I went to New York this past week for three reasons:
First, I moved from New York with my family just over a year ago. My babies were both born in Beekman, a.k.a. NYU Downtown Hospital (the hospital closest to “ground zero” and the one to which most of the initial critical cases were brought). Much of my family and most of my closest friends (three of whom were still unaccounted for as of Friday Sept. 14, when I left Maine) are in New York – I feel like I’m still a “New Yorker.”
Second, I am a social worker with experience in trauma response counseling and I speak Spanish – I thought I could help.
Thirdly, nothing else made sense.
That said, I feel as though I should now neatly sum up my experiences and observations and wrap it up with some neat catchy title like all the TV stations and even our government has had the audacity to do. Well I certainly cannot sum it all up with a title – no more than I can adequately retell the hundreds of stories I’ve heard from New Yorkers about how their lives changed on Sept. 11.What I can do is share with you a few of the snapshots of life in New York this past week. These images are neither the most horrific nor the most wrenching (you have all seen plenty of that on TV and it will not help me or anyone else to go there again), but they are to me among the most vivid. These are images of New York around the battle zone (which is basically all of New York but “ground zero”) and, though most are images of pain, they are also in many ways images of hope. These are my pictures:
o The acres of pictures and placards covering the walls and fences of the city — each one bearing the description and photo of a lost loved one — “Kate Brown last seen wearing a tan skirt and flowered blouse” — as though in some ideal world 5000 amnesiacs are running around New York requiring only another bang on the head and proper direction to find their way home.
o Make shift altars established in EVERY part of the city — in front of the fire stations, along the Brooklyn promenade, in front of the bodegas, at the bus stops — EVERYWHERE there are flowers and candles (burning), poems and pictures.
o A fireman looking as though he had just come from “the scene” — in full uniform and covered with white ash — sitting on the front bumper of his truck staring into space. Stuck in time, the same fireman was sitting in the same place, in the same way, hours later when I walked by again.
o The sound of hundreds of voices of sisters and fathers speaking hundreds of different languages and all assembled in a huge cavernous room explaining to each other the intricacies of completing a missing persons report.
o A young woman obsessing about how, when she was 19 and living in London, an Arab man lived downstairs who she is sure now must have been Osama bin Laden — if ONLY she had done something! ‘Reported him or something!
o A freethinking, radical, once-flag-burning-type running around with an American flag buckled into her Guatemalan backpack. A stylish, sophisticated upper crust businesswoman carrying a Gucci bag similarly adorned.
o Exiting a near empty commuter bus (at rush hour on a weekday) with my 3-year-old (neither of us wanted to ride the subway) who says “Tanku so mawch bus!” and the driver responds by making the bus bow (it was a kneeling bus).
o The pages in the New York Times dedicated to remembrances of the dead. At first glance, when you see the smiling photos and punchy captions, they look like wedding announcements or graduation notices – and then you see that these are in the newly created special section “A Nation Challenged” and are lists of those who have been identified as among the dead.
o The ash that permeates the air in downtown New York, even a week later, and makes you feel like you’re walking through a space where the vacuum cleaner has just burped up. It lodges in your throat and makes it feel all gunky and it sits in crevices and corners of your clothes. It is accompanied by a smell like that of burning plastic, and a stillness that is particularly bizarre in a part of Manhattan that used to be so bustling you couldn’t stand still for a moment without being pummeled. Now the streets in this area are scarcely populated (even on a weekday) and those few who are walking around are wearing gas masks (one of some four or five different common models) and walking with their eyes fixed firmly on the ground.
o Nearly every day there is a new map of the city released by the MTA, which updates commuters on the accessible (and non-) parts of the city. With it’s brightly colored lines and spots marked “ground zero,” “restricted area,” and “residents only” it looks much like a children’s game board and one imagines little hard-hatted and gas-masked caricatures marking their turn throughout the city.
o The whir of F-15s or 16s regularly circling the city.
o A man telling his tale of Sept. 11. He stumbles over the right words to use to describe the day: “the tragedy,” “the destruction,” “the event,” and finally reverts to making turning gestures with his hands, as though something was tumbling over and over.
o Throughout the city – as far as the depths of Brooklyn, New Yorkers have saved the papers that came flying over to them on Sept. 11 (“like birds across the river”). It is so strange to see these charred and torn banal documents of business made instant mementos by their ability to survive an inferno. One can’t help but wonder about the person whose desk they cluttered – did she resent every comma and head note? Did he toil late nights to make it perfect? Did they not even know those pages were there?
o Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge the day it reopened and people just beaming as they see my children – as though delighted at the thought that there might still be innocence and joy.
I feel as though I ought to have something terribly profound and insightful to say – after all you don’t go to bear witness to a cataclysmic event and not have something groundbreaking (unfortunate word choice) to say – for poignant, profound accounts, check out last week’s New Yorker or last week’s New York Times magazine. However, having witnessed the devastation, I can say this much – it is infuriating to hear the terrorists’ acts diminished as “cowardly” (if that was cowardly, don’t show me brave), or claims that “we are already beginning to recover.” We have been wounded – deeply and severely. Most of what has been lost cannot ever be recovered and rebuilding towering edifices is certainly not going to make it all better.
But still, even in the face of all this, there is that tinge of hope. It comes from what I consider to be the most important talisman I brought back from New York – the charred corner of a legal document discussing airport security. Its ironic message is quite simple and obvious really – we (the world) cannot and must not wreak such havoc again. There MUST NOT BE more death and destruction, no matter how furious, pained and vengeful we feel. In order for our species to survive, the only possible response is a humane and well considered one; one that affords the Afghani people, the Muslim people, the people of our armed forces and all the people of the world, the dignity and value all of our lives merit.
As I write this note-turned-tome, some 15,000 reservists have been called to active duty but (as far as we know) our country has yet to take any violent military action. Meanwhile, back at home, a Sept. 25 New York Times poll reported that 83 percent of Americans believe our country should go to war even if it means attacking a nation or nations that are BELIEVED to be harboring terrorists – even if it means thousands of casualties for the United States as well as for the target nation. Much is in the balance.
Many of us (especially those of my generation who have never experienced war directly) throw the word “peace” around with such nonchalance, as though it were some cool greeting card. Now is the time for us to throw all of our conviction, all of our passion, and even all of our anger behind that word.
As educators, as researchers, and as students of life, it is imperative that we promote the continuation of that life – in all parts of the world and for all people. We must teach that peace and patriotism are NOT mutually exclusive. It is possible to support this country, mourn for our loss, and still advocate for nonviolent responses. It is possible and it is, literally, vital. As the wisest man I know recently reminded me, it is crucial to remember that the world did not begin on Sept. 11 any more than it ended. The events of that day were a response to (and hopefully the culmination of) a long history of mutual animosity, terror, hatred and oppression. More of the same is not the answer.
On the streets of the city, in the diners and on the stoops, as the number of “missing” rises and falls, you hear the same question “how can 5000 people just DISAPPEAR?” And the answer is of course, that they didn’t. The most powerful memento I bring back from New York is that feeling – which grows stronger as you approach the once bustling downtown financial district, and mellows as you walk over the bridge into the outer boroughs. It is not a picture, a sound, not even a sense, but it is like you can hear the voices of those thousands of souls – like you can feel their pain and their prayers. They float along with the white ash and they disperse with papers gliding in the breeze. They journey to Brooklyn, Westchester, Long Island and New Jersey. They’ve even come as far as Maine. What they have to say IS profound – we each hear them in our own way. To me, they beseech us to be kind to one another, to take care of each other, to remember them, and to learn.