Texas, just as it sucked my now-long-dead grandmother’s cousin David in 1910. David, who was drama critic for Vanity Fair in the 1920s, and whose reviews now seem stiff-languaged but natty as spats, talking about how some Broadway show thrilled him as he hadn’t been thrilled since childhood in a theater in downtown Fort Worth, where he’d sneaked into the balcony (“Nigger Heaven,” he said the white Texans called it, with only the barest wink of self-deprecation). Cousin David, it was whispered years later in my family, had quit Fort Worth for New York because he was a homosexual.

I keep quitting from other kinds of lust. My sister, an opera and lieder singer who is known in the family as an extreme hard-ass, swears by handwriting analysis and insists that of all the siblings, my childhood penmanship was most like my mother’s. The daughter of shtetl immigrants and pogrom survivors who never learned much English, she was spirited from the East Coast after a whirlwind, post-war courtship with my fourth-generation Texan, Jewish dad. His family had been around since before the Civil War. They were light-skinned and spoke German, not Yiddish. Cousin David wrote a bad novel in which one of the characters was their house slave. My mother fought everything about Houston, Texas: the mugginess, the female in-laws and their Scarlett O’Hara-ized German Judaism, the region’s peculiar institution. She turned on the air conditioner, my dad turned it off, and they screamed. At Weingarten’s grocery store she tore cardboard “white” and “colored” signs from the water fountains, and Old Man Weingarten (himself a Jew) had them nailed back, in brass. She withdrew our family from the Temple after the poohbah rabbi refused to support Houston’s lunch counter sit-ins from the pulpit. She went to meetings to work against the Minute Women and for Ralph Yarborough, even as my aunts and grandmother clucked in sweetish, nasal drawls that she should get her nails done, take care of the children. Today all this sounds heroic; back then it didn’t. My mother was a fighter but also a nut, with chronic, catatonia-inducing depression and bouts of paranoid schizophrenia. She believed that unknown forces were out to poison our family, and that my studious, nearsighted teenaged sister and I were secret, professional sluts. Much later she took herself out with 100 pills. I loved and hated everything about her with equal ferocity. This is the sort of thing that gives New York City its great, gorgeous pull.

Over and over I’m drawn there. Over and over I go back to Texas, then leave again. The last cycle lasted 14 years in El Paso and two in San Antonio. As for the former, I couldn’t stomach living anymore in the belly of the maquila. The daily misery of America’s poorest big city, the syrup-slow stupidity of the U.S. side of the river and the manic, malnourished struggle just across the line, by all those masses making our thingamajigs in the daytime for 60 cents an hour, and huddling at night in colonias that I could see right from my window, but frighteningly after several years, was starting not to see. San Antonio, where I got a job on the “alternative” weekly, was too Christian and segregated and mean. Too Texan. What made it worse was how the nastiness was sweetened with Disneyland tourism: the Riverwalk, Fiesta, Alamo. The city so divided by class and race, that if you want your kid to go to a school and come out reading, writing, and able to play a sonata, you’ve got to either move to the Columbine-like northern suburbs or pay tuition to the Catholics. In San Antonio, educated people excuse the lack of orchestras in the schools by shrugging that “Mexicans just don’t like classical music.”

I wanted my son to know–really know–that such shrugs are lies. So now he’s at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and I’m terrified. You have seen Stuyvesant lately on the news. It is New York City’s crown jewel public high school, and only five blocks from the World Trade Center ruins. My son says that after the second tower was hit, a school official tried to make an intercom announcement, but hyperventilated into the microphone for 30 seconds without saying a word. Five minutes after they evacuated, the tower came down and my son was running for his life up the West Side Highway. My daughter, too, left Texas for college in the East Village. She saw the second plane go in. Now she’s thinking of leaving school, maybe going to Austin.

When we moved to New York a year ago, we gave up a cheap, rambling house for a matchbox, overpriced slum apartment. My husband, a physician, earns half what he did in Texas (there are too many doctors in New York). Soon after we arrived, the car was stolen and found in the Bronx, stripped. Well, what the hell, we thought–New York’s tough but so are we. Besides, the city fulfilled my every lust, from the ones everyone knows about to those which are far more personal. We live by Harlem, where immigrant women from Africa lure my son to their services as hair braiders, promising to corn-row his kinky Jewish hair like an NBA player’s kinky Baptist or Muslim hair. There’s a scruffy but semi-dignified guy on our block, a retiree, who ambles around in summer all tall and stooped and Carl Sandburg WASPy, with bermuda shorts, a mutt on a leash and horrid old man’s legs; the story on the block is that he’s Freud’s grandson. The streets and offices and eateries teem with people who won’t look at you or will quickly tell you things that, in Texas, you do not hear except in bed with a lover. Some 80 languages are spoken, including one said to be a goner: Yiddish, my mother’s childhood tongue. Since coming to New York, I’ve learned Yiddish well enough to translate stories and poems that no one else will ever translate; and to live my own Bashevis Singer tales in real life. The old Yiddishist I have made my friend and mentor, a tiny, elfin linguist refugeed years ago from Chernovits to the Bronx, tells me how, as a 10-year-old on the Galician-Ruthenian-Bessarabian border in the 1930s, he organized a children’s committee to do something about the abominable conditions of the Indians in America. Their guide to the Trail of Tears was a book all the rage among little Eastern European boys–a book whose author was German. Over sixty years later, with the world of his childhood long zykloned and cremated, he was strolling in the park by the New York Public Library when he spied a beautiful young woman reading. For reasons unknown (and this is the Singer part) she sucked him toward her. It turned out she was German, reading in her native tongue the same book that had inflamed his boyhood romance with genocide.

The hour of the Trade Center of attacks, I was on a bus crossing the East River on my way to La Guardia Airport. I was en route to Houston. My dad had just had a heart attack, the final one, and as I write this, my sister and I are sitting, marking his last hours by a bed in a hospice on Holcombe Boulevard. It is Mayor Holcombe’s old mansion, now remodeled with kind nurses, dewy and perfectly tended gardens, the muted clock-ticking of natural death. In New York crossing the East River to get to my father, you could see the towers burning before they fell. My plane never made it out. That was Tuesday. It was Sunday before I could catch another one. Waiting in line for a boarding pass Sunday, I saw that Muslims would be among my fellow passengers. A bearded man, dressed Western style, was shepherding a young wife and four little daughters in long, ritual dress. They looked uneasy and I smiled at them. Inside, I was going berserk. “Are they using their women and children now to foil security?” I was beginning to panic. But then a skinny young U.S. Marshall appeared with a beefier Border Patrol agent. They ignored the family and pulled a young, single man from the line. Oddly, this little government ritual–heretofore so foreign in New York yet so domestic in El Paso (my old stomping grounds for both journalism and immigration civil rights work)–quashed my hysteria. I pulled out a mental reporter’s notebook after the young man had been cleared, and asked him what it was about. “Guess they thought I looked Arab,” he shrugged. “Actually I’m Venezuelan.”

In Houston we were talking about my daughter seeing people jump from the Trade Center. Someone questioned the word “jump” and speculated that with fire licking you, you simply respond without thinking, whereas jumping takes a plan. I noted that girls in the Triangle Fire went out the windows holding hands. In New York, my children know about the Triangle Fire. In New York, my son had just made the soccer team at Stuyvesant. If he had done so in San Antonio, he’d be playing varsity against Douglas McArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan High Schools. In New York, the competitors are A. Philip Randolph and Norman Thomas. The city still wheezes with old Social Democracy. You want to hold its hand. The breathing is labored, but the eyes are still so beautiful.

I had left La Guardia Airport that morning with a suitcase on wheels. For five hours I rolled it through Queens, desperately trying to get home to my children. I walked a bridge into Manhattan, against a tide of hundreds of thousands marching the other way. Back in the apartment, the kids and I spent the first evening with good wine and dumb jokes–the giddy, high spirits of immediate survival. Two weeks later our daytime thoughts are full of biochemical warfare. (Will the terrorists spray the A train?) By night we dream of conflagration and bombs and everything toppling. I had my first such dream last night, lying on a mat at the hospice, in and out of wakefulness as I timed my father’s last breaths coming shallower and farther between. Before this I’d been far more Freudian and ironic.

The night of September 11, I dreamed that Rudy Guiliani’s wife called me to Gracie Mansion. Dark and attractive, she faced me in a nude glory of pubic hair and asked me to bring her clothes. They were fine, expensive silks. “Feel free to wear some yourself,” she invited, as black smoke billowed from the towers behind her head. I woke and realized that Guiliani’s “wife”–his current love, that is–is Judith Nathan, whose last name is the same as mine. It was such a droll, interesting dream that I wanted to hear other people’s. So I rented a telephone mailbox and put an ad in the Village Voice, asking New Yorkers to call. With minor variation, almost everyone reported the same thing. “Hi, this is Fran from Bayside. For three days before September 11 I dreamed that something terrible was going to happen to me.” “Yeah, I’m Bob, from Jericho. Nostradamus predicted this, and I was dreaming about Nostradamus before everything came down.” It’s all stupefyingly literal and stupefyingly magical. At 8:45 a.m. EDT on September 11, we were surprised. But in our 3 a.m. pitch-dark thinking now, we say we knew it was going to happen. Why?

OK, so Falwell went over the top, telling us we deserved it. Still, almost everything since 9/11 is being framed in frighteningly religious terms. This is not about Islam, Bush intones, only about its misinterpretation–which is still, of course, about Islam. Even so, he doesn’t really talk about religion. In one speech, our President told us the Taliban puts men in jail if they do not grow their beards long enough. He conveniently failed to note that fundamentalist Islam executes women who have extramarital sex. No doubt this went unmentioned because Bush’s fundamentalist Christian supporters don’t like women who have extramarital sex, either.

These American Christians–millions of them, according to publishing industry sales figures–have spent the last two decades lapping books off the shelves of religious stores, and lately Barnes & Noble: books whose existence (much less blockbuster popularity) the secular media barely acknowledges. Books that issue a siren call of End Time theory and scenarios of the Second Coming, and which lovingly prophesy bloodbath in the Middle East, ancillary carnage in America, hellfires in Israel, and everything culminating in the Rapture, Gog, Magog, the Antichrist and finally, the welcome return of the Messiah. Go to any Christian store or onto Amazon.com and you will find this stuff selling like hotcakes, as it has been for years. Even people who don’t buy are sticking flags in their yards, lighting candles, asking everyone to pray. The editor of Vanity Fair announces that henceforth, the slick Internet and newsstand journals of comment and culture will cease printing irony. Irony–that smart-ass mocker of God, so irksome yet so heady, like the smell of one’s own B.O. No more irony, much more God. On some deep, primitive level, people (even a cosmopolitan atheist like myself) seem comforted by September 11 even as we are utterly panicked by it. The anthropologists call it magical thinking. We explain what we don’t understand by weaving hindsight webs of “prophesy” or by arbitrarily connecting unrelated facts that all supposedly point to some sin we committed.

In my case, the sin is this: I left for New York, taking my son from quiet streets in Texas where he was doing wheelies in the twilight with other little boys, and now he has run from death. I left even though I knew my father’s days in Houston were numbered, and now his grandchildren are too scared of planes to attend the funeral. I left because I wanted Jewish Irony. I was bored and offended by Christians and “WWJD” bracelets. Now my divinity is the Great God Anthrax. My father used to tell me not to go, because “In New York, the help take your money and act like they’re doing you a big favor taking it.”

“That’s exactly what I like
bout it,” I would
nswer, though not to his face. He had a picture of FDR on the wall, and he was from a place where the help take your money and act like you’re doing them the favor. I’ve always been a Texan who hated Texas etiquette. Still, I’ve been such a good daughter. For years I went to Temple every single Saturday (the executive producer of “West Wing” was in my Saturday religious school class)–a serious young girl learning all the stories and prayers of the Old Testament. Sure, I had big and little rebellions. Once I sneaked into a synagogue kitchen and mixed up all the milk and meat plates. Later I turned very Marxist, and when my dad and I argued about Keynes and the Depression, I got so ironic that he threw a square carton of lemon custard ice cream at me. It missed, and today as he lies dying, I am convinced that I am the Whore of Babylon who has brought deadly aerosoled bacteria to the world. I am wholly aware that this is wholly insane–my mix of repressed religiosity and tedious narcissism. But in this epoch of growing Christian, Islamic, Jewish and other fundamentalisms, the sacred and the egocentric may be premiere elements of terror. How brilliant of our terrorists: Not only did they disappear 6,000 people, they also sucked us closer to the God of Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Nostradamus, and handwriting analysis.

Right now I am waiting at the bier for my father’s eyes to close so I can push away from God–stop being as downcast as a veiled woman, and soft-voiced with grief, and riven to rabbis and hospital television sets with their white noise of sanctimony and fear. I want to start reading little, woolly journals of political analysis again. I want books by the likes of Edward Said. I want to know about Afghanistan and oil and Israel. I want to forget my family and Texas. I want to be smart-ass again, and brave. My sister and I sit by the deathbed, whispering against what Bush has taken lately to calling the “Abrahamic faith” of our great country. She and I were always the scandal of our Texas clan: the sharp-tongued, difficult girls, the ones who wouldn’t be nice. That phone hotline I set up in New York? One call had the irony I crave. That caller I told you about in the beginning–the one who feels like his balls have been bombed. “Man. I feel violated!” he kept repeating about his testicles. Violated!!”

“And man,” he continued, “I loved those little bitches! I loved the towers.”

I loved those little bitches, too, and wonder what will take their place.

Debbie Nathan’s father was buried in Houston on September 28.

Debbie Nathan is a Texas native and writer who divides her time between New York City and the border. She is author, most recently, of Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case.