Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hamptons Quality, Newark Pricing

I was in Times Square a couple of days ago and I saw this billboard. No, that's not Ben Stiller. According to a web page I just found, any resemblance to Mr. Stiller is unintentional (right...), and that's actually someone named Wass Stevens, "a local actor and doorman." Of course there's the possibility that it is actually Ben Stiller furiously trying to "punk" passersby on Broadway. Regardless, it's the best-looking ad I've seen in some time. For those who don't know greater New York's geography well, Newark is a black ghetto and the Hamptons host the largest collection of billionaires' summer homes in the country, or maybe the world.

In spite of having grown up in Russia, though perhaps unsurprisingly in view of my family background, I've only tasted a couple of sips of vodka in my entire life. They were utterly disgusting. But then all alcohol turns me off. The most expensive booze I've ever tried was a bottle of Veuve Clicquot which the guy who sold me my current apartment left for me in the fridge as a parting gift before moving out. I did appreciate the gesture, but the champagne itself tasted like soap mixed with dust, bubbles and medicinal alcohol. Perhaps I'm simply missing something essential that allows others to enjoy the taste of these drinks.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What I Saw on 9/11

Today being 9/11, I decided to type up my experiences of the World Trade Center attacks. In 2001 I worked in Downtown Manhattan, in a building situated about 150 yards from the WTC's North Tower. The Trade Center itself was a familiar place - I used to regularly hang out at the huge bookstore located in building #5, and 3 months before the attacks I had even visited the observation deck on the roof of one of the Twin Towers.

On the morning of 9/11/01 I was doing paperwork in my cubicle when I suddenly heard an extremely violent sound and felt our building shake. The sound was similar to the kind you'd hear if a truck started unloading big metal pipes onto asphalt: more like loud banging than like explosions. This seemed to go on forever, though of course in such situations the sense of time becomes severely distorted. Everyone, including me, was shouting. My immediate sense was that something had gone wrong with our building, but within seconds a few of us were already in front of the nearest window, which happened to face the WTC. Metal cladding was coming off the North Tower and fluttering in the air like silver-colored confetti. I now know from TV footage that the initial hit had produced a fireball, but by the time I got to our window, it was already gone. Very quickly a theory of what had happened formed in my mind - I decided that this was a replay of the 1993 WTC attack. Someone must have taken a small bomb to one of the top floors in an elevator.

The damage didn't look serious, and so panic, in me at least, was quickly replaced by curiosity. I mentioned my theory to a middle-aged man standing next to me. He said that his wife worked in the WTC. This didn't sound nearly as dramatic as it does now because in those first few minutes the idea that those buildings would soon fall simply couldn't have ocurred to us. Weeks later, when I finally saw that guy again, he said that he couldn't find his wife for many hours after the collapse, but that she did end up escaping from the whole thing unhurt.

When our conversation naturally died, I looked back at the long rows of cubicles. Almost everyone was gone. I didn't feel like I HAD to go, but staying behind would have felt weird too, so I started slowly walking out of the office. There were a few people in the stairwell, including another guy who said that his wife worked in the WTC. Unlike the first one, he was crying hysterically.

When I walked out of our building, I went TOWARDS the WTC, not away from it. A sizable crowd had gathered in front of the North Tower. A lot of smoke was now coming off the damaged area. The whole thing looked more serious than a minute after the hit, but still not quite catastrophic. Someone was waving a white curtain from a window midway up the building.

After a few minutes of looking at this, I moved back to the sidewalk in front of the place where I worked. My boss was telling everyone who was gathered there that the North Tower was hit by a "white plane." In my head I immediately dismissed this as nonsense. She worked much further away from the windows than I did, so what could she have seen or known? She also told us that after a while we would have to go back into our building so that she could fill out the paperwork that would allow us to go home. I thought about who I was going to vote for once I got back to Brooklyn - 9/11/01 was an election day.

The sense of near-normalcy completely evaporated when a coworker of mine emerged from our building's doors, saying that she'd seen people jump from the top of the WTC. A friend of hers had forgotten her bag upstairs, so the two of them went back up into our office, and while there, they glanced out the windows and saw people jumping.

As if that wasn't enough, we soon heard a loud thump somewhere up close. I now suspect that this was actually one of the bodies, but at the time I imagined that it was a part of the North Tower's facade hitting the pavement. Our own office building was blocking our view of the Twin Towers, so I could now only guess what was going on there. A minute or two after the thump large numbers of people dressed in office clothes started quickly running past us, heading uptown. I now know that they had just seen the second plane approaching the South Tower. I was standing in the cavernous entrance to our building with a female coworker. Seconds before the second hit I shouted to her "this is a good wall", meaning that if parts of the North Tower started raining down from the sky, we'd have some cover.

Then we heard an incredibly loud sound, which seemed to go on and on, while the ground beneath us shook back and forth. The second plane had just hit the second tower, but since my view of this was blocked by our office building, I assumed (wrong word of course, because in moments like that you don't consciously think) that big chunks of the first tower were now coming down and that the whole building might fall on us at any moment. Later that day, when I had free time, I tried going back to those moments in my mind. For a split second I was definitely out of touch with reality out there. For example, I remember having a very strong feeling that I alone was witnessing something very important and that everyone else was unaware and urgently needed to be informed of it. In fact there were thousands of people around. Did I look up and see any debris in the air? For some reason this seemingly important question already became unanswerable two hours after the event.

I have no recollection of starting to run, just of running itself. If I had an opportinity to think anything through, I would have dropped my bag before taking off, but in fact on that day I ran for my life with a 10-pound bag containing a 1200-page CompTIA A+ test-prep book and a lot of other things.

If the 110-storey tower fell in my direction, how many blocks would it cover and am I out of its shadow yet? I definitely felt that question with my back for a while. A block north of where I started to run I ducked into an entrance of an office building. Someone else had already sought cover there. I stayed with him (or her) for only a couple of seconds. The entire street was running for its life, and it felt scary not to participate. Another block, and I saw lots of smoke and a commotion on the opposite side of the street. I later learned that one of the second plane's engines had fallen there seconds before, knocking a woman into a coma. At the time it was all a blur.

I ran for quite a while, as did everyone around me. Somewhere in Tribeca or Soho we gradually switched to walking. It was a long time before I saw anybody moving in the opposite direction though. I finally stopped when I saw a huge line in front of a phone booth. Cell phones weren't working because the transmission antennas on top of the WTC were knocked out. My parents knew that I worked Downtown, so I really wanted to tell them that I was OK. A man in front of me in line for the phone said that he heard about a plane going into the WTC. I immediately imagined a spoiled brat crashing his Cessna into one of the towers - JFK Jr. had recently killed himself in a roughly similar fashion and the news was still fresh in everyone's minds. When my turn to go into the booth finally came, the line went dead. I continued moving north, joined another such line, was disappointed again, then found a yet another line, and finally recorded a message on my parents' answering machine.

As I moved further uptown I saw a crowd of people gathered around a car whose owner opened all of its doors and turned up the volume of the radio to the max. This is how I learned about what actually happened. The news about the Pentagon shocked me the most. Coordinated attacks on multiple cities! The freaking PENTAGON!

I was very tired, so I ended up buying a bagel and a bottle of water and sat down on the ground. As I started to eat, I heard some shouting. All I could think of was "do I have to run AGAIN?" I went out into the crowd which stood in the middle of the street and was told that one of the towers had just gone down. Of course I imagined it falling sideways, not the way it actually fell. I learned about the second tower's fall in a similar fashion.

All of the bridges and tunnels leading out of Manhattan were closed, so I stayed in the city until early evening, seriously planning to spend the night there at one point. I talked to more strangers that day than at any other time in my life. Everyone wanted to describe what he saw, where he ran from and what he thought this meant politically. I remember a young guy shouting that because of what happened he wanted to go fight in Iraq. Yes, Iraq.

The subway started running at around 4 or 5 PM. There was a lot of confusion about which trains were going where. Eventually a passenger who used to work for the MTA said that she knew how to get to Brooklyn. I was a part of a large crowd that followed her. She told us that her husband worked on the 103rd floor of one of the towers, but that he had called in sick that day.

I was reassigned to Queens two weeks later, and then back to downtown Manhattan a few weeks after that. For several months afterwards there was a strong smell of burning in the air there. Eventually, after many months, the documents on which I worked on the morning of 9/11 were returned to me, all covered in soot. I worked in the area for a few more years before changing jobs and still visit it with some regularity.

Finally, a few thoughts about the conspiracy theories:

I think it's very likely that the official story is mostly true. The more people you involve in a conspiracy, the less likely it is to stay secret. Remember the guy, to take a random example, who told the media that he operated the school where the hijackers trained to fly? Was he in on the conspiracy too? What about the hijackers' grieving relatives interviewed by the media? And so on.

It seems to me that the number of folks that would have had to be involved in the hypothetical the-government-did-it scenario would be far too high for the conspiracy to hope to be effective.

At least in the official version the hijackers did not have to spend any effort on making it retroactively look as if some other organization had done it.

Did some highly-placed people wish for a casus belli all along? Sure. But did they have the actual ability to pull off not just the attacks, but also an elaborate operation redirecting the blame, all in a society as chaotic, disloyal, undisciplined and unpredictable as ours? I seriously doubt it.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Greatest Vote Getters

In my last post I mentioned the fact that Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, Portugal's dictator from 1932 to 1968, was recently named the greatest Portuguese person ever by his homeland's TV viewers. These sorts of shows (The Greatest Belgian, Great Greeks, etc.) originated in Britain and have now run in more than two dozen countries. The Wikipedia provides a summary of the winners here.

It's fun to see who got picked and who got dumped by whom, and it's even more fun to come up with one's own alternatives. What do those bums know about their own history, right? :-)

Let's start with Britain, whose TV viewers put Churchill up top. I'm generally biased against politicians, but at least the entire world has heard of him and in between his drinking binges he did sometimes seem like a serious person. In contrast, I had never heard of Isambard Brunel before he was named the second greatest Briton ever on that show, and the less is said about Princess Di (#3) in this context, the saner. My problem with putting Darwin (#4) so high on that list is that humanity has been acting as if it already knew most of what he had to say since at least the birth of agriculture. Verbalizing the default assumptions of every farmhand and amateur genealogist who's ever lived and then extending those to their logical conclusions doesn't seem like a historic feat to me. Glossy's pick for greatest Briton ever? Newton. Also my pick for greatest human.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the German version did not include the word "German" in its title, calling itself "Unsere Besten" instead. The Princess Di spot (#3) was occupied here by Karl Marx, with Adenauer substituting for Churchill. In general the German list turned out to be more political than most. Glossy's pick? Beethoven.

Just like their historical rivals, the French chose a WWII-era pol (de Gaulle) as their top man. It was fun to see Zinadine Zidane and Charlemagne back together again on this list (nos. 21 and 22). I'm guessing that the footballer is just as enthusiastic about being called a Frenchman as Charlemagne would have been about being called a Gaul. Other than that the list is remarkable for having more actors and singers on it than most others. My pick would have been Lavoisier.

The Italians chose Leonardo, which is pretty good, but I'm going to argue against it anyway. Renaissance painting advanced towards realism and expressiveness gradually, over several centuries, so it's impossible to assign the bulk of the credit for it to any one person. And outside of painting Leonardo's output was more remarkable for breadth than for depth. I would have picked Galileo, for his role in the advancement of the scientific method.

The Greek top 10 is evenly divided between towering figures of universal importance, every one of whom has been dead for more than two thousand years, and more recent personages of whom almost no one outside of Greece has ever heard of. Alexander the Great, who initiated Greece's decline by integrating it with the East, came in first place. I would have picked Archimedes instead.

The Spaniards put their current king in first place, his wife in 4th, their eldest son in 7th and the son's wife in 15th - monarchism and patriarchy! Franco placed 22nd, Columbus was 3rd here, but 12th in the Italian list.

Alexander Nevsky ended up winning the Russian vote. Disregarding what I said about political leaders at the start of this post, I would have gone with Peter the Great instead. He Westernized Russia before the West started rotting, so his reforms were overwhelmingly positive in nature. Russia had not contributed anything to science or technology before he came along and it has never ceased such contributions since him. Before Peter, Russian high art existed strictly for internal consumption, after him it was able to be appreciated by foreigners. Russia was never a major power on the European or world stages before him and it has never stopped being one of a handful of Great Powers since him. And none of that had to happen, at least not in the 18th century. The Russian government had been aware of the country's lag behind the West for a long time [ru], but nothing was done about that until Peter came along, probably because no ruler before him possessed that much natural energy. OK, so he personally beheaded a few loudmouths. Trifles. Alexey Tolstoy's big book about him is still the best historical novel I've ever read.