May 6, 2011: Arrived in the city yesterday afternoon to the beat of a drum … well, actually, no drums! The magnificent rhythmic percussion was coming from an old fry-pan, three used PVC cement-mixing buckets of various sizes, a torn plastic bulk mail container, a couple of pieces of old aluminum flashing no doubt stolen from a building site, maybe a crushed section of automobile fender, and two sturdy bark-stripped sticks. Sitting on the sidewalk at the corner of 43rd and 5th Avenue was a black man, dressed in rags, probably schizophrenic, mumbling angrily to himself, occasionally bursting into a grin of unimaginable joy, but never once breaking his astonishingly varied instrumental rhythm, as he pounded with his sticks and adjusted the scrap around him with a foot. He was as professional a musical genius as they come, and I was immediately reminded of the homeless cello player Nathaniel Ayers, whose story was told a few years back in The Soloist. This man would surely have given Gene Krupa a real run for the money. We contributed to his “kitty,” and watched and listened for about 20 minutes, absorbing the vitality of the city, while he pounded and played without rest. When we passed by an hour later, he hadn’t stopped: He was still there, still playing, still with a large appreciative crowd around him. Wherever the rest of us were going, we stopped. We took time to signal approval and amazement, and throw dollar bills in his pot. … Amazing all by itself.
The sun was out, reflecting off the glass walls of new skyscrapers, skattered among the brick and granite detritus of New York history. The air was cool and clean. So here we are, I thought, back in this magnificent city, so full of energy, so vibrant, and so reticent to yield up its secret tales of filth and despair and woe. And who are all these other people, shoving to get by on the crowded sidewalk, half of them with cell phones pressed to their ears? They gesticulate wildly, or push ahead, dodging, with eyes down, all so serious. And within the block are seemingly thousands of cars and busses and trucks and taxis slamming their horns when threatened with missing the next light, screaming in twenty different languages at ignorant drivers and jaywalkers, all rushing, rushing? Where are they going? Why the urgency? What do they want? Do they know they can’t have it all? What’s at the end of their race? And there are so many of us … each and every one with a plan, an excuse, a story.
It all feels very American. Flags and cops are everywhere. Our President was here this morning, to speak at Ground Zero, a part of the celebration surrounding Friday’s killing of Bin Laden. I confess, I’m glad the man no longer walks the earth. I think I’d have killed him myself. I understand our relief that he’s gone, and I particularly understand the sense of closure it brings to those who lost loved ones and colleagues in the events of 9-11. By extension, of course, that is all Americans, and most of humanity, for that matter.
But still, do I feel like jumping up and down for joy? Do I feel like raising my arms in victory and proclaiming that I am the greatest, that America is the greatest, and that we have prevailed over our evil enemies? Not after the deaths of the thousands who died in the twin towers, in the Pentagon, and in the hijacked airplanes. And not after the loss of so many lives in the decade since 9-11. I suspect hundreds of thousands of innocent and not so innocent human beings have lost their lives as a direct result of what happened on that day. I mourn them all. I mourn that we as human beings must seek solace in revenge as the threats and the killing go on. I mourn that despite the enormous capacity of the human heart, we continue to confine the richness of our lives merely to winning or losing, to good guys and bad guys. I mourn our need to be “right,” and choose to defend our “rightness” by eliminating anyone who doesn’t agree. And I mourn that none of us, no matter what “side” we choose to be on, can ever be free of such hypocrisy.
In the next three days, we will be surrounded by the theater of the heavily patrolled New York streets, guarded by those charged with preventing still more promised revenge killings. There were those who warned it was a dangerous time to venture into the city. Not so. As I write, even CNN is trying very hard to make us all paranoid. But this is as vital a time to be here as any other, and maybe more so. This is New York, and the sun is out, and my wife and I are here to go to the theater, the kind where we sit in the dark, and watch and listen and learn and cry and laugh at ourselves. The plays we will see promise to deliver a special and much needed perspective on the chaos of life and death: The War Horse, Freud’s Last Session, and Jerusalem. Responses to each, and then some, are to come. Come back.