I can’t tell you how good the skyline of Manhattan looked as the Acela Express rolled through Newark yesterday afternoon. Life has kept me jumping of late–a family reunion in Smalltown, U.S.A., a scary stack of post-reunion deadlines, a miserable summer cold, two hasty overnight excursions to the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Kennedy Center–and for the past few days I’ve longed for nothing more than to come home to the Teachout Museum, unpack my bag, unplug the phone, curl up on the couch, and watch a few movies. Instead I came home, booted up my iBook to put myself back in touch with the world, and learned that al-Qaida had been planning a little surprise for my adopted home town.
I winced, and thought about how best to reassure my anxious mother back in Smalltown. Then it occurred to me to remind her that nothing much had changed. After all, it’s been pretty much taken for granted ever since 9/11 that al-Qaida would hit New York again if it possibly could. The only difference is that we now know, or think we know, some of the specifics of their plans. As for me, I rarely have occasion to go anywhere near Wall Street (I write my Wall Street Journal drama column from home), and I can’t remember the last time I set foot in Citicorp Center. Why should I be any more worried now than I was yesterday?
Unhelpful worry is one thing, and I’ll do my best to keep it to a minimum. But what about the possible benefits of learning that the chances of New York’s being attacked by terrorists are significantly greater than you’d previously thought? Cardinal Newman’s Gerontius, after all, wisely reminds himself on his deathbed to “use well the interval,” the unknown and unknowable amount of time that separates him from the fast-approaching hour of his demise. How, then, might I take advantage of the knowledge that my own interval could conceivably turn out to be a good deal shorter than I’d planned?
Like most New Yorkers, I thought a lot about that question in the weeks and months following 9/11, and I also had occasion to write about it at monthly intervals in “Second City,” my Washington Post column about the arts in New York. I don’t keep a diary, so I took a look at some of those old columns yesterday, and I was struck by a theme that wove through them:
• “We’re all right, thanks. It took a week or two for us to pull ourselves together, but New Yorkers have finally started to emerge from their holes, looking for all that art offers in times of trial: inspiration, diversion, catharsis, escape. Some of the bustle has gone out of Times Square, and I have yet to visit a jazz club that’s been more than two-thirds full. A lot of artists I know are anxious about future fundraising, though they don’t like to talk about it, and what you’ve heard about Broadway is all too true–some shows have closed and many others are struggling, victims of the dried-up tourist trade. Still, I saw a dozen hardy optimists lined up at the box office of lined up at the box office of The Producers a half-hour after curtain time one evening last week, hoping to snag returned tickets. Good for them!”
• “The Film Forum showed a handsome-looking print of The General two weeks ago as part of its recent Keaton retrospective, and people were lined up halfway down the block to get into the 7:30 showing, which featured live piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner. No doubt the audience was lousy with film-studies majors, but that didn’t keep them from laughing themselves silly at Keaton’s divine foolery. Where there are laughs, there is hope.”
• “I went to the Paine Webber Art Gallery to look at Expanding on a Legacy, a small but choice exhibition of American painting and sculpture on loan from the Montclair Art Museum, which is closed for renovations. Anthrax spores had been discovered in Gov. Pataki’s Manhattan office an hour or two before, so the guards were understandably antsy, but that didn’t stop me from spending a half-hour basking in the intense silence of Edward Hopper’s ‘Coast Guard Station’ and George Inness’ ‘Delaware Water Gap.’ Then I turned a corner and found myself face to face with ‘Snowbound,’ a masterpiece of American impressionism in which John H. Twachtman’s Connecticut house can just be made out through the thick white drifts of a blizzard. Suddenly I was snatched out of the absurd world around me and wafted into the calm paradise of art. Right now, I can’t think of a better place to be.”
• “Sometimes the beaten path is the best place to be. I spent the night after Thanksgiving watching New York City Ballet’s lavishly decorated Nutcracker, surrounded by ecstatic children and cool-headed critics (the former are more fun). I couldn’t have had a better time, especially when Jennie Somogyi came fizzing onto the stage of the New York State Theater to dance the role of Dewdrop more boldly and high-spiritedly than I’d seen it done since Kyra Nichols was in her prime. I brought a couple of full-grown Nutcracker novices along with me, and they looked like they’d won the lottery. So they had’and so had I.
“But man cannot live by stars alone, and it struck me that I’d been spending quite a lot of time of late traipsing from institution to institution, gawking at all the usual suspects. I know why: I got caught out of town on September 11, and once I finally made my way back to Manhattan, it meant the world to me to go to places like Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum and see for myself that they were still alive and well.”
• “I also dropped by the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel to hear Paula West, a West Coast cabaret singer who is tough and hard-swinging, though she has a soft touch of vulnerability and a vivid way with words. At the piano was the infallible Bill Charlap, on whose magic carpet she rode with self-evident pleasure. I caught them at a Friday-night late show, when the crowd was smaller and the mood was right for ‘I Remember You.’ West sang Johnny Mercer’s perfect lyric with understated passion, and all at once I found myself wrapped up in dark-blue memories of my own. The Algonquin can do that to you, especially when you’re listening to a really good singer at midnight, sitting next to a friend who knows what’s on your mind and thinking about what most of us are thinking about these days. Be it in an oak-paneled cabaret or a Park Avenue church, I doubt that beauty has ever meant so much to New Yorkers as it does this very moment.”
• “Nor will I soon forget my visit to Avery Fisher Hall to hear Ivan Fischer and the New York Philharmonic perform Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a vast mural of anguish that is almost too much of a muchness. I hadn’t been listening to Mahler since I returned to New York in September after being stranded in the Midwest–I don’t know that you need to deliberately jolt your emotions when they’re already vibrating like a plucked string–and I doubt I would have gone if a singer friend of mine hadn’t mentioned to me at lunch one day that September 11 had left her unable to cry, even after she visited Ground Zero. It struck me that the Fifth Symphony might be just what she needed to break up her interior logjam, so we went, and were stunned–that’s the only possible word for it. I think it was an extraordinary performance, but I’m not quite certain, because I was so carried away by the music that I forgot how it was being played. All I know for sure is that it poured off the stage like an avalanche.”
Could it be that I–we–were living more intensely in those days? It happens that my life was turned inside out in all sorts of ways in the immediate wake of 9/11, but no matter what fears I found myself facing, I almost always managed sooner or later to slip out of the fearful present and immerse myself in the blessed world of art, responding all the more passionately because of my renewed consciousness of life’s brevity. Strange that it so often takes a catastrophe, whether personal or public, to make you face a fact that was no less true on 9/10, or 9/12. Strange, too, that this knowledge inevitably recedes from your awareness: one can no more think incessantly about such things than one can gaze for an hour at the noonday sun. I don’t know exactly when it was that my hunger slackened, but a time must have come when I returned at last to “normal,” responding in an everyday manner to the endless beauties of the fragile city in which I still choose to live.
Will I be any different today because of what I found out yesterday? I’d like to think that I might possibly recapture some of that febrile intensity, that I will learn yet again the lesson no one learns once and for all. Henry James put it best: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?”
For my part, I have had much in my life–much success, much love, many friends–and I have beheld countless times what Paul Goodman was writing about in this poem:
Such beauty as hurts to behold
and so gentle as salves the wound:
I am shivering though it is not cold
and dark as in a swoon.
I hope with all my heart that I live long enough to recall those lines ten thousand times more. I also hope I remember each day that I might not be so lucky, and try to live accordingly–and if not each day, then at least this one and the next. May we all remember, here and everywhere.