The Nightmare and the Dreams

It is hot in New York. It is so hot that once when I had a fever a friend called and asked me how I felt and I said, “You know how dry and hot paper feels when it’s been faxed? That’s how I feel.” And how I felt all day yesterday. It is hot. We feel as if we’ve been faxed.

I found myself fully awake at 5 a.m. yesterday and went for a walk on the Brooklyn Bridge. Now more than ever the bridge, with its silver-corded cables and dense stone casements, seems like a great gift to my city. It spans. In the changed landscape of downtown it is our undisturbed beauty, grown ever more stately each year. People seem to love it more now, or at least mention it more or notice it more. So do I. It’s always full of tourists but always full of New Yorkers, too.

I am struck, as I always am when I’m on it, that I am walking on one of the engineering wonders of the world. And I was struck yesterday that I was looking at one of the greatest views in the history of man’s creation, Manhattan at sunrise. The casements were like medieval arches; the businessmen with umbrellas like knights without horses, storming the city walls; and the walls were silver, blue and marble in the light.

And all of it was free. A billionaire would pay billions to own this bridge and keep this view, but I and my jogging, biking and hiking confreres have it for nothing. We inherited it. Now all we do is pay maintenance, in the form of taxes. We are lucky.

The sun rose in haze, its edges indistinct, but even at 6:30 a.m. you could feel it heavy on your arms and shoulders. When I looked at it I thought of what Robert Bolt called the desert sun in his screenplay of David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” He called it the Anvil.

*   *   *

As I rounded the entrance to the bridge on the Brooklyn side, a small moment added to my happiness. It was dawn, traffic was light, I passed a black van with smoked windows. In the driver’s seat with the window down was a black man of 30 or so, a cap low on his brow, wearing thick black sunglasses. I was on the walkway that leads to the bridge; he was less than two feet away; we were the only people there. We made eye contact. “Good morning!” he said. “Good morning to you,” I answered, and for no reason at all we started to laugh, and moved on into the day. Nothing significant in it except it may or may not have happened that way 30 or 40 years ago. I’m not sure the full charge of friendliness would have been assumed or answered.

It made me think of something I saw Monday night on local TV and thought to point out somewhere along the way. They were showing the 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” with Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy, the slightly creaking old drama—it was slightly creaking when it first came out—about a young white woman and a young black man who fall in love, hope to marry and must contend with disapproving parents on both sides. It’s held up well, and parts of it seemed moving in a way I didn’t remember, and pertinent. Sidney Poitier, who has always brought his own natural standing to whatever part he’s playing, had a lovely kind of sweet intelligence, and everyone in the movie was physically beautiful, in the way of the old productions of the old Hollywood.

There was a bit of dialogue that packed a wallop. Spencer Tracy as the father of the would-be bride is pressing Mr. Poitier on whether he has considered the sufferings their mixed-race children might have to endure in America. Has he thought about this? Has his fiancée? “She is optimistic,” says Mr. Poitier. “She thinks every one of them will grow up to become president of the United States. I on the other hand would settle for secretary of state.” Those words, written 35 years ago by the screenwriter William Rose, may have seemed dreamy then. But in its audience when the movie came out would likely have been a young, film-loving Army lieutenant named Colin Powell who, that year, was preparing for a second tour of duty in Vietnam. And now he is secretary of state. This is the land dreams are made of. Does that strike you as a corny thing to say and talk about? It is. That’s another great thing.

*   *   *

Late Tuesday, on a subway ride from Brooklyn to the north of Manhattan, I resaw something I’d noticed and forgotten about. It is that more and more, on the streets and on the train, I see people wearing ID tags. We all wear IDs now. We didn’t use to. They hang from thick cotton string or an aluminum chain; they’re encased in a plastic sleeve or laminated; they’re worn one at a time or three at a time, but they’re there.

I ponder the existential implications. What does it mean that we wear IDs? What are we saying, or do we think we’re saying? I mean aside from the obvious.

I imagined yesterday the row of people across from me on the train, looking up all of a sudden from their newspaper, their paperback, their crossword puzzle book, and answering one after another:

“It means I know who I am,” says the man in blue shirt and suspenders.

“It means I can get into the building,” says the woman in gray.

“It means I am a solid citizen with a job.”

“I am known to others in my workplace.”

“I’m not just blowing through life, I’m integrated into it. I belong to something. I receive a regular paycheck.”

“I have had a background check done by security and have been found to be a Safe Person. Have you?”

I wonder if unemployed people on the train look at the tags around the other peoples’ necks and think, Soon I hope I’ll have one too. I wonder if kids just getting their first job at 17 will ever know that in America we didn’t all used to be ID’d. Used to be only for people who worked in nuclear power plants or great halls of government. Otherwise you could be pretty obscure. Which isn’t a bad way to be.

I work at home on my own and do not have an ID. But I am considering issuing myself one and having it laminated at the local Hallmark shop. It will have a nice picture and a title—President, CEO & CFO. I will wear it on the subway and when I get home I will hold it up in front of my doorbell, which I’ll rig so when I swipe the tag my front door pops open. Then I’ll turn to the friends I’m with and wink. “I know people here. I can get you in.”

*   *   *

A month ago there were news reports of a post-Sept. 11 baby boom. Everyone was so rocked by news of their mortality that they realized there will never be a perfect time to have kids but we’re here now so let’s have a family. I believed the baby=boom story and waited for the babies.

Then came the stories saying: Nah, there is no baby boom, it’s all anecdotal, there’s no statistical evidence to back it up. And I believed that too. But I’ve been noticing something for weeks now. In my neighborhood there is a baby boom. There are babies all over in Brooklyn. It is full of newborns, of pink soft-limbed infants in cotton carriers on daddy’s chest. It is full of strollers, not only regular strollers but the kind that carry two children—double-wides. And triple-wides. In the stores and on the streets there are babies cooing, dribbling, staring, sleeping. I see them and feel a rush of tenderness. I want to kiss their feet, I want to make them laugh. Kids are always looking for someone to make them laugh. The sight of any dog can do it. The sight of another baby can do it. The sight of an idiotic adult covering her eyes with her hands and moving her hands away quickly can do it. I would know.

I don’t care what anyone says, there have got to be data that back up what I’m seeing: that after Sept. 11, there was at least a Brooklyn baby boom.

*   *   *

A dream boom, too. The other day I spoke with a friend I hadn’t seen since the world changed. He was two blocks away when the towers fell, and he saw everything. We have all seen the extraordinary footage of that day, seen it over and over, but few of us has seen what my friend described: how in the office buildings near the World Trade Center they stood at the windows and suddenly darkness enveloped them as the towers collapsed and the demonic cloud swept through. “It was total darkness,” he told me. But the lights were on. They stood in his office wearing wet surgical masks. They couldn’t go out, but inside their building the smoke worked its way into the air conditioning. So they turned it off and stood there sweating and watching on TV what was happening two blocks away.

Did you see those forced to jump? I asked.

“Yes,” he said, and looked away. No descriptions forthcoming.

Have you had bad dreams?

“Yes,” he said, and looked away. No descriptions forthcoming.

I thought about this for a few days. My friend is brilliant and by nature a describer of things felt and seen. But not this time. I spoke to a friend who is a therapist. Are your patients getting extraordinary dreams? I asked.

“Always,” he laughs.


“Yes,” he says, mostly among adolescents.

I asked if he was saving them, writing them down. He shook his head no.

So: The Sept. 11 Dream Project. We should begin it. I want to, though I’m not sure why. I think maybe down the road I will try to write about them. Maybe not. I am certain, however, that dreams can be an expression of a nation’s unconscious, if there can be said to be such a thing, and deserve respect. (Carl Jung thought so.)

To respect is to record. There is a response function at the end of this column, and you can use it to send in your Sept. 11 related dream—recurring, unusual, striking, whatever. (If you are a psychiatrist, send as many as you like—without identifying your patients, of course.) I will read them, and appreciate them and possibly weave them into a piece on what Sept. 11 has done to our dream lives and to our imaginations, when our imaginations are operating on their own, unfettered, unstopped, spanning.