Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, says Roger Ebert, is “one of the fundamental landmarks of cinema.”  Its centerpiece, the massacre on the Odessa Steps, “has been quoted so many times in other films that it’s likely many viewers will have seen the parody before they see the original.” I’ve been thinking about landmarks lately:  something seen so often that it almost becomes invisible.  For instance, sound film has been de rigueur for almost 100 years now, but what was it was like for audiences who saw The Jazz Singer for the first time?  According to Scott Eyman, after  Jolson’s songs, the crowd applauded wildly, and when he and Eugenie Besserer exchanged their dialogue, “the audience became hysterical.”  They hooted after Jolson uttered his famous line:  “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet.”

Back in Colorado, Matthew used to chide me whenever I admitted to getting lost:  “All you have to do is look around.  The mountains are always to the west.”  And I’d look, and sure enough, there were moutains, their bottom halves swathed in the infamous Denver ‘brown cloud.’  So, on those rare occasions — no more than twice a week — when I got lost, I located the mountains.  The jagged peaks, the zipper separating the country.  I’d never done much mountaineering, but other people I knew racked up Fourteeners like mosquito bites.  I found found the mountains and thought:  Now, where was I going again?

The radio has been full of stories about 9/11, about the Twin Towers as a landmark.  Not as historical or architectural landmark, but a geographical one.  Anywhere on the island, people said, you knew where south was.  For me, I’d never been to the Twin Towers.  I’d never ridden all the way to the Windows on the World, and I never got the chance to see the city spread below me.  From there, I think, I could have memorized the whole of Manhattan.

So yesterday, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, after a late dinner in the West Village, I stepped into the humid night, when rain had not yet fallen, but everyone had an umbrella, just in case, and for a moment, I couldn’t remember which way I had come. I hadn’t come to attend any of the memorials; instead, the whole city had become a remembrance:  ribbons tied to chain-link fences, candles and stuffed animals, notes written to complete strangers.  And if that wasn’t enough:  in Penn Station, soldiers with automatic weapons slung low on their shoulders, German Shepherds sniffing around.  Chalkboard signs outside of bars advertised NYPD and FDNY — ASK INSIDE FOR SPECIALS, and, at John’s Pizzeria, a group of men in crisp dress uniforms queued for their slices.

I looked around and saw a bright light in the sky, cutting the low, grey clouds over the skyline into radiant slices.  That must be south, I imagined.  That must be the Tribute in Light.  A new landmark, 88 searchlights aimed into the sky, a landmark of what was no longer there.  And with that, I re-oriented myself.

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