One Year After 9/11

Got Your Souvenir Mug?

September, 2002

Yesterday was one of those beautiful autumn days that make this wonder of a city even more wonderful — dry, clear, 75 degrees, and full of anticipation.  I responded with a walk from our apartment on West Twenty-fourth Street to where the World Trade Center used to be.  It was the first time I’d been there since it was brought down.

For much of the previous day, the city had given its attention to the opening of the NFL season.  A half million people had gathered in Times Square to celebrate it and to swoon over someone named Jon Bon Jovi.  A passerby pointed out to a reporter that such an event, at best banal and not very entertaining, was inappropriate.  He said something like, “These are serious times.  Osama bin Laden is still out there somewhere.  The President is about to start a war in the Middle East.  The anniversary of 9/11 is coming up in a few days.  The stock market is in the toilet.  And we’re doing this.”

At about that same time, I happened across a list of the forty richest Americans under age forty.  It ran from Michael Dell ($16.49 billion net worth) to the poorest of the bunch, W. Glen Boyd, whoever he is ($108 million).  In between were Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal, who put a large ball through a metal hoop that’s ten feet off the floor, and Tiger Woods, who puts a small ball into a hole in the ground.

The walk took me first through the warehouses and galleries and trendy nightspots that lay between our charming prewar apartment building and the Hudson.  Then it was onto the piers and alongside moored yachts.  On the aft deck of one, a family group, attended by servants in white jackets, sat in glorious sun having breakfast.  An apparently homeless Hispanic woman and child slept surrounded by plastic bags of their belongings on a bench less than twenty feet away.  The Statue of Liberty was a clear and present vision downstream.  (A freshening breeze was blowing out to sea the murky air that we inflict on ourselves by refusing to find and use alternatives to fossil fuels.)

Despite all the things to be troubled about, walking along the Hudson in September was a transcendent pleasure.  The river and its bank were so much cleaner and safer and generally more pleasant than they have been in a long time — maybe since we advanced people settled Manhattan and began using the river as a garbage dump/toilet/cemetery — that it was a joy to be there, to be an American, to be alive.  Feeling so good made the terrible but unnecessary problems of our time and place stand out all the more starkly.

After an hour or so, there it was.  It’s quite an odd thing to see nothing where there had been something, especially something so large.  Maybe it would have been fitting to leave some of the rubble in place.  Perhaps we should have let those ghastly fires smolder indefinitely like a burning tire dump.

I thought about the heroes who’d served there — search dogs who worked till their feet bled, a priest who described “literally breathing the spirits of the departed”, and that brigade of ironworkers who showed up in the first darkness, marching shoulder to shoulder, the tools hanging from their belts clinking reassurance.  “You need steel cut.  We cut steel.”  When Ken Lay and Scott Sullivan and Bernie Ebbers and others cheated their employees and stockholders so disgracefully, we were outraged that so many had lost their 401k’s.  Those ironworkers probably didn’t know what a 401k was.

I walked the few blocks from ground zero to historic Trinity Church.  It seemed a good place to spend a few minutes.  It was crowded with tourists and loud-talking ushers who were trying unsuccessfully to keep order.  Maybe I missed something, but so far as I could tell, I alone had prayer in mind.  Oh well, I’d been in historic churches before.  Still, I couldn’t help thinking that those who believe the country got religion — even a little bit — when those four planes struck a year ago, are probably wrong.

Oh sure, on the sidewalk, near Trinity Church, there were “Prayer Stations” with attendants in day-glo vests.  They stood amid signs that said, “Prayer changes things.”  It seemed to me that they were taking advantage of the attacks to sell a product, much like the nearby vendors of 9/11 souvenirs.

A half block from the “Prayer Stations” was a lone protestor.  “Stop the war, before it starts.  Stop the war before it starts.”  Down Wall Street — too far away to hear the protestor — the Congress was meeting in ceremonial session to mark the anniversary.

On the way home, I stopped at the farmers’ market in Union Square and bought early apples (Macs and Elstars), Jersey tomatoes, a kind of squash I’d never seen before, and some other delicious things.  Afterward, I walked by the door of a Salvation Army facility, where an unconscious man in rags lay soaking in his own urine, flies buzzing around him, clearly beyond any ability to care for himself.  I wished they would drag the poor man inside and take care of him.  I, myself, couldn’t imagine touching him.  Certainly not while I was carrying those beautiful fruits and vegetables.

I took a taxi from there, and when I got out, I had to step around a homeless man who was passed out on the sidewalk.

I’m not suggesting that such suffering is a peculiarly New York City problem.  It exists all over this extraordinarily rich country.

Ann and I had a summer of notable privilege.  We spent many days in the mountains, jumped off our boat on not-too-hot, not-too-cool, just-right days into Adirondack lakes, accumulated a couple of fish stories, hiked and picnicked and watched some spectacular sunsets and tended flowers and stayed up late a few times with family and friends drinking whiskey and rejoicing in God’s favor to us.

I guess I’m doomed to be a college sophomore all my days.  I just can’t accept why some of us have so much, when so many of us have so little and are cut off in varying degrees from the means of doing anything about it.  We’re a rich country; we could fix this problem if we wanted to.

These things are on my mind more than usual.  I suppose it has to do with the pervasive sadness of the city just now.  Every so often it jabs and punches and will not be denied.  As George Orwell said about the prospect of being hanged in the morning, “It tends to focus the mind.”


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