There has been a sort of euphoria settling over downtown Toronto, with postponed book and television launch parties going ahead, and there is a merriness amongst those attending the parties that borders on the untoward, as if people are unable or unwilling to restrain their pleasure at not being under a pile of rubble at the World Trade Center.
A long-scheduled party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of downtown Toronto bookstore chain Book City held on the evening of the 10th day was typical of both the euphoria and some mental tics that are going to become part of North America’s collective cognitive makeup for the foreseeable future. The party was held on the 33rd floor of the Sutton Place Hotel on Bay Street, a half dozen blocks north of Toronto’s financial district. A feature of this well-known Toronto venue is its 15 foot floor-to-ceiling windows, which can give the impression of near-vertiginous exposure if you stand next to them. A 33 story building isn’t outrageously tall even for Toronto skyscrapers, but the height of these windows and the absence of other comparable towers to the south for a quarter mile—and the fact that from the southwest there is a clear approach lane all the way from Lake Ontario—had everyone feeling skittish.
The room was already filled and buzzing with energy when I arrived, on time. John Snyder, one of the company executives and among the half-dozen serious booksellers left in Toronto, commented that the RSVP return had been near 90 percent, many late. I thought at first this was accountable to the occasion: Not just some well-liked booksellers but a now-rare opportunity to celebrate a book store that doesn’t also promise the cultural doom of having a single marketing graduate dictating which books ought to be published. That ugly reality is something that Canada’s writers and publishers now face with corporate giant Chapters/Indigo moving well over 50 percent of Canadian book sales.
It wasn’t until I got the south-west corner of the room and recognized that most of the people there were either openly gazing out the window or keeping their backs carefully turned to it that I began to see there was another sort of energy present, this one bordering on terror. The gazers were, of course, looking for incoming airliners, and those with backs turned were imagining them.
Writers aren’t completely unrealistic people, and neither are book publishers or booksellers. Everyone there understood, rationally, that we were in no danger. Our building wasn’t a hundred stories tall, we weren’t in New York City, and who—-here there was a quick glance to see if Salman Rushdie hadn’t slipped in unannounced—-would bother to attack a bunch of dinosaurs from the politically and culturally vestigial book production and sales industry? I heard one writer joking to another that if the terrorists had any sense of proportion, all we’d get would be an out-of-fuel Cessna with a single engine. His companion thought it would be a glider, with Harbourfront Writers festival impresario Greg Gatenby as the explosive. There were other self-deprecating jibes made, too, but most were in similarly bad taste, or were even less witty than the ones noted. Late in the party, as the merry-makers began to leave, it was this part of the room that cleared first.
I went home feeling cheered up and a little drunk, but I didn’t sleep any better than I have since September 11th. The same impossible-to-pin-down anxiety that broken up my sleep in the nights before the party returned, and I awakened the next morning feeling irritable and uncentred in more than the ironic sense.
A sizable portion of North American adults aren’t sleeping well these days, so I’m hardly remarkable. But it is worth mentioning that I can claim an adulthood of remarkably sound and peaceful sleep. I have never taken a sleeping pill, I have not suffered nightmares, and except for a half dozen short term domestic or financial crises over the years, extremely loud noises next to my ear or the weeping of small children, literally nothing awakens me in the night. I’ve been this way—it is more a gift than an ability—for almost 40 years now, and I happen to know exactly where I acquired the gift and why.
In the last week of October, 1962, I was on the ocean liner SS Homeric, traveling to Europe with five other 18 year olds from Northern British Columbia. About a third of the way across the Atlantic the Cuban Missile Crisis came to a head, and it was taken so seriously by the ship’s crew that the boat was abuzz with rumours that the Captain was going to turn us south and head to safety of the South Atlantic. Then the Crisis passed without turning everyone on the planet into particles of radioactive ash, and with it passed the nightmare I had grown up with.
I had grown up believing, as most school kids did in the 1950s, that I was going to die in a nuclear war. The conclusion to the Cuban Missile Crisis ended that fear, and established the Monroe Doctrine inside the heads of North American young people as a believable reality. It didn’t make any different if we, as Canadians, loved or hated America and its things, or if we supported American continental hegemony and the American Military Industrial Complex that was its regulator and chief benefitee. A continental safe zone had been created, and we lived inside it.
I didn’t feel safe and secure because President Kennedy called the bluff of the Soviet Union and got the upper hand in the Cold War. It’s that when Nikita Kruschev blinked, I understood for the first time that the bad guys weren’t crazy. And because they weren’t, for the first time in my conscious life I felt like the future might not be in the hands of maniacs and madmen. I had a chance.
I became, after that ocean crossing, a sound sleeper for the first time in my life. From that moment on, I gave off alpha waves so thick and buzzy at the onset of Morpheus’ realm that I could down insomniacs fussing in adjoining rooms. Sleep came willingly, deliciously, as a sinking into the riches of being. I was guaranteed that tomorrow would arrive, and whatever I had broken or misplayed here could restart there.
But now, I fear, almost four decades of untroubled sleep was lost when those clouds of atomized concrete billowed outward across the streets of lower Manhattan from the collapsed twin towers of the World Trade Center. I don’t know if it will be rescued from the rubble by some miracle—actual or symbolic, in the days that lie ahead. Anything is possible, just as it was before September 11th, when the madmen took over the controls of the world once again.
I have heard, during the last week, people I used to respect saying that I don’t deserve to sleep, that we had this coming, that in a world of nightmares, we deserve the worst ones. This kind of cultural self-loathing has been with us for a while now, and it has sunk some first-rate minds—of which Noam Chomsky is perhaps the most notable—in its miasma. It supposes that the United States is not only the sole source of planetary misfortune, but is its detail-obsessed micromanager. The roots of this self-loathing lie partly within our Calvinist heritage, partly within the personality and methods of Leon Trotsky, who believed that things could be made better by making them worse, and by spreading misery as if it were the viral source of all worldly virtue.
I honestly don’t know what to say to these people, except to acknowledge that my sleep is the least casualty suffered in this horrible situation. Maybe I should point out to them that, like the revenge-crazed reactionaries they are currently feeling so superior to, they’re counting on George W. Bush to do more than he’s capable of doing. This catastrophe will never be accurately or adequately revenged, nor will its accounts be satisfactorily settled—not on their terms, not on the terms foolish George W. Bush believes are just. This is a catastrophe, and catastrophes must simply be endured without whining, which is the way the vast majority of New Yorkers are handling it.
What I do know is that a generation’s peace of mind is gone, perhaps irrevocably, and that no one deserves the nightmares that are among us now, or soon to come.
1400 words, September 27th, 2001