More Songs About Buildings and Loss

(Originally published in October 2001.)
On the last day of September I met a woman who lost her 40-year-old niece in the World Trade Center. She described the last phone call the niece made – the way she told her mom that the smoke was everywhere and the walls were collapsing and she didn’t think she would make it.

The woman said that her niece’s funeral had been beautiful. Her niece had never married, so her brother had said, “Let this service stand in for the wedding she never had.” They released a bunch of helium balloons and three white doves. The doves were trained to come back, but only one did.

The woman commented on how nice New Yorkers were being, in the aftermath of the attacks. Many people have noticed that. You hear fewer honked horns, fewer expletives. “This horrible event has really brought us closer together,” she said.

Another woman said, “Yes, but let’s hope nothing else happens that would bring us even closer.”

* * *

Even people who don’t know much about Nietzsche, and don’t like the little that they do know, like at least one of his sayings: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”

We say it to each other and to ourselves when things are tough. It’s a nice consolation for suffering. But is it always true?

On September 11 I learned that dealing with old grief does not necessarily make you feel strong in the face of new grief.

More than 17 years ago my father died suddenly, and since then I’ve thought a lot about death and read a lot about death and talked a lot about death. For the past five years I’ve worked on a regular basis with people who are terminally ill. I get to know each one for a few months and then they, too, slip away.

So: Suffering and death are not strange to me.

Nonetheless, in the face of the losses on September 11 my knees went soft, my stomach seemed to want me to cry, and my mind pretended that all it wanted to do was critique the way the networks covered the event.

The losses were so big and close and frightening that I could not feel them all. So shocking that I could not make sense of them. And so ominous that I could not even concentrate on mourning what had just happened – it was already time to worry about what might come next.

Our mayor, Rudy Giuliani, said it well that day: The losses were “more than we can bear.”

That was just right.

Many people liked the way Rudy seemed to be everywhere during those first few days – wherever the need was greatest, there he was.

What I liked most was the way he admitted, during that first day, that the loss was more than we could bear.

George W. Bush’s handlers decided we needed a President who sounded like he was in charge, and they reportedly didn’t want us to see him until he could give a decent impression of being in charge.

Maybe they were right to do that. Maybe that is the President’s role.

But I think we also needed someone in authority to tell us the truth – that this was beyond his coping skills, as it was beyond all of our coping skills.

Pretending that we already knew who had done this damage and how we were going to fix it – the kind of pretending George W. was doing – wasn’t really what most of us needed. We are not fools. We knew there was no way to fix the damage that had just been done to so many thousands of families, and to our collective psyche. You just don’t ‘fix’ stuff like that.

We needed honesty and humility, and we got them from our mayor.

Rudy lost many trusted friends that day, and you could feel it as he spoke. He nearly lost his own life when the first tower collapsed. He was awed by this event, as we all were, and he helped us to admit and express our awe, our horror, our feeling of devastation.

Rudy was a lame duck when he told us this, and that was part of what we liked about his presentation. We couldn’t see how he might benefit from our adulation, so we gave it to him freely.

His ambitions kicked in quickly, of course, convincing him that we need him to stay right where he is for an extra three months – even though we really don’t. Regardless of what he ends up doing next, though, what he did those first few days was great.

* * *

My brother works a few blocks from where the planes hit. It hurts to write, “from where the Trade Center used to be.” So anyway he works a few blocks from where the planes hit, and the shock wave from the impact shook his office hard. Many in his high-rise thought their own building had been hit. He was up near the fiftieth floor, and he ran down the stairs with everyone else.

He sent out a Blackberry pager message saying that he was out of his building and was standing at the end of a pier. He wrote that it was hard to breathe but he was okay. When the smoke cleared he planned to walk uptown to his home.

Not long after he sent that message the towers collapsed. The TV cameras showed black and gray smoke enveloping all of lower Manhattan. I pictured him coughing, unable to get enough good air.

Commentators speculated that a bomb might have caused the buildings to collapse; information was sketchy. No one could be sure that the attacks were over. Maybe other poisons would be released. No one knew.

Even as I felt the massive loss of life from the towers, all I could think of was Colin. I kept telling myself he was okay, but as I watched the coverage it was clear that nothing in that area was okay.

Hours later I spoke with Colin’s wife, Kara. She had just spoken with him. He had walked home and was safe in his apartment. I was so relieved. Now I could focus on the loss of the strangers.

Two days later Colin and I talked about survivor guilt. He said he felt some guilt at the speed with which he had run down the stairs of his building. He wondered why it had not occurred to him that others might need help.

I wanted to take away his guilt – tell him that our brains sometimes crowd out everything but their own survival – but I couldn’t, really. We can’t take away someone’s guilt. We have to just accept them as they feel it, and hope they get over it.

Having watched the footage of all the destruction and seen all the suffering, he said that some part of him felt guilty that he hadn’t been hurt more. I nodded.

“You want to hear something really sick?” I said. “I feel guilty that you weren’t hurt more, too.”

He looked disturbed, and a little hurt. “Why?” he asked.

I hastened to explain. “Don’t get me wrong, Col. I’m so glad that you’re not hurt that I can’t even express it. I was so worried, all that day. But I know that in the days to come I’ll meet people who have lost people very close to them in this disaster. And they may ask me about you, and I’ll say ‘No, he was far enough away, he’s okay.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s good, that’s very good.’ And they’ll mean it. But their eyes will show their wish that their own loved one could have been far enough away, too. And I’ll feel lousy because of their loss, the way a rich kid may feel guilty about being rich at a time when his friend can’t afford to buy lunch.”

“Oh,” he said. He still looked a little hurt.

* * *

At first all I wanted to do was spend time with Colin and Kara, talking this thing over and watching CNN.

But after a while I wanted to do something. I didn’t know what. But you could smell this thing everywhere, all over town, and the smell only reinforced the feeling of helplessness. Burning plastic, burning paper and burning bodies. The flames and smoke kept going up, just a short distance away, as we tried to go about our lives.

My mom told Colin that she wanted to see us – just look at us and know that we were okay. And he and Kara thought that was a good idea. They wanted to head up to Schenectady, our hometown.

I didn’t feel ready to go. I wanted to help move rubble, or something. I thought that leaving would feel disloyal. And I didn’t want to let terrorists drive me from my home, etc.

Colin and Kara and I walked to the Red Cross headquarters. They didn’t need any more volunteers. On our way home we passed a firehouse that had lost five firefighters in the collapse. We saw the candles, photos, letters from grateful children and so on. So much sadness, everywhere we turned.

I decided to go with Colin and Kara to Schenectady, after all. I still wanted to do something, but there was nothing to be done.

As our cab pulled up to Penn Station, I suddenly felt a strong urge to leave. Now that I was actually leaving, I felt like I couldn’t get out of the city fast enough. It was as if my fear had agreed to keep quiet as long as I could do nothing about it, and now that I could act on it, it was coming up like bad food.

Anxiety stayed high in me until the train left the station and glided north. The sight of the calm Hudson River out the windows on our left told me I could be calm, too.

Our mom picked us up at the train station. She hugged us and we drove away.

It was nearly 7 pm on Friday evening. Apparently people had planned to light candles everywhere and have a moment of silence at that time. My mom had bought candles for the occasion.

Now she pulled off the road in a poor part of town and we stood near the car and lit the candles. We had nothing that could protect our hands from the dripping wax, so we tilted the candles in various directions and giggled at our clumsiness. Down the street some other people had lit candles and were standing near the flag on their porch. We prayed. It felt so nice and so useless, all at once.

I still felt guilty for leaving. That night I called some friends who live near the Fulton Fish Market. From their apartment, they had seen a number of people jumping from the Twin Towers. My friends’ building had lost electricity and phones that day, and had not yet gotten them back.

I reached them by cell phone. They were doing okay, they said. Not great. But it was clear that I could do nothing for them, either. I wished them well and got off the phone. I told myself I’d visit them more when I got back.

The next morning I walked the fifty minutes it takes to reach my grandmother’s house. The sky was sunny and clear. The suburban streets were quiet and peaceful, the trees looked healthy and comfortable, the grass was neat and pleasant.

Schenectady used to be the home of General Electric, and therefore of GE’s atomic power laboratory. The nuclear threat was real to us there. It seemed likely that Schenectady was the target of at least one Soviet missile.

But GE has moved away, and few people worry about Russian missiles anymore. The only thing most Americans know about Schenectady is that it’s hard for them to pronounce. Consequently, fundamentalist Islamic terrorists would find no symbolic value in destroying it.

I felt so safe there that weekend that I wanted to send an email to Thomas Wolfe. I wanted to tell him that in some cases, you really can go home again.

* * *

Not long after Amtrak took us back to Penn Station, a friend in San Francisco asked me how we’re doing out here.

“Oh, we’re fine,” I said. “Just waiting for anthrax.”

“What makes you think you’ll get hit again?” he said.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I’m just going on recent history.”

“What makes you guys so special?”

“What, you’re feeling left out?”

“What’s wrong with us?” he said. “What’s wrong with San Francisco? Aren’t we good enough?”

Even as I laughed, I wondered how many Americans might share his feelings.

Our town has certainly gotten a lot of attention these past few weeks. Washington lost 190 people at the Pentagon, more than Timothy McVeigh killed at Oklahoma City. Nonetheless, most of the press coverage I’ve seen has focused on New York.

There are good reasons for that – 6,000 people is a hell of a lot of people – but it makes me wonder if there might be a little resentment brewing out there. The young sisters and brothers of a child with cancer sometimes resent the attention their sibling gets. They know they’re not supposed to feel that way – it makes them feel guilty – but still, they’re human.

Most Americans probably feel glad they don’t live in a likely target. But undoubtedly there are others – residents of L.A., perhaps, or Chicago – who feel insulted that New York and Washington were hit first.

“Why is it always them?” they may ask. “What’s wrong with us?”

Few people admit to such feelings, so they’re hard to prove. But you know how people are.

The corollary of that is that when some New Yorkers talk about the tragedy – particularly those who lost no one in their immediate circle, and who don’t live too close to where the planes hit – you can sense their pride at living in a target.

No one admits to this feeling, of course. But you can sense it, the way you can sense the excitement some TV correspondents feel when they report from a war zone.

Nothing proves your importance like a position at the center of the world’s attention. That’s true even if the only reason the world is paying attention is that your city was attacked.

Of course, if New York does get hit again, many of those proud peripheral people will move. Just as celebrities sometimes crave privacy, even New Yorkers sometimes want to feel safe.

Not completely safe, mind you. Not as safe as they might feel in, say, Schenectady. But just, you know, more safe than they’ve felt recently. Is that so wrong?

Nah. It’s not wrong.

Originally published by The Guy Code on October 18, 2001. 

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