Monday, September 16, 2002

Tearing down the house

They're tearing down a house near my place.To be honest, it wasn't a particularly pretty house, one can even go so far as to say that it was unreedemably ugly. It sits on a T intersection and the side looking out on the main street is a drab two-stories oblong body, neither old nor new, of a depressing maroon color. On the side, coming out from the narrow street I live in, if you throw a look to your left side, there is a gate and you can glimpse the other side of the house, obviously older, painted white, looking on a grassy courtyard. It's no beauty either but a pleasant place to live, sheltered and sunny. The grass tended to grow wild and was cut down periodically by who knows whom - because the house was obviously deserted. There were trees, and it was very popular with the cats, especially when the grass was high.

I understood they were tearing it down because I finally worked out that the four concrete blocks they had erected in the fenced-in section of the street in front of the house were for a crane, and because they were throwing things out of the abandoned rooms in the back.

I stopped and looked and felt the usual stab of pain. Furniture, old, lumbering, ungainly and out of fashion, but obviously having missed its chance to become antique, was piled on matteresses and other unidentifiable debris of somebody's past life. When you see such things, furniture being cleared out from somewhere where people once lived, it means one thing: somebody died in there. An old woman, usually, living among her outdated things and finally giving up. When I was hunting for this house I saw a couple of houses like that: tidy, neat, sparse, with that desperate love for the physical objects that keep you anchored to your past. When my next-door neighbour, the lovely Dorina, finally died in her still lively and present 85th year, I saw the same thing happening: a lorry stopping outside, and people throwing out her things to be carted off. The big mirror of the dining room cupboard shattered. The dining room cupboard itself, a lumbering monstrosity in well-cared for blond wood, was uncerimonially ripped from its nest and undignifiably shattered and loaded on the lorry.

That's what happens when people die, and of course there's no other way. People - children, if the dead had any - come and go through the heartbreaking task of separating out the chaff of your life, and the rest gets sold, if it can, or thrown away. Dying means this: that the things you cared for, that made your life comfortable, that have a piece of you in them, end up smashed and obliterated.

I left the condemned house behind (to be passed again and again, with constant regret) and bycicled off in the pleasant sun. September is a terrible month, with the same gentle cruelty Eliot attributed to April. Since Italy basically shuts off for August, coming to a complete and grinding halt while people go and do their thing at the seaside, September sees a coming back to life, which is the same thing, if I'm not mistaken, Eliot blamed April for. For the first week, while shops open up again and the traffic picks up and the incredible abundance of parking spots in the center evaporates, there is a Monday morning gloom in the atmosphere. It's still by all signs summer, it's hot and stuffy and the days are still long, but intermission's over, and from here on it's all a slide towards the long misery of winter.

Then the gloom wears off a little bit, kids go back to school, the pace picks up, and in the long slanted gentle shadows you begin to appreciate the gold in the sun, the soft breath of the wind taking off the bite of the heath, and it's still a month of pleasant evenings out, though you have better take a jacket out now. And the thunderstorms have left off almost completely. It would be a nice period to go to the sea if you could swing it.

It's a good period for the reckoning of what you've lost. Yesterday I went for the first time to the Busonera Hospital, once I think the Sanatorium, and though a friend had prepared me I was still gobsmacked by the rabbits. Rabbits everywhere, lean wary springly beasts eyeing you suspiciously and munching on the grass in the aisles, Richard Adams country. Amazing and marvellous for animal-deprived urban kids like me. I crouched down to get a better look at them. The rabbits, as proper rabbits, sidled off. I wonder where they came from, if they used to be used for something hospital-related and then where freed or escaped. In all this wonder and grace we are both alive, me and the bunnies, and death presses in from all sides. To drive the point in, the TV has started two days ago showing burning buildings and falling people, spreading pomposity and fake sentimentaliy over it all like quicklime. I guess I'm in danger of adding my spadeful.

Yesterday during a nap a voice floated up to me, as things happen to do when you are half-asleep, stretches of fictional dialogue o random noise generated by your subconscious: I cannot talk about September 11, the voice said, a bit baffled. And as a matter of fact, I find it hard to do, for some reason. You think that what you have to say on the Big Solemn Occasion has to be of undying significance, and I don't feel properly up to undying anything right now. So maybe I'll end up posting this late. No big deal.

What I lost then. I lost the Manhattan skyline. Yes, I know, this seems awfully cold, but I'll get to the rest. For now - since it wasn't my neighbourhood and it wasn't my town and none of mine were there, I suffered no personal loss of a tragic nature. But I did lose the Manhattan skyline, for all time and all eternity. I'll never see it again with mine own eyes.

I saw it only once, for no more than a few dozen seconds, a from a long way away. I changed planes at New York to go visit a friend of mine in South Carolina, my only time in the States, and the only glimpse I got of the Famous Skyline was from the airport tarmac. I was sitting by the window in the plane, I pulled up the shade and there it was, black on gold in the sunset, unmistakable, and gosh, it really was like in the pictures. I gazed at it in wonder for about thirty seconds, then the woman sitting on my side growled at me to get the damn shade down that she'd got the sun in her eyes, and I, starteled, obeyed. Shutter down on the Manhattan skyline, well, that Manhattan skyline, for what I fondly thought was only the first time.

I know New Yorkers weren't so thrilled by the design. I liked them, though, perhaps because I saw them from so far away, and I could appreciate their joyous, fearless standing up taller than everything else in sight, and by a good deal, too. It didn't look an arrogant or proud standing to me, it just looked like a perfectly understandable ambition to strike a pose. Besides, I liked the way they unbalanced the profile of the land, introducing verticality were it wasn't supposed to be, introducing stark geometry were only geological fuzziness belonged. They made the horizon look like an ikebana, deliciously antisymmetrical in its paired symmetry. (When the stars threw down their spears, and watered heaven with their tears?)

I'm stupidly sentimental that way. Pulling down building gets at me even when there are no people inside. Were it for me, I'd build them back where they were, how they were. I would very much like to see their serene sharp geometry back. It'd be easier than replacing the Bamyan Buddhas, anyway. It'd easier than replace the people. It would be easier than erase the pain, terror, despair, agony. It all went down and it's buried in the past but it was there and we cannot unlearn it, I cannot unlearn it.

Some things cut at you because they happen to you, to yours. Some things cut at you because you see them. Some things cut at you because you hear them told. Some things cut at you because you're human. Some things cut at you because you are a good human.

The dead get at me a lot less than the dying. They're all dead now but I'm not the only one I guess that keeps imagining them dying. When I see dead, dead people fished from the sea after a wreck of immigrant desperation, dead people plopped down in the dirt shot, I always think of my partner. I always think that for somebody that body is that kind of death. With the dying, I see myself in them, I try to model the terror and the fear, and I guess I'm not the only one, and I guess I'm not the only one to understand that there is an unbridgeable gap between the worst of my imagination and reality, that I can only project about. I prepare my last words - what would you say, and to whom, if you only had five minutes on a phone?

People say horrible things about this, you know. I hear them. They say that too much fuss is being made. They say that they don't care. They remind themselves of the general reckoning of death, of human-inflicted death, and how much larger the toll of non-American still is. This is for me not so much wrong or horrible as beside the point. I don't care what nationality the dead were, I don't even feel the urge to remind people how many were not American to begin with. But the fact is, when you've spent so much time bothering people with the rest of the reckoning, in unsuspicious times, you feel precisely how to bring it up now, just as a way to redress the balance, would be belittling all those other tragedies. Things, like the Manhattan skyline, sometimes are in order even if they are unabalanced, with two sticky bits off to one side. People may bemoan the fact that no candles were burned for Srebrenica or Rwanda, but not me. I did burn them. I did mourn. I did try to get people worked up about it.

When Srebrenica fell I was in my parents' seaside apartment - as it happens, at the thirteenth floor of a smallish skyscarper that looked over the Adriatic. I remember reading the papers on the dining room table, and the fuzzy black and white photo of a woman hanging from a tree. She had hanged herself in the woods, after having gotten away. She was alive and on the way to some sort of miserable but probably safe haven. She had escaped what would turn out to be among the worst massacres in Europe after 1945, and she hadn't wanted to live in the resulting world. The dead one forgets after a while but some sort of dying are harder to dismiss. That silent turning away from what the world had been revealed to be like was ghastlier for me then than murder. A lot less dramatic than jumping from the upper floors of a skyscraper, but it had much the same effect on me.

I was at a graduation party in the evening and I got drunk and I started taking people by the lapels of their coats weeping, telling them that they were cutting people's throats on the other side of the sea from us right at that moment. Nobody was paying my too much mind then, and yes, no candlelight vigils were held, but I did mourn. And now, well - people are finally getting worked up, and I'd be inclined to call it a progress...

Were it not for the fact that I lost - we lost - so much ground. On September the 12th last year I had the usual meeting of my Amnesty group - we meet every Wednesday night, we plan for our modest and locally ineffectual fight and we trade black humor over the nasty surprises the world springs on us. I went, feeling dizzy and dumb, and I realized in a flash that nobody was going to give a flying fuck for human rights from then on. Seeing a lot of human beings dying on live TV wasn't going to awake feelings of fraternity and a new understanding of the precious quality of human life in people, fuck no. Well, perhaps in a few. The ones that already were awake to it before. But for the rest - there was going to be righteous rage, and merciless fear, and if what I cared about was dismissed as hilariously weak before, it was going to be branded downright traitorous now. Death and repression and torture would be welcomed instead of just happily let happen, and never mind that the victims counted the good and the bad, the misguided and the wise, the furious and the grieving. Never mind that humanity was a tresaure for humans, not for this or that national. Never mind. The time in between hasn't done much to prove me wrong.

The one thing it has done is teaching me the kind of fighting resignation that keeps you going. Oh yes, you and humanity spend the ages building, and then some murderous moron comes along and gleefully tears it all down, and calls it heroism. I am not an optimist. I am not a pessimist. I don't think there is a written guarantee in some Cosmic Book of Reckoning that the good, the just, the merciful, will prevail in the end. I don't think there is any malignant intention bending history towards evil. History advances haphazardly, and we can't derive any consolation at the end of our days by any progress made, because it can be lost in the next generation. Not by a will, but by something worse - chance.

You can only build back, and try not to make of the final result the yardstick of your happiness. You put one brick over the other because that's what humans do, and hope that you never find yourself wandering in that wood looking for a way out the unbearable pain of unconsolable grief and irreparable injustice. You shrug and go back to rebuild the wall even if you know you may never see it in your life as high as it was when you got there, though higher than it would be if you didn't. And try to find happiness elsewhere, in the pink glow of some sunsets that make you feel as if somebody switched a huge orange neon tube in the sky overhead, in the wary suspicious rabbits, in figs ripening in unsensitive innocence, in familiar music and new words, and such trivial things.

And yet, I can't understand how people can bear it to go on, how they can find any happiness in the nooks and crannies of the world, in the chinks of the world machine, if they lose sight of the backdrop of pain, if they can't feel the pain of every human beings as their own. It's only the general universal cruel and unfair pointlessness of it all that gives me the space to find solace and purpose. Given how it was unshakable faith in a purpose in the world that made at least some of the aformentioned morons believe that they could strike a great symbolic blow to something or other when they were just killing random people, feeling a vast cosmic pointlessness may make me less deliriously happy, but it sure makes me feel a lot more innocent.


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