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my glamorous life

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#65 bravest vs. finest

Outside my window in lower Midtown Manhattan, police sirens have been whooping and shrilling for the past half–hour. Bomb threat? Anthrax? My nervous system feels scraped by razors. I can only imagine the adrenaline that fuels city officials and rank–and–file cops as they respond to each new threat.

I live and work near the Empire State Building—the tallest structure in New York since the destruction less than two months ago of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

I love the Empire State Building. At times I think I moved here to be near it.

I am still struck by the grace, power, and beauty of architect William F. Lamb’s design, with its carefully controlled massing, its solid yet curiously unthreatening facade, the understatedly delirious mast at the top.

Every night the Empire State is illuminated by colored lights, and these colors change to reflect what’s going on in the city beneath: green for Saint Patrick’s Day, orange for Halloween, purple for Gay Pride. A good logo, a good icon, can change in this way without losing its identity.

Since 11 September the night–lights on the Empire State Building have been red, white, and blue, as if defying skyscraper–targeting terrorists to do their worst.

Every day, for over a decade, I have looked at this building and thought of the men who constructed it.

In October, 1929, as the Stock Market commenced its ruinous descent, work crews began knocking down the old Waldorf–Astoria to clear the site. Soon the Great Depression was in full swing. The innocence and seemingly endless prosperity of the 1920s had been shattered forever by what appeared at the time to be the greatest calamity America would ever face.

Every man who worked on the Empire State Building knew he would be jobless when the task was done. Nonetheless, by January, 1931, all construction on the Empire State Building was completed. American laborers had produced the world’s tallest building in just eleven months.

Every day when I glanced up at the Empire State Building, I would think of the courage and determination of the soon–to–be–jobless men who built it so well and so fast, and wonder if that kind of heroism and self–sacrifice had gone out of the world forever. On 11 September and in the days following, I saw that it had not.

The world and I saw that kind of courage in the firefighters and police officers who lost their lives saving lives. We saw it in the surviving firefighters and cops who have spent nearly two months in the rubble, futilely seeking survivors.

On Friday, firefighters and police officers, their nerves strained beyond human endurance, clashed over the mayor’s decision to cut back the number of fire department personnel searching for victims in the wreckage of the Twin Towers.

Bravest vs. Finest, read one New York newspaper headline. We no longer have words for the way we live.

Now, every day, when I glance up at the Empire State Building, it is with a strange feeling of panic, as if somehow this proud structure too, and the people within it, and the memory of the brave souls who built it, will be taken from us in a horrifying instant.

It takes so many years and so much courage to build a civilization, a country, a city, a skyscraper. And only a moment, we have learned, to destroy what so many worked so long to create.

It takes years to create a person. Nine months’ labor, years of patient parenting, decades of schooling and interacting and soul–shaping. And a person, too, can be obliterated in a moment, the random target of a stranger’s nihilistic rage.

They bombed us, we’re bombing them, at least we think we’re bombing them and not just bombing somebody, what’s out of the box cannot be put back in, and not even God can restore what the whole world has lost.

5 November 2001

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