11 September 2011
Amateur arson is of interest to most boys, and I and my friend were boy scouts anyway, so we were well acquainted with some of the more expressive properties of fire. Burning plastic action figures was a popular form of this expression. One day while we were messing around with an open flame in his backyard, his brother pitched a small aerosol can onto the fire. We ran for cover, but after some uneventful time, his brother went to investigate. Lucky for him (and us) the bottle was nearly empty of whatever it had once sprayed, because it blew apart with a loud pop but only a small hiccup of flame. Giddy laughter ensued, and so did our afternoon sojourns to the tunnel.
It ran under Burke Center Parkway, and always had a little bit of a stream running through it connecting one of the many creeks that ran through the woods of our hometown. The walls were adorned with hasty graffiti at either end, and you could stand in the center and still have almost a foot from your head to the ceiling. We'd lay out a few wet logs for a baseboard to suspend our fire over the rivulet that ran through the tunnel, then set to burning a few disposable artifacts from my friend's vast collection of forgotten toys. We quickly realized that, though the smell wasn't exactly what you would call rewarding, burning plastic could make a very hot, very long-lasting flame.
I can't recall if it was our first trip there or not, but one day I brought a few spray paint cans harvested from my mother's craft collection in our basement. We set a few of our boyhood toys burning into a significant little inferno, and laid a large, full can of red spray paint in it. Then we ran for cover. I remember in particular that I and another of the hangers-on who were drawn to pyrotechnics ran a little too far to see, so we cautiously marched back a bit to see my friend's brother once again being the first to approach the as-yet uneventful inferno.
The tunnel amplified and directed the sound of the explosion, firing sound waves northeast and southwest and a jolt through our chest cavities. A belch of heat followed. A bright orange ball of flame worthy of Hollywood expanded from the fire, and a host of boys shouted in sudden, unabashed surprise. It would inspire us with its terror, and our experiments in delinquency from there on out would grow more and more bold and irresponsible. We thought we understood what a miraculous bit of grace it was that my friend's brother came away completely unscathed, but we didn't really. I don't think there was a single one of us who could have conceived of the reality of that kind of crisis.
Some ten years later, I returned to rehearsal on the debut of an original comedy entitled The Center of Gravity. It was a broad-strokes comedy with existential underpinnings, set in small-town Texas. Nevertheless, it was obvious to us now that we would need to change several references to "ground zero," a term that had less personal implication to us just a few days prior. What wasn't immediately obvious was how bad the air quality in lower Manhattan - where we were rehearsing in a free, abandoned office space in the West Village - would be. I was the one to call it quits first. We were losing precious days of rehearsal, and there was a certain shared ethic at the time of "getting back to it," but I could feel the particulates in my throat and the smell was everywhere.
After about an hour of watching the news and the Science Channel's series on rebuilding on the World Trade Center site, I stepped out of my apartment building in Queens today to buy a coffee from the Italian bakery down 30th Avenue. It was gray out, but cool and not humid, and I took a moment to look up and down the avenue. I smelled something familiar - synthetic materials burning, definitely some plastic. It seemed to be strongest up the avenue, away from Manhattan, which was both comforting and confusing. The first thing I looked for was panicked people. I have an instinct for this now, whether it's in person or on Twitter, as I did a couple of weeks ago when the office building I work in started swaying with the aftershocks of an earthquake.
A family was out on their stoop, chatting away. A woman in a red t-shirt looked at me as she walked by. No one was panicked. No one was coming out of their buildings to look around like me, no one was crying, holding one another or hunched over the open window of a parked car, listening to the radio. No one was walking determinedly away from somewhere, or even in a daze, wandering as though searching. After a few seconds, I decided that either it was a minor burning somewhere or I had simply imagined it. I'm not normally given to that kind of suggestion, but it wasn't inconceivable. I left my stoop to get my coffee.
Coffee's all done now, and instead of starting the dozen things I intend to do today, I've written this. While writing, my sister called to see if she could spend the night tonight on her way from Cape Cod down to her home in Baltimore. I'm grateful for that. I've missed her since she moved away from the city a couple of years ago, and I think the personal impact of today's anniversary is something I'm having some trouble articulating for myself. Sisters are good for clarity, whether anything ever really gets figured out or not.
I'm seeing a lot of people sharing their thoughts and feelings today, and I'd just as soon have kept mine private. Particularly because I can't really tell you what they are, exactly. I'm very lucky, and very grateful, to have made it this far in life intact, with so many of my friends and family still with me. I think gratitude is a thing we can always use more of, especially in the face of tragedy or inexplicable circumstances. It's a good emotion from which to make decisions and judgments.