Today, Twelve Years Ago

Borrowing from Michiko Kakutani in this morning’s New York Times:

“A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now. It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theater. … He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall–soon–it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.”

–Thomas Pynchon, “Gravity’s Rainbow”

‘Conquering Beautiful Stages’

Thirty-nine years ago this week, “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.”

I saw “Man on Wire” a few years ago, then again last night while we were packing for our big trip east. I love Philippe Pettit’s description of his obsession “to conquer beautiful stages.” But there’s something powerfully elegiac here, too, especially in the first three minutes or so of the clip below, a montage of the construction of the World Trade Center (the soundtrack is Michael Nyman, “Fish Beach“).

Fabuladora, or Tapeworm?

If you had never heard of Tania Head before last week, and I hadn’t, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve happened across her name now. She’s the disgraced former head of a group of World Trade Center survivors; disgraced because it turns out that her story of peril, heroism and escape was just that: an elaborately spun yarn.

The New York Times broke the story last week and put it on the front page (“In a 9/11 Survival Tale, the Pieces Just Don’t Fit“). The Times looked into each unique aspect of the drama Head has been relating for the past few years — among other things, that she was on the 78th floor of the south tower when it was hit, that she was badly burned and helped to safety by a documented hero of the disaster, that she took a wedding ring from a mortally injured man in the tower and gave it to his wife — and found that not a single point of the story can be verified. Head repeatedly postponed interviews with the Times before hiring a lawyer to deal with the media; neither Head nor the lawyer have responded to the story beyond saying she did nothing illegal.

Meantime, a newspaper in Barcelona, La Vanguardia, hasd gotten into the act. The paper has published a couple stories saying that Alicia Esteve (a.k.a. Tania) Head is from Barcelona; that acquaintances felt she was given to telling tall tales (at one point, she is termed a fabuladora — fabulist, or liar, in English — which is just about the best word I’ve come across this week); and that among her suspected fantasies was an account of a 125 mph crash in a Ferrari that severed her arm, which was found and reattached (only to be charred during her World Trade Center Adventure). La Vanguardia followed up that report with one based on interviews with what it describes as Head’s former colleagues and fellow students in Barcelona. One witness says that eight days after 9/11 — a period in which she says she spent five days unconscious in a New York hospital — Head showed up in a Barcelona classroom for an MBA program she was taking. She never mentioned any adventures at the World Trade Center; and apparently the only thing she said about New York is that she’d like to go there and work someday.

(The second La Vanguardia article, “Alicia Esteve comenzó curso en Barcelona días después del 11-S,” is in Spanish; the highly entertaining Google translation is here. Entertaining? Well, machine translation is still an inexact science; although it’s impressive that you can get this kind of instantaneous conversion from one language to another merely by pressing a button on your Web browser. But it is a conversion, not a translation, and the results are often comical. For instance, whatever algorithm Google uses apparently can’t make heads or tails of the pronouns in the Head story; so the story is filled with hes, hims and its that refer to Head. And then there’s the case of the ambiguous word that is meant one way and rendered another.

Here’s one sentence that got my attention in the “English” version: “Nevertheless, its personality, very surrounding and demanding, according to those who knew it, turned it a tapeworm.” A tapeworm? Here’s the Spanish: “Sin embargo, su personalidad, muy envolvente y exigente, según quienes la conocieron, la convertía en una solitaria.” Well, solitaria does mean tapeworm. Sometimes. But in this context, the story was talking about Head’s reported habit of trying to ingratiate herself with others. But apparently her “surrounding and demanding personality” turned people off and thus she became a “solitaria” — which can also mean (I think) a solitary one. The next sentence, in machine English, gives some context that would back up that reading: “No matter how much one made an effort in being likeable, it had few friends.”)

Returning to the subject of the tapeworm talk: One needs to read some of Head’s account of her imaginary 9/11 experience to get a feeling for how involved and vivid the fantasy was. For a piece the New York Daily News ran for the fifth anniversary of the attacks, a reporter joined one of Head’s tours of Ground Zero. She didn’t hold anything back describing the scene:

“Burned, bleeding, nearly blinded by dust, she struggled toward the stairway. ‘Blood. Body parts. I crawled through all that,’ she recalled. ‘I realized everybody around me was dying.’ She then encountered the first figure in FDNY bunker gear. ‘I always like to say for me it was like seeing God,’ she recalled. ‘It was like, “Okay, we’re gong to make it.” ‘ … Head had managed to reach the street when the south tower came down and a firefighter pulled her under a rig. ‘That was it for me. I woke up in a hospital five days later.’ ”

I suppose it’s not too hard to figure out how someone could come up with details like that: lots has been written about what happened that day, and imagination is a powerful thing. But the next step — presenting yourself as someone who was there, who touched many of those who perished — is breathtaking, as is the effort to maintain such a complex, attention-getting fiction (here’s one example of an admirer watching Tania in action).

That’s the story here: trying to peel back how this person made the journey from ingratiating, irritating misfit to heroine in a sweeping, historic tragedy. Of course, putting it that way almost makes it sound inevitable; the misfit, if such a being actually exists, always wants to be the hero, right? But still, that conversion — the day-to-day details, not the psychological generalizing — is what’s really interesting to me.

Technorati Tags:

Defining Moment

The Times worked up a bogus take on our president’s image and poll tribulations a year after Hurricane Katrina caught his administration, and just about everybody else who might have known better, flat-footed. In The Times’s telling, our president’s famous post-Katrina flight over New Orleans, gazing down on the blur of floodwaters and the invisible drama of people losing their grip on life, was a defining and damning moment. In the words of Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican:

“Unfortunately, it may be hard to erase the regrettable photo of him on Air Force One looking down at the destruction and devastation below. That’s a searing and very unfortunate image that doesn’t reflect the president’s compassion.”

Maybe the image is as bad as all that. But you have to ask yourself, what had Bush done before that picture was taken to mark him as such a dynamic, effective leader. What did he have in the asset column that was so thoroughly erased by the decision to view the catastrophe from afar? The Times finds the answer in the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, where Bush made a personal appearance three days after the 9/11 attacks to inspire the Ground Zero workers.

I’m more inclined to think of another, more sprawling disaster scene: Iraq. After watching Bush’s handiwork there, his Hurricane Katrina performance seems like it’s par for the course. If that seems too harsh, consider my favorite Katrina Week utterance. No, not “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Not New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin going off on his profane radio tirade. Those were great, but I like this more: Bush’s remarks at a Southern California event while Katrina was still pounding the coast:

“The storm is moving through, and we’re now able to assess damage, or beginning to assess damage. And I want the people to know in the affected areas that the federal government and the state government and the local governments will work side-by-side to do all we can to help get your lives back in order.

“This was a terrible storm. It’s a storm that hit with a lot of ferocity. It’s a storm now that is moving through, and now it’s the time for governments to help people get their feet on the ground.

“For those of you who prayed for the folks in that area, I want to thank you for your prayers. For those of you who are concerned about whether or not we’re prepared to help, don’t be. We are. We’re in place. We’ve got equipment in place, supplies in place. And once the — once we’re able to assess the damage, we’ll be able to move in and help those good folks in the affected areas.”

Don’t worry, everyone — he’s got us covered.

Technorati Tags: ,