When does anyone ever mourn a city? It is doubtful that it’s happen more than a few times in history. Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paricutin. These are cities that were destroyed by volcanoes. If you live in a city, even a small one, it seems inconceivable that the sturdy walls around you, the buzz of commerce, might someday be silenced even for a short time.
What if the city is gargantuan, iconic, and larger than everything in it? What if the city is a world city, a hub for news, entertainment, and finance? How a city like could become a city to mourn.
America’s face around the world is comprised of its large cities. The St. Louis arch, the lakeshore in Chicago, the Hollywood sign in Hollywood. Not because large cities are better than small towns but because culture is concentrated there, at its noisiest and most active. Can a city like that be mourned?
For those who lived in New York after 911, there were rituals of mourning. Somewhat ironically, the area affected by 911 was tiny. The city was not brought to its knees in the classical sense. But there were rituals practiced. Not time honored rituals of mourning but rituals that sprang up overnight as befits a uniquely horrible event.
It’s hard to consider New York City overwhelmed by sentiment, large and crusty as it is. But that is exactly what happened. In a city where everything moves along or gets run over, people stopped. Suddenly phenomena that have never been seen before and will never be seen again appeared everywhere. People walked down the streets sporting American Flag pins. People spoke to each other. It’s hard to explain, but people who happily come up to you in New York for recreational conversation are immediately considered something just short of insane. Explaining that is another blog, but, suffice it to say, no one simply speaks to someone they don’t know without a very good reason.
Then there was a complete cessation of any kind of commercial activity below Fourteenth Street, the northern border of Greenwich Village. What that meant for me and thousands of others is that our daily lives were disrupted. No one working below Fourteenth Street was able to go to work. Nothing stops business in New York, but this did. And so I was left with hours on my hands to ponder the fact that I couldn’t protect my city, my life, my friends, and my loved ones.
It was like the ground I was walking on was like clay, pliable and unstable. Anything could happen.
Then there were the hand bills. They started in a trickle. While the sides of buildings and street lights or any empty vertical space in the city is far from sacrosanct, these hand bills were eerie and the scope of their distribution was astonishing. Each handbill was a cry in the dark for an audience already pushed to the emotional brink. Each one showed a picture of a person who most likely dead. That unalterable reality is the weight that lay on the shoulders of every New Yorker.
Usually, after a heart rending description of the place a given victim of 911 held in the lives of family and friends, there was the mind-numbing “last seen” section. Last seen was almost always some place in the twin towers; “the 92nd floor of Tower one”. What is probably unnecessary to say is that a small minority of people in the World Trade Center complex at the time the towers fell was rescued. Essentially, while this was not the intention, these small pieces of paper, becoming increasingly soiled by thousands of hands touching them, were epitaphs.
Would it be hard to for you to understand that I regret not having some of these handbills?
Finally there was the oddest phenomenon of all. In the sixties it might have been called a “be in”. People would gather in the smaller parks and set up shrines to lost New Yorkers, complete with photos and candles. In the walkways of the parks, rivers of wax formed as the candles burned down. Like any public gathering both the holy and unholy were represented. Hawkers sold American flag paraphernalia, sucking the blood of a tragedy. Clerics and faux clerics told us the reasons for the disaster; far too often they disagreed with each other.
One thing stays in my mind. It was an oak tag sign written in a jagged hand: If peace were the only answer, we’d all be speaking German or Japanese. For me it put a lot of things in perspective.
I live in Tennessee now, something that was planned long before 911. I moved to marry the woman I love. But there are moments when I almost feel like I betrayed my home town by leaving.
Someday I will go back. There will thousands of people around me. No one will notice me. That will make me smile.