Josna Rege

74. Three Towers, Three Coincidences

In 2000s, Books, Stories, United States on September 11, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Every Saturday morning my father-in-law Ted visits the Book Shed at our town landfill, a shed built by the townspeople where we can take books that we no longer need and pick up ones that others have left there. It is loosely organized into categories and we can use it like a lending library, except that the collection is ever-changing and there are no due dates. I accompany Ted whenever I can, and when I do, the trip is one of the highlights of my week.

Over the years I have made some astonishing finds, among them a copy of Richard Kim’s Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood (1970) signed by the author; a rare copy of Roots, the very first Asian American Studies reader, compiled in 1971 by student activists at UCLA (lent by a local Japanese American professor to a student who then left town and dumped it); and an 1886 edition of Lord Macaulay’s 1843 biography of Warren Hastings, the first British Governor-General of India. Equally exciting are the times when I have happened upon an entire collection, just dropped off by someone who shares my interests: a whole batch of novels written by contemporary British women, a collection of Indian English novels in their Indian editions, or some hardcover first editions of Doris Lessing works missing from my collection.

I knew I had it bad when, asked by some of my student to list my hobbies for a faculty directory, combing the Book Shed was chief among them. When I first discovered it, I was continually holding forth enthusiastically about my latest find at the dump, much to then-twelve year-old Nikhil’s embarrassment. “Landfill, Mom, landfill,” he would insist, “not dump,” as he squirmed at his friends’ impressions of his eccentric mother trawling through mounds of trash.

Nowadays my finds are fewer, because I drop by less often and so the dealers beat me to them, and because DPW-employed sorters go through the books as they are dropped off, skimming anything with resale value off the top, I suspect. But still, books on topics of particular interest seem to come to hand just at the time I need them.

Today I was able to join my father-in-law on his weekly foray for the first time in more than a month, and we both set out with anticipation, tote bags in hand. I had a large bag of books with me, for once sticking to my avowed principle of dropping off at least as many as I will pick up. Although the shed was better organized than usual, someone having labeled the shelves by category, the pickings were slim, and, as Ted noted, the labeling robbed us of some of the pleasure of the hunt. Still, I came away well pleased, with half a dozen titles for myself and a couple of books of poetry for Nikhil.

While scanning one of the general non-fiction shelves, I had happened to see a book on the heroes of September 11th, 2001, with a photograph of a man in a hardhat on the cover. Before moving on, my eyes lingered on it for just a moment as I noted the coincidence of finding it here on this ninth anniversary of the attacks in New York City on the World Trade Center’s twin towers.

On the drive home, my father-in-law told me about his monthly book group’s last meeting, for which they had re-read Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952), and at which he had proposed a new interpretation of the play based on Vladimir’s line in Act 1:

Hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower, among the first.

I won’t explain Ted’s whole idea here because he plans to write it up soon, but suffice it to say that he interpreted this line as a double suicide.

While Ted stopped to do his Saturday morning errands, I waited in the car, reading the poetry books. Flipping through The Best American Poetry 2003, I noted the inclusion of poems by some of Nikhil’s favorite poets. Among them was Galway Kinnell, whose selection, interestingly enough, was “When the Towers Fell”; another mention of the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Still waiting, I began to skim the other collection, In the Wake of  Home (2004), by Christian McEwen, a poet hitherto unknown to me.

Her last poem was called, simply, “September 11, 2001.” This time I sat up and took notice: a third mention of this very day nine years ago. The poem was a litany of ordinary people caught up in the attacks—a few of whom had survived, most of whom had not—and how they had spent their last moments. And at the end of the fifth stanza, I came upon the following line, eerily echoing the very line in Waiting for Godot that my father-in-law had mentioned not five minutes before:

The two who jumped to their deaths holding each other by the hand.

Tell Me Another

  1. thanx for this, josna. i don’t remember language, just images. my secretary had, that september day, frantically tried to reach me all over campus, breathless, to tell me that my husband had called to find a tv and watch and it was horrible and nobody could believe it and so i dropped my work, raced home, came into the living room, did not even ask cheikh what had been going on hitting the tv screen that very exact split second when the plane neatly knifed into the second tower like it was cake. the first time in my life i felt transfixed by a sight.bine

  2. – The three mentions of that day almost seems intended! It’s almost like JFK’s assassination – every American remembers where he/she was at that precise moment when the plane flew into the first tower, then the second. I remember a chain of cars pulling over on the capital of Texas highway here in Austin, as I drove to work listening to car radio on a picture perfect Fall day….thanks for the fitting remembrance on a day when I was fretting over power point presentations and excel spreadsheets, cleaning the kitchen floor and homework put away neatly…

  3. This post seems to invite remembrances… I started to describe some of my own tiny thoughts here, and then was interrupted by Adam, who had just put Daniel down to bed. We’ve just had a long conversation about our own recollections of 9/11, all that followed, and all that the aftermath made more uncertain about the future. Not that the future is ever clear, of course. I never feel able to adequately respond to the bravery (or desperation? terror? serene acceptance?) of those who deliberately leapt from the towers on that day. That action is so frightening it is truly un-thinkable. I can think of nothing but to bless those who had to make it, and to be glad (or somehow grateful) that holding hands was possible. Thanks for this post.

  4. Dear Friends,

    Your comments have made me feel the anniversary in a way I still didn’t while writing the story. Yes, Mary, I think I was unconsciously inviting remembrances, and Bine, you are right about words paling in the face of such sights. In fact, even thoughts fail altogether. I didn’t know what should or could come after that last quote, so I just left it there, and Mary, only your comment brought home the enormity of that terrible act, something I couldn’t feel at the time I was writing. Urmi, you generously accorded me the sensitivity I didn’t have until after I read your post: that is, I wrote an ordinary chatty, clueless story about my love of the Book Nook, which grew more serious with the string of coincidences that would not let me forget what day it was—and ultimately, silenced me. Love, J

  5. I happen to be one of those people who believe that there is no such thing as a coincidence.
    These things happen for a reason. It’s up to us to figure or puzzle out.

    I just realized that yesterday was also my nephew, Evan’s birthday. Strange how one can be so
    involved in one’s own little dramas that life seems to go on around us. September 12th will always
    be one of those “moments after” when one takes stock once again. I think the whole world was
    silenced for a while.

  6. I came into high school late, as usual, but this time the halls were empty, were silent. I ran to my english class, and peeked into the window to see what I would be interrupting. The television was on; from outside, I couldn’t see to what. The second tower fell as I opened the door. Those two events were not related. Nine years later, living in New York, I sit on a stoop and look up at the twin beams shot up from the empty WTC lot. The city’s loud. Business is back. Everyone’s dressed up waiting for something new to happen.

  7. Thank you for posting, Marianne and Nikhil. Marianne, I think I agree with you about coincidences: if one paid better attention (as my mother says), one would be more likely to actually learn something from them. And, yes, it’s a good thing to be silenced for a while, every once in a while: too bad it take a World Trade Center attack…

    Nikhil, it was you who called me at home and told me to turn the television on. Right after I did, I saw one of the towers collapsing. I remember thinking, with a sense of dread but a dread that one has held for a long time: So it’s finally happening, for real.

  8. Wow.

    And in a pedantic aside, thanks, Josna, for using the word enormity correctly. One of my many (sometimes ridiculous) pet peeves.

  9. Also — this takes a bit of digesting — I really like the way the piece starts out chatty and then bangs into something serious and we are stunned into nonthought for a moment. Just like what happens in life: we bumble along, sometimes merrily, and once in a while there’s a huge *whack* from seemingly nowhere, and everything looks different.

    • Thank you, Sarah. Not sure how intentional that was, but it’s how the writing of the story itself unfolded. I love your image of us bumbling merrily along and occasionally getting “stunned into nonthought.” (And I take pleasure in your taking pleasure in the (proper) use of enormity.)

  10. I had something like this happen last Sunday. We had to go north of the French King Bridge to a dock up there to pick up a wedding party. As the captain and I came to the FKB on the way up, we saw men in blue pants and white t-shirts on the shore and a stationary motorboat in the middle of the turn below the bridge. It took a moment to realize that the men in t-shirts were police and there was a body in the water near the motorboat. It was confirmed later in the day that this was part of a murder-suicide from Athol, but at the time, the suicide part of it seemed likely (the third this summer). And so, we went up to Riverview, picked up the wedding party, had a lovely wedding, dropped them off, and went back to Barton Cove. By the time we passed FKB again, the body was on the shore and there were fewer people around.

    It made me think of another time when I was in Ankara for a few days in 1997. I was travelling with women I’d met in Istanbul and staying in a chi-chi part of town. One of the women and I were having breakfast at a bakery-cafe, sitting at little wrought-iron tables outside. It was a bright, sunny, warm day in late April. There was only one other customer, a man of about 40. My friend and I were talking and reading the newspapers when suddenly we heard several sharp bangs and what sounded like a little dog yiping. It took a moment to realize it was a woman screaming, and more moments still to see that our fellow breakfaster had walked across the street and shot a woman who was with her friend about 5 times. They had just left a house and were about to get into a taxi. We looked up to see one woman sinking to her knees while the other held her hands to her face and screamed, and the man loped away down the street. This was broad daylight, plenty of people around. No one chased him. The cops arrived before we finished breakfast, but there were so many witnesses that we left, even though my Japanese friend could speak Turkish (she was positively astounding — she’d been there 6 months and learned the language so well that she translated conversations for me from Turkish to English). So we merrily went off for our last day of being tourists in Ankara, saw Ataturk’s tomb and a museum of modern art (which I wonder about now, as it was full of portraits, an Islamic no-no). I had just witnessed a murder, yet went on to be an ordinary tourist, and in fact, the event had little effect on my day. I felt guilty about that for a few fleeting moments, but knew rationally that there was nothing I could do about the (possible) death of a stranger that would have happened had I been there or not. I of course wondered what happened. Love triangle? Money? Politics? I’ve never found out.

    I feel more for the FKB suicide. Maybe it’s just that it’s closer to home and I can read the newspapers all by myself. Still, I had a good time at the wedding (even though I was working) and enjoyed the next charter as well, a group of cancer survivors from the local hospital who come on the boat every year, bringing with them excellent catering that they generously share with us. It was a lovely day, but how odd.

    • Sarah, what a shocker! I had no idea that there were so many suicides off the French King Bridge. I wonder whether this season is unusual or typical? And yes, how queer for you, shifting between the gaiety of the wedding party and the sombre crime scene. Plying that stretch of river several times a week you must cross paths with many people’s lives, but have to take everything in stride, doing your narration again for the next party (although you probably don’t do your normal narration for the charter group, right?. The joyous wedding group and the cancer survivors must have helped affirm life after the murder-suicide.

      The Ankara episode must have felt even more unreal, in that you were just passing through, didn’t know the language or the culture, and just happened to be a witness to the shooting. But one is perpetually disoriented while traveling, so it might have felt like the shifting scenes of a movie or just one more sight you saw fleetingly, as if from a moving train.

  11. And you would have turned the above story into a lovely, thoughtful essay that ended better than saying, “how odd”!

  12. Wow, Sarah — I am haunted by your two stories as well!

  13. It is amazing that we can consciously live in the diverse fabric of earthly Life that is equally divine and devastating without going stark-raving mad!

    Your story brilliantly captures this. I love the Waiting for Godot theme that permeates; and, Nikhil’s last line in his commentary: “Everyone’s dressed up waiting for something new to happen.”

    Sigh….. Thank you again, Josna, for touching our Souls with your expression.

  14. Josna,

    I missed this last year, so I’m glad that you posted it again. It is lovely. I love the way that you have connected all these things, and of course, I love your descriptions of the book shed at the dump (I never thought to call it a landfill…). I think I still have a few things–a spatula, pan, etc– from the dump, but it was the book shed that drew me. On your more important topic though, I also had the same feeling when I saw the TV that day, that it was finally happening, and now you’ve given me another way to see it and the subsequent events, as both sides jumping to their deaths. My nephew is a Marine captain and has done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, while my women’s studies students raised money for girls in Afghanistan. I just want my nephew and the girls to be safe and all this chaos and catastrophe to stop.

    • Thanks so much for your comments, Maureen. My father-in-law and I were at the Amherst dump on Saturday and this week my big find was an old Knopf hardback edition of Kahlil Gibran’s Sand and Foam, illustrated by the author himself. I was in such a rush with deadlines yesterday that I hadn’t had time to contemplate that day ten years ago until your response came, your insight about “both sides jumping to their deaths” then and throughout the period of “chaos and catastrophe” that has unfolded since.Thank you for making me see the piece in a new light, and for making me pause and think on all this chaos and catastrophe, last night and again this morning, when I was suddenly struck by what it must have felt like to be faced with that choice of jumping or being engulfed by the fire. I pray that we can find the collective wisdom and courage to get hold of this world ship and steer it safely through the storm.

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