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THE WAR DOWN THE STREET

by Polar Levine 9/11/01 for popCULTmedia

A funny thing happened on the way to the kitchen this morning. My neighborhood got bombarded. There was this divebomber sound effect, then a gigantic explosion that truly did rock the house. ETC.

I sit in front of the tv, slack-jawed watching my neighborhood burn. I'm so media-brained, it doesnt even occur to me to walk around the corner and see whats actually going on. Its just a show on tv. Im ten blocks north of ground zero. I finally go outside. Its beautifully sunny out. The sky is as blue as it ever gets around here. Theres this stuff on tv and theres Here. But when I turn south on West Broadway, my local landmark is a skyscraper of brown/black smoke.

I deliver my eight year old shorty to his friends place for what they call a play date and then find myself homeless. The police wont let me back south of Canal St. Theyre in a bad mood and not hearing any Ķbut my wife and child are stranded thereĶ bullshit.

So Im without my toys and out of work for the day. A workaholic without work is a lost puppy. It then occurs to me that the people who are buried under the World Trade Center and their families are having a harder day than I am. Im a spoiled American brat. Normally Im a big emotion guy but above a certain threshold my emotional system shuts down. No emotional traffic permitted south of Irritating Inconvenience Street.

I wander around the streets in a daze. Usually when I walk, I speedwalk. Today I corkscrew aimlessly northward, a slow drunkard two-step of a person empty of thoughts, feelings or agenda. People on rollerblades, carrying groceries, talking on cell phones. A normal day. But for me, as Im sure for the others, its a normal day with a different color palette. My priorities are strangely collapsed into rubble. I try to read the mornings Times which I didnt get around to at home. Nothing interesting in there at all. Tom Friedmans column on the Middle East seems like last years Kozmo.com ad. I toss the paper. Its World War III. Everything else is Petticoat Junction.

As I scan the terrain I cant help notice a strange urban ecological phenomenon. All around me are images of malnourished depressed and angry young women and a few young men in a similar state. They seem to be commenting on the carnage a mile south of the West Village newstand Im viewing. But a second glance transparently reveals that they are, in fact, photos of models attitude-surfing in a crude mimicry of down-and-outitude -- vogueing AdCults eroticism of The Apocalypse. And what theyre really trying to tell me is: Buy this handbag, this hair goop, this cd. Take a bite out of this or that piece of lo-calorie entertainment. Just be fabulous. Just do it. The magazine stands, the billboards, the ad posters pasted on every available surface. Everywhere. Cute, pouting skinny people in their underwear all around me hawking paste-on fabulosity. Is this all we think about in this country? Is this what we are? Is this what the outside world from France to Afghanistan fears will invade their cultures?

Clearly we, Americans, are not merely stupid, trivial people. But we are a people with attention spans as malnourished as the women on the magazines appear to be. Twenty years after gas lines and serial plane hijacking were driving gigantic gas guzzlers again, airport security is somnambulant and with a few years of economic giddiness weve been driven by compulsive comfort, non-stop entertainment and style over everything. Period. The rest of the world has been out there for our amusement. Good locales for our reality shows and a bit of coochie coochie for some imported exotica.

Trying to get a closer look at the damage, I cant get below the security belt at Duane St. My neighborhood -- primarily one of artists and media types and, more recently, the Wall Street culture and celebs -- has now been taken over by police, firefighters and construction workers. They are today's heroes. In a stunning and long-overdue cultural reversal -- the working class are the only people in New York City with useful skills. I have nothing to offer except some respirators and goggles that I deliver to the donation center. I feel like a damn fool.

So I go home again and channel cruise to find out whats going on down the street. A few cogent thoughts bubble to the surface, though still devoid of emotional texture. I watch Our Leader fumble through his prepared speech. Its scary to have a reactionary, oil industry-linked leadership at a time when our chips in the Middle East are about to fall where they may like a house of cards. If one of our main goals now is not to end our addiction to oil, I dont know what is. But will the Cheney/Bush administration let that happen? I doubt it. Its hard to imagine conducting a wartime policy in the Middle East without being compromised by oil issues. Will the administration resort to murderous hotdoggery in order to hold on to their legitimacy which was fading fast before today?

As I flip through the channels, Im trying to find out how the rest of the world is viewing all this, particularly since were probably about to go to war. It might be interesting for our people to know who our enemy is and why they don't like us. Anybody curious? Besides a few words of canned condolences from international friends and foes, the world, as reported on the mainstream media, still looks like the famous Saul Steinberg cartoon depicting New York as the center of Planet Earth. Finally I find a BBC broadcast. Yes, the world is still out there. It didnt just pack up and book flights to New York, New York (a town so nice, they banged it twice). And yes, New Yorker that I am, I almost forgot Washington DC and Pittsburgh. All the lives lost there, too, for the sake of some insane utopian fantasy manufactured out of decades of hopelessness and humiliation at the hands of the Middle East's leaders and my own. At some point my stupor will mutate into rage, and theres plenty to go around.

As much as I need some mindless entertainment tonight, Im kind of relieved to find nothing but seriousness on the tube -- like the rare Manhattan blizzard that leaves a pristine landscape devoid of traffic, pollution and the din of low-grade mayhem. Maybe were finally about to rediscover that the world out there is also in here. And its not just reality tv with messages from their sponsors.

Polar Levine
Editor, popCULTmedia
9/11/01