The morning after

I heard about the first hit on the Twin Towers from a London taxi driver. I was so used to the continual undercurrent of anti-American sentiment I encountered that my first thought was that this was a really bad joke.

My mother-in-law was with me. We were with my younger daughter, then an infant, on our way home from an indoor playground near the Edgware Road, a Middle Eastern high street of Lebanese and Iranian restaurants, fruit and veg shops, shisha cafes, a gay pub called Old English Gentlemen, Tall & Mighty men’s clothing and La Femme Elegante for the ladies, Woolies back in the day, now a mega Waitrose supermarket.

A cabbie picks up two American women in a Middle Eastern neighborhood and his opener is, Did you hear the one about the terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center? It is hard to believe that was nine years ago.

The first time I heard that joke, they evacuated the IRT and I had to walk home from Franklin Street, we’re all grumbling, what kind of lunatic would try to blow up the World Trade Center?

You see your culture more clearly through the eyes of others. Americans, I had been informed soon after we arrived, by Oxford-educated solicitors, were evasive qualifiers.  Our Yugoslavian cleaner, whose husband was Serbian, would never forgive NATO for how they had, in her opinion, ignited the Balkan conflict, in which their village had turned on her family and forced them to flee Bosnia. And then we would talk about speech therapy or school choice or our kids.

Americans were lucky, careless, rich, violent. We took our time to enter WWII. We are racist. Everything is so cheap. We are wasteful. We’re crazy. We have funeral parlors for our pets (and yet no donkey sanctuaries or hedgehog societies.) We talk on the tube. We eat obscenely calorific food, but then Harrods is the first to sell Krispy Kremes. As luxury food. Okay, so a bit ironic, but at what point is it not irony and just a fact that everyone likes glazed donuts? And is Harrods itself not ironic?

In the days that followed 9/11, there was outrage over what had occurred, and a massive outpouring of grief and genuine shock, horror and empathy, but various other opinions were expressed, that now we knew what it was like to be attacked, to suffer cataclysmic loss, to experience the hatred that was felt at our interference in the politics and destinies of so many other countries. We were children. We hadn’t listened or believed. Now we would now know.

The sky suddenly was loud and alive. I read the newspaper and cried. I read the names of the dead. At work, we were a hotbed of Americans, the Embassy gave us advice. We instituted extra security measures, safe houses, swipe IDs. Our post was opened carefully, differently, elsewhere. Someone sent the Head of School fake anthrax. Twice. At night, we listened to the World Service. The world was falling apart. The people in our neighborhood who were the most open and friendly were the men who ran Solomon’s, the greengrocer and Halal butcher, corner shop, who, we learned then, in the way that tragedy brings down the normal barriers, were Iraqi.

We arrived in the UK in April 1995, on an Easter Bank Holiday weekend. Our friends from New York whisked us out to their friends’ parents’ house in a Dorset village. We enjoyed the brisk English seaside and had our first encounter with undressed British salad, with packets of salad cream, and room temperature beer. We rambled in a Jane Austin landscape, on the exact spot where the BBC or PBS had filmed Emma, before returning to London to create new lives from scratch. It was a the week of the Oklahoma bombing. We didn’t have TV and listened to the story unfold on radio, as we would come to listen to all news.

We lay in bed in this strange, short let in a tall, white stucco row house in South Kensington, the American expat ghetto, listening to Armed Forces radio until we found the BBC. For the first two weeks, we were in the apartment of an Eastern European woman, who had done her bathroom like Wedgwood china and camouflaged her kitchen with dark, French polished cabinet doors and miniature appliances so that it resembled a wet bar. Her clothes hid in thick piles on the backs of doors, her things were stuffed into locked dresser drawers and a basket of toys was pushed under the bed. A black silk cord left behind in a unlocked drawer made us wonder. And where had she gone? How often did she and her small child vacate their home to let it out like this?

She had turned off the heat and there was no telephone. This was before mobile phones were a basic high street amenity. Setting up an account would take weeks. We were quite cut off. America, with its serial killer tragedy, was far away, but it was where we were from. Who were we now? In this strange, cold flat, arguing with the Polish representative grudgingly sent to turn on the heat and hot water for us. The lights in the hall were on a timer, with buttons hidden on each landing.

One night, we heard shouting in the street and we rushed to the window, looking down three long stories in the dead canyon of the identical white stucco houses, to see a black cab stopped in the middle of the street and a very, very drunk man in a suit spilling out. The man and cabbie were shouting at each other. The street light was a kind of misty ocher and, watching this drama from our high up perch, I had the sensation of being dislocated from everything I knew. The cabbie was threatening to call the police if the man wouldn’t pay him and eventually crumpled bills were brought up from trouser pockets and thrown down, oaths were sworn and the taxi roared off leaving the man to stab his key into the lock and climb the darkened stairwell, losing the race against the timer several times. Another American, marooned in South Ken, misunderstood, misunderstanding.

Photos of the Edgware Road by the older daughter, Summer 2011


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