Friday, September 11, 2009

Never Forget: Metaphors for Living - September 11, 2001



Strolling around the World Trade Center, circa 1993


8 years later. We never forget but the memory, and the pain, becomes slightly faded. Perhaps that is the blessing of the human condition. A colleague said the express bus that she takes through lower Manhattan was delayed today due to the 9/11 memorial. Our daughter, who attends high school in the Wall Street area was told to expect crowds on her way to school today. On 9/11, our older daughter, now a college senior, was in middle school on the West Side of Manhattan in sight of the World Trade Center. Time moves on. The NY Times published a story today about how NYC, which at first seemed irreparably damaged by the events of 9/11, in terms of NYFD casualties, changes in security, tourist fears, etc., has moved on and achieved a new normalcy of sorts. Is it better to remember or forget? I first posted this remembrance in 2007:

We had dropped our son, 11 years, and our daughters, who had just entered the first grade, at PS 321. Our older daughter had already left for her middle school in Chelsea, The Clinton School for Artists and Writers. My wife was driving as we headed down past the Gowanus; I was getting out near my office on Court Street; she was driving a little further to her school where she teaches. Somewhere, through the window, I heard two men on the street talking and one said something about a fire at the World Trade Center. As we drove a little further, that was when we first saw it, that iconographic image of a huge plume of smoke trailing out of the largest buildings in the world.We assumed, like everyone, that it was a fire, then heard on the radio that a jet plane had crashed into the Towers. We looked at each other dumbfounded. I remember in 1993, when the attempt had been made to bomb the WTC, I walked up to the Promenade in late afternoon, expecting to see some damage, smoke or shattered ruins attesting to a bombing attempt but in the cold winter day there had been nothing. Many of us assumed that it was a building that was too mighty, perhaps almost biblical in its proportions, simply too strong to be easily toppled.But here, with the first news, whatever had happened, here was a seriously damaged building. I thought about the plane that had slammed into the Empire State Building decades before, but the building had been virtually unfazed. How would they even begin to deal with what appeared to be an huge fire and the resulting damage? We drove a little further and couldn't see the WTC because of some trees but we heard another unmistakable boom. The radio told us that the second plane had hit the other tower. My wife said it first - it had to be intentional. Two planes could not accidentally smash into the World Trade Center within minutes of each other.My wife wisely said "maybe we should get the kids and go home" but I was operating within a sphere of unreality, as though this day, which would ultimately punch a gaping whole in the continuum of our lives, and which would forever demark a before and after in everyone's personal histories, was still just another day with a really insane blip in the news cycle. Plus, since it was the opening the school year, my wife's school was counting on her being there, and I had a lot going on at the office, it seemed as though the kids would be safe and OK at school. I was concerned about my older daughter, but her school was in Chelsea, a few miles north of the Trade Center. I got off on Clinton and Remsen and walked to my office. By the time I got there, it was already manifestly clear that this was the furthest thing imaginable from an ordinary day. I spoke to my wife who had arrived at her school. Shortly afterward, we spoke again, as the office building I work in was being evacuated and my wife was leaving school. I seem to remember a day where we were evacuating the building; there was some some pandemonium on the stairs, but a woman who had serious health problems and had difficulty walking, was hobbling downward slowly. Some people pushed and squeezed by. A couple of colleagues and I made our way down with her, making sure she arrived safely. How many times had this simple act of courtesy, nothing really to think about even, basic decency, been enacted in the smokey stairs of the WTC that day and in how many cases did a simple act of human kindness and decency prove fatal? Life is filled with mystery and wonder. Out on the street, people were already wearing masks, women on Court Street were in sneakers or out of their shoes, hurring through the streets, while the plume of smoke began to fill the air, traveling the short distance over the river. When my wife and I connected again in downtown Brooklyn, we learned that subways weren't operating. So we walked toward the Brooklyn Bridge where I planned to walk over to Manhattan to fetch my older daughter. Cell phones weren't working; I wasn't able to reach either school. Somehow I was able to exchange a text with my daughter to tell her I would get her as soon as I could. But when I got to the bridge, the NYPD were already telling people you could not cross to Manhattan. The masses of people trying to escape lower Manhattan were streaming over the bridge. We decided my daughter would be safe at school so we would pick up our younger kids and get them and my wife home, at which time I would figure out a way to cross back into Manhattan.We drove back to the Slope. I was still trying to reach my daughter's school by phone, but when I could find an available payphone, the school phone was busy. At other payphones on Seventh Avenue, long lines had already begun to form. I reached my mom, who is a master on "the horn" and asked her to keep trying to call the Clinton School from her home phone to find out where my daughter was waiting and let them know I would get there as soon as I could. I left my mom, who is a demon dialer in her own right, trying to reach the school and we went to 321.A lot of parents had already begun to appear at the office to fetch their kids. A couple of parents, desperate to be helpful, were making a list of kids and were about to release them to the parents who were there for them. I had a funny feeling about parents taking over what was the school's responsibility and sure enough, Liz Phillips appeared and said "What's going on?" She thanked the parents but announced firmly that no children would be released unless she or the 321 office staff confirmed who was there to fetch whom, which was very reassuring. Don't know why I remembered that anecdote.We got my son and younger daughters and brought them home to the relative calm of Flatbush. Nevertheless, the air was filled with the constant din of fire truck sirens and ambulance sirens. It was a sound I will never forget. The sound of calamity that I hope to never hear again in my lifetime. And as those of us with an affinity for remembering will recall, the alarum lasted for at least 24 hours or more, non stop. By the time we arrived home, my mother called to inform us that she had reached the school and my daughter had been picked up by a friends' mom and was at her home in Chelsea. I wasn't happy that I still did not know exactly where my daughter was but I trusted that she would be safe until we received further word.We turned on the news and began to watch the horrific iconography of the day unfold, the building, the smoke, the people leaping out of the buildings, the deaths, the huge dust cloud, the tragedy of the firemen and other rescuers lost. Finally, with tears of relief, we located my daughter when she called. Many of our neighbors gathered outside to talk and console. Around 3:00 PM I learned that the Q train was operating, so I decided to commence the operation to retrieve my daughter. Never in my long life as a New Yorker did taking the subway seem like such an odyssey, a journey into an unknown realm. I left my wife and kids with our neighbors and their kids on a blanket on the grass in front of our home; they were getting the kids McDonald's as a stab at normalcy.On the Q, when we exited the tunnel at Dekalb Avenue and started climbing the bridge, everyone in the subway car stood up as we could see the inferno, the absolute roaring fire maelstrom of the burning World Trade Center in the distance. I remember thinking "Should I take a camera?" and I didn't, feeling that my primary mission was retrieving my daughter. But personally, the image of the dense black smoke and intense burn of the Trade Center is forever etched in my mind's eye. It would not be too farfetched to say that there was something positively volcanic about the sight of the burning building in the distance, as though a fault had erupted and some intense steam and fire and brimstone from the bowels of the earth had been channelled to the surface.I debarked at Union Square and began to make my way north and west. My daughter was at a classmate's apartment on 28th and 7th avenue. When I arrived there were about a dozen girls hanging out, who this mom had wonderfully rescued from the boredom of waiting to be picked up at school. While there, I spoke to my wife and then my mother back in Brooklyn by phone. I knew the address was familiar. My mom has a cousin who lives in the same building. We managed to find her and check on her before my daughter and I embarked on the trek home.We went to one train station but it was closed. We walked further east but Union Square again had no trains running. The transit workers suggested we try West 4th Street. As we walked along the streets, the sky was filled with the huge plume of smoke. My ears rang with the desperate clamour of the rescue vehicles that would resound, non stop for what seemed like several days. There was virtually no traffic in the street except the occasional emergency vehicle.As we crossed Sixth Avenue, our faces were pelted with a fine mist of grit and dust blowing from the southern tip of Manhattan. I still don't want to think what was in that fine powder that we brushed from our faces and clothes. Miraculously, the F was running and we took it into Brooklyn to my old stop at 15th Street and Prospect Park West. A large crowd waited for the bus at Bartel Pritchard Square (or as we called it in days of the ancien regime, "The Circle"). A man saw me with my young daughter. I told him my daughter's story of the day and he kindly said his wife was picking him up, did we want a ride. We were so grateful that he drove us all the way home where we were greeted with an amazing amount of joy. After 9/11, at least for awhile the only pleasures were the simple pleasures. Coda: later that day, the first of the WTC debris incredibly blew across and made its way onto our lawn. My wife and I knew that nothing would be the same again, but why should it. Disaster, war, rumors of war, all the memory fragments of the day would fit together, eventually becoming just another metaphor for living.
Speak, memory.
--Brooklyn Beat 9/11/07
Posted by Brooklyn Beat

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