Taking the stairs

On Thursday, the elevators in the Surrogate’s Court building, which sits across the street from City Hall and was once the Hall of Records, were spotty. I’ve been doing some research there, in the New York County Clerk Office’s Division of Old Records on the seventh floor, where two centuries of paper-filing technologies succeed one another in a maze of rooms, on floor-to-ceiling shelves, interrupted only by the occasional gray metal locker from which spill oversize portfolios of maps of property that was condemned to build, say, the West Side Highway or FDR drive. It’s one of the city’s great and unacclaimed archival treasures. Last week I shone a flashlight through the back of an 1850 divorce case complaint, so that I could read the name of an adulteress, which had been pasted over a century and a half ago, perhaps to forestall a libel suit. (If you want to know the lady’s name, you’ll have to buy my book, whenever I get around to writing it.)

But I was talking about the elevators. In the morning only one of the four was working. When I left in the afternoon, I waited about five minutes with a fidgety stranger and then thought I’d try a set of stairs I’d seen on the other side of the building. I wasn’t sure if they went all the way down.

They did. They more than did. I wouldn’t call the building beautiful, but it’s in the idiom of those late 19th century, early 20th century monumental public spaces, like the 42nd Street New York Public Library or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Marble, wherever the eye falls. Vaulted ceilings. And, I realized as I descended, staircases that were meant to provide not a backup means of getting from one floor to another but the chief means of doing so. And not only that. The stairs in the Surrogate’s Court building are grand. They’re disproportionately wide and for the most part not very steep, and even though at least one flight is no longer lit, they seem to have been intended as a place where people in the building would see one another, stop, and confer, familiarly and formally. The architects probably never suspected that one day healthy adults would use elevators as the primary means of ascending to higher floors. Did skyscrapers normalize the use of elevators? Maybe it was automobiles that accustomed us to being carried by machines.

A loss related to the disuse of grand staircases: the absence of stoops from any building in Park Slope less than fifty years old.

The mother of all indices

My meager index to the 9/11 Commmission Report has been superseded by a younger, broader, deeper, and bright red one, published by the collective over at n+1. Apparently it’s so big it comes in installments.

(The only thing is, if you’re going to index Clarke down to his expletives, don’t you have to put in the story of him calling an official in the United Arab Emirates and advising him not to go hunting with Bin Ladin in the Afghan desert, as our satellite imagery revealed that he recently had, thus kiboshing a site where Bin Ladin might have been targeted? Page 138. (No, but seriously: Nicely done.))

Footnote judo and its aftermath

Last night I finally finished reading the 9/11 Commission Report. The award for the most unlikely government-agency acronym goes to the Defense Department’s tactical intelligence and related activities program, also known as TIARA (p. 412). To the end, the report practices footnote judo at the level of art. An inventory of dismaying statistics about the social, political, and economic conditions in the Arab world, for example, is sourced to a memo that was prepared by “sherpas” for the high poobahs of the G-8 but leaked to the newspapser Al-Hayat (563 n 26). A stern warning that “the enemy is not just ‘terrorism,’ some generic evil” cites a White House press release as an example of how not to think (562 n 2).

It’s tempting to add to my ongoing index, to wit:

secrecy impedes alerts 258, 359; impedes military planning 351; impedes management 410; impedes budgeting 416
Or to fill out my list of Iraq-UBL links, real and imagined:
Bush think Iraq responsible for 9/11 attacks 334
Rumsfeld wants, on afternoon of 9/11, to hit Iraq 335
Clarke finds no link 559 n 60
Wolfowitz thinks that Ramzi Yousef was Iraqi and that Iraq was behind 1993 attack on WTC, and can’t understand why the CIA hasn’t investigated his theories 336
All bets are off if Iraq becomes a failed state 367

I was anticipating that the last few chapters would be a little slow; policy recommendations aren’t usually considered to be as compelling as disaster narratives. And I admit that chapter 11, “Foresight−And Hindsight,” is a bit, well, abstract. But in fact the chapters on what to do and how to do it were nearly as riveting as the rest. It’s concerning that we need a commission to recommend to us that we look into this thing called the Geneva Convention (380). And it’s fascinating that the commission feels obliged to recommend that “the U.S. government must decide what the message is, what it stands for” (376). It makes me wonder whether propaganda has gotten a bad name it does not deserve. Maybe having a message, and worrying about compromising it, imposes a kind of discipline−a kind of operational morality−that is otherwise difficult for an entity as diffuse as the American empire to achieve.


The big questions about the recommendations are, I suppose, Will they work? And: Are we creating a monster? On the first, I wonder whether, before we restructure another sector of the government, we ought first to understand clearly why and how the Homeland Security department has failed. Presumably the fact that it reports to 88 different Congressional committees and subcommittees has something to do with it (421). On the second question, as the Democrats rush to outflank Bush on the issues of strength and security, it would be worthwhile to deliberate. But my sense, from the sheer messiness with which information about terror leaks out of the intelligence services as now configured, is that we should err on the side of competence.

More highly evolved

BROOKLYN—Peanut, the chewtoy monkey, took steps this morning to reassure friends of his liberal credentials, after a photograph appeared in the New York Times of a similar monkey involved in a protest action against gay marriage in Missouri.

Peanut denies any contact with the Missouri monkey, who is thought to be a hand puppet.

A chihuahua close to Peanut said she accepted Peanut’s explanation. The chihuahua asked not to be named. A mixed-breed dog seemed at first to welcome Peanut’s statement, but then threatened to rend and disembowel the plushy monkey, removing his squeaky and stuffing. Analysts suggest, however, that this threat may not be related to the mixed-breed’s sociopolitical beliefs.

Like a violin

Yesterday, before leaving home to come to this office (which is near Citicorp, one of the five targeted buildings), I cried. My jag was brief, but the news had confused and frightened me, and I needed to have it. Then my mother called. When I got to work, I discovered that most of the people in my bank of cubicles had been called by their out-of-town mothers.

On Sunday Lieberman jumped down Dean’s throat for suggesting that this terror alert might have a political motivation. Will he apologize today? Don’t hold your breath, but it turns out that much of the information about the targeted buildings is as old as the similar information in the August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief, which Bush ignored. I am happy that the new discovery was relayed to the media promptly and wouldn’t have it any other way. But why were government officials “circumspect” about the dating of the material when they broke the news? Why wait twenty-four hours to release that component? There was a political convention rather recently. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that once again, we’ve been played.