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?
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.