Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Déjà vu all over again

It's Tuesday, warm and mild, the first leaves drifting off the gingko trees under a cloudless sky of vivid autumnal blue. According to the calendar, the anniversary falls on a Thursday. But Tuesday is the day that feels like the day it happened, the true anniversary. Like all anniversaries, like birthdays and memorial days, the day itself marks both sameness and difference; the increasing time-lag between then and now, and the loop that invisibly connects that day to this. And the mysterious gap between the living and the dead: we get older, while they stay the same age forever.

Sameness and difference; mundanity and the shock of it. From where I sit I can see workmen on the roof of Butler Library, twelve or so floors off the ground, striding around happily as if no-one ever found themselves trapped at the top of a tall building. The friend who brought us the first visual report, telling how from a distance he saw the first tower falling as silently and inexorably as "snow sliding off a roof" (a phrase that still wakes me up at night), no longer lives in the city. The child who was a heavy, leaping, nameless presence inside me then, now hops up and down so that both feet leave the ground simultaneously while demanding "Mummy carry you!" He weighs five times what he did then; he breathes air and speaks in sentences.

Too much writing, too many words, too much unearned built-in poignancy; it feels cheap to squeeze another paragraph out of an event that I'm not even sure is mine to write about. Or is as much mine to write about as anything, anywhere, but which is so often written about as if such a thing only ever happened once, here, two years ago. So much blah blah blah, in the service of so many agendas. I wonder, one year after the first air-raids on London, were the papers full of articles reminiscing about where people were when the Blitz started, and how life had changed irrevocably?

When words fail me (or vice versa), pictures offer a respite, something to meditate on. A cover image on the Village Voice in the weeks after September 11 showed the towers miraculously restored; on closer inspection, a hand in the foreground held a postcard of the buildings up to the gap in the skyline, over the tagline "Wish You Were Here." In the days after the event, locals as well as tourists rushed to buy postcards of the missing towers, as if they too might disappear; like holy pictures and medals, representations of the thing itself acquired a mysterious aura of sanctity. Of course you can, as always, still buy postcards of the towers at every postcard stand in the city; that's the work of architecture in an age of mechanical reproduction.

The New Yorker is legendary for covers that evoke the time of year, haiku-like, with deft, often witty seasonal references. Three years in a row it has captured the new mood of early September. Art Spiegelman's cover for the issue of September 24, 2001, printed barely a week after the towers fell, was a masterpiece of understatement, a flat evocation in black on black of the stunned feeling that pervaded the city. It looked like a field of unrelieved mourning darkness, until you noticed a thin line slicing through one of the letters at the top of the page. Tracing back down, you discovered that the line was the radio mast on top of one of the buildings, both of which were imprinted on the page in a barely distinguishable, marginally lighter shade of black. You looked and looked and you could almost see the towers; one minute they were there, the next gone, and then there they were again, in a flickering optical illusion that echoed the way the mind struggled to comprehend their sudden absence.

Last year's cover for the week of the anniversary, by Ana Juan, was at first glance a semi-abstract smudge of autumn colours -- oranges, blues, greys -- around and through the dimly visible shapes of half-familiar buildings around the WTC. An obscure but identifiable vision of the site we were all thinking about, but suggesting what? Was it engulfed in flames and smoke, or emerging from a dawn mist? Once again, the doubleness of the towers themselves inspired an ambiguous depiction: destruction or rebirth? Fire or sunlight? Smoke or haze? The image was titled Dawn Over Lower Manhattan, but struggling to read the picture, your eyes continue to play tricks on you. The oscillating set of equally plausible alternatives echo the still undetermined effects of the catastrophe, one year on.

This year, the cover of the New Yorker returns to more representational art in the form of that old staple, the iconic Manhattan skyline -- but uncannily adjusted. It takes a moment for Gürbüz Dogan Eksioglu's image to sink in. Two Woolworth Buildings. Two Empire State Buildings. Two Chrysler Buildings. And so on up the river, each edifice standing next to its own twin tower, redoubled presence as mute, insistent tribute to the missing pair. Perhaps in tribute to Spiegelman's cover, the spikes on top of the Empire State Buildings slice through the W of the New in New Yorker. The repeated buildings fill the page left to right, two by two, rank on rank, and they're doubled again by their reflections in the water. The city, suggests this picture, is more present than ever; twice as present, assertively compensating for its loss.

Freud, writing on the idea of the uncanny, notes that doubles – shadows, reflections, guardian spirits, the idea of a soul that outlives the body – function at first as "a preservation against extinction." With that reflective evidence of our solidity, we feel more assured in our precarious singleness. Eksioglu's image suggests a city shoring itself up, insuring itself against further loss. But as Freud also points out, at a certain point the double, the doppelganger, the doll, the other us, ceases to reassure and becomes spooky: "From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death." Uncle Sigmund, dabbling in lit crit and amateur psych, captures the ambivalence of most New Yorkers – fearing further disaster, but living as if it won't happen; walking among towers not unlike the ones that fell, building new ones to replace the old; and looking over their shoulders, every autumn for a long time to come, wondering where that strange shiver comes from.

The buildings in Eksioglu's picture also seem to stand at attention, like soldiers on parade, or at a funeral. Double duty, déjà vu, double irony: quickly running out of servicemen to finish the job in Iraq, the US Armed Forces has suggested that those who have already done their tour of duty might need to be brought back (or worse, kept there) for a second round. This is how we thank them? Meanwhile, inside this week's New Yorker, another through-the-looking-glass moment: the projected ten-year five trillion dollar surplus that George and Al bickered over in the months before the 2000 election, is now looking like it will be, instead, a five trillion dollar deficit. A hole in the ground where once a pile of wealth stood...