I didn’t know how to observe the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center this morning, and the idea of listening to bagpipes and speeches filled me with ennui. Maybe it’s being half-Irish but the whole “Never forget” impulse, no matter what your religion or the wrongs done to you in another’s name, makes me want to run from history screaming. As if from a burning building…
But the good I remember from that time was the sense of communion you got from New Yorkers that had nothing to do with politics or religion, certainly not at first. I remember hearing that there weren’t enough mourners to attend the masses of all the firemen and other first responders who died that day, and Giuliani and the fire chief asked if people could attend services for people they didn’t know. I went to one for a fireman at a small Catholic church at Pacific and Flatbush, a church I had not not been in before or since — I’m not even Catholic — crying with a few other strangers.
And I remember going to the Barnes and Noble on Court Street in the following weeks and visiting the shelves that had once held the books on the Middle East and Islam and finding them empty, cleaned out by people trying to understand. Before we as a nation went back to sleep. (Or as my favorite Irish writer said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”)
And I remember the actual day of 9.11, wearing a suit because I was attending a hearing for Adam who had not been diagnosed with Aspergers yet but who could not be mainstreamed in public schools, and the city didn’t have special schools that worked with kids with learning difficulties and emotional problems, so you had to threaten to sue them to get them to pay for private schools. We were thrown out of the tall building next to the Marriott where the NY Dept of Education held its hearings, my lawyer complaining that we should have gone ahead with things anyway (unaware of the body count, the full horror of what had happened) and the silent baleful looks those who knew more gave him in the elevator.
And I remember going past my daughter’s school, where the then new head was literally running around in front of the building uncertain whether to send the kids home. (They didn’t at first, and then they did.) And I remember walking up the hill to Fort Greene, seeing the first people coming back from walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, their hair filled with ash. And I remember seeing one man with ash on his shoulders fall to his knees on DeKalb, across from the park, overcome no doubt by the memories of what he had seen.
Another couple stood not far from him and only watched as I did — all of frozen for a moment in fear and confusion, uncertain how to respond to another in pain. And then the man got up and moved on but the fact I did not even say a word or reach out a hand right then haunted me for a long time afterwards, and does now.
I offer you this wafer of a memory, flavored with the salt of my tears.