Empty Handed

 

On Saturday, September 15th, 2001, we chose to drive in to New York City.

I still don’t know what we were thinking. Five days after the devastation my wife and I both remained unable to shake our depression, or to bring any of the normalcy of life back into our routine. Perhaps our impatience with our children and each other imparted on us the requirement of an event, one similar to that enjoyed by the country’s religious peoples the day before, on Mr. Bush’s national day of mourning. If this was the case, our need wasn’t conscious; Janet and I looked at each other blankly as we attempted to think of what our journey could contribute. Reports had indicated that rescue workers were being overwhelmed with food, and even volunteers to help clear the rubble were far in abundance of the seemingly insurmountable need.

So, with a trunk that contained only our needs, we crossed Pennsylvania and New Jersey and soon began the long, slow arc into the Lincoln Tunnel. The children anxiously poked their heads through the sunroof as the stuttering traffic gave us a painfully long, first view of the decimated New York landscape. Like a great, disharmonious scale, Manhattan seemed to teeter about the Empire State Building, Uptown glittering toward the left, Downtown smoldering on the right.

The tunnel delivered us into the somberness that pervaded all of New York, unfamiliar and immediately apparent. Police manned barricades at every corner, and passersby greeted them respectfully. Many returned a pleasant smile. Some furrowed their brows with pain. Others looked angry.

I drove randomly, without a plan. Our intuition told us to get to the thick of things, to let our senses fill as they could not through the telescopic view our television provided. I thought we might park as far south as allowed, then simply stumble about, and pray.

Our trip through Midtown delighted my children. Indeed, Times Square and the Empire State Building remain daunting places, larger than their young eyes can imagine. Their unfamiliarity with the former ambiance and skyline of the city benefitted their joy. I let myself come out of my fog and appreciate the youngsters’ small reservoir for sorrow. They chirped at one sight after another and, in the privacy of our car, I joined them.

Soon we found ourselves in Greenwich village. It was sunny there; not cheerful, but warm. We easily found free street parking and began walking at a pace more casual than appropriate to the distance my wife and I knew we needed to cover. But we felt both melancholy and secure as our children toddled through this immense urban neighborhood.

We quickly gained an understanding of the distracted city that no two–minute news clip could communicate. Every corner, every phone booth, every mailbox was pasted with the faces of the missing. Countless restaurants displayed hundreds of postings on their facades, placed by the desperate, the mourning, and those not yet willing to mourn. And always there were candles, ubiquitous and silencing, lit by families of the fallen, relit by we who couldn’t bear to let them extinguish. There seemed no need to head farther downtown to join the grieving community.

It was very difficult to be in a hushed Manhattan. Few spoke. We felt compelled to read all details of each missing person: every tattoo, every scar, every clothing choice made early that Tuesday morning. And, in this difficult instance, our multitude of ethnicities proved a great advantage. The pretense of obliviousness seemed wonderfully gone from our multicultural society. At a time when every distinguishing characteristic was a valuable piece of information, skin color was boldly proclaimed: dark, pale, sunburned, olive. All of the varieties of brown provided to our species were listed on those pages, just as that spectrum stood, shoulder to shoulder, beautifully meshed, studying them.

My wife and I had cried often during the first four days of this horror. We were glad to be free of tears so far into our journey, allowing such anguish to be given to others more in need of its powerful cleansing. After all, we felt somewhat guilty being in New York. Were we just irreverent tourists? I had been selectively using the camera in my pocket. But while we had done our best to explain the situation clearly to our young children, we could see that they did not understand the reality of a situation that I strongly believe belongs to their generation historically, uniquely. We knew to not force a reaction out of them. We had chosen to immerse them in its presence, but remained uncertain of that decision, its affect on them, and its courtesy to a suffering community. We wished to keep our sorrow private, so as to not tread on the grief of those who found the tragedy immediate. It was an intent as improper as it was futile.

We came upon a firehouse in Greenwich Village. It was a captivating place: a narrow old portal that offered a shiny chariot of hope. On its bay door was an oil–painted mural: the truck emerging with a colorful crew, a Dalmatian and, in the shotgun seat, Uncle Sam. But that door was closed, blocked by an avalanche of flowers, candles, and letters of admiration and love. We imagined that truck crushed and burned, along with its valiant crew. Our prayers blended with those of the dozens gathered there, and we found new tears.

At countless smaller shrines we stopped to pray, read, cry, or relight candles. Their photographs gave glimpses of nights out, family gatherings, parties, lunches, and many, many weddings. Some paper faces were becoming familiar, others broadened our awareness of the depth of the catastrophe. Every picture seemed to have been taken during a happy time, a former life, another world. There were also photocopied lists of items needed: gloves, boots, goggles, protein bars; I agonized at the realization that many of these items sat unused in my home. There was a listing from the ASPCA asking for volunteers to assist trapped animals. Another face of the disaster I hadn’t considered: how many victims were unmarried pet owners? Given the multitude of the missing, perhaps hundreds. And there were signs, posters, and banners, begging for peace.

Eventually we came to Union Square. As large as the block–sized park is, it was dwarfed by the affection of its inhabitants. Here an acoustic guitarist sang his sorrows. There two hundred Tibetan Buddhists chanted for peace. Spread across the ground were huge, artfully printed sheets with black markers and countless words of praise and condemnation scattered upon them. My children contributed their thoughts, as did I. One young man handed out cards and pens as yet another way for people to express their feelings, which he would then pass on to fire fighters. I asked if I could send my card in the next day. “Just hand it to a cop,” he said. “Give ‘em a boost, y’know?”

Then there was the prominent, concrete circle of Union Square, the scene so well publicized by television cameras, magazines and newspapers. Would that the postage stamp lens of a TV screen could translate its grandeur and, at the same time, its humble veneration for the missing. Hundreds gathered about to view its display, as we had at other impromptu memorials. But this was different, more intense. In another context it would have looked a mess, items strewn haphazardly about as they were. But this place was irreproachable. I looked at the people surrounding the elegant, spontaneous shrine. Many were in reverence. Some were in agony. One woman, speaking on a cell phone, wrinkled her face in pain, then buried it in a hand wet with her tears. All stood in silence and studied the scene, piece by piece, learning of the fallen, civilians and servicemen, tattooed and clean shaven, parents and singles, all loved by flowers, candles, cards, posters, prayers. This was the epicenter of the citywide funeral that Manhattan had become.

Darkness fell, bringing with it the glow of the ever-present pyre emitting from the disaster area. It looked like the rising of countless souls. We ambled toward it mindlessly, like moths. But a glance at our map showed that the southernmost point we could reach, Canal Street, was still far away. Our young children had been walking for a long time. We chose to return to the car.

It was a good choice. Our path crossed a playground bustling with kids. As ours climbed over the equipment, Janet and I were amazed by the place. Everyone was so happy. The parents’ eyes were full of love and smiles, not tears. We all seemed safe in this welcome retreat.

As we drove south, ambulance after ambulance passed us. We were delayed momentarily while one pulled into a building to our left. I looked up, feeling an odd mix of strength and dread. We were in front of Saint Vincent’s Hospital, the primary facility receiving victims of the attack. Behind that brick facade were hundreds of dead and injured. I found myself praying more emphatically during this fortunate, brief traffic inconvenience than I did at any other time during my visit to New York City.

As we expected, each road continuing south from Canal Street was blocked by police barricades. Only a couple of officers manned each blockade: state police, city police, or a combination thereof. Their task was simply to limit the foot traffic farther south to those unfortunate enough to have their homes in that area. Here, too, people were polite, generous and selfless. A middle aged woman rolled her European consonants against an officer’s thick New York vowels until he finally got his request for identification across. A block later, we found other officers charmed by the thoughtfulness of a local resident, who brought down a tray with coffee, cups, and condiments. All present—once again there were hundreds—could look south and see the glowing smoke. It was yet another place for reflection and sorrow. We stayed for a long time. Then, off to the right, we saw a different, brighter glow. I was moments away from my lifetime high point of American pride.

We followed the lights and discovered South Seventh Avenue, the road that the President had travelled the day before. The street provided a thoroughfare for massive dump trucks, filled to the top with concrete picked free of precious cargo. Also departing and arriving were rescue workers, some traveling by the bus load, others riding in a cart or jeep, still others walking out in pairs, or alone. An unfortunately positioned Mobil station was blocked off from traffic. Its selfless owner, however, used its bright bays as a rest stop where weary rescue workers and donated goods could find one another. I admired his energetic efforts to accommodate the filthy, footsore rescuers so in need of his hospitality.

During my observation I heard the unlikely sound of enthusiastic cheering. At the nearby street corner, standing shoulder to shoulder before the corner barricades, hundreds of people gathered. Now past midnight, they stood with no other goal than to give heart to the weary workers. Their cries rose and fell with the passing of vehicles, large and small. My family was overcome. Children were lifted to our shoulders, and we hurried to contribute our enthusiasm to this unrehearsed expression of gratitude.

It was a magnificent finish, to contribute our admiration to the selflessness of the Americans of New York City.

Bruce Costa lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

© 2001 Bruce Costa

1925 words

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