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9/11 and the Damage Done
Posted on Sep 7, 2011
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, people began gathering at Pamela’s apartment, and we all watched the towers topple and burn, and then remained in front of the television as there came announcement after announcement with more stunning news: The Saudi Arabians were behind the attack; suicide hijackers had trained in the United States; Osama bin Laden’s relatives had been flown out of the country even though all planes had been grounded.
At some point during the first day or two that followed the incident, I was consumed with the most serious meat craving that I had ever had in my life, and so, as it turned out, was Pamela. We decided it was time to go out for food. We began walking downtown, to see for ourselves what was going on in that part of town, planning to stop and have a meal along the way. As we wended our way south, there were vendors selling patriotic items at various street corners. We stopped and purchased American flag bandannas and some other items, wrapping the kerchiefs around our heads and continuing on. Clearly the lines had been drawn; we were on a team and we knew what it was, now more than ever before. The feeling was enforced as we noticed the many fliers posted on lampposts along the avenues and outside every subway entrance that we passed. “Have you seen this person?” each one said, with a photograph of a person who had been missing since the attack, many of them last known to have been heading to work in the twin towers. Each flier had contact information for the vanished person, and all over town, these disappeared were calling out from walls and doorways as search and rescue teams combed through the burning rubble downtown.
There were few restaurants open as we walked southward. Having lived in Chelsea many years before, I knew of a decent restaurant near Gramercy Park, and that’s where we headed; it had good burgers and was never closed. Sure enough, it was open; in fact, it was mobbed. We sat down and ordered burgers—rare, for me, not my typical preference. I usually liked mine well-done, but I hardly ever ate burgers anyway, not in restaurants for sure, unless the meat was organic. On this day, I didn’t care where the meat came from; I wanted it red and I wanted it now.
“Wow,” the waitress remarked as she took our order. “Everyone’s coming in and ordering burgers. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
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Sometime later—after the bridges and tunnels reopened and commerce recommenced—I found myself heading across the George Washington Bridge for my appointment with Margerry Bakley. At some point, I was told, the article would be running; after all, the wheel turns again and life goes on. From inside the booth at the Jersey diner where we were meeting, I could hear the bells tolling across the Hudson in the vicinity of the collapsed towers. Although comedians had proclaimed that 9/11 signaled the death of irony, the moment could not have been more ironic—or paradoxical—or just plain weird.
Margerry spun out one of the saddest stories I have ever heard. A celebrity-obsessed and impoverished grandmother raises a girl in a trailer park, passing on an unusual legacy—an infatuation with the actor Robert Blake. “Maybe you’ll meet him some day,” the subtext of her desire whispers. “Maybe you too will be somebody.” One day the long and winding road led Bonny Bakley to exactly that finale. As it happened, Blake too had come from poor relations, pressed into service during the Depression, literally singing for the family’s supper as a child actor. As he grew older, he continued to work in Hollywood, becoming famous for his performances in fine films such as “In Cold Blood” and “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.” At some point his star began to wane; he wound up on the wasteland of television, although still had countless fans. It was after the series “Baretta” had been canceled that Bakley crossed his path. Later, they married and she was killed. Strangely, Bakley had been obsessed with “Sunset Boulevard,” the classic film in which aging movie queen Norma Desmond tries to make a comeback, hiring a writer to pen a script, enticing him as a lover in the process. When things fall apart, she shoots him. As he lies dead in the swimming pool at her crumbling mansion, he narrates the tale. Bakley often watched the film, doing so shortly before she was killed.
“I wonder what it feels like to get shot in the head,” she told her sister before her death, alluding to the film. She had entered the movie long ago, and in her mind was living, and ultimately, dying in Hollywood.
“Go on about your business,” George Bush had stated after 9/11. “Go shopping.”
It was a disturbing statement coming from the president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, and as I sat in the diner and learned the strange tale of Bonny Bakley, the problem that had consumed the country couldn’t have been more apparent. Celebrity worship—and the idea of famous people as saviors—had been going on for decades; literally, they were a connection to immortality, as close as someone like Bakely would ever get.
Yet now our president was amping up the stakes, inadvertently I’m sure, telling us to resume consuming, buy more stuff, get things, move up in the world, make yourself the object of envy, live the dream, don’t you wanna be like all of the other people who have expensive items?
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