Coping With 9/11, Riding on Two Wheels
It’s hard to remember now, but in the days after the attacks of 9/11, a back-to-basics sort of thing took hold in New York. People returned to out-of-favor practices like checking up on neighbors, talking to strangers, using courtesy and concern as their default modes rather than snark and indifference.
This old-fashioned sensibility was sweet, but of course it didn’t last long. The other day, though, I held in my hands a copy of a new book that conjured it again, in an odd way, because it, too, is a throwback, handmade and grounded in care and respect. You probably won’t own this book; only 250 copies will be printed, and they’ll cost $300 each. But perhaps the story of its slow, meticulous making will be useful somehow as we all turn our attention to the 10th anniversary and search for a way to commemorate it that feels right.
The book is called “The Bicycle Diaries: One New Yorker’s Journey Through 9/11.” It was written by Richard Goodman, a longtime New Yorker who in the first three months after the disaster rode his bicycle almost daily from the Upper West Side toward ground zero, getting as close as he could, then wrote about what he had experienced. But Mr. Goodman’s day-by-day chronicle of the immediate aftermath is only part of the story. The other part is contained in the work of Gaylord Schanilec, who is printing those 250 copies using letterpress techniques from centuries ago, and whose color wood engravings illustrate them.
Mr. Schanilec’s business, Midnight Paper Sales, is in the tiny town of Stockholm in western Wisconsin, and the views in his engravings are not of New York in flames, because he prefers to create images of things he has seen firsthand. Last year, Mr. Goodman took him on a bicycle tour along the routes he had ridden back in 2001, and it is those images Mr. Schanilec has captured for the book. So alongside Mr. Goodman’s words about the still-fresh horror, “The Bicycle Diaries” has Mr. Schanilec’s images of cranes at work, of buildings rising. Loss and restoration.
Mr. Goodman said he didn’t begin his rides with a book in mind. The project started as simple restlessness as he sat in his apartment at 103rd Street and Riverside Drive in the days after the attacks — the same feeling experienced by countless New Yorkers who, like Mr. Goodman, did not lose any relatives or close friends on Sept. 11, 2001, but felt a need to respond somehow.
“I got all of a sudden this great, antsy feeling, an uncomfortableness,” he said. “So for some reason I jumped on my bicycle and headed south.”
His mode of transportation, he found, got him into areas blocked off to others. “When you ride a bicycle, no one thinks you’re menacing,” he said. “It’s like a kid’s thing. There was this great ability to slither around the city.”
The vignettes tell of his visits to a firehouse, a blood donation center, downtown merchants; to read them today is to recall how it felt for an entire city to be in shock. Mr. Goodman, 66, a published author whose books include “French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France,” sent his writings around to friends by e-mail and found that people seemed eager to read them. “I tried to get them published,” he said, “but no one was interested. So I said, I guess they served their purpose.”
Five years later, though, for a magazine article, he was asked to interview Mr. Schanilec, 56, who is well known in the rarefied world of handmade books, which are prized by collectors, archivists and such. He asked Mr. Schanilec if he’d consider adopting “The Bicycle Diaries” as his next project.
“I really hesitated,” Mr. Schanilec said, “because there’s so much text” — more than he was used to, and his type of bookmaking is really about fitting things together. “I deal with every space,” he said.
“Every space” means every space. In the cast-metal letters he used, there’s a bit larger gap than he prefers between a capital Y and a lowercase o when they come together — as they do in “New York,” which, naturally, appears in Mr. Goodman’s text quite often. “There’s extra space in there,” Mr. Schanilec said, “and the only way to get rid of it is to manipulate the metal.”
Touches like that are why the book, printed on specially imported German paper, feels far more substantial than its 115 or so pages would suggest. It has the weight of a small thing done with great care to honor a huge loss.
Now, oddly, Mr. Goodman is marking the completion of his 10-year-long project not in his beloved New York, but at another disaster site. And it’s giving him a lesson in perspective.
He has within the past few weeks moved south to take a teaching post at the University of New Orleans, arriving there just as that city is preparing for its own awful anniversary:Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Louisiana coast six years ago Monday.
Here is what Mr. Goodman wrote in his “Bicycle Diaries” entry of Oct. 1, 2001, trying to capture the difference between the nationwide feeling on 9/11 and the special New York feeling: “I don’t doubt everyone in America has been affected. I know they have been, and I certainly don’t mean to diminish that. But it’s our city that was grievously wounded.”
Flash forward to a few weeks ago, and a bit of table-turning. Mr. Goodman was talking to a new acquaintance in New Orleans, and the subject of Katrina came up. “I said out loud, ‘Well, I guess it’s sort of like our 9/11,’ ” he recalled. “And I could see the anger in her eyes. She said, ‘We lost 80 percent of our city.’ She as much as said there’s no comparison.”