by Janie Conway-Herron
© all rights reserved
Writing in 1984 (a year ominously intertwined with Orwellian prophecy) French cultural theorist Michel de Certeau writes about the view of Manhattan from the110th floor of the World Trade Centre. For Certeau, it is ‘the most monumental figure of Western development’ (1984: 93) facilitating the eye of a removed spectator who looks down on the city. In May 2002, I flew over New York City and as the plane passed those majestic architectural monuments of which the twin towers of the World Trade Centre had once been part, I imagined the narrator of Certeau’s text being annihilated by those apocalyptic planes disappearing into the towers. The subsequent crumbling of the buildings into a mass of rubble and human remains is a vision whose frightful reverberations were broadcast live around the world. But, to those watching outside and above the panoptic vision of the tower itself, the images of those fateful planes seemed so like the films made by the seers of post-millennium chaos that it was hard to believe they were real. Certeau was arguing against totalising visions that depend on disentangling the voyeur like viewer from the daily happenings of the city and promoting the smaller stories of the ordinary person on the street. Ironically, it’s the telling of these stories that have played an enormous part in the restoration of Manhattan in the aftermath of the events of September Eleven.
It was my 54th birthday when I left Sydney and by coincidences of datelines I’d managed to have two birthdays, one, as I left Australia and another in the air. But, in spite of my age, this was my first time out of Australia. The irony of New York being my first port of call was not lost on me. But, as the plane made its way across the vast expanse of city lights, I was concerned with other things. On the day I left, my mother had been taken to hospital. At eighty-six she was frail and forgetful. My father had died six months earlier and now she was simply fading away. My travel companions were also sensitive to the vicissitudes of life and death. Pam, my friend and colleague, had recently lost her eldest son and so she was travelling to New York with her second son, Dance. Pam and I had also come to deliver a joint paper at the 12th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women. Our work was concerned with identity and belonging in an Australian context. We shared a preference for the small stories over the edifying grand narratives of Australian nationhood. That place between being and longing where the desire for home is ever present.
We walked out of the airport and into the streets of Certeau’s planned and readable city, queuing by the line of bright yellow taxis along with many other weary travellers. As our taxi wove its way towards Manhattan, we talked of the healing afforded by the telling of personal stories, the more intimate narratives, intrinsically linked to the identity of the narrator. It is here that Certeau’s appeal for the diverse voices of individual subjects has particular resonance. But, we agreed, the story was still skewed in favour of the west. Where were the stories of people from the Middle East whose very lives were caught in the mesh of interactions caused by the antiterrorist rhetoric of the west? Western media and discourses of war had silenced these voices under rubrics such as collateral damage. I wondered what my parents would say about this. Both confirmed pacifists, they had not fed me with any heroic narratives. Any idealised versions of war were made ludicrous by my father’s comical stories of being an air gunner who was afraid of heights and my mother’s pragmatic versions of the failed marriages of shell-shocked soldiers returning to their wives as shadows of their former selves. As we pulled up outside our hotel I calculated what time it was in Australia. No time to ring and find out how things were I decided, as the porter took our bags and we struggled to work out how to tip him.
A man stood in the doorway of the apartment block opposite us yelling abuse at passers by. Beside him was a large cardboard box that was his home. He was the first of many homeless people we would meet in our stay in New York. Some had jobs, the porter told us, but couldn’t afford to pay the exorbitant rents. I crawled under my clean crisp sheets and drifted into guilty sleep accompanied by the sound of the man’s curses. In the middle of the night a phone call from Australia woke us. My daughter in law’s father had suddenly died. I listened to my son’s voice and felt far too distant from everything I loved. As dawn broke, I looked out at the windows of the hundreds of apartment blocks and thought about the millions of lives going on behind each one as my own mother’s life slowly slipped away.
Over the next few days I juggled times and numerous public phones trying to call home. When the complementary stay at the hotel ran out, we moved to the YMCA on East 47th Street. Being packed into a tiny room with the chorus of a thousand air conditioners hissing at us through the sweltering night did not make my homesickness any better. In the day we became tourists, walking or catching subways to our personal landmarks. On every corner a song from my childhood made the strangeness more familiar. Going downtown, or uptown, jumping out at Bleaker Street and walking through Greenwich Village then on to that bastion of rock and roll stories the Chelsea Hotel. But not that place now called ground zero. Queuing up with hundreds of others and looking down from makeshift scaffolding felt far too voyeuristic for me. But at night I went with Pam and Dance and spent hours reading the hundreds of stories lining the walls and noticeboards in the subway close to the site. Mothers looking for lost children, children waiting for their father to come home: stories of lovers and friends, fathers and grandfathers. It was heartbreaking but compelling reading. Certeau’s thesis had come terrifyingly true. The towers had been destroyed, but the city was being restored through the myriad narrations of its individual subjects.
Late at night and in the early hours of the morning I would struggle with my glasses and the tiny numbers on the phone cards and try to dial home. Each time I connected, the voices on the other end of the line were reassuring. Mum was all right; she would last until I got home they said.
Then Dance announced that he was going home early. He missed his girlfriend and besides he was running out of money.
“I’d come with you if I didn’t have this conference paper to give,” I told him.
After he had left, Pam and I sat in the gaudy café at the YMCA “I couldn’t bare it if anything happened to him,” she said quietly “I think of all those people in this city who’ve lost relatives and I wonder how they survive.”
“Just like you,” I advised, “one day at a time.”
I struggled to read and dial the numbers on my phone card once again. Finally I got through to the sister in charge of Mum’s ward.
“I thought I’d try and ring every day just to keep in touch,” I said with forced cheeriness.
“I don’t think you’ve got that much time,” the sister replied.
“What do you mean?” I stammered.
“ She has a bad heart. When she goes, it could be very quickly.”
Pam took me by the hand and led me outside. It was the middle of the night but we walked, for hours; up Fifth Avenue to Central Park and back again, down all the small alleyways, and side streets past people and buildings, talking and talking. In the morning, sleepless, but resolved, I made my booking for the next flight home
After Pam and I said goodbye, I walked through the gates and the security checkpoints and into the airport lounge longed to be back in the familiar territory of my mother’s love, to simply sit beside her and stroke the back of her hand once more and tell her I loved her. I decided to try ringing home once more. This time the cheap phone card didn’t work at all. After several tries, I bought a new card and got through to my brother. Every time either of us spoke, a loud announcement about some flight or other would boom into my ear. Frustrated, I yelled, “I hate America!” then looked around nervously worried that some security guard might take me for a terrorist. No one seemed to have noticed. Minutes later I boarded the plane. We landed in San Francisco five hours later with seconds to spare until the next flight.
I cried all the way across the Pacific and my mother passed away as I flew. It was an easy death my brother told me. He held her hand and stroked the flaky dry skin as her fingers closed around his for the last time. He told her how much we all loved her, over and over as her breaths got further and further apart, until finally, she just stopped breathing. I’m not sure where I was at this precise moment. But I do know that as the map on the back of the seat in front of me showed the plane turning South and heading down the East Coast of Australia, I thought; it doesn’t matter what happens now I am in my home country. We were flying over the place where two days later I would bury my mother. This was my belonging place. The space between being and longing was finally closed if not forever at least for the time being.
More than a year after September Eleven, Certeau’s description of the panoptic visions offered by the twin towers being dependent on both perspective and prospective projections of ‘an opaque past and an uncertain future’ (1984: 93-94) seem profoundly prophetic. It is precisely these projections that endorsed the World Trade Centre’s status as a symbol of western economical and political power and made it a target for people disenchanted by successive western economic and political strategies. Certeau’s plea in favour of the stories of the street has been paradoxically affirmed. Yet there are still a number of centralising views that go above and beyond the panoptic one and into what Jean Baudrillard would term the aura of the event itself (1992: 259). And so the metanarratives survive, while the pleas of people who will be profoundly affected by them do not. It is obvious that so much more than planes have been hijacked.
If fate permits I will go back to New York City again. I have my own story of New York now, one intrinsically linked to a specific sense of time and place. I cannot go back to Manhattan without thinking of my mother. In my imagination I see her looking down and smiling as I walk the streets of Manhattan once again. Like a wandering flaneur I experience the labrynthian extremes of an urban existence without the literacy or omniscience of the narrator in the tower. My story of Manhattan is interwoven with the tapestry of other everyday narratives that represent a different history of the world, to the metannaratives of war, that the destruction of the World Trade Centre heralded. Embodying Certeau’s stories of the street, we chorus our resistance.
Janie Conway Herron lectures in writing at Southern Cross University. In a previous life she worked as a musician and performer in theatre and in various bands. Her writing engages with issues of belonging and identity, particularly within an Australian context.
Certeau, Michel de. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley and London, California: UP.
Baudrillard, Jean (2001) Selected Writings, Second Edition. Poster, Mark editor, Oxford: Polity Press.