Wednesday, September 11, 2013

My Neighborhood on 9/11

I hope that life returns me to New York.  I lived in the Chelsea section of New York City for many years.  I was happy there.  Only the humiliation of unemployment during a brutal Recession forced me to leave a few years ago.  Early in the morning on September 11th in 2001, the main thing I had on my mind was...Barbra Streisand.
A restored, remastered edition of Funny Girl was playing for an exclusive short engagement at the Ziegfeld Theater.  Frank Volpe, my longtime buddy who lives in Brooklyn, and I were going to attend an early evening screening of Barbra in all her Best Actress Oscar-winning glory.
I lived about a mile and a half away from the World Trade Center.  I could see those structures every day from where I lived.  I'd been in them several times.  Sept. 10th had been overcast, muggy and uncomfortable.  We got rain overnight that pushed all that stickiness out.  Now I wish that the rain had been severe with storms that lingered, delaying East Coast flights for hours the next day.  September 11th greeted us with a crystal blue sky of storybook quality accompanied by a sweet breeze.  Shortly before 7am, I walked around the corner to my neighborhood deli to get a cup of coffee and a bagel.  I passed a friend in the neighborhood who remarked that the morning weather almost made you want to sing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning."  I agreed.  Later, I heard a low metallic roar zoom by overhead followed by a distant thud.  I thought it was a sonic boom, unusual for New York and something I hadn't really heard since I was a kid growing up in Southern California and Air Force jets flew.

I was listening to a local morning radio show and the traffic reporter told us that there was a problem at the World Trade Center involving a plane.  Over the summer was the anniversary of when an Army plane crashed into the Empire State Building in the 1940s due to thick fog. Fourteen people perished.  News footage had played on New York 1, a local TV news channel, during its regular "On This Day in Local History" feature.  So, when the traffic news was reported casually, many thought it was like the 1940s accident.  Until, just a few minutes later, the co-host seriously said "Put that caller on the line."  One of the show's regular listeners, who was on the street and saw the first plane hit the tower, shouted that it wasn't a small plane..."it was like a 747!  Like a 747!"  The horror and urgency in his voice immediately changed the whole attitude of the show.  I turned on a live local news program and saw black smoke gushing out of a huge hole in one of the towers.  I got Frank on the phone.  He was watching TV too.  We still weren't sure what had happened.  We just knew that this crisis would tie up traffic into and out of the boroughs.  We'd probably have to cancel our Funny Girl dinner and movie plans.  Then, while we were on the phone, the second plane hit.  "We're under attack," he said.

In college, I was taught that the most shocking thing Americans witnessed on live television occurred during the Four Days in November -- days that started on Nov. 22nd, 1963 when President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.  The four days ended with JFK's funeral.  While being transported in custody, Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of shooting the president, was himself shot.  He died later.  The crime was seen on live news coverage.  I was in elementary school then.
On September 11th, we saw a commercial airliner with innocent passengers turned into a weapon.  It became the second bullet, the second projectile, that pierced an American building and killed people instantly.  This crime was seen on live news coverage.

The mass killing was hell on earth.

We had no idea early that morning of the pure evil at work in those crystal blue skies above us.  After the plane hit the Pentagon and the plane crashed in Pennsylvania -- and after we watched in more horror as the Twin Towers collapsed individually -- I went to nearby St. Vincent's Hospital to see if I could give blood.  I wasn't the only one.  Hundreds of other average New Yorkers had the same idea.  We stood behind barriers.  The 7th Avenue entrances had been sectioned off for ambulances.  But no ambulances arrived.  That was so eerie.  We saw all that horror in our city on live TV and we didn't hear the sirens of ambulances speeding to the entrances.  I ran into a friend who said, "There were people jumping from the windows."  His face was stark.  His business had an office in a lower level of the first tower.  All the employees made it out safely.  Those were colossal structures, two of the tallest buildings in the country.

I walked over to the above corner at St. Vincent's to ask a question.  As I approached one female doctor, she turned to another female doctor and said, "There was a day center near one of the towers."  Both women just stared at each.  I turned, walked quickly back to my apartment a few blocks away, went into my place and broke down sobbing.  I'd helped up and kept the advice my mother had told me ever since I was a youngster:  "Don't panic."  But when I heard about that day care center, it all came out -- all the painful emotions.  I wept thinking about youngsters in that day care center. Then I went back to St. Vincent's Hospital to see if and how I could be of service.
In the days to come, we'd learn that the two women in the day care centers got all the little kids to safety.  They put them in shopping carts from a nearby supermarket and wheeled them quickly out of harm's way.  The two women were on an Oprah show.  They were proof, as we have tragically seen in gun attacks at schools, that teachers are often amongst the First Responders.

Today, as I've done since the tragedy, I watched the televised memorial services with the reading of names.  I bow my head and say a quiet prayer when the bells are rung.  It's like a holy day of obligation for me as a Catholic.  A day on which you must give spiritual attention -- like Easter.  I cry at the simple, eloquent, touching messages we hear from relatives of victims after they've read names.  We are reminded of the power and depth of little ordinary words:  "I love you," "I miss you," and "Till we meet again."  Little words, simple words that tell a great story that has the light of grace and eternity.  I heard the name of someone from my neighborhood.  I lived two short blocks away from the firehouse where Angel Juarabe, Jr worked.  We'd see him and fellow firefighters in the neighborhood all the time.  We loved seeing them go food shopping at the working class supermarket one block over on 8th Avenue.  They'd always be wheeling two shopping carts.  One would be packed full with pasta and meat.  The other would have canned goods, paper goods, produce and beverages.  There was something sweetly goofy about watching them shop.  We lost neighborhood members, firefighters of that engine company, that day.

A few days after September 11th, businesses solemnly opened again.  The brash loudness of Manhattan had been replaced by a respectful quiet.  People on the street didn't avoid your gaze, a typical New York City procedure.  We looked each other in the eyes, a silent way of asking "Are you OK?"  At the end of my block was one of my favorite diners, Bright Food Shop, on the corner of 21st Street at 8th Avenue.  It had great food with a staff to match.  I was such a frequent customer that I could've received mail there.  It was truly a neighborhood place where people ate, chatted, and respected your personal space.  You could eat here at the counter, which I did many many times, and be seated next to your buddy from across the street or actors Ethan Hawke, Parker Posey, Sandra Bernhard, Kevin Bacon or newsman Anderson Cooper.

Bright Food Shop was like the bar on Cheers only with Mexican/Asian entrees instead of beer.  The staff knew your name.  We were part of the same neighborhood.  I'm still in touch with folks from that staff.

One night after the attack, I sat at the counter.  By then, we were all growing accustomed to a certain smell in the city.  It was the sharp, unwelcomed smell of destruction, death and loss.  We were hearing constant bagpipes in funeral services for the many fallen firefighters, bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace."  I sat at the counter, not really for a big plate of food.  I wasn't all that hungry.  I wanted to see if the familiar faces of the kitchen staff and other restaurant employees, faces of some people whose names I didn't even know, were all there.  I wanted to know that these neighbors of mine were safe.  Next to me sat a slim, short-haired, friendly blonde musician from the neighborhood.  She always had such a cool tomboy look about her.  She was also a regular and one of those customers you always loved seeing.  My favorite waiter took both our orders.  She tenderly asked, ""

A bit above a whisper, I leaned over to her and revealed, "I came to see the same thing."  She exhaled in a way that let me know we were sharing an experience.  We both exhaled when the waiter said, "Everybody's fine.  We're all here."  She got tears in her eyes.  She hugged the waiter.  So did I.  That place and staff...with some workers whose names we hadn't even known at the time...had become important in our hearts.

We'll never forget the pure evil that we witnessed on live television Sept. 11th.  Something else I'll never forget is the kindness and gentleness that followed.  New Yorkers connected.  Color, creed, age, looks, income, sexual orientation --- none of that mattered.  In the immediate days and weeks to come after that wickedness, good people were not taken for granted -- good people in the neighborhood, at work and in the family.  We appreciated each other.  We cherished politeness and common courtesy.
The World Trade Center, St. Vincent's Hospital and Bright Food Shop are all gone now.  They no longer exist.  But the heart is still there in New York.  I saw it this morning  during the televised memorial.  New York -- I city I will always matter where I am.

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