NYC After 9/11

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May 1, 2011 by Leah

I’m feeling all kinds of emotional at the news of Osama bin Laden’s death. Most of that is due (rather unintentionally) to revisiting the events of September 11, 2001. I was a junior at Columbia at the time. In response to an inquiry from dear family friends, I happened to send a descriptive email three days after the attacks. One of those friends used most of the text of said email in his sermon the following Sunday. This is the transcript of what I sent. It conveys what I felt at the time better than how I remember it, and I’m so glad Bill sent me a copy of his sermon that included all of what I wrote.

Also, it makes me kind of like my younger self – although, please remember: I was 20.

“Thank you so much for the email. It has been an incredible past few days. On Tuesday when we woke up to a phone call from my friend Peter, Katharine (my best friend and roommate) and I went to the basement to watch CNN, but I cried so hard when I saw the tower fall… We then went to the 20th floor of a building nearby and saw the smoke, and the lack of the Towers in the skyline, and it was unbelievable. We tried to give blood, but they were too backed up, so the only thing I could think of (and I must admit, this is a pretty rare occurrence in my daily life) was to go to church. I went to St. John the Divine, an Episcopalian church which is a New York landmark in the city for its beauty (amazing construction and stained glass, etc. – it’s very close to Columbia) and history, and we walked in right as an actual Eucharistic service was starting. Katharine stayed with me for part of it, which was wonderful, but she left before the Prayer of Intercession. I think I cried the entire time. All the way through “Amazing Grace,” and even communion. I was shaking so hard that the priest literally had to pour the wine into my mouth. They had five priests for the approximately 40 of us who were standing at the very front of this vast nave, and it was so healing and comforting to hear what they said and to be able to sing and pray with that many other people. After sobbing through the hymns and hearing people pray for loved ones they had not yet heard from, we took communion and heard the Benediction and I really think I’ve been functioning better for it. One of the priests prayed for the people who had perpetrated this horrible crime, and for those who supported them, and I hadn’t thought about it until then, but that was absolutely the right thing to do… We can’t fight might with might, and his prayer changed the entire way I’m viewing this disaster. I haven’t felt anger like everyone else…just shock and devastation. I am extremely glad that I had that experience, and that others in my city and neighborhood are praying for peace and for those who are working desperately to save every life possible, but I’m also extremely glad to have real people with whom to communicate about this. When I told my friend Peter about my day on Tuesday, he shook my hand when I told him that I’d been to church, but he hadn’t even thought about it…he’d been drinking since 3 in the afternoon.  I suppose it’s understandable considering that he’s a banker and that his entire professional community suffered more of a blow than anyone else’s. Morgan Stanley’s entire trading floor is gone. Two brothers from [Peter’s] hometown in California are missing and presumed dead.

My friends of all – and no – faiths have been amazing. I spent the bulk of Tuesday with my three best friends (Katharine, Peter, and my ex-roommate Emma), and since then have been trying to keep myself busy. Classes have been on, but I haven’t been able to study or even go. Yesterday I just cleaned our apartment – today Katharine, Emma and I got together with friends and made sandwiches for the relief workers. This afternoon we then went down to the Javits Center, which is basically command central for the rescue effort, and delivered cases and cases of cold bottled water and the sandwiches to the volunteers and the rescue workers. The center’s at least 50 blocks away from “Ground Zero,” though. (That term is so disturbing…it’s what they call the central strike zone of a nuclear attack.) One man was sitting on the curb when we pulled in in the van and started unloading all these things, and he was wearing fire fighting clothes and covered in dust and ash, and he just looked at us hauling these big tubs of water, the most prevalent chemical on earth, and he murmured, “Angels.” It was amazing to be there. There are camouflage Hummers and military police and so many armed guards around the entire area, and the air is distinctly more murky than it is up here, and you can smell the destruction and death from the Trade Center. Yet, there are a lot of civilian volunteers there, and the positive energy from so many people really changed the entire atmosphere from that of a military compound during war to that of a place of healing and helping effort.

The city has been extremely quiet and introspective, but I’ve run into very few people who aren’t trying to help in some way. There was actually a shooting tonight, right near where we were hanging out, and that jarred me more than I could have imagined. I’m desperately hoping it wasn’t ethnically motivated – a lot of shops etc. owned by Arabs have been closed since Tuesday, and most of these people have more of a right to call themselves New Yorkers than do I – but I’m also incredulous at the fact that someone could shoot another person…at this time. The world has become so different in the past few days. I feel like I never knew either the capacity for good or for evil that humans possess. But I have to realize that those who do things that I consider evil ARE humans, just like me, and for some reason or another – be it convictions that happen to be anti-humanitarian or just too much anger flying in the wrong direction – commit what seem to me to be senseless acts of violence.

Classes actually resumed Wednesday but I haven’t gone. Today I was active in the rescue effort, and deemed that more important than talking about the incredibly depressing worldview that Medieval epics promulgate; yesterday I couldn’t function beyond scrubbing the bathroom and doing laundry. I’d hate to have my apartment messy if something really bad happened. The wind shifted yesterday, and I could smell burning gasoline every time I stepped outside. All this talk of war isn’t really terrifying, it’s more the fact that no matter what happens, I’ll be waiting for something terrible to happen. Not a good way to live, but when you go to sleep in a secure world, and wake up to find that nothing will ever be the same, I don’t know that you can ever forget that. Anyway, this is all history in the making, and so far I’m surviving it fine. I hope you and yours are well.

Love, Leah

P.S. Am CCing this to my mother – haven’t managed to convey things as well on the phone thus far.”

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