The dust on the shoes

manhattan after attack

I had thought that there was nothing new to say – or at least nothing new to say worth saying – about the attack on the World Trade Centre towers in 2001. The symbolism of the event and the scale of the response – emotional as well as political – had wrung out all of the meaning. But it seems that I was wrong. There’s a short reflection in last Saturday’s Guardian Review by the Irish-born, New York-resident writer Colum McCann on the pair of shoes which his father wore on the day of the attack, when he was fortunate enough to escape from the building. He then walked to McCann’s apartment on 71st Street:

My daughter, Isabella, jumped into his arms. She recoiled from the hug and asked if he was burning and, when he told her that it was just the smell of the smoke on his clothes from the buildings that had collapsed, she said, no, no, that he must be burning from the inside out.

My father-in-law immediately swapped his clothes. He couldn’t stand the thought of the suit, the shirt, the tie, what they held, what they carried. He threw the clothes away, but left his shoes by our door. They stood there for weeks, until we finally figured that we had kept them there precisely because they had carried him out and away to safety. They were, in whatever small way, a beacon of hope.

It is still a difficult thing, these days, to pull out the shoes. I still think that every touch of them loses a little more dust. I am paralysed by the notion of what the dust might contain – a resume, an eyelash, a concrete girder, plasterboard, a briefcase, a pummelled earring, another man’s shoe. They sit in a cupboard behind me, over my left shoulder, a responsibility to the past.

McCann has just published a well-reviewed novel about New York and the World Trade Center, Let The Great World Spin. He also writes about the difficulty of finding meaning in the events of that September when, in its aftermath, everything seemed charged with meaning. One way in was through the astonishing 1974 tightrope walk by Philippe Petit, even though it had become a familiar event, through novel, plays, and even documentary film:

But stories are there to be told, and each story changes with the telling. Time changes them. Logic changes them. Grammar changes them. History changes them. Each story is shifted sideways by each day that unfolds. Nothing ends. The only thing that matters, as Faulkner once put it, is the human heart in conflict with itself.

The picture is from Ellen Sanders’ Crackpot Chronicles, and is used with thanks.



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