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Twin Towers -9/11

Twin Towers -9/11

# 7 September 11

Susan Gordis For BoomerYearbook

I don’t find September 11th an easy subject, not as a New Yorker, not as an American, not as a member of our planet. But some things happened as a result of that day in 2001 that were enormously heartening to me, that helped me with my own sadness, as I had exchanges with all sorts of different people.

My lovely husband, Jay, had left for work quite early that day, as it was Primary Day and he was supposed to follow former Mayor David Dinkins when he went to vote. My joke at the time was that Primary Day had become secondary, but indeed it was seventeen hours after he left the house that my sweetie finally returned home. He sat down to take off his shoes and was then mesmerized by the television, looking at the same things the rest of us had been watching all day long. Jay had seen only those images which were visible in his camera viewfinder, many of which were horrifying, but he had not had the chance to see what other people had recorded of the events that took place that day.

On September 12th I found that I was unable to do any work, although there was quite a lot to be done on my desk, so I decided I would do one of the things that’s healing for me; I spent the day in my kitchen. The back door to our apartment opens onto the dining area, and the kitchen is in a line with the dining table. Years ago we installed a home-built (and very “artistic”) screen door through which anyone who is in the hallway can see in. There are two apartments on that side and our floor neighbors are quite used to stopping to chat when they have time, and the cooking smells from our kitchen make their way out into the hallway and up the stairwell. Many people in the building work from home, as I do, and many others stayed home from work that day. Our neighbors from this floor and the ones above made their way to our screen door. There I was, cooking madly, and I had eight or ten separate conversations with members of my “town” that day. Quite late in the evening the telephone rang and it was my dear, sweet, tired husband. He had been working for thirteen hours and wanted to know what we were going to “do about dinner.” I said, “I’m cooking, so when you get home we’ll eat.” “You’re cooking? Oh, of course you’re cooking. Wonderful. I’ll be home in half an hour.”

By the time it was Thursday, September 13th there were errands to be done. Among them were things to be accomplished at the post office. Not only am I not more patient than most people, I’m actually less patient than most people, at least when I’m waiting in line at the post office. But the way I usually deal with my own annoyance is to talk with the people around me. Certainly there was a subject which was necessarily in the minds of each and every person in the post office that day. Everyone looked quite disoriented, at least to a casual observer who didn’t know whether perhaps some of those people might always look that way. So I struck up a conversation with a woman who appeared to be especially uneasy and uncomfortable. It seems her son had escaped certain death in one of the World Trade towers because he had had to pick up a package of some kind in the East 50s before work. She told me (and by now everyone else in line was listening as well) that he had had to reschedule his whole workday in order to do this and had complained about it to her on Monday. His coworkers who were already at their office were killed, every last one of them. His life had been saved because of this unusually-timed errand. As she told the story she began to cry. Another woman began to cry. A young man began to cry, apologizing to those around him. Those of us who were not crying were trying to soothe the others. People had to be reminded to go to the windows when a clerk finished with another customer.

On Friday, September 14th I went, as usual, to the local farmers market. I shop there every Friday all year long, so I have some wonderful relationships both with these lovely people who grow the food and some of their staff members. I said to one woman, “Thank you for coming today.” She replied, “It’s the least we could do.” One of the farmers insisted that I take a bunch of red gladioli “on the house” because, he claimed, he had brought too many. I’m not sure what I managed to say to him, but we hugged and that afforded me the chance to wipe my eyes without his seeing me. I decided those flowers should be displayed in the lobby of my building, so I wrote a little note to explain their presence. I made mention only of the fact that a farmer had given them to a tenant and didn’t give my name.

On that Saturday I needed to buy groceries. Ordinarily my husband and I do this together, and I often refer to him as “my beast of burden.” He has a wonderful, healthy appetite and an appreciation of my cooking so many pounds of food need to be purchased and carted home every week. (If he’s going to eat all that food then he needs to carry it, too!) On this occasion I had carefully strategized what I could conceivably carry and I walked to the subway. The weather was still quite warm that week so I didn’t need a jacket. I was proudly wearing a tee shirt which said “F.D.N.Y.” on the front and “Keep Back 200 Feet” on the back. As I went through the turnstile I realized I had just missed the train. I descended the stairs and settled in a seat to wait for the next one. The platform was deserted, of course. The next two people to descend the stairs were policemen. I estimated that they were probably twenty-four years old. They descended slowly, coming into my view beginning with their shoes, and as I watched them come down I realized how utterly exhausted they were. They stood together, both weaving, until one of them decided to lean against the tile wall. They were saying nothing to one another.

I said, “You’re not allowed to sit down when you’re in uniform, are you?” The non-leaning one launched into telling me that no, they were not allowed, and they hadn’t sat down the whole day before, and they were required to work double shifts for the foreseeable future, and they weren’t getting any time to eat anything, and so on. It occurred to me that here were two very young people who by virtue of their uniforms had been asked by countless people to give them information, to listen to their fears, to hear their stories, and these young men had been completely emptied of their reserves of strength and patience. The job they do, which is never an easy one, had become virtually impossible.

By the time his partner had finished verbally venting his frustration the other young man was no longer leaning on the wall. It was as if just hearing the complaints his partner was saying aloud had made him feel better. By this point other people had joined us on the platform. I sat where I was, smiling at the two of them, and I felt gratified that I had been able to help, just by asking one question and allowing the one fellow to talk. I heard the train heading our way in the tunnel and decided I would walk to the front of the platform so the train cars that stopped there would be less crowded. I had listened to the one young man talk long enough to know that the voice I heard from behind me was the other one’s voice. “Keep Back 200 Feet, huh?” The roar of the train precluded my being able to give any verbal response, but I looked back over my shoulder and waved to them. They waved and smiled back.

For many people the fact that they were talking with strangers was a direct function of that extraordinary time. As I walk around talking to people I don’t know on virtually a daily basis this was my chance to behave what is for me normally, and it meant that for people who needed an ear, needed the contact, and needed it right then and there I could provide an opportunity that they might not have had otherwise. In that way I tried to make a contribution to the other people I encountered. Anyone who had a method to try to impose order in the chaos should have done so. I’m glad that my natural inclination and the behavior that I have been practicing for so long was put to good use during that tumultuous time.

It was not we New Yorkers alone who had hard truths to face; everyone on this planet needed to think, to consider what had taken place. I would have liked it if those awful events had given people a way to rethink some of their long-held positions, to realize how fragile each of us is, but since that day we’ve seen that we are indeed doomed to continue to repeat so many of our prior mistakes, that instead of bonding together and banding together, instead of relating to the horror which we humans had once again imposed on one another, we decided to divide ourselves even more staunchly, we shrank back yet again from the chance we have always had to unite and pull together. But I persist in talking to people, one at a time or sometimes deliberately when I know I will be overheard, in the hope that we can come to understand that whatever happens to any of us is part of the life each of us has.

© 2007 Susan Gordis

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