1869, Remembering 9/11 with Jane Bunker, Jessica DuLong, and Larry Kirwan
3:58PM Sep 7, 2021
Welcome to 1869, The Cornell University Press Podcast, I'm Jonathan Hall. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of September 11th, we are proud to present to you a special Remembering 9/11 episode with guest host Jane Bunker, Director of Cornell University Press. Jane will be interviewing two Cornell authors whose recent books directly address the events and the aftermath of the September 11 tragedy -Jessica DuLong, author of Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift and Larry Kerwin, author of Rockaway Blue: A Novel, both published under our Three Hills imprint.
Jane Bunker has been serving as Director since March of 2020, and is the first woman to lead Cornell University Press. She was previously the director of Northwestern University Press and Associate Director and Editor in Chief at the State University of New York Press. Jane holds a BA in Philosophy from St. Norbert College and an MA in Philosophy from Fordham University. Jessica DuLong is a journalist, historian, book collaborator and ghostwriter, as well as chief engineer America of the retired 1931 New York City fireboat john J. Harvey. Her first book, My River Chronicles, won an American Society of Journalists and Authors, Outstanding Book Award for memoir. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, CNN.com, Newsweek International, Psychology Today, Huffington Post, Newsday, and Maritime Reporter and Engineering News. Jessica appears and Spike Lee's HBO docuseries, "NYC Epicenters 9/11 to 2021->1/2" and in cartoon form in Maira Kalman's picture book Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey. Larry Kirwan was the leader of the New York based Irish political rock band Black 47 for 25 years. He is author of five previous books, including Liverpool Fantasy, Rockin' the Bronx, and Green Suede Shoes, and 19 plays and musicals, including Paradise Square, which will open on Broadway March 22 2022. He is currently working on a stage version of the informer, and Iraqi Rose, a musical about the Iraq war. Kirwan also hosts Celtic Crush, a popular radio show on Sirius XM, and writes a column for the Irish Echo. Hello, Jane, Jessica, and Larry, welcome to the podcast. Thank you. We're so happy to have you join us for this special episode that's tied to the 20th anniversary of 911. Jane will be our special guest host for this discussion. And so I turn the microphone over to you, Jane.
Thank you so much, Jonathan. I'm really happy to be here and to have the opportunity to speak with Jessica and Larry today. Thank you for making the time to speak with us as we near this really important anniversary. And I also would like to give a shout out to my colleague Michael McGandy, who worked with you both on your books, I was really interested to see when I was coming on board last year as the new director of the press that he had planned two books on 9/11 during this season one fiction and one non. And it's really interesting to look at the events of September 11 from both of these vantage points. So I think we can acknowledge we'll be writing and reading and discussing this event forever. And I have so many questions for both of you. But I'm going to try to limit myself to maybe three. If you'd like to both begin by talking a little bit about how 9/11 impacted you personally, and how that informed the books that you both wrote. And Jessica, would you like to start us off?
So I'm a marine engineer. I served for two decades as engineer aboard retired New York City Fire boat John J. Harvey, and the boat, while it was not an active duty vessel on September 11, it was called back into service to pump completely necessary river water to firefighters to land based crews. When the towers came down, the fire hydrants were obscured by debris and rubble and the water mains were shattered. And so I served at ground zero for four days as a marine engineer. And so it's always hard for me to to describe when The beginning of this recording started for me, because it really started in a very informal way with me just as a writer, carrying a notebook around with me writing things down on site, just for no clear purpose, except that I hope to one day make sense of what was happening around us. So that service is both what made me feel a deep responsibility to tell the story of the maritime evacuation of nearly half a million people from Manhattan on September 11, I felt a responsibility to my community, I felt a responsibility to bear witness to these remarkable choices that people made time and time again to to help one another. Similarly, I was really hesitant to dive into writing a book about this topic, because it I still carried the psychological effects of my service down there. And so it's meant that for two decades, I've still been swimming in these same stories. And so what makes it worth it is the ability to draw attention to the reality that we are so much more than are constrained, formulated hero narratives are idea that people divide into two categories, heroes and everybody else, because really, what we saw in full force that day was that so many people time and time again, put themselves and their concern for their well being aside so that they could help other people. And it's really that is the remarkable story that day.
Thank you so much. I really appreciated that part in your book, where you talk about look to the helpers. And that's where some sort of saving grace comes in. Larry, what about you? How did the effects of 9/11 play into your writing this novel?
Well, I live just above the area, I live just above Canal Street. So I heard the plane coming over. And I actually bang my head on to the table because I thought it was comfortable to hit our building and everyone upstairs and saw this incredible sight of a huge plane embedded in the north tower. And I went down that straight away. But I only got about eight blocks down and then there's smoke in the dust. And I realize this is not a good place to be and turn back and wander around. But as regards writing the book that happened the following Saturday night, because black 47 was the house band of York City at the time and had a an enormous following, particularly with cops and firemen and first responders and a lot of young Irish American financials, as we call them, many of whom had gone to college for the first time and in their families, and we're working on there. So we lost a lot of people. And because of the nature of the band, when we weren't on tour, we would play in a regular place every Saturday night, we were in New York and it happened to be Connelly's on 45th Street. So we put out the word that we would go back in the the following Saturday night because that everybody was laying low in New York and people weren't coming in, and the streets are deserted. So we said we'll be in Connelly's and come on up. And of course, black 47 fans came, but the great majority of people who came were the first responders who were actually down in the pit, as we call it then. And for about four or five weeks, the strange phenomenon happens. And think back to it. We didn't know who was alive and who is dead for the most part early on. So whenever the door would open, everyone would turn around. And when someone would walk through everyone with this audible sigh of relief, john or Mary had made it Yeah. And that that kept happening for about four or five weeks. And I began to think Yeah, but how about Billy or Michelle? They're not coming back. And I got this, this need to write the story of the regular people. Because already I could feel what was happening. The politicians were taking it over. And we're going to use it. And they did use it to go to war in Iraq, and a lot of our fans because we had our basic support group for working class and lower middle class people. And many of those young people joined up because I wanted to do some kind of service for the country. And the next thing I know two years later, they're in Baghdad on the way to Baghdad. I've been shot at So we were hearing the stories of that straightaway too. So I wanted to capture what it was like for the regular people on New York. And I tried it in different ways try to with an album called New York Town for Black 47, then put it into a playwright form because I am a playwright. And that was produced by couldn't, I couldn't get into their heads in that form. And I realized, would have to be a novel because you'd have to find out what the characters were thinking. And that's what Rockaway Blue is all about.
Thank you, Larry. It's almost as if you anticipated my next question, which is always going to ask about the fact that both of the books explore this tragedy through the lens of ordinary working class people doing what you know, end up being truly extraordinary things. And I was curious about why you took that approach and why it's so powerful. And I think you've you've just explained that perfectly in the case of Rockaway Blue. Good. And I'm also as I'm listening to you both, I'm struck by the fact that I'm speaking to, you know, a rock and roll star and an author and playwright and and, you know, an engineer of a New York City, fireboat, it's it's extraordinary, and also a very accomplished writer, as well, of course, Jessica, and you know how every buddy has a story, everybody's got their perspective on what happened that day, we all lived through it in a particular way, you both were much, much closer than I was actually up the Hudson, a couple of hours in Albany, New York that day. But it was the same weather. Remember that blue sky, everybody remembers that blue sky that day. And now it's 20 years since the incident. And I'm wondering if we could talk a little bit about how the people in your books have healed, if they have healed, and how they haven't. In the latter case, and you know, extrapolate perhaps from that outward to the nation as a whole. I'm personally struck by the similarities between that historical time period and now where we're living through the global pandemic, there is incredible collective trauma, and grief. And it strikes me as a really similar time period, where we are really in need of healing and connection, and the transcendence that art can offer us. And I realized I didn't really ask a question. Larry,you look like you've got something to say
9/11 changed America, we became a fearful people after it. I often think that I've been think it's a huge change, you know, in that we weren't asked to do anything. I mean, as Jessica says, so many people did do something. But for instance, Black 47 was really lucky in that we were able to do whatever we wanted to, we didn't need to--we didn't need permission from anyone, but so many bands and artists wanted to contribute. And there were stymied, there was nothing anyone could do. But apart from that, it was the country wasn't asked to do anything, we would have done anything at that period, we would have gone into poor areas, and raise the level of education, we would have donated money to different things. But you know, the powers that be wanted everything to go along the same. And I have nothing but disgust for the politicians of the states people. At that point, they they missed this huge opportunity to change America. And America needs a lot of changing. And my guess is it's not happening at this point with the pandemic either. You know, people can't even take the simple step of getting vaccinated. And for people are not thinking in terms of the common good, because politicians see a way of keeping us separate, and of staying in power because of that. And it's strange. I'm interested to get Jessica's view on this, but it just seems that we're heading down the same track again, as we did after 911.
Yeah, I remember President Bush famously saying that we just needed to go shopping.
I mean, there is one there is one guy who knew how to get out direct the world. He wrecked the Middle East. He didn't do very much for the US. And he, I think, realize it and got his butt down to Texas, got on his farm and stayed down there and escaped the the reckoning that shouldn't have happened to him. But that's, that's my take on it. What do you say if
I may say I was really struck in your book, Jessica, by the fact that I'm really sure I could be wrong. I'm pretty sure you don't mention Bush's name, possibly not Giuliani's name. Your focus is so lasered in on the people who are getting the boats to the seawall to see how many people they could get off Manhattan Island, it was entirely focused on the people who needed saving, and the people who showed up to do it.
Well, then the mention of Giuliani's name comes because he's he's the mayor, and he's at a certain point, you know, puts out an order that anybody who can go north should go north, right. So point of information. It's, it's included as point of information, because it was then President Bush's arrival that actually stalled us in in place, because the harbor shut down for security reasons that there was a whole group of largely firefighters, but first responders who were stuck waiting on the back of a tugboat just wanting to go to New Jersey, and they had to wait until President Bush arrived and then departed. It is very easy for us to continue down this road of division, where we we categorize people, and we look at people with the sort of tight lens focus of a small narrative of who we can be and how we can be. And there are plenty of examples in history, in New York, and everywhere, all over the world of terrible things that people do and terrible things that happen. And what does not get enough real estate, in our words, in our images, in our art, in our common commentators discussing are the ways that we come together. And Rebecca Solnit has a beautiful book that collects all of these examples, Paradise Built in Hell. And she looks throughout history at all of these stories that actually took place in the ways that disasters happened. And people came together, people came together, who were not trained to do so who didn't necessarily have special equipment, or a special sort of professional obligation to do this. And those examples, do not get enough attention, do not get enough airtime. And I think there are some good reasons that Larry mentioned about why those divisions are important to maintain for certain certain of us. But we all lose, we all lose when we have this limited sense of our human potential doesn't serve any of us. And so the more that we can draw attention to the incredible selflessness and the choices that people made over and over again, to help people, even when and it's hard to bring ourselves back to those that morning and those those minutes that crept by and raced by sort of all at the same time. And the weird way that time gets mangled. When we're in crisis situations, we didn't know if if the the first plane was the beginning or the end, we didn't know if the second plane we didn't know that the tower it just kept getting worse. So it seemed that it was this you know, arrow of trajectory of of worse and worse and worse. And the Mariners continued to turn their boats around, they would drop off passengers on safe shores in New Jersey, in Brooklyn, elsewhere, Staten Island and they turn their boats around, and they headed straight to the island on fire. Without knowing what was going to happen next, many times they had to navigate their boats only with radar because the smoke and dust and debris was in the air was just choking. And people have paid the price. I mean, you asked earlier about healing and people paid the price psychologically. And that's very hard to put metrics on and I certainly don't want to speak for others and whether they've healed or not. I think that's a moving target moving targets probably not the best analogy to use in that setting. But you see what I'm saying? But people, mariners have gotten sick and died for making that choice over and over again. And just one other point on this is that even though I think it's important, and when when the Mariners I spoke with sort of took pause and thought it through They recognize that they made choices in those moments, they could look back and say, Okay, I guess I could have done something different. But at the time, there was no something different that they were ever going to do. It was just a given, because this is what you do when you have the tools, and the skill set, and the wherewithal and the equipment and the ability to help. And you see someone standing at the seawall or jumping into the river, because they think they are somehow going to swim to New Jersey, and they're that desperate to get away from the island. You rescue them. That's just what we do. And that piece of who we are, needs more attention needs more highlighting. And right now, especially in the pandemic, it's really important. We're such a divided nation right now. And yet you see neighbor helping neighbor over and over again. And those are stories that need more daylight.
Yeah, I couldn't agree with you more. And and as you were speaking, and going through, you know, first plane hit, and we didn't know if it was the beginning or the end. And it kept getting worse, that that was done. So effectively, the way the narrative sort of unfolds in your book. Frankly, when I opened it up and looked at the timeline in the front matter, I just started reading it. And I, I started to cry, and I had to shut the book. And this was a couple of weeks ago, when I was getting ready for this. I had no idea. It would be so affecting still. I was sitting with my husband, and he said, What's the matter with you? And I just held up the book, and he handed it to him. And he said, Really? I said, you know, this, this is this is a tender time. You know, it's everything is? Everything is painful right now, on some level. And the hope, you know, you mentioned Rebecca solnit. She's one of the things that's been helping me get through, you know, the the focus on the fact that we show up for one another, and we do what's needed. And people don't need to tell us it just happens over and over and over again. Yeah, yeah. The other thing that I was really struck by in st by the sea wall is you don't really think about the fact that the waterfront in Manhattan is no longer structured for sea vessels to come up and get human beings on and off of boats. And so those scenes of cutting through railings and setting up Gangplanks and what happened at Pier 63 was really, really fascinating. And I was grateful to have a light shone on that. Back to this, I want to get back to this hopeful narrative. I really keep thinking your your words, Larry, keep resounding in my mind about how in the wake of the attacks, we would have done anything for this country. Would you like to say more about that? Do you think that there's any way we can, you know, I, I just can't help but keep bringing it back to where we are now. And you think we can pull it together? in the in the pandemic? What have to happen?
Well, I think people should look at the facts. You know, we're in a really difficult time because social media is so strong. And I regret to say that when I'm when I'm talking to people, they say crazy things. It's like I read this on the internet as if that means, you know, it's true. And I wrote a column for the Irish echo. And anytime I read about politics, or write about anything of that nature, I have to check every fact because it's just so important. And my elverson check everything I write. But there's so much garbage information out there that people are believing that getting beyond that is one of the things we have to do. And that's a huge battle. You know, Facebook won't take responsibility for what's on there. You know, for for good reasons. Sometimes they don't want to get in the way of people's opinions. But there is a breakdown in in the moral trust in the country. That's going to be hard to overcome but Try to overcome it by telling the truth as best you can. And in the case of Rockaway blue, or I was trying to do is to see what happens to people, not during the actual day but but three years later when things have settled in a bit, and the worst part of the grief is over the cold steel of the briefest of the grief is over. But if time to think back a bit, and putting this character, Jimmy Murphy, who all of a sudden finds out that his son was actually in the tower, North Tower, 30 minutes before the crash, and his family is finally coming to terms with this, but he has to make the decision, should I find out what he was doing there, because it may not be good. And Ryan wasn't always a morally clear person. And if he find that something bad about his wife will revert back into the depressed state she was a personal the same thing for him. So as a writer, as an artist, what I was trying to do is get into the hands of people to see what happens to people, when a huge cataclysmic thing like 911 happens, but then what happens to them afterwards, when they have time to think back? And can their lives get healed? And I'm an optimist about that, I think lives can get healed, because you've seen that done true humanity that people pick themselves up and go on. Because as Beckett says what choice we have, but to go on. So that's that's what I was trying to do with the book.
Thank you so much. It's it's I'm, I love how you keep anticipating questions, I was going to ask about why you chose to set the novel, you know, three years after the events and how you think memory affects the larger society's perception of 911. Just as you know, the characters and Rockaway blue, have their memories of that day affect how they perceive it, and why it's important to remember and how the fact that we all remember so differently, plays into the collective narrative as well.
We also remember differently ourselves. Right before 911, I wrote a solo album and recorded and I, a lot of it was autobiographical, and I wrote a song about my parents, life's like that isn't it and how they met, and my memories of their romance when they were young people. My father was a merchant marine, so it used to go away for six months at a time. And there will be just preparation when he was coming back. And all of a sudden, my mother would kind of desert us as children because she was a wife again. And I wrote about that in 2000, while the two of them are still alive, and my mother died soon after. And my father died a couple of years after that. So it was around that period. And sometimes I hear that particular song now and I, I see it differently now than I did when I wrote it. And, you know, that's what memory does. Memory puts a gauze over things, wood with time. So it's important to remember that so even within my own self, artistic self, I see things differently than I did 20 years ago. And I probably see 911 differently to that I did at the time.
Now, you just reminded me of a line from a, I read a piece in The Atlantic just the other day about a 911 story. And the writer says we keep inventing and reinventing the dead. And I don't know what it is. I think it's just human nature. It's it's the nature of trauma and memory and the passage oftime. Yeah.
I have a question, Jessica, because one of the things I think is that with the two 3000 people, whatever the figure was 2700 down at the towers, I feel that almost like when there's spirits left On that day New York became a different place. You know, big cities go on new people come in new spurts come in. But I miss the old New York before 911 because it changed in F. ineffably on that day. So I'd be upset from Jessica's point of view what what she thinks of that.
Such an interesting question. And the image that I have of the departure is really powerful. This is probably not the more linear answer that you're looking for. But this honestly what I'm thinking about, that the gods of memory and the reinvention of the dead, I think that happens over and over, has something to do with the nature of time. And I've been actually writing a lot about grief, collective grief trauma. I'm a book collaborator, as well as a writer of my own work. And almost all of my book projects right now have to do with grief and trauma. So somehow, I've put that out into the universe. But I'm also I'm also doing journalism in this area. And I'm working on a piece right now that is about anniversaries, and about how we approach anniversaries and how grief is cyclical. And I also wrote a piece recently, inspired by the work of it's called the book has a great title, it's called the terrible unlikelihood of our being here. And it's Santa Paula and tonetta. And she writes about loss and physics and the the, the actual nature of relative time. And so I wrote a piece sort of talking with her aboutthe folding of time, and that perhaps pandemic time, or Crisis time, as I mentioned earlier, right, that we're actually experiencing time more as it actually is in the world, rather than the way that we perceive it as a as a sort of straight line of linear reality. And so where this overlaps with the spirits leaving on that day, the people who departed that day, when time if time is a folding in on itself, sort of thing, a plastic, you know, more chewing gum kind of entity, then it means that our, our past and our present can come together. And it means that we can actually have different encounters with the people after they're gone. At least theoretically speaking, right? Because there's this great physicist and this I'm so in my out of my realm right now in the depths of physics that I'm not an expert in. But I find it fascinating, where this is notion of all of the nows as a series of Polaroid shots that are all laid out on a table. And so if all of the now is our coexistence on the table, then you could pick one up from over here and pick another one up from over there, and maybe your grandmother's in one, and maybe it's your parents meeting, again, Larry, in another, you know, and, and we can bring these things close to us, right, we can we can, we can look in the look at the world with that level of vast perception. Not the linear, I miss New York to that you're looking for. But I think it's an ever changing thing. I mean, I missed the New York of, of, you know, 1931, that I researched deeply for my first book, My River Chronicles, that was all about the rise and fall of respect for craftsmanship, and hands on work. And so I never lived there. But I immersed myself in that sea of reality at the time. And so I missed that in New York to where there were finger piers all along the shoreline of the western side of Manhattan, you know, counting to I think the number is 76 miles of working waterfront, with those finger piers, if you traced, you know, all of the geography there. And so instead, to go back to what you had mentioned earlier, Jane about the infrastructure, really, we were confronted the past and present we're, we're right up against each other on September 11, when life or death decisions and life or death actions were affected by that lack of the infrastructure. So in a very real way, there is a woman, I was not able to get further on her story than a certain point and then it hit a brick wall. But I believe I actually have a photograph that may include her and it does not look that look like she survived. And she had in a panic jumped from the sea wall, which is erected with a it's hard to describe just by audio, but it's basically it's an ornamental railing. It's not just ornamental, because it's meant to keep people off the river. So it actually curves towards you if you're standing on the shore. So So this woman had to climb over this railing, and she jumped down to the steel deck of a fire boat, because there was no ladder, there was no you know, no, there was no concept that big boats would come up alongside and individual people would, would try to get on. Right. And so and she suffered what is what was very likely a fatal injury, head injury on that on that boat. And so there's a juxtaposition of before and after, right? of, of who we once were as a, as a working waterfront community. And, and, and we are now where so much of the very alive waterfront that is still, you know, some dock worker had their hands on everything that anybody had in their lives back then, right? crates and barrels and things like that. Now, it all comes offloaded in a container, like a Lego block, right? But all these things actually, you know, found their way across the seas. And I'm, I'm rambling a little bit here, but another collision moment that happened on September 11 12th, and so on, was that we actually returned to the working harbour of the past, because everything was offloaded by hand. So it was like a bucket brigade of like, okay, we need water on the side. And so boats would deliver water and hand to hand, you know, make a pile. Oh, we need you know, food. Okay, hand to hand people would deliver it was breakbulk cargo come back to New York shores, which I found really moving.
I completely agree. Thank you so much for telling us that story. And I don't know, I think we've gotten to quantum physics, we may need to stop. It's time to stop. You know, I feel we've also had a kind of a hopeful point, because you know, what we can do is we can talk to one another, and we can connect over our common experience and compare memories. And we've great books. And there's a lot of hope there a lot of opportunity for learning. It has been so good to talk to you above. Thank you.
Thank you so much. I agree with you. I think stories are absolutely the only thing that can save us. I really do.
Yeah, and trying to tell the truth.
That was Jane Bunker, interviewing Cornell authors Jessica DuLong and Larry Kirwan. If you'd like to purchase their books with a discount, please visit our website at Cornell press cornell.edu and use the promo code 09PAD to save 30% off. If you live in the UK, visit combined academic.co.uk and use the promo code CSANNOUNCE. Thank you for listening to 1869, The Cornell University Press Podcast.