Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

Every time I pass by the World Trade Center pit, on my way to a meeting or some other business, or drive by the blighted, barren, open grave where the towers once stood — and I do that every time I drive home from visiting my folks or friends in New Jersey, because I prefer the Battery Tunnel to the Manhattan Bridge — my heart aches, my stomach turns, my mood darkens.

More than seven years have passed since September 11th, 2001. The site of the attacks is still a ruin. Chances are I won’t like the new Supersize Freedom Power Towers Silverstein will build, and I am not bothered by the lag in construction per se so much as I am by what the lag in construction says about the city in which I live. The ugly pit at the bottom of Manhattan will stay an ugly pit until other things get worked out – money, contracts, promises, threats, political posturing, more money, a few more dead bodies, bags of money, more politics, more money. Would it be different anyplace else? Yes, I tell myself, but I am not so sure. Maybe New York just does it better, harder, deeper, so you feel it in your gut.

Yesterday Silverstein announced that construction at the site would probably not be completed until the year 2036. Chances are I will still be alive then, but I won’t have much time left after the towers are finished. Silverstein (who will most certainly be dead by then) blames the “failing real estate market,” and he’s wise to tie his own failure to the housing bust. It takes some of the pressure off; and, as I say, what’s going on at the World Trade Center site is not so different from what’s going on all over the country.

I was talking this morning with a guy who drives a produce truck for a living. He was eager to talk – first about trout fishing in Phoenicia, and then about his morning route, which includes a stop right near the World Trade Center, where there is now a Farmer’s Market. This is the worst stop on his route; he has a hard time finding a place to park his truck. Yesterday he heard about the delays in construction at the site on the radio, and the first thought he had was one of the first thoughts I had: I’ll be in my seventies. He didn’t want to talk about the credit crunch or the housing bubble or deal in economic abstractions; he was looking forward across the span of his life. He was going to live just long enough to see the towers completed; he took it with good humor, like a cruel joke.

He accounted for the delays in construction simply and bluntly: they’re milking it, he said.

And they are, of course. But more important, we all know they are, or at least that seems likely to us; and we know there’s a they, and we know they’re milking it. The truck driver thought it was the unions; I’m more likely to point the finger at developers, politicians and other criminals. We may not agree on the culprits, but we share a sense that it’s us versus them: they rule us, they rip us off, they ream us. This is everyman’s sociology. The divide between us and them — or the resentment it feeds — helps explain everything from teabaggery to Texan threats of secession. It used to be what was the matter with Kansas, according to Thomas Frank.

We know what they are up to and we’re not going to take it — or at least we’d like to believe we’re not. The fact is, we are; the open secret of our society is: we want to be them, we want to cross over to their side, or sidle up close enough to them so that we, too, can have a share of the theyness. We want to milk it.

We still want to believe in the land of milk and honey and the promise of redemption, maybe not for everybody, but for ourselves. Hollywood still takes our American faith to the bank over and over again.

Redemption simply means buying back; to redeem is to make good on a pledge, or to pay for property in the possession of another. In the common law, to deny someone the right to redemption is an action known as foreclosure — another word that has gained fresh currency and new purchase in the wake of the housing bust. We use redemption figuratively to mean that we can ransom ourselves, free ourselves from bondage or just from drudgery. In Christian theology, of course, redemption is our hedge against sin, of which the wage is death; it’s God’s way of making our broken lives whole again.

Which is one thing that pit down at the bottom of Manhattan does not do, at least in my mind, and this probably accounts for why it makes me so queasy and miserable when I pass by: it makes a mockery of redemption. It says we are not going to make things whole again (because they are milking it). It defers redemption until 2036, when for many of us it may be too late, if it isn’t already.

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