Thursday, February 21, 2002

Voyagant en Chine... Cinq heures en queue pour un visa...

Well, I know that they don't speak French in the People's Republic, but French is the language of diplomacy. Traveling to China without a diplomatic passport means that one needs a visa, obtainable by mail or in person at a Chinese consulate or embassy. So I went to New York on Tuesday to get my visa.

Cheap Trip to China: an Anticipatory Travelogue In Parts, Odds and Ends

I got up at quarter to five to get on the road. I've a healthy respect for New York rush-hour traffic, and I had no intention of driving into town. The mass-transit system in the metro area is marvelous. PATH is very nearly a perfect people portageur. Well, you can't really park anywhere near a PATH station except in Newark. Which is a national auto-theft capital. So I parked in a gated garage two blocks from Newark-Penn station (a great Beaux-Arts/Art-Deco space) and rode the PATH into Gotham.

I should probably mention that the last time I did this was September 7, and, resulting from a comedy of errors, I took the NJ transit train from the Broad Street Station to Hoboken, where I took the PATH train into the 33rd Street station. This was five bucks more expensive than it should have been, so I walked down to the World Trade Center to take the PATH to Newark on the way out. Ironically, this was the first time I'd actually visited the World Trade Center complex in my life, and I recall, walking down Varick Street in the noon-light of the Seventh, looking up at those boxy great glass towers, and marveling at the space that was enclosed within, inside of great balloons of metal and concrete.

There was a tendency, for months, for people to tell stories about the WTC: to connect their personal experience and emotions to the gigantic disaster that unfolded four days after my visit. I was and am no different. My World Trade Center story is kinda short. I walked down there, visited the Borders, bought my then-girlfriend a gift at the Strand four blocks away, went back inside the WTC, peed in a boxy aluminum jake in a marble/granite bathroom, and took a PATH train out after waiting fifteen minutes on a tastefully-stained wooden bench, next to tracks 3 and 4. I'd never been up in the towers. I never saw the need to ride up to the observation deck. I'd been to the top of the Empire State, and, as far as I was concerned, that was my gesture to vestigial New York boosterism. My family spent a very short time in New York, at first in Washington Heights in preparation for the emigration from England in 1950, and Dad and Mom lived there married for a short six months in 1975. They left three months before I showed up on the scene. So, what I am is a notional New Yorker. I like New York. I like New York very, very much. But I haven't lived there, and I won't until this fall (which is what I said last fall).

The signs in the PATH train denoting the routes had changed since September. No biggie - I was expecting that. (I've been to New York since the attacks - but each time I've driven in on weekends.) But it was like a thudding nail in my chest, to notice the change. And then, then there were the delays. The purpose of short, irregular stops on the tracks in Jersey and under the Hudson were obvious: delays to let traffic through the switches and the tunnels - the system is much more heavily loaded now that it is running at 200 per cent capacity.

The Chinese consulate in New York is in a big dirty building on 12th and 43rd. Obviously, I'd either walk it from the 33rd street station, or I'd take the A up the West side to the Port Authority, or something. So, naturally, I got off the train at Christopher Street, in the Village, and began walking south.

This is really natural. Highly, highly ordinary. The consulate opened at ten; there would be a long line and I needed to be there early to get the visa. In the middle of morning rush hour, I get off the train fifty blocks south of my destination and walk further south, the twenty blocks from Christopher Street, down Hudson Street, to the apron of inaccessibility that girds Ground Zero.

Why did I go?

I'd like to say that I went in order to say Kaddish. I did say Kaddish. I did not stand and gawk. I did say Kaddish, and great cold waves of nausea gripped me while I stared down Washington Street, across the great gray field, at the webbed and cloaked facades of 1 Liberty Plaza and the other buildings on the south line, and up at the great, enormous buildings of the World Financial Center, with scars and shrouds facing into the square. I looked for thirty or forty seconds, blasted through the Kaddish Yatom - for mourners - quickly the way I despise in outwardly more religious Jews - how can God hear a chattering mumble? - that Kaddish that is said by the mourner in the year after death.

I did not go to gawk. I went to cry. I went to Ground Zero so that I could see with my eyes the devastation there, and know that the images on screens, in magazines, and half-toned in newspapers were real. That I lived in the same universe as those by-now iconic events.

By way of comparison, I've never visited Dachau, though both of my grandfathers were imprisoned there after Kristallnacht.

So I shivered, and saw great destruction, and my spirit quailed, and I left, because I did not want to gawk. I did not want to be a tourist.

I'd intended to write an essay about the bedlam in the visa and passport office in the Chinese Consulate. I had a great fund of jokes about the residual Wolke-Kuckuckheim authoritarian propaganda plastered everywhere inside - entirely posters defaming Falun Gong is the most autistic, risible ways. I was going to write about the chaos in that visa office, and the long-vanished-and-now-rediscovered pleasure of mocking incompetent and inconsequential tyrants. I got to stand on line to get a ticket that would permit me to stand on a different line. Twice. Ha ha. So funny. So funny to laugh at the antics of the transplanted natives "who do not understand queuing". Why was the consulate in a shitty building on the Upper West Side? "We pass the savings on to you!" Ha. Ha.

New York was very quiet. Silent. I've never seen anything in my life like it. And never so many empty shops - except - and never so much trash - except - and never so many homeless men and women - except - no, I haven't seen those things, and had the seeing matched by a deadened silence. A silence that persisted for hours, in the weekday light of the greatest city on the planet.

That is what mourning is like. New York City is an onan, and I fear that the shloshim will last much, much longer than their statutory thirty days.

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