There are other things to talk about today, happier things, more whimsical things, foodier things, for it has been a while since I’ve been to the market, or out playing about in interesting groceries, and I’m feeling ready to do it again. I have new books to share, and eventually I will have four cases of candy bars arriving at my office for anyone who would like one. (There is a story behind the candy, yes.) For now, though, I have to acknowledge that today is a complicated day.
I can acknowledge it, but I feel sheepish talking about it. Mostly I shy away from talking about That Day because my story is not particularly special. If I sound like I’m protesting too much, believe me when I say I know what a blessing it is to not have anything noteworthy to talk about. I know people who have stories of that day that make me shiver: the former co-worker whose husband was an EMT lost in the collapse; the woman at the gym whose husband worked at Cantor; the friend of my mom’s whose mother had a particularly awful story of friends of hers: two friends and the four-year-old daughter of one of them, who all decided to go to California to take this little girl to Disneyland: one of them was on one plane, one of them was on the other plane with her daughter. I think of the staff of Windows on the World, where I wanted to work after graduation from culinary school, and where I was crushed to learn that there were no vacancies, but please keep us in mind and best of luck in your future! I made the mistake of reading the transcripts of the 911 tapes, hearing the general manager of Windows shouting, “I have to get my people out of here RIGHT NOW,” and the dispatcher saying “We’re sending the fire department up to you, dear,” nobody having any idea what was in store for them. I think of various celebrities who I will not name here, glomming onto tragedy: “well, I *thought* about flying on that day, but I decided to wait until the following week!”, and I think of Seth MacFarlane, the adorable and demented mind behind Family Guy, whose name was on the passenger manifest for one of the planes leaving Logan, who I’d thought had been murdered on that day, but who ended up missing his plane by 10 minutes. (Seth tends not to brag about this in interviews, so I take his word a little more seriously than I do the others, the “omigod, I decided to spend the weekend in Vermont instead!” crowd.)
No, on that day I was lucky. Everyone I knew and loved who could have been downtown that day wasn’t. My cousin was late for work; a friend of my brother’s, working on the 52nd floor of Tower Two, flouted the “the building is secure, please stay at your desk” announcement, took an elevator to the 40th floor sky lounge and started climbing down stairs; she was on the 20th floor when Tower Two was hit and was able to get out in plenty of time. (She later told my brother the first thing that struck her, upon leaving the building, was seeing the piles of women’s shoes in the plaza, high heels just abandoned by women who knew there was a lot of walking ahead of them and didn’t think twice about walking the sidewalks of lower Manhattan stocking-footed.) Literally, other than watching wholesale death and destruction unfold before our eyes, the worst part of that day for me was getting a call from Lloyd, temping in Brooklyn in a neighborhood not within walking distance from our home. At 11 a.m. he called me and announced that his office was being evacuated by the NYPD (he was working for a pharmaceutical company that was under FDA jurisdiction, so it was considered federal property). “I’ll call you in a few minutes, as soon as I can find a pay phone,” he said. I didn’t hear from him again for six hours, and those were easily the worst six hours of my life. I also never want to relive the moment where I got through to my home voice mail and heard my mom’s voice, saying “I know it’s probably hard to get a line out, but if you do, just let us know you and Lloyd are okay,” trying not to sound like she had been crying. Again, other than seeing up-close what hideous designs human beings can have on other human beings, this was the worst of what happened to me, and for that, I’m relieved and grateful.
And yet, just thinking about it all makes me feel, for lack of a better adjective, unseemly. That Day has become a vehicle for behavior that I find repellent. I certainly don’t want to dictate how to honor the dead properly; after all, we are all individuals, we are all different (Life of Brian fans, feel free to conclude that line) , we all mourn in our own way. That said, I don’t see what favors were done by the people we lost that day by passing out 6” long, flag-colored, ribbon-shaped refrigerator magnets with “USA: Proud American” stamped on them, the way our building management company did when I came to work yesterday. Maybe someone feels better for having this magnet handed to them, and I won’t stand in his or her way for feeling so. For me, though, it took a tremendous amount of effort not to tear that ugly rubber magnet into (smaller) ribbons. I look at it, and I think about the previous week’s adventures at Madison Square Garden, where the speakers took one of the worst days this city has ever seen and used it to beat the drum for a man at whom I can hardly bear to look, to whom I can hardly bear to listen. Several of my pals have quoted to me the Bill Maher monologue about how FDR never said that Pearl Harbor was his administration’s finest hour, and we should not be lionizing this administration for a chain of mistakes that led to catastrophe. I think about Rudy Giuliani, telling a cheering crowd that as the towers fell, he turned to Bernie Kerik and said thank God for George Bush, and I shrivel on the inside. I had never been a fan of Rudy, and I still am not, but what I remember from That Day is that he was there, he was there, he was present, he was on the news a lot, saying, “we know how much people want information, but we honestly don’t have any right now, but as soon as we do, we will share it.” I thought this was a shockingly graceful and reassuring action from someone who had previously been known for being a martinet with the public’s right to know. Fairly or unfairly, my memory of the day is this: Rudy was talking to us, W was not, and now Rudy is shaking the can for the man who took three days to get to us, and I never realized just how furious I was about this until our poor harried security guard pushed a magnet into my hand.
Here is what I’m going to do today, on a day much like That Day, a beautiful clear color-saturated-blue-sky day: I will go into Manhattan. I will go to the market at Union Square, as I do almost every Saturday. I will stand at the corner of 14th Street and University Place, the street where I lived when I first moved to New York. I will think about my nightly walks home from work in those days, when I had a clear view of the towers down University Place, where I would think, “the Empire State Building gets me to work, the Trade Center gets me home.” I will look at that open space in the sky. I would like to say that I won’t cry, but I probably will, for the people lost on that day, for the people lost in all sorts of brutal and senseless attacks worldwide, from Armenia to Poland to Rwanda to Iraq to Lockerbie, for the hideous things we are clever and empty enough to do to each other. And then I will remind myself that there is more to being human than brutality; that there is love and compassion and justice, maybe on a smaller scale than injustice, but justice nonetheless; that maybe our good impulses can outweigh our bad, that there just might be hope for us after all. I will go out into this city that pisses me off, breaks my heart and, occasionally, loves me back. I will do everything I can to let everyone I know know how glad I am that we are in each other’s universe. And then I will figure out just what I’m going to do with four cases of candy bars.