Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11 Reflections: Just Getin Through This Lonesome Day

It's September 11th, the one day that will forever be snark-free for Crusty Old Dean.  Though I was in Manhattan on that day and lived through those events, and though I've had this blog
for over two years, I don't like to talk about it much, and further find myself startled I've written nearly 5,000 words on it this year.

I've been reluctant to talk or write or preach about this much.  There's a couple of reasons, I suppose.  One is that, in the big picture, I didn't suffer much hardship that day personally.  I wasn't anywhere near the WTC, I was in mid-town Manhattan several miles away.  I made it home safe and sound.  I didn't lose anyone I loved.  I did know people who died that day, and knew people who lost very close friends and loved ones, but I did not suffer personally.  So I've been reluctant for that reason: who cares about what happened to me?  There's also 9/11 fatigue.  For those of us who lived in New York, pretty much the next eighteen months after 9/11, every conversation would turn to what happened to you on that day, and who you lost.  Another is that I once I moved away from New York, I didn't want to be the token person who was there on that day to tell everyone who wasn't there what it was like.  For example, in 2003, I was living in the Los Angeles area and was asked to preach at a local church on the Sunday just before 9/11.  When I asked why they asked me, they said it was because I had been in New York that day.  I fumed a bit, but preached, realizing that I guess people needed to hear it.

I also guess I'm writing this for my own son.  He's eight years old now, and at that age when he is beginning to grasp what a big thing the world is, asking me and my wife about our grandparents, about my wife's uncle for whom he is named and who died an untimely death.  Some day he will learn about 9/11 in school, and I know when that day comes I will tell him my own story, slight at it is.

I'm also writing because the day will come when memories from this all will fade.  At times I'm think that this day runs the risk of becoming forgotten, something we take a minute or two to remember, before moving on to the minutiae of our days.  Or worse, shaped into something else -- I still remember getting my Franklin Covey day planner for 2004 and finding they had renamed this Freedom Day.  I was so livid I tore that page out.  I'm writing this, I guess, as part of a collective effort to remember.  Reluctant as I am, I also know enough to know telling is essential to remembering.  I still recall my college's girlfriend's Armenian grandmother deciding, more or less out of the blue, to tell her story of how she survived in the 1916 genocide.  Everyone in that family knew that she lived in Istanbul at that time and obviously survived (since she was still alive in 1988 when I was dating her granddaughter), but she had never explained how that happened.  One night, after dinner, as people were cleaning up, and the grandchildren were home for Easter break, she announced that she didn't know how much longer she would live, and it was time for people to know.  My girlfriend's dad ran out of the room to find a videocamera and a tape recorder, in order to capture what they had wanted to know for years but been afraid to ask.  Not to be overly dramatic or grandiose, but I sometimes wonder if it's important for people to share their reflections, as this day recedes in people's memories over the years and will be shaped by history more than personal recollection.

Everyone says this in their story of that day, but it really was a perfect, beautiful, late summer morning, the kind of day that New York was made for.  Sunny, barely a cloud in the sky, warm but not one of those hot and humid days.  I was 32 years old and had begun my job the previous July at the Church Center in New York City, on 2nd Ave and 43rd Street, as associate deputy to the Presiding Bishop for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.  My wife started her position a few months later, as Assistant Priest at the Parish of Christ the Redeemer in Pelham, New York.  Her first official Sunday was September 9, 2001, with a big picnic and cookout to welcome her.  Some of the people present at that picnic would be dead barely 48 hours later.

I had a great commute for someone in New York City.  I hopped on the Metro North at Pelham, and usually 30 minutes later was at Grand Central Station.  There were people who lived in Manhattan who had longer commutes than I did.  Shannon would drive me to the train station, drop me off and kiss me goodbye, and then go home to walk the dog before heading into work.  

A day like any other.  I went into the chapel at the Church Center for Morning Prayer, which began at 8:45 am.  I remember hearing fire engines tearing down 2nd Avenue, a lot of them, and thought, "There must be something happening downtown," since 2nd Ave was a one-way avenue that heads south.

Then one of the staff members came in and whispered something to the person presiding at Morning Prayer.  I thought, "I wonder what happened that's important enough to interrupt Morning Prayer."  The presider, at the time of the prayers, noted that reports were that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, and we prayed for those affected.  Concern, to be sure, but the reality of what lay ahead of us was as remote from our imagination as that crash being caused by an alien spacecraft.

We filed out of Morning Prayer right after 9am, as streams of people were coming in for work that day.  There was talk about the plane crash, several lifelong New Yorkers talked about the airplane that crashed into the Empire State Building during the war.  A tragedy, to be sure, and we all hoped the impact would be minimal.

My boss, Bishop Chris Epting, and I stepped out of the elevator on the 6th floor.        I don't remember who exactly said it, but suddenly everyone was talking about a second plane crash downtown, which had happened, literally, while I was in the elevator around 9:03 am.  Jeanne Schwarz, our office administrator, Bishop Epting, and I all looked at each other with blank expressions on our faces as we all thought the same thing:  this was not two isolated accidents.  I took out my cellphone and tried to call my wife, but it wasn't getting any service.  Later we would know that the cellphone towers on the World Trade Center had gone down, leaving to widespread cell phone outages.

The next hour or so was a blur.  Those of us on the 6th floor --  this was a time when 815 probably had around twice as many staff, if not more, than it does now, so there were lots of people around -- gathered in the lunchroom, where there was a TV, watching with horror as the footage began to show up of the planes crashing.  I would watch for a bit, then run into my office and try to call my wife on the telephone, which wouldn't work, because the landlines were overwhelmed with calls.  Frustratingly, I could receive calls from people outside of the northeast on my office phone -- my mother in law called me to make sure I was OK -- but not make them or receive them from anyone locally.  Email did work, however, and I sent out a batch of emails to people letting them know I was OK.  My good friend John Cooney lived downtown on the corner of Rector and Broadway, right behind Trinity Church and around the corner from the WTC, so I was desperate to get word that he was all right.

News filtered in.  NYC transit shut down all the bridges and tunnels.  Operations at all NYC airports were shut down and planes diverted.  Right around 9:45, we heard that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon.  Bishop George Packard was Suffragan Bishop for the Armed Forces (as we called that office then) and a Vietnam vet.  After the Pentagon crash, he looked around the room and said solemnly, "We are under attack."

I came back into the TV room from checking my email right around 10 am.  Lots of other people were coming and going, trying to make calls and check email, there were only a handful of us in there at that time.  At 10:03 am the first tower collapsed.  The woman next to me shrieked and rushed out of the room in tears.  Bishop Epting and I looked at each other in shock.  Those buildings held thousands of people.  At this point, none of us knew how many had been evacuated, for all I knew at that point 20,000 people had just died (not that the total eventual number of around 2,600 is any less horrific and tragic).

Then I blurted out to Chris, "You know, if it does turn out Muslim terrorists did this, the whole concept of interfaith relations has changed forever.  Will we round them up like we did with the Japanese?"

We sat there in silence.  We saw the footage of people leaping from the second tower to their deaths before network cameras cut away. Less than a half hour later the second tower collapsed, right around 10:30am.

Word spread throughout the building that we should gather in the chapel.  I don't remember much about the chapel service, whether we sang anything or what readings we used. 

I do remember the Presiding Bishop's words from that day.  Bishop Griswold spoke of our need to pray for those who had died, and for police, firefighters, and other first responders. But he also spoke of the days to come.  He reflected on his recent trip to Northern Ireland, and the cycles of violence between Catholics and Protestants.  He said clearly that those behind these actions needed to be brought to justice.  But he also said that we as a people, as a nation, and as a people of faith, cannot let ourselves be transformed by what has happened to us.  The violence and sudden death that many people in the world live with has touched us.  We cannot respond out of fear or vengeance, but should respond out of justice.  We cannot let ourselves be transformed and caught in a cycle of violence and hatred.  His words have haunted me in the 12 years since.  Bishop Griswold also said that if people wanted to try to get home, they could, but were also welcome to stay.  He also asked that those who lived in Manhattan reach out to those who did not, since we didn't know when bridges, tunnels, or trains would run again.

Back upstairs after chapel, the sense of terror became grimmer and grimmer.  The crash in Pennsylvania was confirmed, the fact these were all hijacked airlines was confirmed.  One of the most frightening images to me was one from St Vincent's hospital, shown on the local New York TV station, ready to receive the wounded, doctors and nurses and gurneys waiting outside.  But nobody was coming, they stood there with no incoming.  Someone in the room said, "Because you either survived or you died.  There's not going to be any wounded."

Still no telephone service or cell phone services, though email was still working.  No Facebook or Twitter back then, so communication that day was all about emails being forwarded around.

I fully expected to spend the night with Bishop Epting down at General Theological Seminary, where he was living at the time.  We agreed to try to wait until most people had cleared out, then walk to General from the Church Center.  At this point I still had not left the building.  It somehow felt safe in there.  I did become aware, for one of the first times since I started working there, that the Israeli consulate to the United Nations was located diagonally across the street from the Church Center.  I looked out my window and could see the streets jammed with people, horns honking as cars tried to make their way around, police everywhere, including surrounding the Israeli Consulate.

I went back to my computer to the New York Times page and hit "refresh."  A flashing banner at the top said that Grand Central Station had been swept for bombs and could be reopening soon. At that second I  wanted to do everything I could to try to get home that night and see my wife.  I tried the phone -- still busy signal when trying to call her -- so sent off an email telling her I was going to try to catch a train.  I stuck my head in Bishop Epting's office next door and said I was going to Grand Central.  I also told him to maybe expect a knock on his door later that night if I wasn't able to get out and had to walk down to General.

And I left.  Didn't get my jacket, didn't get my work bag with laptop and papers in it, just went straight from Bishop Epting's office, down the stairs, into the street.

The scene on the street below was even more chaotic and noisy than it looked from outside of my window.  Streets jammed with cars, some police officers vainly trying to direct traffic, the sidewalks crowded.  The tension in the air was palpable, the cloud of smoke and dust from the destruction downtown billowing off in the distance, everyone would occasionally turn back to look at it.

And then I saw something that gave me a weird sense of hope.  In Manhattan, there are always people hawking stuff on the street, everything from watches to toaster ovens to who knows what.  As I walked down 43rd Street, on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 43rd Street someone had set up a small folding table and was selling US flags.  Nobody was really buying them, but for some reason I thought, "We're going to be OK eventually."  Now, this was not some kind of patriotic surge for me when I saw the man selling flags.  It was more, "Someone in New York is trying to make a buck off this."  That somehow felt normal in the midst of all the unreality, and I imagined a day when things would be more normal again.  I didn't know when that would be, but seeing someone already doing something normal gave me a vision of that.

I usually came in and out of the Lexington Avenue side entrance to Grand Central, right on 43rd Street, which was a straight walk across 3rd Avenue and up to 815 on 2nd and 43rd.  Word coming through the crowds was that they had locked all the entrances and were only letting people go in and out of the main entrance on 42nd Street.  So I followed the crowd down Lexington, turned right on 42nd, and headed towards the main entrance.

As I turned onto 42nd Street, I looked down Park Avenue, never noticing before what a wide canyon it cut through Manhattan, multiple lanes in both directions with the median in the middle.  It was swarmed with people, on foot, walking north.  Off in the distance you could see the smoke billowing up in the air.  Looking down Park the people seemed like a  sea of white.  With so many people having shed jackets and coats, you forget how many people wear white shirts and blouses to work.  Seeing this wave of people, so many dressed in white, coming towards me, these words from Revelation popped into my head:

"Then the elder said to me, 'Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come
Van Eyck's depiction.
from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’"

I saw those people walking up Park Avenue, as those in white, the ones who had come through the great ordeal downtown.  And I thought of all the tears being shed that day, of all those that would be shed in the coming days and weeks and months.  Remember, I thought there were maybe 20,000 people dead at this point, and had no idea what, if any, other attacks there had been or were being planned.  I thought about how ending of the Book of Revelation is far from being about the end of the world; it's about God recreating a world where there is no suffering, where God is so close and imminent that the New Jerusalem has no Temple because it is no longer needed.  When, God, when?  I asked, these verses from Revelation in my head.  When will you wipe away those tears?  When is that New Jerusalem?

I was jostled along into Grand Central Station, and saw my first law enforcement officers with assault rifles at the entrances, something which would be a common sight in months to come but was jarring to see this time.  Anyone who's been to Grand Central Station during rush hour knows what an insane, busy, crowded place it can be: people walking resolutely and quickly all over the place, you can literally get bounced and jostled by people there for a purpose to get on their train and get home. There were more people in Grand Central than I had ever seen before, yet it was unlike any other time I had been there.  No New Yorkers walking through the crowd to get to their track or make the subway connection.  Instead everyone was just standing, no rushing, no jostling, once we all opened into the main central hall.  Standing, quietly, eerily quietly.  The boards on the walls which listed departure, tracks, and times were frozen in place from late morning when they had stopped being updated.  Everyone was quiet because the only noise was a voice which would come over the public address system and announce, "Track X, Hudson line."  Nothing about locals/expresses and where they all stopped, just the track and the direction the train was going.  After about five minutes they announced, "Track X, New Haven line," which was my line.  A group of people detached from the crowd and walked at a sedate pace towards the track.  I had been afraid of some Dr Zhivago-like crowds mobbing trains, but this was calm and orderly.  We all walked to the track, packed the train about as much as one could possibly pack a train.

And we stood in silence.  In the days before widespread smartphone and cellphone distribution, trains used to be pretty quiet, before everyone had to talk about their bunions for everyone to hear.  They were quiet, though, because most people had their heads buried in something.  Work papers.  The New York Times, folded quarterly in just the right way to make it easier to hold up in a crowded space.  A book.  Looking out the window.  Nobody had their head buried in anything this time, though.  We were all just standing, jammed in there, all of us thinking the same thing:  Please let this train move.

When it did, that first, tentative, tug as it inched forward, it was like ice cracking.  People began to talk, softly.  A man in dirt-covered white shirt, dazed look on his face, obviously someone who had walked up from downtown, was slumped against the doors and someone said to him, "Thank God you made it."

The voice of the train's public address system announced it would be making every local stop.  I was thankful I didn't have that many to go -- 125th Street, Fordham, Mt Vernon, and then Pelham.  When the train emerged from underground at 125th Street to the elevated track, instinctively people turned to look downtown at the plume of smoke.   We continued along, people talking softly to one another, beginning to compare stories.

I got off at Pelham and quickly scanned the crowd of people at the platform for my wife.  She was all I had thinking about since the first tower went down, I was anxious and frustrated beyond belief I had not been able to talk to her.

She wasn't there.  A brief spasm of irrational fear went through me -- Did something happen to her?  Had she been summoned to a meeting I didn't know about downtown? -- before I calmly realized she was, most likely, dealing with pastoral issues at the church.  A good number of people from her church worked in the city.  I suddenly realized some of them had probably died.

I waited for a few minutes, watched all the tearful reunions with family members, and decided to walk to the church.  There was really only one road to take between the church and the train station, so I started walking it, figuring if she came to try to find me she would pass me on the road.  It was a couple of miles, I figured I could walk it in 45 minutes or so.

Sure enough, a couple of blocks into my walk to the church I heard a car horn honk and heard a car pull up.  I turned to look and was crestfallen it wasn't Shannon; instead, it was the deacon from the church.  "Climb in," she said, "Shannon asked me to come get you."  Shannon was, indeed, working on pastoral matters at the church.  She and the rector and the parish administrator were working through the parish directory, calling every single member to see if they were OK, and to let them know there would be a service at the church that night.

Paulette drove me back to the church, updating me on what happened in the past hour -- how the State Department and White House had been evacuated, naval vessels from Norfolk were being deployed to protect the East Coast, rumors were swirling the fourth plane that crashed in Pennsylvania had been shot down to prevent another suicide bombing.  I listened, sort of, thinking only of getting home and seeing Shannon.

We finally saw each other as I walked up the stairs to the apartment we lived in on the church grounds.  The reunion was quiet, I walked up the stairs, she met me at the top, and we just held each other for a while.  I was overwhelmed by the thought of all the people who had kissed their spouse goodbye that morning who would not be coming back like I did. I wondered what her life would have been like if I had died, we were newlyweds with big dreams and wanting a family together.  To think of all of that being cut short.  I swore never to take for granted coming home to her again.

We sat down and she filled me in on what she had been doing that day, her initial dread that there were several people in the congregation unaccounted for.  One worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, which was exactly where the plane hit, and was almost certainly dead.

Most of that day and the rest of the week were a bit of a haze, as coverage on every channel, even ESPN, was 24/7 coverage of the attacks and their aftermath.  This was the only week I watched Fashion Week coverage, since that was the only cable network which had not switched over to a live news stream.  Anything to get away from the news somehow.  Amidst all of that, three other incidents stand out in the next week.

One was the very end of that day, Tuesday, September 11th.  We had gone out to dinner and then to the service her church held (which was packed), come home, and climbed into bed.  Well, not bed, because we still hadn't completed moving in, we were sleeping on a futon bed in what was our living room.  Then the phone rang, and we both jumped.  I picked it up and it was friends from when we lived in the San Francisco Bay Area -- we had moved to New York in July from the Bay Area -- checking to see if we were all right, they knew I worked in Manhattan but didn't know how close I had been.  I realized then, at 10:55 pm on September 11, that I would spend the rest of my life telling people about that day.

Another was that Friday, September 14, when the President had called for a national day of prayer.  We held a service at the chapel at the Church Center -- I still have the bulletin.  To say that service was crowded was an understatement.  The chapel was completely full, people were spilling out into the lobby and onto the street outside on 2nd Avenue.  Where the Church Center is located is a hub of business and diplomacy:  being so close to the UN, there are a number of consulates.  There are also major institutions:  the NY Daily News Building, the Ford Foundation, and the Pfizer Corporation, just to name a few.  I used to think of the Church Center as nestled in among all those behemoths, wondering if anybody really knew who we were or what we did.  That day, I realized -- they did know who we were.  We were the closest thing to a neighborhood church there, all those hundreds of faces of people I didn't recognize had come to us.  I had a sudden shiver about the powerful place churches, synagogues, mosques, and religious communities can have in times of crisis in our supposedly secular society.

The third was the following Sunday, September 16.  The town of Pelham where we lived was having an interfaith service in the afternoon, with representatives from all the local churches involved.  Shannon was glad to let the rector represent Christ the Redeemer, and we stood in the crowd.  Like so many events that week, it was crowded.  I don't remember much about the speeches and prayers.  What I do remember was the moment in the crowd when we all heard something that jarred us:  the sound of a jet engine.  Pelham was right in the flight path of one of the approaches to LaGuardia Airport, so in the short time we'd lived there we'd become used to the sound of planes flying overhead.  The sound jarred us for a couple of reasons.  One was the realization we had spent the last five days without any air traffic, airspace had just reopened that Sunday afternoon, and I suddenly realized how quiet it had been the whole week.  The second jarring aspect of it was that the last instance of a plane we all had seen was the footage of one crashing into the towers, one that had been shown repeatedly on TV the past few days.  The whole crowd, almost as one, looked up into the sky as a jet slowly made its approach to LaGuardia.  The planes were back.  But it was never going to be the same.

The last was about a week later, when Shannon and I had a church meeting we needed to go to at Grace Church, located around 7th Street and Broadway.  Downtown, but still north of the Trade Center.  I still had not been to lower Manhattan since the attacks.  The subway wasn't running below 14th Street, so Shannon and I decided we'd just take a taxi from Grand Central.  As the taxi snaked through Union Square, we were taken aback by the scene.  There were hundreds of people in the Square, holding up pictures of loved ones, with captions asking if anyone had seen them, telephone numbers to call if you had.  Similar posters of people with contact numbers if seen were plastered to poles and railings around Union Square.  Shannon and I had seen these on TV, and had seen similar things in Grand Central, but the sheer number in Union Square surpassed anything.  We sat in shocked silence, watching these people standing there with the posters, as the taxi crawled through Union Square.  Shannon started to sob and said softly, "It's just all too much."  I slid over and held her as the two of us sobbed through the last few blocks of the trip.  I knew then that the whole city of New York was going to have a kind of PTSD, and, not only that, probably the whole nation in some way, shape, or form.  

That's my story, I guess.  I don't pretend there's anything distinctive or particularly compelling about it.  In the weeks and months to come I didn't have a whole lot to do with the recovery.  I would sometimes take people downtown to see St Paul's Chapel, which had become a hub for the
You got me thrown my PTSD, Bruce. Thanks.
recovery efforts.  On the first anniversary, I began a tradition that I repeat every year:  sit down, in silence, and listen to The Rising by Bruce Springsteen from beginning to end.  May the words from Bruce, sung in remembrance of all the first responders who perished that day, be a fitting call to us this day and every year as we remember this day:

You gave your love to see in fields of red and autumn brown
You gave your love to me and lay your young body down
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need you near but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love