Friday, September 12, 2008

Nothing Means Anything

On September 11, 2001, I was in a classroom in Poe Hall on the North Carolina State University campus, watching the events unfold on a small television that was rolled in on an A/V cart. As the day wore on, I continued watching in the Caldwell Hall Lounge, and in another classroom in Tompkins Hall. Less than three years removed from the city and with many dear friends in harm’s way, I felt maddeningly distant and utterly impotent. In time I would learn that people watching from rooftops around the five boroughs had remarkably similar feelings, despite their proximity. There was nothing anyone could do but watch.

I was lucky. All my friends escaped physical harm. My friend Arthur was not so lucky. He lost a childhood friend, a friend he called a brother as an expression of their closeness. For him, and for many others like him, life is divided now neatly into two parts: before 9/11 and after 9/11. Their lives will never be the same.

Yesterday was my first September 11th since I returned to New York, and it was therefore my first chance to spend the day with Arthur. It didn’t quite work out the way I planned, for a variety of reasons. The first was work.

Arthur doesn’t work on September 11th, and if I had to hazard a guess I’d say that he never will. I, however, as a partner and managing director of a start-up that is trying to grow, do not yet have the luxury of saying there are any days that I don’t work. So while Arthur spent the day in Bay Ridge, taking his son to visit with the family of his “brother” and attending various memorial services, I took the R train to my Manhattan office.

I’m not sure precisely what I expected working in New York on September 11th would be like, but this wasn’t it. For starters, the New York Times did not have a single mention of the event on the front page. Nothing. The Metro section had a story about the altered skyline, but that was it. Somehow I thought the event, the date, the remembrance would be a more substantial story.

My first meeting of the day was with a woman who moved here two years ago from Brazil, and she was frank in her assessment of the seventh anniversary of the attacks. “Get over it already,” she implored with an insensitivity bordering on callousness. “I mean, it’s too much.” Among the group of people I spend time with in Bay Ridge, where people still fly American flags with the words “Never Forget” embroidered among the stripes, such thoughts would never be uttered. It would be blasphemy. But she said it as though it were a perfectly natural reaction. Since she is a recent transplant, I assumed that her lack of sympathy could be attributed to the fact that she hadn’t been here to experience the event and its aftermath first hand. That or she’s just a stinking foreigner.

My next meeting, over lunch, was with a lifelong New Yorker who lives on the West Side of Manhattan and was in the city, watching from his 45th floor apartment that day. His experience was totally different from the Brazilian woman’s, but his feelings were quite similar.

We were sitting in the back of the restaurant, with no one else near by, but still he spoke in hushed tones. He prefaced his remarks by saying, “I know I shouldn’t say this, but…” and because of my previous meeting I knew right away what was coming. What I could not imagine was how it would arrive.

“I can’t stand it,” he said, his voice betraying a hint of anger. “I’m just sick of it, all the moaning and the violins,” he went on, adding, “It’s just so unseemly.” I was beyond shocked, and I’m pretty sure my lower jaw dropped into my Salade Nicoise. I had been under the assumption that the collective grief that gets broadcast around the country, the world even, every September 11th was a central part of every New Yorker’s life. What I was hearing told a very different story. As the meal went on, he elaborated: “At first I could understand, but it’s been seven years already. I mean, when does it end? Seven? Ten? Twenty? When is it enough?”

Walking back to the office, I sent a quick note to Arthur asking how he was doing, and we began trading texts. He seemed in good spirits, and I found myself writing about business, feeling guilty about it, and then doing it again. I realized then that I was a grief fence-sitter. My closeness to Arthur made it important to me that I recognize and share some of his experience, but I could also understand and relate to some of the things that others had been saying. When is it enough? Will there really be a “9/11 – Seventeen Years Later” television program? Will the names of all the victims still be read aloud in 2018? I began to wonder if the whole process had gone beyond mourning the dead, and instead had become celebrating the grief of the living. And if that were the case, wasn’t it all just a little too self-indulgent?

After finishing a few things in the office, I was on my way back to Brooklyn. I had hoped to leave right after my lunch meeting, around 2PM. Instead, I left smack in the middle of rush hour.

As I mentioned, I’m trying to get a start-up off the ground, so I usually come to work very early and stay very late. At the same time, I am my own boss, so if I feel like going to the gym in the morning or simply hitting the snooze button a dozen times, there’s no one to chew me out when I come in at 10:30. The result is that I very rarely (almost never) take the train at rush hour. After yesterday, I never will.

The New York City subway is a marvel in that it gets so many people to so many places every day almost without fail. It is also a marvel for the smell, grime, stench, filth, and general unpleasantness that await all of those people when they descend into that singularly urban experience. On a slightly humid late summer day at the peak of rush hour, the experience is like something out of Star Trek’s “The Mark of Gideon,” only without the blond hottie, and you’re no Captain Kirk.

By the time I was mercifully belched out of my subterranean misery, I knew that Arthur would be at home, preparing for that evening’s memorial service on the 69th Street Pier, a service at which he would be the keynote speaker. When I arrived at his house, in true Arthur style, he was neither getting dressed nor preparing his speech. He was sitting on the living room floor playing with his son. I joined them, and while Luca played, Arthur and I talked about the day. I shared some of the things I had heard, and some of the things I had thought, in reference to the day and its ongoing memorial significance. Arthur listened quietly, and then spoke without a hint of defensiveness: “You don’t get it,” was all he said. Then he left me to watch his son while he showered and dressed.

The 69th Street Pier, also known as the Veterans Memorial Pier, juts out from 69th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn into New York Harbor. From it you get a spectacular view of the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan in one direction, and the Verrazano Narrows bridge in the other. Last night, with the array of flags fluttering in a steady breeze, the twin beams of light shining skyward from Ground Zero, and the outline of the bridge etched in green lights against the night sky, it was truly a beautiful place to be. And when Arthur stepped up to speak, I quickly learned this would be no grief session.

Speaking freely and off-the-cuff, Arthur started with a series of anecdotes about his brother, Crazy Joe, and quickly had us all laughing. He imitated his voice and his mannerisms, and because the only thing funnier than Joe is probably Arthur imitating Joe, we were soon wiping tears of laughter from our eyes. Then, like all good, natural speakers, Arthur changed the tone. He did so by remembering a death, but it wasn’t Crazy Joe’s.

Two weeks ago, the 3 year old daughter of another lifelong neighborhood friend of Arthur’s died in a boating accident. It was one of those senseless, shocking, unexplainable things that sometimes happens in life, and it tore another hole through the fabric of this close-knit community. Arthur described the dinner he had with the father of the little girl two days ago, and told the people huddled together on that pier the one thing that heartbroken father wanted them to know. All the little things we spend our days worrying about, like jobs and money and career, that we think are so important, those things are meaningless. Then Arthur took it a step further.

“Nothing means anything,” he said.

He went on to explain that all that matters is community, the neighborhood, the family, people looking out for each other. He explained that when he thinks about 9/11 and his brother Crazy Joe, he doesn’t actually think about 9/11 at all. He thinks about the 12th, the 13th, the 14th, the 15th. The days when complete strangers took each other by the hand and comforted each other. When strangers became neighbors and neighbors became family. He said that the reason he knows that if something were to happen to him, Luca would be alright, or if something were to happen to Luca, he would be alright, is because every year these same people come to this pier and by their very presence show that no matter what horrible events might occur, all of them will always have people to look out for them.
As Arthur stepped back from the microphone, the emcee of the event asked everyone holding a flag to raise it high, and a choral singer from the local church began singing God Bless America.

I am not what I would call an overtly patriotic person. I love America, but I never put an American flag decal on my car, and I think that much of the post 9/11 flag flying was over the top. But last night, in that context, on that pier, it wasn’t. Those people, family and friends of one victim of the 9/11 attacks, live in the community of Bay Ridge, but they represented the greater borough of Brooklyn, stood for the larger city of New York, and in some strange way, when they raised those flags, were emblematic of something even larger. By standing together on that day, and all the other days like that to come, they take the memory of a tragic event and turn it into a feeling of belonging and community from which they can draw strength and comfort on every other day of the year. Being a part of it was incredibly powerful, totally unexpected, and completely enlightening.

Arthur was right. I didn’t get it. But now I do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure Nothing Means Anything. But that doesn't mean a kiss, a hug, or just listening to someone's story isn't powerful, at least for us 'lil beings crawling around on this planet hurtling through space.