Friday, September 11, 2009

Retracing My Steps

"But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Matthew 5:44

For the last few days I’ve been trying to remember where I was standing on 9/11 when the planes hit the World Trade Center.

I pass by Ground Zero every day on my way to work and as the anniversary drew closer, I'd walk by the Brooks Brothers store on Church Street and see if I could find my exact location on that most hideous day.

I had to imagine that the towers were still there and try and recall if I was closer to Church Street or Liberty Street when I watched smoke pour out the North Tower and when the South Tower exploded into flames as the second plane hit the building.

I had just come from my gym near City Hall and was on my way to my office, which back then was at Liberty Plaza—right across the street from the Trade Center.

That was my father's 80th birthday; my mother was at Lutheran Medical Center being treated for a chronic lung condition. I had all these nit-picky worries and concerns rattling around in my head that would soon become totally meaningless.

As the North Tower burned and a woman stood next to me sobbing, I looked in the direction of St. Peter’s Church a few blocks up the street, where I had been attending lunch time services, and thought that I’d go there and pray for the victims. I thought that the worst part of the day was over, but I was wrong.

Bear in mind that a lot of us who were so close to Ground Zero initially had no idea what was going on--we didn't see a plane, we just heard an explosion. One of my co-workers kept saying it was a bomb, but I told him I had heard something streaking through the air just before the blast.

I couldn’t begin to imagine that a commercial jetliner had crashed into the building. Or that it would happen again a few minutes later.

Eight years ago the weather was perfect—unlike today where it rained like hell. There wasn’t a cloud in the beautiful blue sky; it was the kind of day that makes you happy to be alive.

And those flawless conditions somehow seemed to make the attacks even more horrible--if that's possible. How could something so vile happen on such a lovely day?

Homeward Bound

As I walked over the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn with thousands of other people, the wreckage of towers smoldering behind us, I vowed I’d treasure every day, that I wouldn’t get upset over petty things, and I'd just be thankful that I and those I cared about had survived the attacks.

And now I look back on myself this morning, riding the R train into work, bitching that I couldn’t find a seat like I usually do, annoyed that the conductor kept opening and closing the doors, and wondering why it was taking so goddamn long to get to Rector Street.

When I got to my stop, the rain was coming down heavily and the police were directing people toward Broadway and away from Liberty Plaza. The streets were jammed and I was getting drenched and even crankier as I tried to plot a course around all these people in my way.

I heard the names of the victims being read, but I was getting soaked and I just wanted to get inside. I had work to do and the weather was awful, so I didn’t go to any of the ceremonies on my lunch break.

I did go out briefly to get a soda and I ran into some Mennonite women, who seemed to have stepped out a time warp with their long dresses and cloth bonnets. They were standing on Broadway in the rain--without complaining--giving out CDs of spiritual music and a booklet entitled "Love Your Enemies."

Now I feel ashamed of myself, thinking about a job on this of all days--when we learned--or should have learned--that so many of the things we think are so important have no meaning at all. The vast majority of the 9/11 victims were going to work that day, too. What good did it do them?

And I wonder--did I learn anything on this day eight years ago? Had I forgotten running away from the explosions with everyone else who was standing in Liberty Plaza, many of the screaming or praying or crying?

And what about those first few days afterward when the burning stench from Ground Zero filled the air and missing person leaflets began popping up on walls and streetlamps around the city? How do you worry about a job after living through something like that?

That’s why these memorial services are so important—because we do forget the things we should always remember. We need to be reminded of life’s fragility, how tomorrow is promised to no one, and how everything we hold dear can be taken away in a second.

The crowds had thinned out by the time I left the office this evening so I made a point of going by Liberty Plaza and looking for my spot.

It was still raining pretty hard, but I took a few moments to stand still, look across the street, and remember that terrible sunny day.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Street Theater

We never go out after dark.

Whenever I visit my girlfriend in the Bronx, I always plan on staying in.

It's a simple set-up. She cooks a fabulous meal while I hog the remote and HBOverdose on all the movies coming out the TV.

We've never formally declared that we won't leave the building until sunrise, but that's how things work out. The neighborhood around Pelham Parkway is not the safest place in town and frankly there's not a hell of a lot to do...except get into trouble.

I’ve almost gotten used to the blasting boom boxes, roaring motorcycles, screaming sirens, shouting from the street at all times of the night, and the regular rumble of the No. 2 train clattering on the elevated tracks just two blocks away.

I can tolerate the noise, but only from the safety of my girlfriend's apartment, and an incident this past weekend really brought that point home, so to speak.

On Saturday we had gone to see “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage’s haunting play that takes place at a brothel in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The characters in this Pulitzer-prize winning drama are at the mercy of gun-toting thugs who consider themselves soldiers fighting for "the people."

The madam who runs the brothel likes to think her place is a sanctuary from all the surrounding insanity, but she and the other characters learn a hard lesson when they run afoul of a brutal army officer.

After eating dinner a few blocks from the theater, we left Broadway and chugged up to the Bronx, where I took my usual spot in front of the TV and started watching “Street Kings,” a film about corrupt L.A. cops with Keneau Reeves and Forest Whitaker.

At some point during the movie, I heard loud voices rising up from the street. The local lowlifes like hanging out in front of my girlfriend’s building, even though I doubt any of them actually live there.

The racket is nothing new to this neighborhood so I didn't pay it any mind. But the noise got louder. And louder still. And more voices chimed in, urgent and angry.

While Reeves and Whitaker were bashing each other onscreen in the movie's climactic fistfight, my girlfriend peered through the blinds at the mayhem happening live two stories down.

“Rob,” she said, “there’s a fight going on.”

I knew I should get up and take a look, but I was kind of into the movie. Plus people are yelling and fighting around her building all the time. It’s hardly breaking news.

But it bothers me now to think that I was so numbed by the constant noise and so mesmerized by the TV violence that I had no interest in the real thing.

Finally, car horns started blaring and I got off my rear end and looked out the window. A group of young men were circling two African-American teenagers in the street who were beating the living crap of each other.

They were both bare-chested and one held his opponent by the neck while he threw a series of looping right hands into the other kid's face.

This was nothing like a movie fight scene. No slow motion spin kicks, no spectacular judo throws or fancy boxing footwork. This was just brutality.

And while these kids were in the street, they were anything but kings. They were the lowest of the low: poor, uneducated, with little hope of ever getting out of the Bronx.

The fighters moved out of our line of vision and so we went to the next window. I heard more yelling, the group apparently separated the two kids, and then I saw one of them being held back by another young guy.

Fuck you, nigger!” The kid shouted.

I looked at the shocked faces of people hanging out at an all-night bodega on the corner. They looked like ordinary people trying to enjoy the last weekend of summer before a small-scale riot erupted right before their eyes.

The crowd slowly broke up as things settled down, people walked away, and traffic started up again. I didn't see any sign of the police.

Is it even worth asking what they were fighting about? Some imagined insult, the wrong look, someone brushed against somebody else without apologizing--what difference does it make?

My girlfriend compared the bunch outside to warring tribes in New Guinea, though I'm thinking of bloodthirsty soldiers in the Congo.

She said there would probably be a revenge attack the next night, but things were relatively quiet for the rest of the weekend. It doesn't matter, though. Somebody else will be fighting there for some other reason soon enough.

I've always hated the end of summer. When I was a kid it meant I was going back to school and now that I'm an adult it means I'm going back to freezing my keester off in just a few painfully short months.

I hate watching my tan fade, I hate watching the days grow shorter and colder. I hate being stranded in my home because of snow, freezing winds, and subzero temperatures.

I'm a native New Yorker, but I can't stand cold weather and every year I vow that I'll never spend another winter here again. And yet I'm still here.

My girlfriend, though, is looking forward to the winter. That's impossible for me to imagine--you welcome all that misery?--but then I'm just a tourist visiting her neighborhood; I don't live there.

She says that the cold winds will drive the mutts indoors. The street kings will have to get off the corners and take their boom boxes and their brawls with them.

Maybe so. But even if they do, we still won't go out at night.