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….