I work in 22 Cortlandt Street. That address will mean nothing to those of you not from New York, but it’s between Cortlandt, Dey, Church, and Broadway, in the Financial District. In other words, it’s across Church from the site of the World Trade Center. So you can imagine I had an interesting commute this morning.
As I came up out of the subway (with the Cortlandt Street station closed indefinitely, I take the 2/3 from 96th Street to Park Place, and exit the station at Church and Fulton), the streets were packed. I saw five policemen standing in a row, silently commiserating. I looked across the street, at the Path Station, and saw the crowd milling about, oddly stationary for a Monday morning. And, as I crossed John Street, I saw a man holding a sign reading “Down With Al Qaeda Terrorism.”
Talk about missing the point. As if anyone, at this place, in this city, on this day, feels any different. Or as if that’s what they’re thinking about. Of all the things to remember on this day, I can’t think of anything more superfluous.
For me, I remember finishing my breakfast in Lil’s, the student cafeteria at Emory University’s Oxford campus, at around 9:50, and glancing at the cafeteria workers gathered around the television in the little adjunct opposite the exit door, wondering what they were watching. I remember not quite understanding when someone said a plane had flown into one of the towers (like many, I assumed it had been a light plane, like the man who had flown onto the White House lawn during the Clinton years). I remember my art history professor, Diana Robbins, struggling through a lesson on Early Islamic Art for twenty minutes before giving up and saying, “None of us is here right now.” I remember finally hooking up the television in my room to cable. I remember calling my mother. I remember a somber dinner, with no words, and the faces of my friends Atiya and Statia, whose relatives and friends in New York were still out of contact and unaccounted for.
And I remember the next day, when classes continued, and didn’t. My morning classes on Geology and Shakespeare were impromptu seminars on terrorism, ethnic strife, and religious war. I could have handled lectures about rocks and the “Doorkeeper” scene in the Scottish play, but the circular discussion, the chorus of “I don’t know,” was too much. I took off for my Wednesday refuge, Comic Company in Decatur, GA, not far from Emory’s main campus, and a half-hour ride. I needed it that day.
And I remember Thursday, tennis class, and a plane flying overhead.
It’s 10:05 right now; six minutes ago, a voice came on the PA system to call a moment of silence in commemoration of the fall of the South Tower. I kept writing. We get CNN in the office, and right now it’s on in the background, the list of names, on and on. I think they’re somewhere in the K’s; I’m trying to tune it out.
I cried that day; I don’t know anyone who didn’t. The private pain of thousands of families was made public, broadcast to the world, and beyond. If there is life orbiting our nearest celestial neighbor, Proxima Centauri, they received those broadcasts roughly nine months ago. Sixty years prior, they received their first impression of our planet, in the form of a short, balding house painter, who was quite mad. One would be tempted to say that the events of September 11, 2001 would not have improved upon that impression.
One would be wrong.
Striking as the imagery may be to our hearts, long as the list may stretch, the 3,000 deaths are a sliver of the day, and not even a large one. Evil is evil, and evil happens every day; the numbers are but statistics. But good happens every day, too, and if the evil was of a greater magnitude, then the good was orders greater still. And I remember, so clearly that it swells my heart until it breaks my chest, the good.
We stood in lines to give our blood. We opened our homes and hearts to the displaced and the distressed, the heroes and the hopeless, the living and the dying. We held hands, cried, kissed, made love together, gave love together. We gave all we had. All my life, I have seen the million little evils man visits upon man, stood in silent dismay, and wondered why, for just an instant, we couldn’t imagine a world full of peace and goodwill, and make it so. On that terrible, wonderful day, my wish came true. I felt in the air of the world, in the sights and sounds of millions reaching out in sympathy, in the purity of their kindness, what I’d sung of in Sunday School as a child, but never until that moment known: the peace that passes understanding. I felt it, and I gave thanks that I lived in a world where such things were possible. On the darkest day in my life’s history, I gave thanks. And I have every day since.
September 11, 2001, was a day of horror, but also a day of hope. It was a day of great agonies, but also of great joys. It was a day when we were reminded of everything that makes us human, and when we chose to embrace, for however short a time, the better angels of our nature. One can barely hope to hold onto such a moment for a lifetime, but having once experienced it, we can remember. We can remember The Kind Of September, if we try, and live our lives in its spirit, and be a better, loving world for it. The future of mankind is the memorial of September 11, and it will be what we make of it. For their memories, for our souls, and for the peace and livelihood of those yet to come, let us make it a good one.