Sunday, September 11, 2016

Fifteen Years Later

This is the article I wrote two weeks after 9/11 for The website was really new and they had a section where writers gave local travel advice. I was their New York correspondent. I was also the Development Director of Theater for the New City at that time. That's the theater that is mentioned in the article. 

Re-reading this article is really poignant. It was a strange time in New York, sort of like being in a funeral with 8 million other people. I think people in 1963 who watched JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on television must have had the same experience. Our hopeful illusions about the world were suddenly dashed. Suddenly, we woke up and saw how much things had changed. Suddenly, there was a new sober reality that we all had to face. 

I still think of the gathering I attended the day after 9/11 in Union Square. This is the usual place New Yorkers rally and without facebook or twitter or even any word of mouth, everyone instinctively knew to go to Union Square and bring a candle. In fact, there were no candles to be found in any bodega south of 23rd Street. So I went to the basement of the theater and scrounged around in the prop area, emerging with three dusty orange candle holders that had some meager stubs of candles in them. With these in hand, my co-workers, my little boy, and I set off for Union Square. We arrived to find it jam packed. I've never seen so many people in one place. Just going the one city block from Union Square East to Union Square West literally took an hour. I swear there must have been 50,000 people there. And no one said a word. All 50,000 of us walking silently through the park carrying candles. MISSING posters plastered on every available wall....A deep sense of unity....A sobering sense of loss. That was 9/11 in NYC.

My brother called from Tokyo at 8:55 in the morning on September 11th. I was lying in bed, enjoying the sleep of someone who had worked HARD the night before on a benefit that was pretty terrific, I must say. The answering machine picked up and I heard my brother say, "I hope you're nowhere near the financial area. I know you probably aren't but I thought I should call." And then he hung up before I could get to the phone. What the hell is he talking about? I wondered. I rolled over and tried to get back to sleep. Outside a few people screamed about something. I put the pillow over my head. The phone rang just as my cat curled up comfortably next to me. I was loathe to get up. The machine picked up again and it was my friend Mark yelling, "Wake up! Wake up!" So I got up, got the phone and very grumpily barked,"WHAT???" He replied, "One of the World Trade Centers just fell down."

Needless to say, I turned on the telly and watched with the whole world as the World Trade Center turned to rubble. Only two channels were being transmitted; television had been shot down like the stock market. Another friend called. He didn't have a television so I spent the next half hour describing to him all the terrible images on the screen. At noon, I finally went to the theater where I work, walking in bright, beautiful autumn sunshine, with many confused and dazed people. There were lines in front of every telephone kiosk and lots of people just standing around in shock. From every store you could hear the same news blaring. Channel 5 coming from every shop and restaurant. At the theater, the news was on too. I found it impossible to work, to type out what suddenly seemed utterly mundane grant applications for this or that artist. We closed early, at 3, and I went to fetch my little boy since his dad was working across the water in New Jersey and wouldn't be able to get back to New York in time. (Turns out it took him 14 hours to get back home.) I spent the rest of the night watching TV with my boy, wondering what terrible precipice we were now on.

After that crazy day, there were candle-light vigils practically every night in Union Square Park. New Yorkers are a bit more somber than usual. I still can only get a few channels on the television. And of course, the skyline is missing its two front teeth. In many ways, though, this tragedy has shown what a great place New York is. For goodness sakes, where else can you imagine 40,000 people running from two collapsing 103 story towers and NO ONE is trampled to death??? Incidents of racist attacks are much less in New York than anywhere else in this country. There have been none in my neighborhood, despite the many Arabic newsstands and falafel shops that dot the Lower East Side. Our local mosque locked up on the day of the tragedy but they haven't been attacked. Despite New York receiving a solar plexis blow, we are still standing and still reaching out to each other.

For those of you who may be worried about coming to the city, I want to reassure you that New York does not look like blitzed-out London now. The lower west side area south of Canal and west of Broadway was cordoned off for a while, but lower Manhattan is now open except for the few blocks immediately around the disaster area. While you can no longer visit the World Trade Center, parts of Battery Park will be open and you can still take rides on the Staten Island ferry for one of the most beautiful views of New York. I love this city and I feel, like most New Yorkers, that I've been dealt some kind of great psychic blow. But New York is still beautiful, it's still bustling and still bountiful to people of all nations. We've been exposed as being vulnerable like everyone else, despite our tough talk and fast walk, but in our vulnerability, we're relearning that our real strength isn't in big buildings or economic institutions, our real strength lies in unity and love. And unity and love is something New York has plenty of.