Bell Street, Coburg, Melbourne, 2007
I grew up thinking like many of us, that the US was the greatest place on earth. It just goes to show that if you believe something strongly enough, sometimes other people will believe it too. I wasn’t happy about this or particularly enamoured with America or Americans, it was just a fact of life I accepted like I accepted that junk food was bad for you or that you had to go to school. As a kid, I couldn’t have told you much about why it was the greatest, except maybe that it was big and the cereal aisle was full of things we didn’t have at home and that my mother wouldn’t let us eat anyway.
If you’d insisted on an answer, I probably would have said something about war and about firepower and about winning. Even though I was born not long before the war in Vietnam became something Americans were neither proud of nor wanted to talk about with anyone and Canada was still home to a large number of men escaping the draft, somehow if you didn’t exactly love the States, you still had to give it its due. You still had to accept that it was the best.
I had American cousins and we spent most summers with them, and they were definitely better than us. They had more money and more cool stuff and they bragged a bit as Americans are wont to do on occasions where you ask them about themselves. It’s just culture, apparently, in the same way that it’s culture when Canadians get embarrassed when you wish them Happy Canada Day. We’re not quite sure what to do with Canada Day. You’re supposed to have a national day, we understand this, we’re just not so sure about the part where you’re supposed to celebrate your nation and all.
So when the twin towers were hit by the planes on September 11, 2001, and I was sitting in my lounge room in Sydney, watching the television in the morning because I’d heard it on the news and needed somehow to see it, part of me couldn’t believe it because this couldn’t be happening to Americans at home; it simply wasn’t possible. I even think that for a short time my astonishment diluted my compassion. And I guess I wasn’t alone in my astonishment in those first few hours, days and months following the killing of so many people in a country where no one is supposed to die.
Isn’t it both funny and beautiful how a song, like a painting, can hold inside of it all the complexity of an entire period in history, and at the same time can say things that if you were to try to write them out in longhand, would forever be off the mark? I never wanted to write about that day, although I had both opportunities and encouragement. I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t know what my story really was. And when you don’t know what your story really is, just forget about writing anything about something that has touched you in any way. It will never get off the ground.
Six years after all those people were killed in New York, I was in Melbourne, in the car driving to La Trobe University to teach budding physiotherapists about working with people who had lived through things that had left them traumatised. Things like war and violence and neglect. They were a hard bunch to teach, because first you had to convince them that you had something to offer them, and since they’d been told for so long that they were the ones who had so much to offer, being among the best and brightest since high school, this was a difficult assignment. But in the last class I’d managed to make some connections for them between money and your clients actually trusting you, and this seemed to get their attention.
When I hit the long set of lights at Bell Street Coburg, Rufus came on the radio singing a song I’d never heard before. I pulled over and sat next to a beer barn to listen to Going To A Town.
I may just never see you again or might as well
You took advantage of a world that loved you well
I’m going to a town that has already been burnt down
I’m so tired of you, America.
And then everything I’d ever wanted to say about September 11, 2001 had been said. Or crooned really. Rufus is a crooner and there’s no shame in that. He’s also a belter, and there’s no shame in that either.
There is great comfort for me in that song. It’s always comforting to have the way the world feels to you made into images that can be seen or heard or felt by other people. You can hear his compassion and the terrible ambivalence of witnessing it mixed with a devastatingly wounded national pride. I like the way the song is kind of a break up number, one where the singer is more disappointed than angry, and just needs to get away from what feels like the madness of the fall out of love. My own love was falling out at the time, but like an American, I didn’t know it and couldn’t imagine that it was possible. But that, of course, is another story.
© Zoë Krukpa.