September 11, 2001

It happened on a beautiful September Tuesday. I was out of town and didn’t get back till Thursday. But 9/11 wasn’t a day, it was a season, a state of mind shared by everyone in the city. Maybe everybody in America, I don’t know. It made me realize where I live. I’m a New Yorker, one of the millions who’ve come here from somewhere else and found a home and stayed, sunk roots through the concrete.

The first view of the smoldering ruins from the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel the day I drove back. Smoke rising, as it would, less densely, till Cristmas and beyond.There was a girl on the corner of 9th Ave. & 42nd St., young, with long, thick, curling brown hair. I stared at her while I waited for the light to change, because she wasn’t covered with dust. For the length of a traffic light, she represented the hope of recovery.

There was the woman in my elevator, whose coloring, style and slight accent made me think she might be Iranian. Had I been to the firehouse on 48th St.?  she asked. I had not. The entire 9/11 morning crew had left for the towers and hadn’t come back yet. Well, it was only two days.  “Listen,” she said, “in a month or two we’ll all be hitting each other again. But for today, you take care of yourself, okay?” and we laughed and embraced each other and she got off at her floor.

There was the young cop getting coffee in the all-night deli across the street, who said he wanted to do something awful to “those rag heads,” and didn’t I feel the same way? “Oh, don’t do that!” I said. I remember trying to reach directly from my heart to his. “Because we’re all looking to you to set an example, and if you get violent, we will too, and then what will happen?”  He seemed to get it. He was, after all, beneath his uniform and gun and his justifiable rage, a young man who wanted to do the right thing. We all wanted to do the right thing.

There were the cops who manned the police barricade across 53rd & 8th, 24/7. Rumor had it that Giuliani was working out of the Transit Authority building down the block. I always stopped to talk to them, too, because they were part of the hurting community we were all suddenly part of. There was one, with tears in his eyes and a catch in his throat, who said he “wished those guys in the Towers could have gotten even a fraction of the love we’ve been getting from people since it happened.”

There were the signs outside the cleaners’ shops on 8th Ave.: “Will clean police and fire uniforms for free”; the styrofoam wreath with red white & blue ribbons outside the florist, with a sign saying “Take one”; the sound of distant bagpipes coming from the direction of St. Patrick’s on 5th Avenue for months, as the remains of firefighters were buried, and in the restaurant where I had breakfast, there were firefighters from as far away as Vancouver who came to be part of the honor guards, because there weren’t enough local firefighters to march and also do their jobs.

There was the sense, every time I walked out of my building and looked at the faces of the people walking toward me on the street, that we were all feeling the same thing, every day. We were united in grief, but something else, too. It seemed like real change was possible, if we could all just  lean in the right dirrection, put the weight of our sadness and good will where it would do some good, something better might come out of this….

To be continued, with some pictures….




State of the Union?

Living as I do on 8th Avenue in Manhattan, where I look down from the 11th floor at traffic surging uptown toward Columbus Circle, I have been aware for a few years now of periodic double phalanxes of police cars, more than a city block in length, moving up the avenue at slow speed. I think I was supposed to feel secure knowing that if the “terrorists” were on the sidewalk under my window, the police could come out in force from the curb sides of their cars swinging clubs or tasers or AK 47s. My homeland security dollars at work. I did not feel more secure, though, because one day I watched the parade and realized “That’s not for terrorists. That’s for us if we get angry enough to take to the streets.” Then there was the time in broad daylight at Columbus Circle when I saw a police officer in regalia that would have done the SS proud: High leather boots, jodphurs, lots of black leather. Or the two times when I walked to my local bank and saw an officer outside carrying hardware so formidable I gasped, and with insignia on his sleeve patch that I didn’t recognize. The first one was young and human, and after strutting a little (but never taking his eyes off the windows of the buildings around him, one of which was a major midtown hotel), he said he was in a “special division.” On the other occasion, the officer had dead eyes as well as a lethal weapon, so I didn’t engage in conversation. In fairness, the hotel in question was probably packed with world diplomats both times because there was a big UN event happening the following day. Yeah, homeland security isn’t a bad thing. (But remember when America was “the nation,” “my country”? The “homeland” was where the Nazis lived….)
Ever since 9/11, I’ve made an effort to connect with police officers on the street. In the aftermath of the attack, the entrance to one of the blocks near my building was barricaded, and there was an officer on duty 24/7. Rumor had it that a transit authority building on the block was where Giuiliani was working for the duration. I would stop to ask them “How you doing?” because they, like the whole city, were hurting. One of them said, with tears in his eyes and a catch in his throat, that he wished those guys who died in the Towers had gotten “even a fraction of the love we’ve been getting from people since it happened.” Since then, when I pass a cop, or encounter a pair of them getting coffee at 2 a.m. in my local diner, I always ask, “How you guys doin’?” Partly it’s because I want the local cops to know me if things come down that are bad—which, since I live in walking distance of Times Square, is not impossible. The response is surprising: Their faces light up. They’re so pleased to be greeted with trust. Of course, if something bad does come down, it won’t be my local precinct handling things. It’ll be those guys with the truncheons and tasers and AK47s and quite possibly dead eyes. Or robots. Robots are the next big thing, I hear. Are the feds giving away leftover robots?
Speaking of which, earlier this summer, I had a feeling of uneasiness drifting toward dread. I couldn’t escape the sense that they’re about to show their hand. Then came Michael Brown, and Ferguson, and it seems to me I was right. We now know that the police can and will shoot unarmed citizens in the streets and leave their bodies uncovered and uncollected for hours, so nobody can miss the visual. Even members of Congress were alarmed when they saw the footage of cops in military gear facing off against citizens in Ferguson. OMG! They’ve got military weapons! How did that happen? Was it in an amendment I didn’t read??? I’ve seen things before that worried me—the Darth Vader costumes police wore confronting demonstrators at some economic forum a couple of years ago. The tear-gassing of young women sitting in the street during the Occupy protests. (Whatever happened to the Occupy movement, by the way? Oh well….might as well ask ‘Whatever happened to the homeless who used to hang out at Columbus Circle?’ One day they just disappeared….) The thing is,  It seems to me that starting with the 2010 midterms and maybe before, the homegrown nouveaux fascista have taken over state legislatures and armed themselves with “leftover” military equipment from the federal government. I understand from a friend that the little town of Newtown, Pa., which has a police force of 5, also has a tank. Is it paranoid to think that the bad guys are now confident enough to come out of the closet? They’re starting with the black people, particularly young black men. But it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to get the message: They can put on masks, like the jihadis who behead journalists and stone women, and do whatever they want or are ordered to do, and there will be no consequences. The lineaments of the police state are in place, ready to be called to duty.