September 11, 2001

We are at the International House of Pancakes, just a block away from the Ballston Street metro stop in northern Virginia. It has been 20 years or so since I stopped at an IHOP, which, I’m happy to note, is finally living up to its name: The waitress is from Ethiopia, the man sitting next to me from El Salvador. Somewhere in the background I hear the Mexican-accented Spanish that in so many ways is and always will be home. I am working my way through the Washington Post: a front-page story on the failed child welfare system, an inside story on the lawsuit filed the day before against Henry Kissinger by the family of Rene Schneider, the Chilean general murdered in 1972. I put the Post aside and start leafing through a book I was going to send my friend Anna in New York.

I had gone to Washington for a conference and decided to stay on for a few extra days. The day before I was at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, listening to a group of lawyers speak about Guatemala and genocide, the search for justice and reparations for 200,000 victims, mostly Mayan Indians, of state-sponsored violence that tore at the country for decades. The Museum has a program called the Committee of Conscience, part of its mandate to study what happens to societies that have undergone mass violence. Here is what I underlined in my notes that afternoon: ” 200,000 individual cases–No legal system could withstand that sort of workload”; “How to rebuild from scratch judicial system capable of protecting human rights????”; “Guatemala still operating under same judicial system as before the war”; “not a search for vengeance, search for justice.”

It all sounded terribly bleak and terribly noble at the same time. And whatever efforts the lawyers and the communities they represented were trying to undertake were now complicated by the fact that more than one million people in Central America have been hit by famine, rendering notions of “transitional justice” and life itself all the more fragile. After the meeting I spoke with one of the lawyers, exchanged cards and promised to meet with him next month when we would both be in New York.

I write about September 10, about Guatemala and something called the Committee of Conscience, because I believe it is important to remember what we were doing and what we were reading (or not reading) the day before the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As for September 11, I am still looking for words, and can’t seem to find them. What I find instead are fragments, pieces of memory, the jumbled-up chronology and mental geography we all carry with us wherever we go. My own mental geography is terribly parochial: There is New York, Texas, Mexico and something called Points South.

As I’ve watched the news this past week, I keep seeing a scene from another September many years ago, when I had just moved to New York and was going to be a writer. I lived in Brooklyn and took the subway to the World Trade Center every day, making my way through the labyrinth of the vast lobby, which in the grandiose language of the WTC was known as the Concourse. The WTC had been open for about 10 years, a pharaonic project whose construction was beautifully described in an eerily prescient 1972 New Yorker article: “The half-finished lobby startled me; the Italian marble that lined the walls and lofty ceiling was a shiny, stark white–the kind of stone I associate with a particular kind of ornate modern tomb….” In a way, it was already obsolete by the time it was finished–a huge concentration of resources built in the pre-Internet era. But I did not know that. And if I did, I certainly would not have thought much about it. Instead all I thought about so many years ago was the great rush of freedom I felt every afternoon when I left a dismal office on Rector Street, walked across the plaza, entered the Trade Center (was it Tower One or Tower Two? I don’t remember), followed the labyrinth of signs and made my way to the subway. I was free and the city was mine.

Here is another scene, from another September. We are sitting in the Greek Coffee Shop at the corner of Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn. It is 1985 and there is no such thing as Starbucks; every coffee shop in New York is called The Greek Coffee Shop and every coffee shop is open all night long. I am reading the newspaper and start to cry. The waitress wants to know what’s wrong. The young man in the kitchen already knows. He is from the state of Puebla, in Mexico. Two ferocious earthquakes have just struck Mexico City. Later we will hear that 10,000 people were killed; others will say there were many more. But at that moment, I am thinking of Mexico City, walking down the Paseo de Reforma, sitting in Alameda Park or at the Tlatelolco metro stop, where a massive housing complex has just collapsed like a pancake. “Can you imagine,” I ask the waitress, “what it would be like if a skyscraper had collapsed in Manhattan?” She cannot imagine. Neither can I.

am half-way through the cheese blintzes when the cell phone rings. I can’t hear a thing, and walk outside, where I run into a Washington, D.C. Metro policeman. He says a plane has crashed into the Pentagon. Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. The twin towers have collapsed. Now I can’t hear him, either. Maybe I lived in Mexico for too long–or maybe it was those years in New York–but at that moment I do not believe him. The next few days are a blur of images, e-mails and phone calls. Everyone returns the e-mails, with the exception of a friend who is a journalist. He is too busy, I tell myself. Meanwhile, I keep trying to call Anna, but no one answers. Finally someone picks up the phone and I hear the voice of her friend Juan at the end of the line. Juan is from Ciudad Neza, outside Mexico City, but has lived in New York for several years. We have met many times, but today he answers in that formal Mexican Spanish that says everything and nothing at once.

“The Señora Anna is fine,” he says. “Her daughter is fine. We are all fine, grácias a Dios.” I am no longer sure what fine means. But tomorrow I will wrap up the book I had bought in Washington and send it to Anna. It is about Jorge Luis Borges, the late Argentine poet-storyteller, master of paradox, contradictions, shadows and labyrinths. Before I send it, I will copy a passage or two. Maybe this one.

I have committed the worst sin of all That a man can commit. I have not been Happy. Let the glaciers of oblivion Drag me and mercilessly let me fall. My parents bred and bore me for a higher Faith in the human game of nights and days; For earth, for air, for water, and for fire. I let them down. I wasn’t happy. My ways Have not fulfilled their youthful hope. I gave My mind to the symmetric stubbornness Of art, and all its webs of pettiness. They willed me bravery. I wasn’t brave. It never leaves my side, since I began. This shadow of having been a brooding man.

– Jorge Luis Borges, from With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires by Willis Barnstone

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Published at 12:00 am CST