New York City, Sept. 11, 2001, 8:51 a.m. The usually urbane voice of WNYC’s news anchor rang with rare urgency. A plane had flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
The roof of our Brooklyn apartment building looked out at Lower Manhattan, just across the East River. Ira and I, off from work that day, ran up to see what was going on. Some neighbors were watching as smoke spewed from the North Tower’s upper windows.
Fluttering over the East River toward Brooklyn was a flock of paper, silvery against the blue sky, incongruously serene and beautiful. “That paper came off people’s desks,” I thought, and prayed that those people were all right.
A plane flew in from the south, abnormally low. “Something’s wrong with that plane,” I worried aloud. How wrong that something was became clear when it sliced into the South Tower in a burst of orange flame and black smoke.
Shaken, we groped our way down the stairs to the fictive safety of our apartments. Once inside, I hugged Ira, weeping. Any other Tuesday, he would have been at his office at the American Express Tower, in the shadow of the North Tower.
Ira had planned to vote in the Democratic primary elections that day. “Should I go?” he asked. “Now more than ever,” I replied.
Ira went out to vote in primaries that were later invalidated. Then he walked to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, the graceful strip of park on the East River that was our favorite place to watch the sunset. From there, he saw the South Tower, then the North Tower, turn into dust. Around him neighbors wailed. He might have wailed, too, had he known then that one of the North Tower’s beams had fallen through his office window.
On weekdays off from work, I walked to the noon Mass at the Cathedral of St. James in downtown Brooklyn. “Going to church now?” Ira, the Jewish agnostic, asked incredulously as I ran out the door. “Now more than ever,” I replied.
But my progress was arrested at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge. Thousands of people were marching over it into Brooklyn, faces impassive. Offices had shut down. So had the subways. For most New Yorkers who had gone to work that day, walking was the only way to get home.
Others never got home. One was a downstairs neighbor. He had gone to work that day—at the World Trade Center.
As we shut our windows against the acrid wind from the smoldering ruins, paper, singed at the edges, floated past, incongruously serene and beautiful, paper that had been on people’s desks.
The next day, the names and faces of those people, and the telephone numbers of those who loved them, began to appear on paper that covered the walls and lampposts of Lower Manhattan.
A few days later, Ira and I took a sunset walk on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Bouquets adorned the balustrade facing Lower Manhattan and the space in the sky where the towers had once been. At the south end of the Promenade hung a banner. It said: “New York is still standing.”
I lived and worked within a 3-mile radius of the smoldering ruins. Every day for a month, the acrid wind blew into some place that I was, reminding me of the gaping wound in the city I loved. Every day I walked past paper imprinted with the names and faces of the missing, and the telephone numbers of those who missed them. Every day I would be seized by a spasm of tears.
Then I would remember the banner, and see the wisdom and compassion rising out of my city’s gaping wound.
I remembered the banner when I saw the paper on the walls of Sahadi’s, our neighborhood Middle Eastern grocery. Mr. Sahadi was a Syrian Christian. Someone had threatened him—because most Syrians were Arabs, and Arabs had flown those planes into the World Trade Center. One teacher saw a chance for her pupils to learn about community and solidarity. Mr. Sahadi posted their drawings and letters of support all around the store.
I remembered the banner when I saw the paper on the walls and lampposts that said “No to war!” US President George W. Bush had invaded Iraq, making about the same mistake as the person who had threatened Mr. Sahadi. New York City suffered more than any other place in the United States from the 9/11 attacks. It was one of the few places in the United States where a majority opposed the war.
I remembered the banner when my parish sent an antiwar delegation to protest at the 2004 Republican National Convention that would nominate Bush for a second term. At Mass that Sunday, our pastor asked those joining the march to stand and be blessed. Two-thirds of the congregants stood. The rest applauded.
There are three ways to survive catastrophic hurt. One is to focus on our own needs and block everyone else’s out. That was the way many Americans chose after 9/11.
Another is to hurt back. That was the way Bush chose.
The third way is to use the hurt to understand how others may hurt, too, and how our own actions may hurt others. That was the way New York City chose. At least, my New York City, the one I chose to witness: a city of people whose hearts were broken open on 9/11—to each other, and to the world.
I left that city in 2008, after the United States had started on another catastrophic hurt—an economic crisis, brought on by strategies of selfishness and war. From a distance I have watched as many Americans deal with that hurt by focusing on their own needs and blocking everyone else’s out, or by hurting back.
But I know that somewhere in that fallen country, my New York is still standing.