A little off the top (my 9/11)

Walking around one crisp day last week, the sheer blue sky reminded me of waking on September 11. When I opened the curtains and saw the cloudless and bright autumn morning, I remember thinking This is the most beautiful morning we have ever seen.

An hour later I was working on a book proposal that was about to get rejected anyway when my mom called, "Oh, okay, you're there." I turned on the TV set to watch helplessly like everyone else.
After the second collapse I didn't know what to do. The idea of sitting in front of gruesome footage and eyewitness reports playing over and over like some interminable Super Bowl of catastrophe was nauseating. My phone didn't go out for a few hours, so I called my parents and then a couple of friends -- one of them who lived in Park Slope told me excitedly she was up on her roof taking pictures, like it was Matt Damon walking down the street, or the Grand Canyon.
I was going through some personal turmoil -- the downturn was hurting me and my father's Alzheimers' was worsening. (A week later, when I met with him and some of his friends at his West Village apartment, my father was practically unaware. He knew something momentous had occurred just down the street, but his awareness seemed to deny the misery of it -- he said a couple of times, "It's just fantastic," using the word the way he often did, in its more British sense of "unusual," but mostly that afternoon he seemed pleased about the whole thing, since it had apparently brought his friends and one of his sons by for a party.) I had lived alone in Brooklyn for just six months, and despite the appeal of the quasi-suburban quiet and the patchwork of crumbling urban blight and Victorian-era charm of my part of Flatbush I wasn't sure whether I was living here on the rebound, or if this was it.
So I decided to get a haircut. I needed one, and it was some kind of contact anyway. I certainly wasn't going to get closer to anyone else for a few days. Maybe it didn't make much sense, but what were the alternatives? Walk ten miles into Manhattan when a million people were trying to get out? Use the last few hours of phone service to call people up and say "how awful"?
And I enjoy a haircut. Preferably at a barbershop, because they're quick, cheap, and relable. And a barber won't shrink at shaving your neck or snipping a rogue eyebrow hair. I like to become a good-tipping regular, because even if it ends up costing me close to $20, it's still less than half I'd have to pay at a fancy place.
I'd had a hard time finding one in my new-to-me neighborhood. A Haitian guy around the corner had a martial aspect and halfway through I'd convinced myself he was an exiled Tonton Macoute, plus he did a lousy job. Then I tried a larger shop a few blocks down from me on Flatbush Avenue, but that turned into a racially-motivated haircut: the only barber in the place, apparently with better things to do, emerged reluctantly from the back, ill-tempered at having a customer. I guess he decided I was some kind of narc -- sour-faced, ignoring my instructions, he simply started buzz-cutting me roughly as his girlfriend sat in the next chair flinging threats and trash-talk at me. Vulnerable and knowing I wasn't going to get out without paying in any case, I endured the shearing doing my best to keep my mouth shut, and walked out looking like a fresh recruit.
Finally I discovered an old mustached Ukrainian guy around the corner on Avenue I in a quiet old storefront with two chairs. It was one of the humble nooks of Brooklyn I had apparently moved out here for, a peaceable tonsorial parlor, staffed by a succession of immigrants probably since forever. In fact it was not possible but almost a certainty that Irish, German, Jewish, Italian barbers had taken turns there -- into that chain-flushing toilet in the back, George Washington might have pissed. The barber -- I think his name was Ivan, sometimes he went by John -- worked alone and said little besides, "Hello, my friend," when I entered and "Thank you, my friend," when I left. His English was only adequate and he didn't seem anxious to wear it out, which suited me fine, since a little barber wisdom goes a long way with me.
So at around noon on 9/11, I walked to Flatbush Junction, usually covered with a swarm of pedestrians trying to cross but now deserted -- the few of us who weren't either watching TV or were just too frightened to be outside exchanged looks of dread, complicity, or a certain superstition, at times commonly held in this predominantly black working-class neighborhood, that most of the evil we are obliged to contend with can be traced to the White House. Crossing the Junction, I looked north up Flatbush Avenue, which culminated at the horizon in a pillar of smoke.
In the shop my barber was dozing in one of the chairs. All that I had gleaned from him in a few months was he was married and sometimes fished off the dock in Sheepshead Bay. Often he was content to play the radio -- sports talk or some kind of religious station broadcasting pre-recorded sermons and meandering inspirational homilies. Today, silence. As I walked in he roused himself from his chair. "Hello my friend." Dazed and mournful, I shot him a grimly acknowledging glance -- not so much because I felt moved to remark about the World Trade Center as to get it out of the way -- one of us would say how terrible a thing it was, the other would agree, and silently and inwardly we would both yield to the great inward relief of old men, the secret joy of peace and quiet.
But when he failed to pick up on my dark look, and said not a word about the morning's toll, I realized he had no idea. He had probably gotten to the shop at 9:30 or so, seen no customers, and had no cause to walk to the corner of Flatbush Avenue where he could have seen the ribboning plumes. Probably had no cellphone. Very little had happened in his day -- probably nothing at all except a bus ride on a crystalline morning.
Should I say something? But what? We both preferred quiet anyway. I decided, a little perversely, to enjoy this bubble of innocence. There was an uncertain moment when he switched on the radio -- maybe that would blow everything -- but it was a prepackaged sermon about thrift and parenting, I think, Clear Channel's robots complicit in my campaign to let this worn-down elderly barber enjoy another half-hour of not having to share in the calamity, the advertisements of the calamity, the discussion of the calamity, the true life stories of friends' and their childrens' lives destroyed by the calamity, the cost and the threat and the dreadful new era created by the calamity, the recriminations unspoken and not, the greed and torture and greed again unleashed by the calamity, the dent in our lives the calamity would make. I did feel a twinge of guilt -- when he did find out and realize that I had known and said nothing, would he be provoked? I paid him the $9 plus my customary $5 tip, and I'm sure the look I gave him as I left bespoke awkwardness and apology.
A month later I visited him again and found him brushing off another neatly-trimmed customer. This time I couldn't help but look him straight in the eye with curious guilt. He noted my glance, and as far as I could tell found nothing to forgive me for.