In 2001, The Ari Files was a weekly column I’d kept for several years. When 9/11 happened, my son, Noah, was going on three. Kezia, my daughter, had just turned one. Jan and I were in a tough spot financially, so I picked up some classes at the University of North Florida. I was on my way to teach what was my first fiction workshop there when I saw folks gathered in front of a TV screen in the public area of the building where the class was held. Through the spaces between shoulders and heads, I watched a clip of a plane smashing into the towers. A part of me didn’t believe it was real. Another part instantly knew it was. My brain couldn’t buy it. But all the flesh and blood–it was like falling through myself. Just falling. And I didn’t know I was crying until I heard the sound of it.
I know I musthave gone to the classroom, but that’s all blank now. I don’t know what I said, what I did.
That night, I took down The Ari Files. I’d wanted to write something, but couldn’t. So I just took it down. And it stayed down for nearly two weeks. The following is from September 23, 2001.
Words and One Eye Open
Some folks have written me to ask why The Ari Files has gone dark. I’ve thinking of two, a couple of pals–a Canadian and a Staten Islander–who thought I shouldn’t just clam up, that I should write something about what I’m feeling.
The Canadian had lived for some years in New York City, long enough to become part of a neighborhood. That’s how you become a New Yorker. That’s how she gets under your skin. Once you’ve got a neighborhood, you’ve got the whole town, and you take her with you for the rest of your life.
New York makes you a part of her. The timing, the tension, rubbing bellies in narrow green grocer aisles; breaths shared, mouth to mouth, over meek distances in crowded trains and elevators and laundromats; the confluence of streams of humanity bunching up on street corners and sliding, headlong, up and down sidewalks in human eddies; words spoken or left in the bubbling stir of thoughts behind blinking eyes; all the living and some presumed dead languages of humanity escaping from tongues and through ears to cling to the sides of buildings and on window glass, making dunes in the panes; words mixed with carbonic soot and just as black. Black. The color of the deep and distance and the unknown. The color of poets in leather jackets or cotton Ts. The black of boots and berets and moons beneath tired eyes and asphalt. The black of Homburgs in Williamsburg and Borough Park. The Lower Eastside black of fishnet stockings and hip tight skirts and dyed hair and painted lips and fingers and toes. Ebony Jazz. The black beard of dockside Romeo dropping fishhooks into the inky Narrows. The glossed lampblack empty nucleus of an open eye through which everything may enter and beyond which everything is revealed, including the wonder of ultimate unknowability. This black pools in the pores of your skin. You carry it with you. It gets into your blood. It stripes your soul with a brush dipped into a concentrate of richly mixed humanity.
My Canadian friend took the terror planes in his belly. Just like the rest of us. The Staten Islander lost a dozen of his people. Oh God. The scent of dear flesh blown from bones onto the air in fire and chemical smoke. Screams and tears rush into the hollows of charred periosteum. Eardrums shatter. Silence, desperate leaps. There is no air left in the world.
Everyone is missing now. Everyone. What words could there possibly be?
We need time. To catch our breaths after a blow to the windpipe. To let cohesion return to the mind. To let sadness have sway. To squeeze rage out of our rag hearts and let it drain into gutters. To bury our dead.
What can I say? Watch your back. All this sadness and rage: we’re going to be crazy from it for a while. You’ll have to sleep lightly now. And keep an eye on that guy over there wrapped in a flag. I think he’s looking for trouble. Better keep one eye open at all costs. For safety’s sake. I’m talking about the neighborhood here.
…if you feel up to it, please let me know what we are doing in our classes that is meaningful or significant in the lives of those we are charged to serve. I’m wondering about creative writing. I’m wondering about English, and I’m thinking we should stop teaching it. We should stop speaking it and thinking in it. Writing? Forget about it. We should only teach dead languages. If we’re just setting our unsuspecting (?) charges up for the dim fluorescence of corporate cubbies, give ‘em dead languages. If we teach what we are—and you’ve gotten a gander at the general condition of the professoriate, newbies and the more decrepit alike—dead languages are the only way to go. In theory. You know? I’m just saying. For the rest, I propose the prophetic gibberish of apocalyptic visions injected right into student brains if only for the explosive flash of momentary wonder. I’ll go first. It’s good pedagogy.
I mean, I hear faculty and students talking. Sometimes they’re talking to me, talking right at me, third eye to third eye, and I’m nodding my head, I’m nodding and nodding, but I’m thinking, “What? What the hell? How the fuck does this conversation improve my Kung Fu?”
You know, everybody’s working. Just ain’t everbody getting paid. Eating dust and being broke is about the worst gig there is. That’s on the hours and benefits alone. And sure, it’s the scare of that gig that keeps you pinned to the job and folks who are sucking life out of you—though some of them can’t help it: a black hole does what a black hole does. But, man, there’s them other ones, the ones who say, “Well, if you don’t like it heeeeere, nobody’s forcing you to stay. It’s a free country.” Ain’t that a kick in the ass? Thank you sir, may I have another.
Anyway, here’s my nomination for a new national anthem, the better pledge of allegiance, or a rosary prayer for the goddam god of get a fucking clue.
When my son, Noah, turned 12, he and I began a journey together to the time when he would become a Bar Mitzvah . I wanted something for him other than what I had experienced. It was. For both us.
Over the following year we read together—history, poetry, philosophy, sacred texts, prayers, short stories and novels. We watched films, looked at art, and listened to music. We tried our hands at some. We talked about it all. Asked questions. He decided he wanted to read Torah in Hebrew, so we studied together and learned to piece the sounds into words, and we discussed those words and what they might mean for us. He wanted to chant, so we downloaded the signs for the tropes and listened to recordings of the sounds they represented. Then we put them together with the words of his Haftarah.
It was not an easy year. I was working two jobs to keep us afloat. He had his schoolwork and music and all the things a boy of 12 has to do to be a boy of 12. But we did it. We made the time for it, because it meant a lot to both of us to spend that time together, he and I, on this journey. We each kept a journal of it, of our thoughts and impressions and things we wanted to remember. He has his. Someday, he’ll have the one I made.
On his 13th birthday, we went to the beach. No rabbi. No synagogue. Just him, his mom, his sister, me, and a small group of friends to make our minyan. Noah wore the tallit I had worn when I became a Bar Mitzvah. I wore the tallit that belonged to my grandfather.
Noah chanted beautifully. Afterwards, he spoke what he had in his heart to say about our year together, what he felt he had learned, and what it all meant to him. It was something. Then he and I left the group for a stroll along the edge of the water. I told him how proud I was of him, of how I admired him and loved him. I thanked him for the best year of my life. He put his arms around me and said, “It doesn’t have to stop now, does it?” “Of course not,” I told him. And it hasn’t.
Two years from now, this weekend, my daughter, Kezia, will become a Bat Mitzvah. One year from now, we begin. Really, we’ve already begun.
When Mark Ari unlocked his mother’s womb, he fell to soft vinyl where he lived under another name and the kitchen table. Women with round faces bent down to pinch his cheeks. Grandpa made Egyptian poses on the landing at the top of the stairs, nodding and winking and making a great show of brushing back invisible hair with his fingers. Mother opened her mouth and sighed: ah-ah-ah-ah.
By the time the leaves on the trees were dry and beautiful—orange and cream and chocolate—he planted his feet, and the world got littler. He did not notice. He did not. Then he did. And he could read French and Spanish but spoke only a stutter of English. So he made shapes with his lips that stenciled words on the air. This has made all the difference.
Mark Ari was born in Brooklyn and now lives near of the edge of the sea between Jacksonville and the Ancient City. Follow @MarkAri
Along with UNF students, Ari founded Fiction Fix and continues to serve as Editorial Advisor to the literary journal, Fiction Fix; edits EAT, a publisher of digital albums and audio chapbooks which includes the highly regarded EAT Poemsseries; and directs River House, the University of North Florida’s virtual writer’s house. He publishes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Among these are two chapbooks: Bloodshot and Blue, a collection of poetry (Stony Brook Free Press) and Deathfoot Ha! (Stroker Press) His novel, The Shoemaker’s Tale (Zephyr Press), received high praise in international trade and popular periodicals like the New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, Na’amat Woman, The Jerusalem Post, the Association of Jewish Libraries, and others. He is a performing singer-songwriter and has written and performed three one-man shows: Flatbush Serenade (premiered at the Maryland Theater in Hagerstown, MD), Blue Babies (premiered at the Paramount Theater, Wilkes-Barre, PA) and Songs for the Waste Laboratory, (premiered at The Living Theater, NYC). His paintings have been exhibited in group and solo shows in the United States and abroad, in such venues as Westbeth Gallery (NYC), Broome Street Gallery (NYC), the Southern Vermont Art Center, El Jueves Galleria (Seville, Spain), the Giralda Center (Seville, Spain), and Gallerie La Pantographe (Lyon, France). He has been awarded three fellowships the MacDowell Colony, two from the Ragdale Foundation, and one each from Fundacion Valparaiso and the Ucross Foundation. He has thrice won the Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award at the University of North Florida (2006, 2009, and 2013), twice won the DRC Professor Empowerment Award (2011 and 2012), and was recognized by the Student Coalition with a Distinguished Advisor Award (2003).