What’s 9/11 mean to me? 10 years later I’m still not sure…
A little before 9 that morning, the Q train rumbled out of the tunnel where Flatbush Avenue becomes the Manhattan Bridge. As we crossed the East River, on the left side of the train, black smoke was billowing and paper was flying from a gaping hole in the North Tower.
A tense, deliberate voice came over the subway speaker: “There’s an emergency downtown; this train will express to Times Square.” We had seen, even if we didn’t understand.
The train, it turned out, stopped at every station in between: Canal, Union Square, 34th Street. Each time, that same voice, now screaming, “Do not leave the train; we are only picking up passengers, clearing the stations; this is a police order: DO NOT get off this train.”
But at Times Square, the platforms were oddly “unphased” — no different than any other morning — rush hour going about its business. New York is full of the unusual and unexpected, juxtaposed right alongside unnoticing. If you see at all, you still go on. Maybe that’s true of life in general?
Transferring to the uptown express, I made it to 96th Street before the PA system announced that the New York City subway system was closed. The train doors opened; the power turned off.
Up the stairs, out of the station, it was a beautiful, sunny, fall day– the only season when New York seems almost clean. Everything looked normal in a neighborhood I’d known well for years, 3 blocks away from the first church I served.
I asked a woman passing by, “Do you know why the subways shut down?” Looking at me unbelieving, she shrieked, “They’re bombing the World Trade Center.”
I called Miriam. She said a second plane had just crashed into the South Tower. That Rockefeller Center, where she worked, was being evacuated. Everyone was getting marched over the Queensboro Bridge. “I’ll call when I get to the other side; you’ll need to tell me how to walk to downtown Brooklyn; I am going to pick Simon up from school.” I laughed, “Simon won’t be in school.” She got mad at me.
Next call was to Sally at the office, “I’ll be late; I’m on foot the rest of the way.” She said the smoke looked awful. And, on a completely different tack, that she’d just heard that her dad, who she hardly knew, was dying in Florida. She wondered if she fly down and see him.
Miriam never called back: cell phone service shut down too. She got a ride from Long Island City to downtown Brooklyn with other people in the back of a pick up truck. Simon wasn’t at school. Found later in our neighborhood, he playing basketball with friends in Ezra’s driveway.
Sally and I watched all day from the south windows of our office. The Towers burning, then collapsing. We listened to the radio. A third and then a fourth hijacked plane. Not since Pearl Harbor had the U.S. been attacked on its own soil; and this wasn’t a military target. The smoke changed from black to light gray with all the dust, but kept filling the sky.
Sally’s dad died that day. She did not make it to Florida even for the funeral. After 7, she drove home to Jackson Heights. I left the office about 9, when the subway lines reopened. Walking from train line to train line, and riding circuitously, I made it to the elevated station at Brooklyn’s 18th Avenue, near home, about midnight.
Now the smoke from the southeast, instead of from the north, but it still filled the sky. The air smelled bad. The end of the first day in a surreal week.
UCC congregations in Chappaqua, Garden City and Manhasset each lost multiple members. Two former parishioners of mine were killed. And two friends. Geneva left a message saying that the Penn SE Conference staff had prayed for us during their staff meeting.
When the airports opened again on Friday, and I had to fly, there were all kinds of strange, new security gauntlets to pass. And rumors. And walls covered with messages: people looking for and later grieving loved ones. Then memorial services. And anthrax scares. Grief counseling.
The last time I went to New York, just a few weeks ago, as the bus came down the hairpin turn into the Lincoln Tunnel, I looked out the left side: there on the downtown skyline was the black skeleton of one of the new towers, already higher than any of the other buildings. It startled me.
What’s it all about? Ten years later and so much more has happened. Much more violence and death spawned by the fateful fall day. And who can be quite sure? For me, people who know exactly what 9.11 means for our world are often scary zealots, claiming certainties to avoid life’s fearful confusions.
Beloved, red letter days are often ambiguous. Life’s lessons are never so clear. Or quite leaned. History can always be observed from different angles and various vintage points. But sometimes the tragedies get no clearer even with time.
Humans engineer incredible evil against one another, to be sure. And often, in our own minds, we have just cause.
And, yet, the world does not stop dead even when some cataclysmic event occurs right before your eyes… or even when someone you know is killed. Instead, there’s a weird partnering of the everyday with the extraordinary… as time marches on.
We do too. Because we have no choice. Because even disasters are not without glimpses of hope. Because we have to get up tomorrow. We make provisional decisions, and ought to continue reflecting, using the ensuing years and actions towards better understandings and responses.
It’s 10 years later. We are charged with remembering– putting pieces together; asking about meaning; determining how it should affect our actions.
What is it, God, that we are to make of it all?
See you in church,
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