On Tuesday morning, September 11th, I leave Riverside Church where I?ve been praying/meditating?whatever it is that I do there?that sometimes ?works? and sometimes doesn?t. On this day it worked because when I got outside I felt freer, less disturbed and angry than I usually do.
And, of course, though its fall?not my favorite season?and I?ve got more than the usual amount of reasons to be glum about the coming months, the weather (as all of you who live in the city will remember) was beautiful.
A cloudless robin?s-egg blue sky with just that touch of darker blue behind it?a preview of winter a couple of months down the road. But still, the trees were green, a light breeze was rustling the leaves, and each person I?d passed on the street walking up to the church seemed good and kind?everything as if placed there by God as an example of how well things could go when the going was good.
Sharp?everything, the people, the sidewalk, the trees, the grass? cars, buses, trucks shining in the morning sun? everything was defined, and carried with it a feeling of benevolence; a feeling that it was right and good that the seasons changed, that people came and went, and that all things were perfect in themselves.
When I came out of the Church?a little after 9:30?I think it was?I crossed the street to go into the park and waited for the bus down Riverside Drive. The park smelled good, the air was clean?a rare day in Manhattan…
?I got on the bus, sat down and felt like maybe this would be the start of a decent day. But no more than a minute passed?the bus moving down Riverside?when I could feel things weren?t right. First of all, people were talking to each other?an unusual thing on a city bus?even on such a nice day. And the people weren?t just talking to people sitting next to each other. They were talking across the aisle to each other, across seats?to the driver. Two women?I remember one heavy Latino woman dressed in a dark skirt and light flowered blouse?were listening to hand-held radios?(maybe walkmen)? Then I hear the Latino woman tell a well-dressed (suit-type well dressed) white woman that a small plane had crashed into one of the towers at The World Trade Center.
News for sure?but not something to get too upset about?though of course you immediately wonder: Did anybody inside the building get hurt? Surely the people in the plane were dead if that happened, but the building, as I remembered from having been in it a couple of times and seen from up close many other times, seemed impossible to hurt?even to dent; certainly a small plane would just bounce off it?
Another couple of blocks go by?I?m getting close to my stop?and the woman with the radio says another plane has just crashed into the Trade Center?and, she says, ?This doesn?t sound like a co-incidence.? Another woman says: ?They?re saying it wasn?t a small plane.?
Now I?m worried?I?m beginning to get infected with that nasty electric buzz of nascent disaster?which is why I went to the Goddamn church to begin with. I have lived with a feeling of impending doom all my life and the moments that I was able to shake this feeling were few and far between. It was always proof to me of my despicable Karma, that just when things went right?even for a minute?they went very badly wrong almost immediately afterward. So, in my horrible petty, self-involved way, I am already pissed off that my state of grace has been interrupted by these downtown disasters.
Making what might be a false leap?which I make never-the-less, I see that this is the nature of the modern world; the massive and almost incomprehensible disconnected state we all live in; that, because of the immediate availability of an immense amount of news and information, we are constantly besieged, almost by the hour, by the words and sounds and images of disasters?of fires, of bombings, of murders and suicides, of wars and famines and plagues, of babies abandoned in dumpsters and children beaten to death; of divorces and kidnappings and every manner of ruin and terror known to human-kind.
There is no end of this stream of despair and demise?this trampling of our senses. And in the end, you can?t live with the biting reality of it or you would go insane. So, unless you completely change your life and become a missionary or devote every night and day to saving people, you assume the almost inhuman posture of ignoring all these horrible events?or, at the very least, feeling the pain of them for a fleeting instant, then move on with your daily life. But what happens then? Where do you put all the awareness of this death and destruction, this hopelessness and brute behavior? Do you brush it off like dust on a tablecloth? Do we all have some deep, bottomless pit that we can throw all this stuff into and never worry about it again?
If you lived in a small town a hundred years ago, (or make it a hundred and fifty years ago)?when 85% of the country lived in small towns and villages and farming communities? If you lived in such a place then, the disasters could be managed. They happened to people you knew and you could do something about it?loan money, help re-build a house; at the very least sit with the people who it happened to and just add your sympathy to the sympathy of others; gather, pray together, sit in a parlor or on a porch.
And the great disasters, natural and unnatural?like floods in other parts of the country, or wars in foreign lands?were things you found out about weeks or months after the fact and then only by reading about it in a newspaper with drawings to go with it?not graphic pictures with sound; the screech of jets, the flash-bang of grenades, the screams of children, the crack and split of trees and roofs disappearing in a second, ripped off some house or school in a hurricane.
That old world of slow pace and limited information is long gone. Now we know, thanks to life of instant information, everything that happens every minute. And it all becomes too much to deal with?even when its not something awful?when its just news about sports or movies or advertisements or sales at a store. There is too much happening to too many people too much of the time. Of course it was always this way, but it was not right in our eyes and ears every moment. These things happened to other people, in other places. Nod your head and keep plowing the field; wrap another package and deliver it around the corner to Mrs. Smith’s house.
So, assailed by this great wave of new and information of torture and trouble, you perform a kind of mental and emotional triage; you place the daily disasters in a context that you can handle and still live your own life.
Ten thousand people killed in an earthquake in Turkey? That?s terrible?look at the picture in the New York Times? see the wailing children and parents on the six o?clock news?But then your wife gets home from work and you talk about the day; figure out what to have for supper?call the parents, the kids; watch a video, do whatever you do to get ready for the next day.
A crazed man with a gun kills twelve people in a restaurant in Missouri. Awful?bodies covered with sheets? ?I don?t know why he would do that?he always seemed so nice?? Pictures of cops milling around, writing on pads? But the clock ticks and the hands move, and you have to wash the dishes, then you have to tuck the kid in and read her a bedtime story?school the next day.
We get on with our lives. God knows there is enough heartache and pain in everyone?s life already. People killed thousands of miles away or two states away, or even twenty miles away in another town are the business of the people who live there?you have your own life to deal with. But still, I wonder, where do all the pictures and sounds and descriptions go? I think we are in danger of becoming less human all the time, because it is purely human to be shocked and sad when awful things happen to other people and to want to help in some way. And if we can?t help and can?t even afford t
o spare a second to feel the pain, then what goes on inside us?
?September 11th? around 10:00 o?clock. I am walking into my apartment building lobby. The whole street and everyone in the lobby, the doorman, the tenants, the delivery guys, have dropped everything and are listening to radios, watching TV, anxious, wondering.
And yet, in a crazy way?in a way that is wrong for what is seems to be going on here?the day is still so beautiful, still so replete with eternal goodness, that it is almost impossible to imagine something really bad happening. It was as if the blue sky, the warm sun, the general benevolence of the streets and the people in them wouldn?t support anything really bad?not really.
The doorman tells me that two jets have crashed into the World Trade Center. I go upstairs, turn on the TV, and start the beginning of the endless loop of images and sensations that still run inside all our heads? the planes crashing into the buildings, the huge fireballs, the thick black smoke; then, later, the people running, the clouds of smoke and dust, the horrible acrid smell, the crying, the bodies, the flames, the planes over and over again, the screaming, the shaking, the sirens, the cops, the firemen, panicked calls, false reports, deep chilling fear? And still, framing it all, just beyond the camera close-ups of unbelievable shock and pain and the false hysteria of the reporters, was that serene blue sky, that warm golden sun?
Who could paint a picture like this? Placed in a frame in a gallery somewhere downtown, if September 11th never happened, it would be considered perverse and sophomoric?forced political art. What a symbol, some would say: Two jets crashing into the two great towers of capitalism, surrounded by a beautiful Indian summer sky. How sick?even if making a point?how despairing and cruel.
But that is just what happened on that day in early September, almost exactly three years ago. It was all the more unbelievable just because it was such a sharp, clear and golden day.
Much more happened to me and to all of us in the city that day, and in the coming weeks and months?even in the years that have followed?even right up until this very day and hour. Things happened to me personally that deeply and permanently affected my family, my career, my friendships, my health? But I will save that for another time. We all have our memories and our stories to tell.
Today’s forecast is for sunny clear skies, comfortable temperatures and light breezes. Sounds like another beautiful day.
– Mike Feder (New York City – September 10, 2004)