Alec Baldwin’s reading of Whitehead’s “Lost and Found” is really great. His delivery is perfect and he strikes the ideal balance of humor and pathos, even if his inner-Boston peeks through this New York tale once in a while. You can hear it for free at soundcloud.
[READ: February 12, 2012] “The Way We Live Now: 11-11-01; Lost and Found”
I didn’t know who Colson Whitehead was in 2001 (at the time of this piece, he had written two novels, neither of which have I read even now). I read a lot of things about 9/11 after the attacks; however, I didn’t read everything (and really I didn’t want to try).
Strangely, the only way I found out about this is because my brother-in-law’s wife linked to the soundcloud page on Facebook the other day. (I’m not sure what made her link to it now, either).
The amazing thing about this essay is that it was written less than a month after the attacks and yet it is it is humorous and wise (but not silly or light-hearted). It strikes a perfect balance. And in fact, doesn’t even mention the attacks by name.
The piece is more of an ode to New York City and how “No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, ”That used to be Munsey’s’ or ‘That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge.'” Your first memory of the City is how you will always think of the City. Whether you were dragged there at Christmas time as child or to help a friend move.
Whitehead’s first memory is riding the subway: “It’s the early 70’s, so everything is filthy. Which means everything is still filthy, because that is my city and I’m sticking to it. ” It’s these personal scenes that really sell the piece, but he is able to expand it to everyone:
For that new transplant from Des Moines, who is starting her first week of work at a Park Avenue South insurance firm, that colossus squatting over Grand Central is the Met Life Building, and for her it always will be. She is wrong, of course — when I look up there, I clearly see the gigantic letters spelling out Pan Am, don’t I? And of course I am wrong, in the eyes of the old-timers who maintain the myth that there was a time before Pan Am.
This is all funny and true, and yet it also leads into what Whitehead is getting at:
But look past the windows of the travel agency that replaced your pizza parlor. Beyond the desks and computers and promo posters for tropical adventures, you can still see Neapolitan slices cooling, the pizza cutter lying next to half a pie, the map of Sicily on the wall. It is all still there, I assure you.
His point is that we can never make our proper goodbyes to things because we never know when they will be gone. What will be your last checker cab ride? Or your last trip to a club? You don’t know when your favorite place closed down… yesterday? a month ago? five minutes after you last left it?
Because the city is ever evolving and will always go on without us. Even though it knows us better than anyone–it has seen us do our most private things: prepare in secret for a job interview or run up the street because you forgot your keys. And knowing that, try to imagine what all of your old apartments would say about you if they got together (this section was particularly funny). And yet despite all of that, it will move on regardless of what we want.
As the piece ends, he does mention the Twin Towers and how “they still stand because we saw them, moved in and out of their long shadows, were lucky enough to know them for a time. They are a part of the city we carry around.” And on this note, he pushes us toward the future, to whatever will replace the towers:
Naturally we will cast a wary eye toward those new kids on the block, but let’s be patient and not judge too quickly. We were new here, too, once.
Even eleven years later this piece was very moving. But it was also funny, thoughtful and warm (which is why it was so moving). This is a tremendous essay with universal application, even as it is about such a specific event.
You can read it here.