Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Subway This Morning

As the F train was leaving Smith/Ninth Street, one of the two above-ground stations in Brooklyn that rise over the Gowanus Canal, the conductor comes on the PA: "Look to the left side of the train, you can see the jets performing for Naval Week." During Fleet Week, as it's officially called, American (and a few international) military and Coast Guard ships converge on New York city waters for demonstrations and tours.

We all looked out the subway windows and saw a formation of fighter jets moving slowly across the New York skyline, past the Statue of Liberty. They looked like this:


That's how I put it together in my mind after they disappeared, but now that I see how many planes that would be, I'm thinking it must have been more like this:

------------> >
-----------> > >

Yes, I'm quite sure it was that [it was. The New York blog Gothamist has a photo.]. Some of us smiled, excited like children. Others seemed not to notice. A couple asked each other if they'd spotted them. 'Yeah, they were really small.' They were. Pretty far away. Some of the people must have had 9/11 flashbacks -- fighter planes circled the city for a couple days after the Towers went down.

A part of me swelled with New York pride -- local, if not national patriotism. It's the part of me that needs to belong, that feels left out when I see people dancing in a club or enjoying social barbecue. That part was filled with belonging and reassurance, which was probably one of the reasons the Airforce buzzed the city in September 2001.

When I saw those fighter planes flying over, I was reminded of how invested I am in "9/11" -- annoying shorthand for the terrorist attacks that were once so abstract. Now it's more urgent. I was appalled at the very idea of that 9/11 movie United 93. It seemed in terribly poor taste -- though I later heard it was well-done and quite respectful -- why would someone even attempt such a movie?

Things are mostly back to the way they were the first time I visited New York in 1999. But not completely. Yesterday a jury in Brooklyn convicted a Pakistani immigrant of plotting to bomb the subway station at Herald Square. That's the stop right after the one I get off at every morning.

Many of us cringe when we hear about the NYPD's nasty tactics during the Republican National Convention a couple years ago, but we're pleased to hear, as we did in William Finnegan's New Yorker piece last July, how the NYPD's international counter-terrorism unit now rivals the FBI's in ambition, intelligence, and scope. The Herald Square conviction was made with the help of a Muslim NYPD officer, selected from the police academy to join the Intelligence Division as a spy for New York. I'm not comfortable with how comfortable that makes me feel.

I've seen a lot of different Haruki Murakami novels being read on the subway, but never Underground, his non-fiction collection of interviews about the Tokyo subway gas attacks of 1995. Reading this book on a subway seems almost as spooky as watching United 93 on a plane. Still, I might do it. What better talisman against an actual subway attack? It couldn't happen because it would be too ironic. 9/11 killed irony, right?

Not at all. Gilbert Gottfried, the nasal New York comic, told a 9/11 joke two weeks after the fact during the Friar's Club Hugh Hefner roast. The Times' Frank Rich described it:
"Restlessness had long since set in when the last comic on the bill, Gilbert Gottfried, took the stage. Mr. Gottfried, decked out in preposterously ill-fitting formal wear, has a manic voice so shrill he makes Jerry Lewis sound like Morgan Freeman. He grabbed the podium for dear life and started rocking back and forth like a hyperactive teenager trapped onstage in a school assembly. Soon he delivered what may have been the first public 9/11 gag: He couldn't get a direct flight to California, he said, because 'they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.'"
There. Doesn't that feel better?


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