Love in the ruins

I woke up early on Friday morning surprised that three days had gone by since the World Trade Center fell to a pile of rubble. I’ve been surprised by my feelings many times this week. The moments after I saw the towers fall I felt an emptiness in my stomach that I have never felt during a public event but that I have felt the few times in my life when someone close to me has died too young in a gruesome way. The emptiness dissipated as I tried to call home, pressing redial hundreds of times before getting through. My country and my hometown have never been attacked before. None of us have had a script to follow – I had few familiar thoughts to think. I decided on Friday morning that I would not be able to focus on anything until I went back to New York and saw my family.

The sun had evaporated the morning’s rain clouds by the time I hit the Taconic in mid-afternoon. I glided down the empty parkway tuned to NPR, listening to nasally pundits from the Brookings Institute and Heritage Foundation debate whether the U.S. could find allies in Iran and Pakistan for a war they hypothesized to give themselves something to talk about over the airwaves. I would rather that the radio stations should have just been silent, playing low-pitched white noise, to give up and admit that on the third day they had nothing to say; they should have made their listeners face the silence of incomprehensibility. I put in a tape and listened to Louis Armstrong instead.

I crossed the Harlem River onto the West Side Highway in the middle of rush hour to see very few people driving in or out of the city. My eight-year-old sister greeted me at the door, ecstatic, her jolliness piercing the somber cloud that hung over my thoughts the entire drive. My sister knows what happened. People have asked me if she understands. I tell them that she understands better than I do. My parents and her teachers have kept the dimensions of death away from her and I do not think she has even thought about how many people died. But, because it is all she has to think about, she understands the symbolism: those two great towers came tumbling down into a pile of ruins—her sense of safety has been assaulted. She will go to school on Monday to find out that some of her schoolmates have lost a parent. We have heard the same of one of our schoolmates.

A half an hour after I got home, my parents, sister and I went to a prayer service at the synagogue around the corner from us. We do not belong to the congregation, but I’m sure the packed sanctuary held three or four times the number of people who usually come out for Friday night services. Hebrew school kids handed us all white candles at the door and we found seats in the balcony. The cantor sang beautifully in Hebrew, which I neither read nor understand. The rabbi began by reading, in a business-like tone, the names of the ten temple congregants killed on Tuesday. He then asked to see the hands of everyone who wished to give names missing friends to pray for. The rabbi called one-by-one on over four-dozen people with raised hands; each stood and spoke on or two or three names.

The small businesses on the West Side, Korean delis, Italian restaurants, Arab-owned tobacconists, Indian newsstands, Chinese laundries, Israeli falafel places, have American flags draped over display windows and hanging above entranceways. Hundreds of flower bouquets pile on the pavement in front of the 74th Engine Company on 83rd between Columbus and Amsterdam. A gigantic card from the students at P.S. 9 reads, “We are sorry that you lost so many of your friends.” Everyone out on the block seemed to be walking over to offer plates of food or a few kind words to the firefighters standing in their doorway as I’ve seen them before on so many other warm nights.

We live on 84th Street, six miles north of the ruins. My parents say Wednesday night was their most difficult; then the winds changed direction and began to blow smoke one hundred and twenty blocks uptown and into our windows.

After dinner and putting my sister to bed, I talked with my parents. They assured me that we would have heard by now if anyone we knew had died. I wanted to say “Thank God,” but that cannot be how God works.

I knew, while driving down the Taconic, that I would return to a city very different than the one I left two weeks before; but I did not (and do not) understand what that means. I felt a bizarre pinch of nausea when my mother and I stepped out of a subway station on 14th Street (as far South as the trains were running) and did not know which way to walk. I’ve spent a lifetime orienting myself by looking up to find those two towering rods of modern commerce rising from lower Manhattan.

It was Saturday morning, the fourth day after. We wanted to see “the border” at Canal Street. And we wanted to see what wasn’t there. Greenwich Village, forty or fifty blocks north of the ruins stood silently, missing its normal weekend brunch crowds flowing out of sidewalk cafes. Photos and physical descriptions of the dead covered every bus stop, lamppost and empty wall; all posted by families not yet ready to realize the missing may not even be identified by Christmas. The sign that made me cry had three photos of a four or five year-old boy and his father, the two playing in the park. It read, “Have you seen my Daddy? Love, Jacob.”

My mother and I walked down to Canal Street. We passed makeshift memorials, dazed New Yorkers, photo-snapping onlookers and St. Vincent’s Hospital, surrounded by a memorial mural, flowers and boxes of donated goods. Without proper identification, no one can walk south of Canal Street, itself a mile north of the ruins. State troopers guarded the border at every intersection. Not seeing the towers felt, in a word, bizarre—as if I were lost in another borough or city or, perhaps, mistakenly walking in the wrong direction. The other visible buildings in the financial district and Battery Park City, though still standing at the same height they stood last week, seemed less significant. The buildings in the foreground, red brick buildings along the West Side Highway, that I’d never before noticed, seemed to have gained stature, size and significance. For me even weirder than not seeing the towers was (oddly) seeing dark blue State Police cars and state troopers in their Smokey the Bear hats. I’d never seen them in Manhattan before. The militarized border, truckloads of armed national guardsmen and the fighter jets roaring overhead were, in equal parts, comforting and terrifying. Armed soldiers guarding government buildings in other countries have always reminded me how open our government is and how serious the distinction is between civil and military authorities.

We could not see the ruins, but one wide avenue allowed a look at a huge cloud of dust and smoke. After walking a few blocks east on Canal Street, my mother said she wanted to go home. A few blocks up, we found a taxi.

The night before, my parents and I had discussed the possibility of my withdrawing from Williams for the year. I asked if they could think of any way that I might be useful in New York. I understood that the city has been flooded with volunteers but imagined that, even if far from the ruins, I might rejoin the fiber of the city in some (vaguely defined) capacity. They convinced me I could be of more use by graduating this spring and coming home with a credential to find a useful job next year. I sat in the taxi, depressed by my inability to help at all. The anti-malarial medication in my system after a summer in Asia will even keep me from giving blood.

As we rolled uptown we resumed another conversation from the night before: the possibility of war. That morning,- I’d been thinking only about New York. Even while in Williamstown, I found myself incapable of bringing together the tragedy and ruins in New York with the new national and international crises we face; the two seemed to be separate stories, each of which I could only focus on by ignoring the other, by putting on a different hat. My friend Judd Greenstein ’01 characterized the difference between the New York part of the story and the American part of the story by the divergence in CNN coverage and local New York 1 news coverage. But in that cab ride, what happened in New York and what may happen to our country came together for me.

It was the notion of rebuilding that connected the ruins and the response for me. I have returned to Williamstown, far from my hurting home, but with a sense of purpose. That purpose, I think, has abruptly ended what has been three years of happy, but aimless wandering. I’m not sure that I have a mission yet, but I know that after I graduate I am going to find the most useful way I can to help rebuild. Something new has to grow from those ruins—the physical ruins and the metaphorical. I’ve had trouble finding words this week and all I can find is either cliché or silence. I hope something beautiful can grow from the ruins. The thousands of flowers in front of the firehouse lay there as if grown from the city’s pavement. In that city of immigrants, millions hold hands and share thoughts—unity grown from their hearts. We will rebuild Manhattan. And I think we can build peace in the world.

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