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September 10, 2004

TT: Anniversary

A few weeks after 9/11, I wrote an essay for Crisis about where I was and what I did that day. This is part of it.

* * *

"Get up, son," my mother said, tapping softly on the door of the bedroom of my childhood home in Missouri. "An airplane hit the World Trade Center." I came awake a split-second later, my head full of memories. For years, I had wondered when the long arm of terrorism would strike again at New York. I thought of a sunny Saturday morning back when I was living in an apartment house on a hill north of the city. A small earthquake shook the building as I lay sleeping, and the groaning of the old walls woke me. I heard a soft whir through the open window, the rustle of the leaves on the shaken trees. It's a car bomb, I told myself, unable for one stunned moment to conceive of any other possibility.

All these thoughts flew through my mind in the time it took me to pull on my pants. Then I trotted to the living room, there to behold the coming of the new age.

It came, as St. Paul told us it would, in the twinkling of an eye, and now we were all changed. Even as I slept, I had unknowingly acquired a new identity: I awoke to find myself a stranded man, unable to return to New York to share whatever its fate might be. Of course I had it easy, far more so than most of the thousands of other Americans who had been caught short on that bright Tuesday morning. Some of them were in the air, others in strange hotel rooms, but I was holed up with my mother in the small town where I had spent the first eighteen years of my life. My brother and his family lived just three blocks away. As exiles go, mine was to be both comforting and comfortable--and brief. But it was an exile all the same, and with every passing minute it grew harder to endure.

Merely to write those last few words is an unfamiliar sensation. To be an adopted New Yorker is to know innumerable people who visit their families as infrequently as they can, who live in New York because it is as far away from the scenes of their childhood as it can possibly be. Some have broken with their parents, others with their past, a few with themselves, if such a thing is possible (which I doubt). I am not one of them. Long before I first heard it, I knew the truth of the old Jewish saying, "Anywhere you go, there you are." Even though I now eat sushi and happily give directions to mystified tourists searching in vain for Times Square or the Empire State Building, I have never tried to be anyone other than my small-town self, or to be from anywhere other than Smalltown, U.S.A. I left a quarter-century ago to make my way in the world, but I always come back once or twice a year, if not more. New York is where I live: it is not my home.

So, at any rate, I had thought. But as I sat transfixed before the television, watching the scenes of now-imaginable horror repeated incessantly, first from one camera angle, then another, I knew I wanted above all things to fly to the city whose tallest buildings had been raped by faceless worshippers of a god who does not exist, a god who smiles complacently on evil and calls it good. Then came the now-conceivable news that Manhattan had been cut off from the mainland--all bridges were closed, all subways stopped, all planes grounded--and I knew I had finally cast off the last mooring from my home port and set sail for parts unknown, suspended between the beloved past and the invisible future.

For two days, phone service to Manhattan was hit or miss, mostly the latter, and I couldn't even get a busy signal for anybody south of Fourteenth Street: a shrill mechanical voice always told me to call back later. My laptop computer was in New York--I'd finished a book the week before and had gone to Missouri determined to do no more work for a few days--so e-mail was out of the question. All I could do was gape at the TV, which I did for hours on end, and pray, which I did not without ceasing but in half-articulate spurts that gushed out on the rare occasions when I was able to tear my eyes and mind away from the unfolding story. Then, one by one, the dead phones came back to life, and by Friday I knew that all the people to whom I was close were alive. That was the day when the National Cathedral in Washington was filled with the sounds of prayer and music--the first day I was able to weep.

Five days after the World Trade Center crumbled to dust, my brief exile ended and I flew back to the place that I now knew to be my earthly home. As the plane descended, breaking the cloudless, transparent air, I gazed with terror and awe on the sight of lower Manhattan, into which a huge black hole had been burned, and heard in my mind's ear an old camp-meeting hymn that Merle Travis used to sing: I am a pilgrim and a stranger/Traveling through this wearisome land/I got a home in that yonder city, good Lord/And it's not, not made by hand.

That Thursday, I went to Lincoln Center to hear the New York Philharmonic perform Brahms' German Requiem in memory of the dead of September 11. Manhattan was gray--a slate-gray, solidly overcast sky that spat rain off and on all afternoon. By early evening, the air was heavy with humidity, the worst possible weather for a musical performance: strings go limp, singers go flat. Broadway was clotted with yellow taxis, none of them vacant, many flying small American flags. I arrived a little before seven, together with hundreds of other people, virtually all dressed in black or gray. Huge flags hung from the balconies of the New York State Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera House, and Avery Fisher Hall, the three houses that frame the plaza. The lobby was full of hastily printed signs reading ALL BAGS WILL BE SUBJECT TO SEARCH and long lines at the security checkpoints through which we had to pass in order to reach the escalators. One woman was carrying a shopping bag that contained a cardboard box. "What's in the box?" asked the guard, noncommittally. "Two bottles of wine," she replied. Then he broke out in a huge smile. "No drinking in the aisles!" he told her, wagging his finger, and we all laughed.

Inside the auditorium, every seat was full save for those occupied by the TV cameras broadcasting the performance. The lights went down, and out of of an unquiet hush the first notes of the first movement materialized so softly that for a moment, I wasn't quite sure the orchestra had started to play. New Yorkers are the noisiest audiences in the world, and I heard a modest amount of coughing, as well as a single cell phone that went off midway through the second movement, spreading a quick ripple of dismay. For the most part, though, the only thing I could hear in the pauses was the sound of people softly crying. The young woman sitting next to me had never heard the German Requiem before, and she was overcome by the way in which Brahms set the familiar Bible verses, now made so freshly poignant by our still-raw memories of the week just past: Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted...Lord, teach me that there must be an end of me...The souls of the righteous are in God's hand, and no pain touches them...For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come...O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Afterward, she told me, "I imagined that all those voices were angels rising out of the towers as they collapsed."

At the end, Kurt Masur, the conductor, lowered his hands slowly. The stillness that followed seemed to last for minutes, though it couldn't have been more than a few seconds. No one clapped--no one would have dared. Then Masur stepped down from the podium and joined hands with the soloists, and they vanished into the wings without a word.

Posted September 10, 2004 12:01 PM

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