Monday, September 14, 2009
Three days ago was the 8th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. I lived in New York City then, about 2 miles from the Twin Towers. Sadly, it takes the anniversaries to get me to seriously think about that day and the months after, and to delve into my mind and relive it via my memories.
When I do think about it though, I have more than my memories to draw upon. I have my photos. I took so many photos of those days. I have my scrapbook, in which I keep mementos of my time volunteering for the Red Cross at the Pier 94 Family Assistance Center, from October 2001 to January of 2002. Above all, I have my journal. I started writing a journal in July of 2001, and man, did I ever continue writing once September 11 came along.
Each day since this past Friday, I've been reading a journal entry per day, the entry for that day, 8 years ago. Today I read my entry for September 14, 2001. Even though I wrote it on the 14th, I was describing the events of the previous day. My journal entries were so long, that I was always writing a day behind. What I wrote on the 14th was about the 13th.
Anyway, I've decide it to type it in below...
Friday, Sept. 14 2001--
Yesterday the wind changed directions, and rather than blowing Mary Poppins our way to magically solve all our problems with a metaphoric spoonful of sugar, it instead brought us noxious World Trade Center smoke. The air downtown had a brown haze, and everywhere, a stink was in the air.
I couldn't think of a more unwelcome and depressing addition to our trying times, but there WAS one-- the fliers that began to appear all over town that had on them photos of people who are missing-- people who went into the Twin Towers on Tuesday, and haven't been seen since. How I wished that there weren't so many. How I hoped to see on the news, Saint Vincent's Hospital, flooded with survivors who needed medical treatment. How I wished to see a convoy of ambulances rushing the multitude who had been pulled out of the rubble to treatment. This however was not the scene at the hospitals. Patients were only trickling in, and those who were, were rescue workers who had gotten injured. I began to realize that the vast majority of those missing, on those fliers, perhaps all, were not actually missing, but dead.
It was a morbid day... the smoke in the air, the silence in the streets, the fliers, the people walking around with masks made of cloth over their mouths and noses. I wondered if I should go back to the apartment and get that mask that they gave me Tuesday afternoon, and wear it as I walked around town. Almost everybody else had them on. Could there be asbestos in the air? And if so, could those simple cloth masks actually keep it out of our lungs?
I walked up to Beth Israel hospital on 17th Street to see if I could donate blood there. They said no. While there, I could see this big cardboard "wall" that they had erected, with a concentration of photos and personal information of those missing. So many faces, so many, so diverse, all ages, races and social levels.
This was one thing that struck me later in the day, when seeing all their faces and their short "bios"-- all the different jobs that they held in the Twin Towers... an executive, next to a trader, next to a line cook, next to a salesman, next to a security officer, next to a janitor, next to a secretary... and I was particularly struck by the number of young people, many of them younger than I, people, guys and girls born in '76, '77, '78... people who were younger than the Twin Towers themselves. For the first time, the emotions started to hit as my eyes scanned the plethora of diverse faces of the missing. Tears started to well up in my eyes.
I crossed the "border" back into the forbidden terrain that is Manhattan south of 14th Street, flashing my ID to prove I live on 1oth Street. But I didn't go home, and the further south I walked, the more I saw people wearing masks. The air really was bad, it smelled awful, like burnt plastic or burnt tires or something. I've never smelled anything like it in my life.
I overheard someone on the street saying that they were taking blood at at some place on Avenue B, so I headed east. When I got to 10th Street and 2nd Avenue, I saw a woman in a white van who had stopped, and was answering questions from pedestrians. She had information on blood donation. She said that there was no more blood donation in Alphabet City, but that at Webster Hall they were going to set up a volunteer center later in the afternoon.
I decided to walk over to the Hudson River to see if there was anything that I could do closer to the disaster site. Who knows, I thought, maybe they still have civilian volunteers for search & rescue still camping out in front of that skyscraper with the lawn, just like on Tuesday when I was one of them. I walked downtown along the West Side Highway until I wasn't allowed to go any further. So much for search & rescue...
Luckily enough, right there I saw a large group of people lined up in a sort of assembly line, making sandwiches for the rescue workers. Another option was simply standing alongside the highway, clapping and cheering for the rescue workers as they enter and leave the scene in their trucks. It made me so proud to be a New Yorker-- those people standing by the road, waiting in the sun for the opportunity to applaud emergency vehicles. However, I preferred to help-out by making sandwiches. Well, they didn't need me to make sandwiches, but they did put me to work by putting muffins into plastic baggies. There were like six large cardboard boxes filled with big, plump, gourmet muffins-- the expensive type that sell for $2 a piece or more.
Two women and I organized ourselves for the bagging of muffins. There were so many donated items-- bread, mustard, meats, cheese, jars of peanut butter, milk-- so many items, donated by restaurants, groceries, gourmet shops... also plastic wrap and plastic baggies.
As we wrapped and bagged items, we realized that the generic brands of plastic wrap and baggies were not as good as the name brands. Saran Wrap really DID cling much better and was easier to maneuver. Ziplock baggies really did seal more easily and better. We found ourselves discarding the donated boxes of generic wrappings in favor of the better name brands.
"Ziplock baggies really do seal better, and they'll keep the muffins fresh for many days", said one woman who was in front of me, to the woman who was next to her. I started to wearily laugh. Here these two women were, saying this, and behind their shoulders, close-by in the background, were the smouldering ruins of the World Trade Center... the persistent column of smoke drifting up into the sky, emergency vehicles on the highway behind them... my God, what a TV commercial that would make. They were basically saying a commercial script impromptu, endorsing Saran Wrap and Ziplock.
Smiling, I imitated them to them, using a velvetty commercial voice: "When YOUR city has been attacked by airliners hijacked by fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, there is no better plastic wrap for your rescue workers' sandwiches than SARAN WRAP. And ZIPLOCK baggies seal better, and keep gourmet muffins fresh for many days." They laughed. We needed to laugh.
After having bagged the muffins, I helped with the ice. It had arrived, and it was my job to gather all the sandwich meats and put them on ice. Then I gathered up all the bread. The sun was moving westward, so we had to move the canopy-tent over so that the food would still have shade. After that, there didn't seem to be anything else to do. I had already taken pictures of the sandwich-making, so I took some pictures of the people cheering along the side of the road for the rescue workers.
After that, I walked north along the Husdon, all the way to the Chelsea Piers, to see if there was something that I could do there. I had heard that they were accepting donations there. Maybe I could help by sorting out the donations, or by moving boxes of donations, I thought. Well, I never even got to inquire. The police wouldn't even let me near the Chelsea Piers. When I arrived, they shouted, "Everybody head east! Out of this area! Go east!" Go east? There was nowhere else to go BUT east; we were at the Hudson River.
I did as I was told and walked into Chelsea. Since Chelsea was north of 14th Street, it had private vehicles on the street, like newspaper delivery trucks, so I checked to see if I could find any foreign newspapers like El Pais or La Repubblica on the newsstands. There were none. Suddenly it dawned on me: the airports are still closed. Delivery trucks are a moot point when delivery PLANES can't land.
I stopped at the Barnes and Noble on 6th Avenue and bought some postcards of the Twin Towers, because soon THEY'LL no longer exist, either. Then I bought a T-shirt that had been printed before the disaster. It had an image of the Twin Towers on it. It's still hard to swallow, their absence. I really did love those buildings. I don't care that they had been criticized architecturally. I always thought they were stunning, beautiful-- the way they would change colors with the color of the light in the sky. I'll miss them.
I put on my Walkman and listened to the radio as I walked east. The Chelsea Piers didn't let me near, so maybe I could do something at the Armory on 26th and Lexington, I hoped. I listened to a lot of talk radio as I walked. It was very disturbing to hear so many budding jingos, calling in with comments. Xenophobia littered the airwaves. We're better than this, we Americans, I kept thinking. We're better than this. We are.
I've seen a lot of marvelous, lovely things from Americans these past few days, both on TV elsewhere in the country, and here in New York. But one fault that Americans have always had is this: the inability to see the difference between patriotism and jingoism. It seems to be a fine line that Americans always walk, often falling into the jingo side. Patriotism is fine. I'm moved by the patriotism that I've seen, and I've never felt so patriotic in my life.
New Yorkers I've never really considered to be especially patriotic, if at all. It seems to me that they are citizens of the nation of NYC, and then of the USA. Even on Tuesday, I didn't feel so much that the USA had been attacked. I felt that WE had been attacked-- we New Yorkers. It wasn't until the day dragged on, and I had time to think, that I thought of it as a national thing.
In these days though, I've seen New Yorkers wearing the flag-- people who at first glance, would never seem the "patriotic type". It feels good, but God, it's a fine line, and I fear that jingoism, as always in the USA, is showing its ugly face. I hope that this time, we can keep it under control and not let it consume us, as it did when German-Americans suffered in World War I, and when Japanese-Americans suffered in World War II.
When I got to the Armory, I was totally shocked. There, along the walls of 26th Street, from avenue to avenue, were photos of the missing. The number of photos assembled at Beth Israel Hospital was nothing compared to this. These were hundreds of photos--HUNDREDS--face after face after face after face after face after face after face... I read as many of them as I could (their date of birth, for which company they worked, in which tower, on which floor, and maybe a few sentences describing them personally), but after a while, it became too overwhelming, too numbing. After a few yards of reading each flier, the faces started to just pass in front of my eyes as if my eyes were a movie camera scanning the faces, or, as if I were a talent agent or casting director, flipping through an endless stack of head shots. Every once in a while, a "head shot" on a flier would catch my eye, and I'd pause to read the info, as if it were an actor's resume'. It was terrible, horrible.
I was finally able to grasp, to begin to comprehend, the magnitude of this tragedy, of this hideous crime. I got that burning sensation on the back of my neck, the same one as I used to have when I was a kid waiting for Dad to give me a belting. I hate that burning sensation in the back of my neck; I haven't felt it in ages.
I stopped looking at all those missing faces, and looked at a chain of people passing boxes along person by person, from a delivery truck to the interior of the Armory. I started to walk over to them to see if I could volunteer, but then I realized with a glance to my watch that it was nearing 5:00, and I had to be at work by 6:30. I walked quickly to my apartment, showered, changed, and walked to work.
I was very tired, especially my legs. I had walked a lot during the day. I passed Webster Hall, and assumed that the volunteer center never materialized. There was only a big flag hanging there, with "God Bless America" written on the marquee. On the way up Park Avenue South, I saw that a lot of businesses and restaurants had put up American flags. They seemed to be all over town. It was strange and heart-warming to see.
Not surprisingly, things were dead at work, and I left early. As I walked home, I passed by Union Square. It was around 10:30, and my God, what a metamorphosis... it was so unbelievably beautiful, so sad, so rich with creativity. Around the huge papier-mache' candle, there was now on the pavement a vast congregation of real candles, all lit, with flowers strewn among them. The glow, the colors... I can't express how lovely the scene is, how touching. I continued on home, changed into more comfortable clothes, grabbed my camera, and headed back to Union Square.
I can't explain how surreal it is to walk around my neighborhood with it being so "still". It's so quiet, so vacant, so dark, like an empty movie set. Walking from my apartment up to Union Square, I walked on 10th Street, passing 1st Avenue, 2nd Avenue, up to 12th Street, passing 3rd Avenue, 4th Avenue, Broadway, and up Broadway to Union Square. During the entire walk, I didn't see a single automobile. I walked smack-dab in the middle of the street, not using the sidewalk, no cars in sight, barely a soul walking, even-- at 11:30pm on a Thursday night! Has New York EVER been like this? EVER?
On Broadway, I crossed the 14th Street "border" checkpoint, and suddenly: people. Movement. Sounds. Life. As I approached the square, I could see a group standing almost in a perfect circle, and in the center, a few guys were shouting at each other in a political debate, tossing blame back and forth... "the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Americans, the Saudis, the Taliban, imperialism, socialism, zionism, blah blah blah..." I saw the same thing happening at Union Square the day before, and it disgusts me. Do we need to be shouting at each other and fighting at a moment like this? The victims have not been dead for more than two days! Can't we just reflect on the tragedy and on those who died? And will shouting at some guy whom you don't even know in Union Square solve any of the problems that we're going to face in this new conflict, that we are facing now? SHUT THE FUCK UP.
"Shut the fuck up" was what I felt like saying to the musicians who were showing up at the square with guitars, drums, etc. and playing hippie songs from the '60s. I always liked those songs, but here they seemed banal. They represent another time, another polemic, another world. When they started singing Kum-bai-ya, I rolled my eyes. The '60s ended almost 32 years ago. Let go. Let go and find your own generational identity.
I went up to the main part of the memorial where the sea of candles and flowers were, and knelt down. I wish that they'd cut the music, because SILENCE is much more powerful and eloquent. I tried to mentally shut it out, all the music and reverie from the other said of the square. It was distracting. It felt like Haight-Ashbury circa 1968, not Union Square 2001. The glow of the candles calmed me and awed me. There were so many.
Bordering all the candles along the edges of the circle, were people sitting, kneeling, gazing at the glow, their faces softly illuminated by the flickering lights. Many looked very introspective, immersed in their own feelings. I was very curious to know what thoughts, reflections and emotions were going through their hearts and minds. They just sat there, for such a long time, staring out at the candles. Once I got settled in there, I did the same.
What I saw inspired me to remember all the times that I had visited the Twin Towers, and all the masses of people that I always saw within. I remembered how once, on my first visit there, in February of 1990, I asked myself how many telephones there must be inside the two towers, and how many swivel chairs, and light bulbs, and desks, and how many personal photos on those desks, and how many people sitting behind those desks. Now I thought that again, but with the knowledge that all of those things, and more, came crashing down in maelstrom of destruction on Tuesday. My heart ached as I reflected on this, and so many different things.
Time passed. I saw that some candles had blown out. I grabbed a discarded lighter and started to re-light as many candles that had blown out as possible. Fliers with photos of the missing were placed among the candles. Their faces seemed to look at me, as I did my re-lighting.
I came across a photo that had fallen underneath two candles, and was in danger of being covered by dripping hot wax and ruined. It was the photo of a young man with sandy brown hair, maybe 21 or 22-years-old, squatting down and holding three small children in his arms, posing for the camera with a big smile on his face. In the background are some middle-aged people (his parents and an uncle?) also smiling.
On the back, it said something to the effect of, "Quinner, I pray for the day when you annoy the shit out of me again... I love you and my heart goes out to your family..." Was the young man killed in the Twin Towers? The caption really moved me. "I pray for the day that you annoy the shit out of me again." When someone you care about is forever gone, we appreciate the minute details of their personality-- even the details that annoy the shit out of us. I placed the photo back among the candles, fastening it to the top hat of a wooden Uncle Sam doll, thinking that there, it would be safe from hot candle wax.
Next to me lay a blond girl, no older than 20, using her handbag as a pillow. She stared out at the candles, her eyes wet, her face red and puffy. She was totally engrossed in her thoughts, still and deflated, unaware of the marijuana music that was playing nearby and the debates that were raging on a few yards away. The image of her really sticks with me. She was the personification of mourning to me, that girl.
I walked over to the "Wall of Hope", as it was called, which had on it yet more photos of those who were missing. I started to choke up with tears again, and walked to the western side of the square. I saw on the square's sidewalk near the George Washington statue, comments written in chalk defending Arab-Americans from attacks in recent days across the country. One comment said, "ARABS AREN'T THE ENEMY. TERRORISTS ARE."
Well, a skinny brown-haired guy started to furiously rub it off the pavement with his shoe, and a blond girl with her hair in bun saw him doing it, grabbed his arm, and said, "STOP that! What the hell are you doing?!" He shouted at her, "They're fucking pigs! They're scum! They should be wiped out!" and she said, "You're disgusting! YOU'RE the pig. You're revolting, repulsive--" He blurted, "They're--" and she cut him off: "They're HUMAN BEINGS! Why do you think they come to this country? To escape those Islamic regimes! You are sick."
The night was progressing and Union Square was becoming a public forum of sorts, complete with a microphone and speakers. Crowds were gathering around, listening to people speaking like voters listening to a politician. Most were speakers railing against the idea of war. Some off-handedly blamed the USA for the attacks, saying that our foreign policy has bred these terrorists due to our missteps in the Middle East. It was so much hot air... "Peace!" "We want peace!" "Give peace a chance!" "Peace on Earth!"... well OF COURSE we want peace! Who the fuck doesn't want peace? Wouldn't virtually everybody on the goddamned planet except the irretrievably insane want peace on Earth, and think of it as an ideal to be wished for?
The question is, HOW do we attain that peace? By singing '60s songs and coming up with touching, moving artwork? By writing on posters and debating in some city square? I don't want war, but nobody here is giving any feasible alternative to stop terrorism, besides simply intoning the refrain "Peace peace peace."
Then a blond frat-boyish kind of guy stood up, grabbed the mic, and, with no evidence that PLO was behind the attacks, said that we should retaliate right away and "turn Palestine into a parking lot". People booed him. He said, "Hey, I have friends who are missing in those ruins!" Something inside of me snapped, and I shouted out to him, "So you're going to be as bad as the terrorists themselves? Kill ALL the Palestinians just because they're Palestinians, just like the terrorists killed Americans just because they're Americans? They're diverse, too, just like us! I was there, and I got warm treatment from them--"
I then shut my mouth, not being able to go on. I was way too altercated. I just wanted to get the hell out of there and cool off. Then a black man with the most beautiful complexion put his arm on my shoulder and soothingly said, "Go up there and speak. Finish what you were going to say. Go on. Speak." I refused, but he kept convincing me. He took my arm and led to the steps where people were speaking. "Go on," he said gently. He finally convinced me. I had to wait for like three people to finish speaking, which gave me time to gather my thoughts, and then I spoke.
I basically said, "Who is THEY? Who is THEM? I was in Israel, and I went to the West Bank, to Bethlehem, and I left the Manger Square area, and when I met Palestinians, the reception was always warm: 'You're from New York? I have cousin in Brooklyn', 'You're from America? I have a sister in Baltimore' 'in Chicago' 'in Philadelphia'... We got lost and were helped to find our way by a Palestinian woman who was raised in a convent and speaks Italian. THOSE Palestinians are not cheering right now, the way the sick-minded ones are... In these days, I've heard a guy say, 'Burn down the mosques', I've seen xenophobic graffiti pointed at a mosque in my neighborhood. During World War I, German-Americans and their businesses were attacked and looted. During World War II, Japanese-Americans were interred in prison camps. Let's not let the same mistakes happen in our country again."
I got a good round of applause for my comments, big deal. I had thought that all this speaking that is going on in Union Square is just a lot of mental masturbation, and probably really is, but I wanted to say what I said because there are a lot of things that are troubling me right now, and this nascent brand of xenophobia is genuinely frightening to me. If it's this bad in Manhattan, imagine being an Arab out in the heartland.
So anyhow, after I finished my lil' speech, it started to pour down rain, thunder, et al. I ran home in the rain-- it was easy, with no cars on the street at all. But the only thing that I had on my mind as I ran home drenched in water, was that the rain was going to make it extra-hard for the rescue workers down at Ground Zero to do their jobs.