September 11, 2008
In September, 2001, I was in a very different place for where I sit today. This is what I wrote about this date in 2006:
I was on the first real vacation I had taken in years, beginning with a trip to Northern California for the big outdoor art show in Sausalito over the Labor Day weekend. My stepdaughter Amy had a booth at the show, and I went with her and her husband Phil to stay in a sweet little inn in San Rafael. During that leg of the trip I had managed to hook up with an old boyfriend, himself also single again, in San Francisco. He took me on a wondrous tour of the nighttime city -- wandering into haunts in Chinatown, catching the music in a great jazz club, and eating cioppino at a garlicky little restaurant.
I then went for a week with a friend I had known in junior high and had not seen since. Neil and her husband Neal--yes, that's their names--turned out to be delightful grownups, gourmets, nonconformists, and living in the Silverlake section of Los Angeles. They only had one car and they had no television set. They had a charming little storybook cottage with no pets except for the feral cats who lived in the backyard. Neil and I had been having one of the nice catching-up visits that old friends sometimes who have been separated for years are lucky enough to experience. I was scheduled to fly back home through Pensacola on September 13.
On this morning seven years ago Neil came in to wake me up at about six A.M. L.A. time. She told me of the terrible situation in New York. Remember, we had no tv to watch; she and Neal were listening to the radio. Then their friends began calling, realizing that they didn't have a television set, and thinking that would be the only way to learn about what was happening. Neal had worked at the World Trade Center only a few years before; he was beside himself with worry about friends. Neil and I worried about our own safety, and I knew there was no way I was going to fly back home in two days. But I wanted to get out of Los Angeles as soon as I could. Neil assured me that she had a sixth sense about these things and didn't think Los Angeles was going to be hit. Never mind that, no airport felt safe; I had to get home somehow.
Someone suggested the bus. Nothing sounded safer than a Greyhound Bus to me then, the big old lumbering behemoths that used to take me from Fairhope to Mobile on a Saturday afternoon to watch a movie. I knew it was going to be a hell of a ride from Los Angeles to Lower Alabama, but I cancelled the plane tickets and went to the bus station. Neil and I looked around and the little station looked clean and all but empty. This was going to be rather nice. I'd just get off when I got weary and find a nearby motel and get on the next bus going east when I got up in the morning.
Of course it was not that pat. As it turned out, the first bus from the clean little station took me not eastward to Mobile, but rather to the main bus terminal in Los Angeles, which was teeming with humanity, and scared humanity at that. Luckily I had lived for 14 years in Manhattan and knew how to finesse myself to the head of a line while all the rest milled around looking confused. I felt a little guilty for that, but not much. I also had known enough to pack a small carry bag with enough stuff to get me through three nights and check the big bag straight on through to Mobile. I got a decent seat and stayed on the first miserable bus for an hour or two and got off when it got dark, at a town called Blythe on the California border. I spent the night at a really cheap hotel, compounding my anxiety as if I weren't scared enough. But all went pretty well. I wasn’t accosted in the room, and even got a little sleep. I had breakfast at daybreak at a nearby McDonald's and watched a glorious sunrise on the next bus. And so it went. A tour of the Great American West, looking at sunrises and flags flying from all the roadside businesses along the way. Once a kid in uniform got on and sat next to me. I said to him "What are we going to do?" and he said, "Make a parking lot out of 'em." Bless his heart, I thought, he has no idea.
I went through Arizona and New Mexico, and then came Texas. Neil had packed a little food for me, and a bottle of water. She lent me two books to get my mind off things. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and The Liars' Club. Ya Ya worked best--it spoke of home, and supportive women, and an unrealistically competent heroine. I climbed into that book and stayed there the whole trip. I never did finish The Liars' Club, clearly a far better book but not matching my mood.
I stayed on the bus, sleeping through Texas, rather than prolonging the trip by getting off and finding a place to stay at that point. As the bus heaved into Louisiana I did enjoy seeing familiar Southern scenery--marshes, bayous, and Spanish moss. I was getting toward home. I spent the night in a nice town, had one of the best breakfasts in my life, enhanced by the comfort of a small-town diner, with people chatting and behaving for all the world as if they were going to stay together and stay the same on into time immemorial. Being in their company made me feel everything was going to be all right. America was still small towns, contented people, and love. The name of the town escapes me for the moment, but maybe I’ll remember it soon. Most of it was washed away a few years later in Katrina, but those people at the breakfast restaurant are still there; I know they are.
It was a sobering trip. I was glad to be home. People wonder what has changed now that everybody is saying that the world has changed. This is it: I have. The props were knocked out from under me and I am not the same person that went to that art show and heard jazz in San Francisco. Everything I do is tinged with the memory of that tragedy and knowledge that although we survived this should not have happened, and that it happened because of mistakes our leaders had made, mistakes for which our whole country is responsible.
Unfortunately, since that day the mistakes have been compounded over and over until there is little credibility for our country and its value anywhere in the world. Politically, from the first there were those who said that we need to wage more wars--do it better, stay the course--rationalizing the original error of our ways. It sometimes seems to me that there will be no way out in my lifetime, and no hysterical behavior on anybody's part is going to change a thing. This led me to another phase of my life, one in which I concentrate on my own concerns. The village that raised this child had become a place I don't recognize and I have left it for good. If I can make my own space better by doing my best, I can only hope that it will have some effect on the betterment of others. That's fair enough.
Others in my new neighborhood experienced the events first hand. Slezak, who was much closer to the site of the attack than I was, wrote me this about it a few months ago:
The Day the World Stood Still…and 43 of Hoboken's residents died. I got a call from my daughter that morning saying for me to turn on my tv. As I watched in horror…the second plane slammed into the other building. Looking at my clock it was 9:11 A.M. How strange I thought that was also on Sept 18th I had to go to a party in the Elks Club. I stayed in a hotel in Jersey City on the top floor overlooking the World Trade Center. It was at night so I could not see anything. That morning I opened my curtains and saw the unbelievable, the sight of mass destruction right before my eyes.
Knowing no one could ever survive that, the next day I SAT DOWN AND WROTE A POEM.
The title I gave it was
OUT OF THE DUST
Below the dunes of rubble and steel
Beneath the steep fathom – steep
In the darkness and dust they keep
The souls of so many for God to keep
The dread of the dead of men so brave
Out of the dunes their ghosts emerge
Through the clouds of smoke and dust
They will always remain with us.
Today, seven years later, we hold memorial services and remember lost loved ones and honor the courage of the rescuers, many of whom in turn gave their lives. It was a moment in time when we were called upon to be our best selves, and by doing so we have proved our worth. If only a greater good than that could come of this, a commitment to an ever-broadening view of the world and our responsibility to this vision.