First Things First: Letter from New York (September 2011)

[This essay was written by my wife Cheryl and me shortly after the terrorist attacks on New York City in September 2001]

On September 11, when a catastrophic event rocked our New York, we little survivors in our little lives seemed to set our course in curious unison. Our destination? Quite simply, that perspective that might give us a sense of intelligent understanding. That understanding that might give us a sense of solid reassurance. That reassurance that might give us realistic hope. That hope that might tell us what to do, or at the very least, what not to do.
On any other day, it would have been a simple matter to locate a new perspective. When our little realm was disrupted by personal tragedy, all that would have been required was a move outward, a change of location that might help us to focus on the big picture. “Yes, I’ve lost my job, but there are other jobs out there. Yes, I’ve lost my father, but life goes on in my children.”

Perhaps before September 11, it was something even less dramatic than loss that threatened to undo us. Maybe the first post-vacation Visa bill arrived and while we were at first upset, we were quickly transported to the reality of an adequate income, and to the wonderful memories we would enjoy while that income paid the bill.
But what of those times when it was not our little realm that was disrupted–perhaps even tragically– but some part of the world around us? Then what? Well, most of us just moved about the picture again–this time inward to the comfort of the little picture, the undisturbed details of our little lives even in the midst of tragedy.
The point is, most of us have enjoyed a certain agility when it comes to recovering our balance. We have suffered or we have witnessed suffering–and we have known how to regain our perspective, how to reassure ourselves, what to do. Until this week. When an event of such catastrophic proportions as the collapse of the World Trade Center occurs, and both our little picture and the big picture are changed beyond recognition, how is perspective achieved, a sense of balance restored? To where do we turn our attention to find the reassurance of a world unchanged?

* * * * *
Being twin towers, it isn’t until the second went down that one of us begins to cry. It is as if we could hang on to something as long as at least one of the two stood. We hug each other. Between the Mormon stock-piling upbringing of one and the Yankee pragmatism of the other we get the bathtub and every container in our Brooklyn apartment filled with water. Then take a quick mental inventory of supplies. We have six quarts of milk which will last us ten days. No, what are we crazy? We have children living on both sides of us.
We go next door. Maura is home safe. While driving to work next to the East River she saw the second plane hit. Our neighbors on the other side both work in Manhattan. We talk to their nanny briefly. When we ask her if she’s okay, she begins to cry. She was supposed to take her own son into the city for some kind of audition today.
All day, as we watch the one commercial TV station still operating, we keep adding to the list of loved ones that might be working in Manhattan. “Oh my God, what about Jeff? Have you heard from Viviane? Are you sure Tim and Michelle are on vacation?”
By afternoon the enormity of what has happened sinks in…a little. It hits us how many more orphans and single parent families there are in the city. There is the sound of fighter jets.
Our friend Jack calls to report that he has just seen thousands of people, many covered in ash, walking in silence across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan, people on the Brooklyn side handing out bottled water to them as they arrived, also silent. We close our windows against the ash and smoke. The sky goes dark, and our friend Sue calls from American Fork, UT. We ask her to call our family in Provo to tell them we’re okay. This, for us, is still largely a television event. It has not occurred to us yet that we might not be okay. We think that participation might bring reality home to us. Maybe if we heed the call of the city for blood. No. Childhood hepatitis prevents one of us from doing even that. The blood type of the other is not in demand.
Because we rely on an airline job to live, there are special concerns over the morning’s events. It was a vacation week, but the regular work route is to Israel, and the thought of crew members stranded throughout the system–the world–is sobering. On layovers next to the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv, where crews walk to Jaffa for dinner, they pass the bombed-out shell of a discotheque where twenty-something young Israelis lost their lives to a suicide bomber last June. Now that horror is in their back yard–our back yard.
Tonight, it smells like a ruined campfire. By 6pm, we are exhausted from watching the drama unfold, tangle up in itself, and spread itself out, etherized on TV, so we venture out. A giant cloud of dust and smoke stretches from lower Manhattan across Brooklyn like a daytime Milky Way. It burns in our throats.
The next morning, water still sits in the bathtub.
Our one station, local CBS, replays the image of the second hit like a chant. We try to escape the image at the Trio Diner, but find we have traded one television for four, flashing in every corner of the room. A fire truck roars up, spilling tired firemen. The diner’s shift manager starts clapping and whooping it up. She insists on buying them all dinner. At the counter, waiting for their take-out, they blush in their suspenders and heavy boots. It is to us as if cartoon heroes just stepped out of the TV and into the diner, and we are too timid to say anything to them.
There is a candlelight vigil tonight, but we don’t attend. Instead, we watch the video “Chocolat.” If we ever see the actress Juliet Binoche again, ablaze in bright red lips and shoes, that image will always be inflected with the taste of smoke and the anxiety of draining hope. So too the novel one of us is reading, and the cross-stitched table runner the other is trying to finish. Will we ever be able to use it?
Mayor Giuliani’s presence on TV is oddly comforting. Even G.W. Bush when he arrives, arrives as president, not as “Dubbya,” But, curiously, the increasing numbers of American flags on display are somehow as disquieting as they are inspiring.
When we laugh at something, we feel ashamed. This whole incident has become a grief observed, however vicariously. People wander listlessly above 14th Street in Manhattan, pictures of their loved ones held up, looking, looking. And we think of our niece Natalie who was standing atop one of those towers with us just days ago, and our son-in-law, Jim, a Salt Lake City resident who was in Tower One for three weeks in training with Morgan Stanley only a week ago.
After we retire, we hear the first commercial plane passing overhead, and we are grateful for the sound that was just recently annoying. It is a very different sound than that of fighter jets and helicopters.
Weather reports say rain for tomorrow. Rain in New York City isn’t like those Utah storms that pass through quickly, and it is raining hard Thursday morning. We think of medical personnel throughout the city, waiting for the arrival of the injured. When will the rescue teams begin pulling the survivors from the rubble?
The rain will make recovery of any victims more difficult, even though it clears out the air for rescue workers who have been wearing masks. On the steps of our apartment building this morning a young woman pauses to put up her umbrella. She is wearing a thin tee shirt, and we ask her if she will be warm enough. She says, “That’s the least of my concerns on a morning like this.”
On the way back from the barber shop, where we have listened to radio disc jockeys spending as much of their time justifying the playing of spirited pop music as playing it, we see a couple walking towards the subway. They are dressed up, and carrying a posterboard covered with photos of a loved one.
At home our neighbor, Nick, is in the hall with his toddler, Annalivia. He comments on how everyone is dressing up the town in American flags, on cars, buildings–as clothing accessories. He says it makes him feel nervous, and that he wishes he had a peace sign he could wear instead. But while we’re not inclined to wear Old Glory as a head kerchief like someone seen walking down Prospect Park West, we don’t know that we could wear a peace sign either.
Now Mayor Giuliani has given us a directive to get on with our lives, and we are attempting routine. At the Fifth Avenue Bodybuilding Gym in South Brooklyn, men attempt to escape, if only for a few minutes, from the fibers of a troubled mind into muscle. They speak in thick, diverse accents between sets of bench presses and lat pull-downs, shouting down one another about what should be done to retaliate. The strains of extra weight and one repetition too many fill the room.
The blaring radio interrupts hip-hop music with suggestions of how to help. Rescuers need boots, socks, masks, dry clothing. Money. We had already given to the Red Cross by the time the other worthy causes began to canvas for donations. There’s no more. Anyway, it’s hard to imagine our little bit is a significant contribution to a multi-billion dollar disaster.
We meet Mike, an assistant principal, by the mailboxes. He tells us there was a bomb threat just minutes before the children under his watch arrived for a late-hour return to class. There are reports that Macy’s was evacuated, Times Square, the Rockefeller center. The police report 220 bomb threats in one day following the attack , in a city that normally expects not more than 7.
Back upstairs, there is a message from an editor in Salt Lake who is interested in publishing a report about the catastrophe. Lacking welding and firefighting skills, we can perhaps make a contribution that way, but our motives are hardly pure. The real contribution we stand to make is to our own need to speak.
Work requires flying back to Tel Aviv on September 19, but things are still up in the air–or, to be more precise, grounded in FAA indecision. After this vacation, the routine of a small, enclosed space where one feels needed, even essential would be a blessing.
In the mornings we go down to the street-level deli in our apartment building to pick up the New York Times. You have to be fast these days to get a copy. We ask one of the Palestinian store owners, who goes by “Jeff,” if he has experienced any discrimination since the attack.
“If they begin asking questions,” he half-jokes, “I’ll just say,‘Que pasa! Que pasa!’” His Spanish is as good as his Arabic, and Jeff laughs, as do we. But when we turn around, there is a customer behind us who isn’t smiling.
Ambivalence is “normal” to day-to-day life, but under the pall of Tuesday’s attack, it takes on weird dimensions–as if life and death were at stake in every decision. The big dilemma today is if we are going into town as scheduled, to participate in the reading of a one-act play at The Baggot Inn, Greenwich Village. It’s a favor for friend Jack, the playwright.
We haven’t been into Manhattan since Tuesday. Will we look at the devastation? Of course. Funny how the human need to know firsthand, to witness, is so powerful. So the weird dimension of ambivalence is the see-sawing back and forth with the other actors and the playwright about whether we should be doing this stage reading. It takes someone like Mark, who M.C.’s the event, to tell us all to get off our ambivalent butts and get back to the job of living.
We like this arrangement. This way our curiosity about what it’s like to be in the city will be quelled, but if we feel lousy about it afterwards (or more likely, more ambivalent) we can blame Mark.
We are determined to think for ourselves in the midst of repetitive speeches and an abundance of mass-mailed e-mails. We steel ourselves against Bush’s hawkish cries as well as the more temperate voices of others, and even against the ridiculous, like the offering from an estranged friend who mass e-mailed a free-standing Buddhist bromide as if that were supposed to put this whole thing to rest.
But, the face of an enemy begins to form in front of us without even our knowing. The face is brown, male, dark-eyed and Muslim. Some of the faces of the terrorists look out at us from newspapers, and it gives us pause. Maybe there really is something evil about Middle Eastern people, we think.
A family member phones, and then writes that she thinks that going to war would constitute a win-win solution, that it would kill off suicidal “camel jockeys” who want to die anyway, and restore our economy at the same time. She seems to be at least half-serious.
On television we watch the service at the National Cathedral in Washington. The networks have had time to shape now familiar images into a musical montage that stirs powerful emotions. The opening prayer is addressed to the God of Abraham, Jesus and Mohammed. How strange that we know so little about the Muslim faith, about their rituals, their ways of worship. Until recently, we didn’t even know what Muslim clergy were called.
The service, with a Muslim cleric in attendance, raises questions that run diagonally across the rhetoric of good vs. evil, tyranny vs. democracy, kill or be killed. What role does humility play in all of this, and how might it leaven what we hope will be the “measured” responses we take as a nation? What about the differences between “reacting” and “responding.” Respond we must, but “reacting,” it seems, is too close to the word, “re-en-acting.”
On Saturday we catch our first sight of downtown Manhattan. Except for the dusty, yellow cloud of smoke just left of the ornate, green-topped Woolworth building, there is no evidence of the twin towers–the quintessential statement of vertical simplicity which always seemed to be floating above the city as if they weren’t really there.
In the Village, things seem normal, if subdued. Next to our destination, the Baggot Inn, is Fire Patrol House #2, bright red and white, the front entrance aproned with a makeshift shrine of roses, sunflowers and carnations, candles and homemade cards from P.S. (Public School) 93 in Brooklyn, and others.
The Baggot Inn program includes a stand-up comic who cringes at his own joke about construction workers at ground zero, “Are we getting triple time and a half, guys? Then let’s rebuild them. Twice as high. Paint a bulls eye on the side.” At four in the afternoon, this dark, sour-smelling place seems like its own world. On our way out we notice the chalk board over the bar, normally used to advertise the droughts of Carlsberg, Murphy’s Stout and thick-as-molasses Guinness beers. The name Keith is pushed into it like a sore. The one firefighter from next door who is still missing.
We walk down Sixth Avenue and see several yellow bulldozers–each as big as a house. Someone has plastered photocopies of Todd Rancke, smiling, in a tux…and missing. In the midst of one of many shrines, there are flowers and candles. The cement is coated with wax drippings. Two of the candles are in the shape of the towers. They are burning.
At Canal Street we are stopped by blue police barricades. Above us are giant street signs for the Gap and Doc Otis Hard Lemon beverage, and between them rises the plume of smoke. Large dump trucks rumble past, their holds filled with twisted braces from the city’s missing “two front teeth,” as the New York Post has referred to the devastated towers.
It is the Sunday after. We drive out to friends’ on Long Island, and take a champagne cruise out of Greenport on a 1905 Schooner under the command of Captain Ted. No images of fallen towers here. No smoke. No friends who lost friends. No climbing count of the missing, the wounded, bodies, body parts. We talk and joke as if the world were unchanged from a week ago–but not before we passengers nervously reassure one another that it is okay to do–grant ourselves and each other permission to be alive and well and having fun.
On our return, we buy gas on Long Island to avoid the reported $4.19 a gallon price gouging going on near home. We ask one another if we’re ready before turning on the radio, and we brace ourselves as we listen to Bush’s press conference in which he verbally places Osama ben Laden, the prime suspect of the terrorist attacks, in a Wanted: Dead or Alive, wild west poster. All the way back to the city, flags are waving, sometimes ten to a truck, and near the town of Holbrook local fire trucks have raised their ladders, building a makeshift arch over the road, an arch draped with the red white and blue.
That night, the effects of terrorism finally come home to roost. A message flashes across the bottom of the television screen: an expected 100,000 lay-offs are expected in the airline industry. Everything we take for granted from medical care to retirement security to our care-free mobility, hinges on one airline job. Depression hits. Though there has been anxiety, fear, confusion, and terror at least there has been energy. Now there is no nothing but a sense of despair and hopelessness spreading outward from our living room couch.
At last, we admit that there is little if any chance of recovering live people in the twin tower wreckage, that life will not pick up in a moment and go on as before.
* * * * *
This is the time after the fact and we, like you, are holding little more in our hands than a succession of responses. They have no usefulness. They do not, in and of themselves, constitute a healing perspective, an intelligent understanding, nor hope nor any suggestion for solution–but they do have names. The offspring of catastrophe–to name but a few that we have tried to describe–are called fear, selfishness, denial, anger, racism, depression, stoicism–even misguided righteousness. They come from the darker side of human nature and we believe that they have been the offspring of every catastrophe that history has seen.
With this in mind, perhaps the hope that cannot be found in this moment either by moving inward to the steadfast details of our little lives, or outward to the reassuring predictability of the big picture–can be found by leaving this moment to travel through time and let history console us. Arguably the most obvious “historical fact’ will be the fact of our existence–that we are here, and that we are the heirs of those who have survived catastrophic events.
Further, we are heirs to their records of and reflections upon the aftermath of catastrophe. We can know what worked, or at the very least, what didn’t, and that knowledge can serve us, to be blunt, as one damn fine guide.
Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that “the progress of intellect consists in the clearer vision of causes, which overlooks surface differences.”
What do we see on the surface of the attack on the World Trade Towers ? That it was hijackers who attacked, that they were Muslim and that they had dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. Their pictures were on TV. Pictures of the enemy. If we stay on the surface, it will be easy to believe we know what the enemy looks like, where to strike. Easier still to believe that the first thing we should do is to strike.
But what do we find below the dark surface, to where the enemy is without skin, but possesses a certain character, to where the enemy doesn’t even conform to a generally accepted humane standard, let alone the spiritual message of any of the world’s major religions. The skinless view implies that it is the darker side of human nature that is the enemy, and we know that human nature is not confined to a race, creed or color.
From here below the skin, we can be empowered. We can know what to do. If the darker side of human nature is the enemy, then it seems safe to assume that our first responsibility is to monitor our own humanity very, very carefully, for the enemy in the “new type of war” is as much within as without.
Copyright, David G. Pace and Cheryl C. Pace, 2010

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *