There was a time in my life that I wanted to be an essayist. It started in college, when I discovered that E.B. White was a writer’s writer, and had done much more with his life beyond Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web (though now knowing that he did write those children’s books makes him all the more endearing). I devoured his painstakingly perfect essays in Here is New York, one of the most erudite and graceful books on the city that’s ever been written. I remember reading this exquisite paragraph in the wake of 9/11 and thinking how it seemed to encapsulate the terror and fear and fragility of a place and a time, despite having been written 50 years before the events took place:
The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sounds of the jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
I came to realize that the life of an essayist is fairly impossible in this day and age (what, no one will pay me to sit in my room and muse on topics of my own making?), and turned to journalism instead (a far more lucrative venture). But when I was asked by Carlo Rotella, my fabulous American Studies professor in college, to contribute an essay to the literary magazine Post Road, I leapt at the chance. I’d been taking a storytelling class at the time, which had me flexing my nonfiction muscles, and I ended up taking the opportunity to put the same story I had been working on telling aloud down on paper. So I submitted a piece on my time at the Office of Public Security, which was my first real job out of college. It was around before the Department of Homeland Security was created, and suffice it to say that its role as a government office was primarily to calm the public’s psyche. And despite my earnest desire to help with counter-terrorism, I quickly became disillusioned with the entire effort. It was a long two years.
I don’t think I had White in my mind when I decided to write about my security job, but it’s funny now to realize his imprint on my subconscious. It was only when I got a copy of the magazine and recalled my essayist intentions that the two aligned in my head. And I’m glad they did.
I need to go and read some more White.