New York's defiant life, and its memento mori
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, October 20, 2001)

NEW YORK - It's the silliest damn play you'll ever see, Broadway at its most self-indulgent, an Upper East Side comedy written for people who live on the Upper East Side or wish passionately that they did. The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, by Charles Busch, who earlier wrote Vampire Lesbians in Sodom, deals with a whiny and unfulfilled wife, her doctor husband, her Jewish Mother from Hell and a mysterious stranger who of course upsets their lives. By coincidence, a subplot briefly reflects recent events: A friendly Iranian doorman named Mohammed identifies a Middle Eastern charitable organization with a secret and violent agenda. There's also enough lower-bowel humour to fuel the career of a 1935 burlesque comedian. In the end, perverse sex leads to an unconvincing affirmation of family values.

Yet the matinee audience that filled every seat in the Ethel Barrymore Theater on West 47th Street last Saturday was attentive, amused and even a little pleased with itself. After all, we were doing our duty for Mayor Rudy ("Shop, see some shows") Giuliani. The star, Valerie Harper, appreciated our sacrifice. She gestured for silence after the cast took its bows and expressed her gratitude: "Thank you, thank you, for coming here and laughing -- for supporting Broadway, New York and America!"

Laughing for America! It's an unlikely battle cry, but in New York the urgent need to recover from tragedy invests even the commonplace with symbolic force. The most self-conscious city on the planet has found something new and serious to be self-conscious about. Life here has become a thicket of contradictions. Vivid recent tragedy lies behind every human encounter, every good meal, every subway ride. There are people who confess they now hate stepping into an elevator.

The mourning for Sept. 11 slowly recedes, but the city remains far from secure. Waiters and cashiers in bustling restaurants sometimes replace "Have a good day" with "Be safe." In this atmosphere, going out for dinner feels like an act of defiance and even the humblest retailers can believe they are frustrating the terrorists by keeping the economy alive. Fifth Avenue shops exhibit their couturier frocks in Stars & Stripes window dressing, with slogans like "Stand Together." The other day, just outside the Rockefeller Center building where Tom Brokaw's assistant contracted anthrax, crowds were chatting at sidewalk cafés while rows of American flags rippled in the warm breeze above them and skaters sped around the world's most glamorous ice rink.

New Yorkers have always claimed a unique resilience -- "In the army of urban dwellers, New Yorkers are the Delta Force," New York magazine recently assured them. Now, terror having transformed the terms of everyday life, they need nimble new forms of urban toughness to deal with an enemy they barely knew existed.

There are consolations. People in routine jobs feel good about themselves just because they show up for work and look with tolerance on colleagues who call in sick. (What makes them sick is the thought of death powder spilling out of an envelope from Nowhere, N.J. -- and who wouldn't sympathize?) At AOL Time Warner they shut down all but one of the entrances and staffed it with a dozen security people. To visit an editor this week, you showed photo ID at two checkpoints, received a pass, then got the editor to come downstairs and conduct you in. While you waited, messengers showed their credentials before handing packages to a young man wearing latex gloves.

In the sunshine of an exceptional October day, people sat on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum. Inside, some of us paused over medieval portraits of saints who kept human skulls on their desks as memento mori: "Remember that you must die." New York this autumn possesses its own massive civic memento mori. From the streets above the Fulton subway station you can glimpse the still rising smoke, the flashing work lights, the cranes moving into place. Above it all there's a looming horizontal blackness, which turns out to be the base of a demolished building, now a monstrous example of minimalist art. Night and day, the workers clear the site while architects and politicians debate how to fill it. Something grand must be done, of course, something vital and essentially New York. It's time to remember an ancient Bob Dylan line, "If you're not busy being born, you're busy dying."

Uptown at the Museum of Modern Art, the big exhibition of Alberto Giacometti's work proves, again and again, that Giacometti (who died in 1966) spent much of his life obsessively depicting the atrocity of Sept. 11, 2001. In his paintings, anguished grey figures walk toward us from darkened spaces; in his sculptures, the famous elongated figures in bronze have scarred, uneven skin. We now see they are trying to recover from near-fatal burns.

Giacometti's major work was born in the desolation of Paris after the Second World War. His European generation, having seen so much horror at close range, taught the world a bleak new kind of pessimism. He was to art what Samuel Beckett was to literature, a scream of protest. I remember writing an admiring obit 35 years ago, describing the existential loneliness of his art but implying that it expressed a European sensibility and meant rather less to our relatively peaceful continent. I was younger then. So was the world I knew.

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