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The Haight Ashbury neighbrohood in San Francisco. Photo by Tom Sykes.
Haight Ashbury, San Francisco.

Visiting a Wounded Giant: A Journey into American Adversity - Page Two

I wondered if this had something to do with electricity shortages – an issue that I knew affected California. I bought a newspaper but that didn’t offer any clues. Making my way through a pagoda-style building where old Chinese guys were playing chess, I noticed a mustachioed policeman lowering the Stars and Stripes to half-mast. It struck me as a vivid symbol of defeat; an anti-Iwo Jima.

I needed to know what had happened but there was such a blaze of anger in the policeman’s eyes that it took time to muster the courage to ask. “Excuse me,” I said in what he probably regarded as a flaky, faggy English accent. “Could you tell me why you’re taking that flag down?”

“Haven’t you heard?” the policeman roared, raising his arms as if starting a fight with me. “America has been attacked! American airplanes have been hijacked! Many thousands of Americans are dead! This is too big-scale to be a Timothy McVeigh kinda thing so they’re saying foreigners could be behind it!”

“Crikey,” I said and wondered where that had come from. I don’t think I had ever said ‘Crikey’ before in my life and I certainly haven’t said it since. I walked away from the policeman in a daze.

When I had composed myself I looked at my guidebook for somewhere I could go for information… and a stiff drink. I found a bar that had once been Jack Kerouac’s favorite hangout. Inside it were a lot of people from seemingly different social backgrounds watching a TV repeatedly showing footage of a plane colliding with a very tall building.

The caption read: AMERICA UNDER ATTACK – PLANES CRASHED INTO WORLD TRADE CENTER. I ordered a beer and sat foolishly close to a livid yuppie whose tie lay loose around his bright orange neck. It was barely possible to see his face through the glut of empty beer bottles on the table. He kept shaking his fist at each replay, shouting, “I don’t wanna see it no more!”

I wondered why he was putting himself through this. Why didn’t he just go home?

An old hippie with a goatee beard leaned over and said, “Let’s close down all the discos in Europe.” I guessed he was referring to the incident where Libyan bombs killed US tourists in a German nightclub in the 1980s.

Soon enough, however, I could understand where the yuppie was coming from; I too found myself entranced by this cyclic image of destruction. There were several reasons for it, I suppose. I had to keep watching just to make myself believe it had really happened.

More disturbingly, and it’s a little hard to admit this, there was something impressive about the visual spectacle of this attack, the way those Boeing 767s slid almost effortlessly into their targets. Take away the carnage caused and what you had here was a twisted piece of performance art, as Damien Hirst was later to comment.

Of course this could not be in the final analysis because this was real and a lot of carnage was caused.

The more I watched, the more complicated my thoughts and feelings became. What were the wider ramifications of America being attacked on its own soil for the first time in sixty years? Although historians will argue whether it is fair to call the colony of Hawaii, as it was then, ‘American soil’.

I wondered what would happen next. You didn’t do this to America and get away with it. At this point in time, no suspects had been mooted. If an internal McVeigh-type terrorist was to blame – as the policeman lowering the flag had mentioned – we could expect the greatest manhunt and trial in history, outdoing OJ Simpson, John Wilkes Booth, or anyone else. If the perpetrator was found to be foreign then, as a student of American history, I knew that the retaliation would be massive.

Later on I was to read an apt description of America at this juncture on the BBC News website: “a wounded, raging giant.” This giant might well take revenge upon a nation if an individual or organization could not be identified.

I was reminded of the late great comedian George Carlin and his skit about America’s fondness for war as a tool of foreign policy: “We like war. We’re a war-like people. We’re good at it. We get a lot of practice at it. This country’s only 200 years old and already we’ve had ten major wars.”

My attention switched away from the screen. Was it my imagination or had more people come into the bar to watch these gruesome repetitions? The yuppie got up to leave. “I bet the ragheads did it,” he snarled.

I wondered what Jack Kerouac would have made of this scene.

I drank some more, watched some more. Whoever was behind this certainly had a keen sense of symbolism. The World Trade Center, cipher for the US-led, global capitalist system that Allen Ginsberg called ‘Moloch’, destroyed by passenger jets, icon of Western middle-class mobility and leisure. So was this some apocalyptic portent? Could we take it to signal the decline and fall of a superpower, the only superpower left?

Empires, superpowers come and go: Greece, Rome, Spain, Britain, the USSR. If my learned and culturally-sensitive friend the yuppie was right and a Middle Eastern fanatic was the culprit, then a comparison with Rome could be justified, for that superpower was ultimately wiped out by marginalized peoples with inferior wealth and technology.

I left the bar and bought a newspaper from a vendor box, one of the local SF dailies. It was an ‘extra’ edition, something I’d never seen before. I’ll never forget the front page. It was a photograph of what was soon to be called ‘9-11’ with a headline that simply read ‘BASTARDS!’

I went back to Bob’s Hostel to rest and take stock of things. I tried to make phone calls to my family and friends to tell them I was all right. It should have been obvious that I was because my location was 3000 miles away from New York, but I still felt the need to reassure them. All the lines were busy so I sent an email instead, hoping that would get through.

I spoke to Nile the manager. We were keen to avoid today’s events for fear of depressing ourselves further. He talked about his job and his boss, the owner of the hostel, who was an Afghan gentleman.

That evening I ate at Powell’s Soul Food which was entirely staffed by blacks and had pictures of many black celebrities on its walls eating the restaurant’s famous chicken dinners. There was Bill Cosby, Jesse Jackson, Muhammad Ali and a lesser-known senator from Chicago called Barack Obama. The meal I had there was a luxury given my limited budget, so I really savored it. I wasn’t drinking alcohol though. Tough as this was, it seemed distasteful to be partying at a time like this.

I got talking to a Canadian couple on their holidays just like me. The husband, a labor union activist, said that when he saw the video of the World Trade Centre, he half-expected Pierce Brosnan, the then-James Bond, to leap out of the plane just before impact. So strange and unprecedented was this event that I guess it was really interrogating our notions about the difference between reality and fiction.

"I Thought Y'All'd Like That!"

My plans to see more of America than just San Francisco were banjaxed by 9/11, as much of the public transport system was in a state of lockdown for the next few days. The exception was the buses serving the city which, in some kind of tribute to the dead, waived all fares for one day only, the 12th September. I remember one particularly sassy bus driver declaring to passengers as they were let on for free, “Yeah I thought y’all’d like that!”

Although a few more interesting things happened to me on that trip, like almost being run over by a woman who strongly resembled the actress Liv Tyler, the events of my second day in San Francisco understandably overshadowed all else.

A week later when the plane touched down at Heathrow, the passengers gave a spontaneous round of applause. I suppose it was out of relief that the flight had gone smoothly. Returning to my life back in England, I did the normal things a 21-year-old graduate had to do - find a job, move out of home, etc. - while at the same time reflecting on my highly unusual - and unlucky - trip to the US.

I hadn’t got to see the mythologized America of Johnny Cash and the Beats, but I had gained a glimpse into the psyche of a powerful, complex nation plunged into an unprecedented moment of crisis.

Tom Sykes

Tom Sykes was born in 1979 and educated at the University of East Anglia and the University of the Philippines. He has published short fiction and journalism around the world in such publications as Underground Voices, Taya Literary Journal (both USA), Screaming Dreams, Jupiter SF, Ruthless Peoples, Lunar Harvest, WeBooks (all UK) and The Philippine Free Press, as well as in international anthologies such as Small Voices, Big Confessions (2006).

There are now versions of his book out in Canada and Australia.The latest book he has co-edited is
Fog In Channel… about Britain’s relationship with mainland Europe, published by Shoehorn Books, UK.


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Location: North America, United States
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