[Readings] Moments of Silence, By Vince Passaro | Harper's Magazine

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[Readings]

Moments of Silence

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From Crazy Sorrow, a novel, which will be published this month by Simon and Schuster.

Fall passed to winter passed to early spring. All of it mild—God’s little favor. Arthur was getting an award from the Press Photography Association for photographs taken on September 11, 2001, and in the days after. He had invited George and asked their friend Louis to introduce him, an odd choice. Louis was not a member of the Society of Professional Photographers but he was a celebrity playwright now. George bought a table and filled it with various eager souls from his company.

At the podium Louis said, I met Arthur when I was writing for the college paper. He had a funny habit back then, he’d hand you a pile of seven or eight work prints and he would never put the best ones first. It was a test. He wanted to know if you knew what you were doing with a picture. Arthur is an artist, and I don’t think he has spent many moments on this earth not being an artist. You can see the determination the second you meet him. And the lunacy. I did. And now you can! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Arthur Townes.

They applauded. Some stood, not all. Arthur was not that popular. He was a pain in the ass, and he hadn’t always done the right things to have a good career.

Standing before them, Arthur was clearly uncomfortable, too aware of his body. He hand-checked his jacket, shirt, bow tie. The applause settled.

He said thank you. Then: Photographs are not memory, John Berger said. He said that photographs have begun to replace memory. He was responding to Sontag who was getting at something similar in a much more complicated way, which of course, right, it being Sontag. Photographs replaced memory. But I think they started as part of memory, an assistance—memory wants time to stop but can’t make it stop, it’s a constant struggle, and then we had pictures. We all have a few frozen images in our minds of that day, September 11. Someone says 9/11, and if you didn’t lose anyone that day, what comes to mind is one of these images. Some of those images are ones I made, and I’m grateful for that, grateful I was alive and could be there. And that my Nikon kept working in all that dust, thank you, Nikon.

Some scattered applause in the house.

Pronounced nee-kohn in Japanese, by the way. I sent the camera and two lenses off to Nikon for repair and cleaning afterward, and at my request they took all the dust that came out of these things, put it in a double baggie, and sent it back with the camera.

He reached into his pocket and held up the small bag, holding about a cigarette’s width of pale gray dust and darker particles.

Here, he said. For the reliquary. The EPA isn’t going to be saving any, I assure you. Anyway, no plain image can evoke all of what it felt like, all of what happened there. The sound of bodies hitting the pavement. The enormous roar. Enormous. It felt bigger than the air. After the South Tower fell, I kept imagining the sounds of thousands of people screaming: it was as if I could hear it. And after that it never let up. A tinnitus of horror. This is what the mind does; no photograph can do that for you. Only the human imagination, stirred by the facts. I kept working, kept shooting, because if I hadn’t, I’d have gone insane. All that death. In certain places they have to deal with that scale of death not once in a lifetime, as we hope is true for us, but every day or every week. That our country is often the cause of such death should make us weep.

He paused. There was no applause for this.

Anyway, he said. Then the second tower came down. I had to move north, uptown. Away from it, we all did. The air was poisonous and thick. We still don’t know, right? I’m sure the bureaucrats will never tell us what was in the air. But the police and firefighters and EMS people kept going south. I didn’t see one hang back, and I was looking. I wanted to see that. I took a lot of pictures of them. They looked like World War I soldiers in the misty French woods. Like “Dulce et decorum est,” right? What could they do? But they went. As we all know, these people are not saints. But they went. And whoever could come, came. For days, for weeks, toxins and soot, whoever could help, helped.

Here the applause started.

The ironworkers, he said. Huge men. They came in and the soles of their boots were melting, every day. I kid you not. I never stayed on the pile long enough for it to happen to me, but I could feel the heat. Every time a body or a part of a body was found, the whistles blew and everyone stopped. Hundreds of guys stopped. Waiting. Hats off.

More applause.

I have pictures, I can tell you. Standing still until they carried the body out. So that’s my city. No matter what, I will always love it.

Here they stood up. Applauding.

He thanked them. Then he asked them for five minutes of silence.

Five minutes, he said. Not one short minute but five full ones. It’s going to be very uncomfortable, I’m warning you. I’ll stand here and keep time. Yes. Five minutes in a public place is an immense amount of time, but this was immense. That’s actually all I’m trying to say, it was really frigging immense. I’m not asking anyone to pray, but close your eyes, let your minds wander. Okay. Five minutes. Starting now.

A hundred clinks of silverware being put down on plates. Then silence. It went on forever. It was painful. People were writhing, or so it felt to George, who kept his head down at first, then lifted it and looked around. Arthur’s head was down, too, but George saw the watch on the podium. His head down, he kept a slitted eye on the room and the time. Louis was right; he was an artist, and he wanted to take them beyond where they’d willingly go. He was controlling the moment with a Casio watch. Down to two minutes. Coughing, of course, every few seconds, then none, then it would start again. A number of the men had begun checking their expensive watches before the three-minute mark, and more of them after, as they approached four. George saw them. He also saw bodies, body after body after body, plummeting like heavy sacks through the air, and he imagined the sound. A hard thump with a bit of squish like a mark of punctuation. Awful. Every time he saw this in his mind’s eye, he felt something break. Four and a half minutes. He wanted to shout out to the squirming room that it was almost over. Then finally it was.

That was very hard, Arthur finally said. Thank you.

He waved oddly, like Nixon, George thought, and went back to his seat. They all rose. It embarrassed Arthur; he looked as if he wished they hadn’t and that he were anywhere else. So he rose too and clapped back at them. When he sat again, they all sat, too.


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