Oct/Nov 2016 Salon

Brighton Beach Memory and a Souvenir of 9/11

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Image courtesy of the British Library Online Photo Collection

A plane—it's hard to tell from this distance, but the odds are it's an old single-engine prop job—crosses the horizon about six miles south of the line of gray-green trees in the big cemetery a few blocks to the south of my fourth-storey apartment. The plane is dragging a banner behind it, huge by comparison, an ant toting a leaf 20 times its own size. The banner is perfectly extended, a big gray rectangle, slightly billowed, making me wonder if it is indeed the same sort of thing I used to see many years ago or some new fabric, more aerodynamic, made from some kind of superlightweight fiber.

I can't of course read anything printed on the banner from this distance. It's only by chance I spotted it sliding lazily across the gray sky through the frame of the one window I keep partially exposed despite the heat of the midday sun and the heavy humidity that has been with us almost constantly for the past two months. I wonder, as I never did when I was on the beach—usually Brighton—gazing up at one of its sister crafts, how does a small plane get airborne dragging something that big and clumsy behind it? Or does it carry the banner inside until it nears the beaches and then unfurl it? Surely when the banner snaps into place behind, there would be a terrific jolt that would put the plane in danger of stalling, if not rip it apart.

Even in my youth those planes were old, sometimes WWI-vintage biplanes. It's a business, after all. Someone is paying the pilot who, I imagine, had higher goals in mind when he trained to fly. Maybe he's a veteran who used to fly supersonic fighters, down on his luck. I picture him in the cockpit today, angry, full of contempt for the human ants below, and not entirely sober.

The messages on those banners used to be for Coca-Cola or Marlboros. But the last time I saw one, the text was surprising, a political or environmental abjuration. Today's might be a campaign slogan. The presidential election is just a few months away. Whatever the message, the plane reappears every day. At least, I've observed it two days in a row, and while I don't spend all my time staring out the window, I seem to do so often enough not to miss it. It's not as spectacular as one of the blimps that sometime materialize, bobbing up and down like something at sea as it elbows its way through the wind, nor as shocking as the squadron of military aircraft that buzz the beaches to show off the might of the nation, their wingtips dangerously close together like a bunch of teenagers doing wheelies in synchrony.

My thoughts move down to the beaches themselves, broad white sands so hot you can't walk on them without some sort of protection, though walk on them we did, or run, to be more precise (when I found out there was a resort in England known as Brighton, my reaction was, What are the odds?). In those days, before immigrant Russians took over the neighborhood, also known as Brighton Beach, it was already Jewish, no one under 60, though that didn't stop the women from wearing bikinis or the men from wearing those super-briefs I associate with European resorts. Those old fellows were on the prowl, frankly assaying the woman-flesh on the blankets, the women themselves showing nothing but disinterest or disgust.

Later I recognized all this in the later short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Back then, my 20s, it was alien territory. The only women I had seen in bathing suits were my mother or sister or girls my age, and they wore one-piece suits covering up pretty much everything. But this was like being inside a movie set that extended a mile in either direction, only with no cameras and no directors, just the posings and posturings of the actors in their outlandish costumes.

My purpose in being there was as escort to a group of 40 or more boys, African American and Puerto Rican, from East Harlem in the upper reaches of Manhattan. It was a long subway ride from East Harlem to Brighton, just next to the more famous Coney Island, but a trip only made partly underground because much of it was elevated and even through the back yards of respectable Brooklyn suburban neighborhoods. Just part of the show, as it were, along with the bikinis and the strange accents and even stranger languages those beach people spoke, especially when one of them seemed to suddenly become enraged and began abusing another over something that must have initially been said in a normal tone of voice by one of those roués to one of the women on the blankets.

And, then, like something out of Fellini—whom I had not yet experienced and therefore was all the more unprepared for—there appeared the knish-seller, a big, dark man with a tray of hot potato cakes strapped to his mighty shoulders. He announced himself with a steady stream of calls, "Hot knishes! Hot knishes!" his big head streaming perspiration. Apart from daycampers in the strict charge of white youth like me, there were no dark people on Brighton Beach. The law did not forbid it as it still did in other parts of the country, but there was an understanding "they" would stay on "their own" beach, i.e., Coney Island, a sad rundown place, the old gray abandoned parachute jump towering like a petrified giant over the boardwalk, the steep hills of the Cyclone looking as ancient and long-suffering as a Roman aqueduct. That dark-skinned knish-seller was even more unreal than the old men and women in their shameless swim suits. But just imagine what it was like to hear him suddenly break into fluent, animated Yiddish. A black man speaking Yiddish!

Brighton Beach was where I lost Diosdados Rivera. At that point, my third summer, I was not just another camp counselor. I was the tour supervisor responsible for as many as six groups of boys and girls and their counselors. Somehow the boy went missing at the head count taken just as we were all about to march back to the elevated "D" train. I don't recall feeling especially worried. I reported the situation to my boss by a pay phone on the boardwalk and was told to send everyone else on their way but remain there myself until the boy was found. I headed straight for the local police precinct—wasn't that where all lost boys ended up? I found Diosdados seated on one of the officers' desks, just as he should have been, though I don't recall if he had the requisite ice cream in his hand.

The police handed him over without my having to provide any kind of identification—unthinkable today—and off we went, still without my having any sense of a close call, never mind notions of what a child molester might have done with the boy. Even when I presented him to his mother an hour later in a dark apartment on a back street of a rough neighborhood, I had no sense of the frantic afternoon the woman must have spent after she was notified her son had gone missing. How could I be so blithe? She thanked me again and again in broken English, though she might just as appropriately have blamed me for his going missing. What did I know then about a parent's anxieties? Even so, should I not at least have realized a child named Diosdados must be cherished and fretted over?

All this goes through my mind as that plane lugs its big banner slowly across the horizon. In a few weeks the beaches will be closed. The daycampers will be back in school. The weather, with any luck, will be dry and sunny, the leaves turning gold and red. But today they are still a lush green,


9/11 Anniversary 2012

Another anniversary. Not decimal like last year's, and therefore not as important. But to be observed nonetheless.

There's a new tower where the Twin Towers used to stand. I could see it if I wished from the rooftoop of my building. But I haven't done so yet, maybe for the same reason I didn't go up there to watch the original buildings burn and fall. I was too far away to have seen people flying out of windows above where the planes struck, but I was on the phone with someone who was a good deal closer and was watching from her own rooftop. Quite a different matter from observing via television—one channel was still managing to broadcast, all the others having had their antennas on the roof of WT2. Television made it seem less real, like the person a friend at Ground Zero saw emerging from a nearby subway exit who looked up and said,"‘Oh, they must be making a movie."

There's a memorial at the base of that new tower. The governor and the city's mayor are wrangling about who pays for what, so the planned museum is on hold. Once it got under way, the new tower, Freedom Tower, went up quickly, or at least that was how it seemed to me. I find the name embarrassing, reminiscent of George Bush's insistence that "they hate us for our freedoms." His, though, was the only explanation I heard anyone of national prominence try to make for why those 19, mostly university-educated, hijackers did what they did. At least, his was the only reason I can recall being put forward by anyone who had the nation's attention. Of course, it wasn't so much an explanation as an assertion, self-explanatory, axiomatic.

One of my own first and most lasting thoughts about what happened that day is, what a luxury to be able to memorialize, at one's leisure, as it were, a horrendous event like 9/11. Other people in other places where terrible things happen don't have the time to memorialize, their attention already taken up by the next horrible thing that's taking place, and then the next. But our own national tragedies are discrete, one-offs, separated by such long gaps of time that we can afford to wrangle about who pays for what and who is an appropriate speaker and who is not (no politicians this year, I understand). The violent events that took place on our soil stand out in our historical memory, begging for books to be written and documentaries to be made.

Pearl Harbor. The Shirtwaist Fire. The sinking of the Maine. The Alamo. The burning of the White House. Oklahoma City. Even the Civil War. And now, 9/11. They are singular and fixed in time, ripe for mythologizing and memorializing. We may worry and take care that nothing of the kind reoccurs. And nothing has in fact happened since September, 2001, unless you count what took place in New Orleans in 2005, an atrocity we seem to have cooperatively agreed we will not think about because it was our own fault and therefore who else can we blame?

Elsewhere, it's another matter. If you happened to be living in a place experiencing war firsthand, you don't have the luxury of forever memorializing. Who in the Congo can be thinking of memorializing the six million dead there since the start of that war several years ago? Less recently, who in Vietnam could start worrying about who would pay for which memorial while the bombs were still falling? And before that, who worried about memorials for those incinerated by incendiary bombs dropped on apartment houses and houses made of paper and tinder? Did anyone find the time to care how many and what kind of memorials would be erected to the victims of the Nazi concentration camps when a war still had to be fought and won? Has anyone put up a memorial in Baghdad to the 500,000 children who died as a result of the economic sanctions of the 1990s? That figure was not only not denied by our government, it was pronounced "worth it" by our secretary of state. You can see her do so on YouTube.

But no bombs have fallen on us, unless you count those passenger planes as such. In any case, 9/11 took place in one day, and ever since we have had the time to think about it and fight about who pays for the health care of workers made sick by the debris and whether the state or the city should foot the bill for a museum. Life has been normal since then, at least on the surface, though legions of police and other government agents are at work day and night ferreting out new plots, and laws that used to be considered unthinkable in a democracy like ours are accepted without much objection.

Today, like September 11, 2001, is bright and blue and breezy and a Tuesday. A couple hours after the planes hit, the plume of smoke, blown by a northerly wind, deposited ash and debris on the trees and parked cars outside my windows. It looked like a snowfall on a planet devoid of water. Later, in the afternoon, I was sitting in Prospect Park when a fresh wave of foul-smelling air descended, and paper—memos? computer printouts? files?—floated down, singed but otherwise intact. Souvenirs, I thought. Memorials.


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