One of the reasons I’m not afraid of “terror” is because I lived and worked a half a mile away from the site of the biggest attack in the history of the world, according to many estimations, the site formerly known as the twin towers and now known as where the World Trade Center (the two towers) used to be, ground zero, a patch of land with a footprint of two huge square city blocks in southern Manhattan.
Like millions of others, I could see the towers from where I lived in Brooklyn and I passed through them towers twice daily on the R train of the Metro Transit Authority, commuting from Sunset Park and Bay Ridge Brooklyn to my job in Midtown Manhattan, on the eighth floor of an office tower next to the New York Life building, recognizable by the gleaming gold-plated peak in the skyline. I commuted in this way for six years and it wears me out still to think about it. It is a grinding 45 minute subway ride, to travel about three miles or so, I’m not even sure. Add to that the walk to the train station on either end of the trip. My commuting years were pre-smart phone years and I read a lot of books during those hours to pass away the monotony. (That part I miss.)
I am not afraid of anywhere in the world for the same reason I’m not afraid of New York City: because of the beautiful people who live there. I visit NYC as much as possible, and would go more if I could. My inlaws, friends, former coworkers, neighbors and are still there. And my husband Bob speaks the pattern heard on the news radio each year the 911 remembrances come up: the animated wool sweater vocal tone of a Brooklynite.
At 9 a.m. on September 11, 2001, I was meeting with my boss via telephone from an office in St. Paul, Minnesota. My boss was in an office in Baltimore, where my employer had relocated after almost 50 years in Manhattan. When Bob decided to go to seminary in St. Paul, we moved across the country in my dad’s semi trailer, car and all, and I started what would be eight years of telecommuting the same job. (Following two years in Baltimore and six years in New York City. Don’t worry about all those numbers.)
As part of the telecommuting plan, my boss and I chatted by telephone each Monday morning to review the week. My Minnesota window showed the same clear blue September sky as we see over and over in the televised replays of that morning. During the call we mentioned the plane that ran into the tower, both of us imagining a small engine and dismissing it as a minor accident. A few minutes later, a colleague in Baltimore rushed into my boss’s office to say a plane headed to the Pentagon had gone down in Pennsylvania. That’s when we decided to end the conversation and pay attention.
I left my office to find Bob from class, and we watched the towers collapse on live TV in the student TV room in Bockman Hall, along with a roomful of other people. 911 was a lot of things to a lot of people, but to us it was like our backyard had been bombed and no one knew it. I wanted to shout, “We’re from there!” “We know those people!” “This is not just a global incident, this is my husband’s hometown!”
When I moved to Brooklyn, I realized that people had no idea where Minnesota was. Likewise, when I moved back to Minnesota, I realized that people did not know the geography of Brooklyn, New York. Parts of Brooklyn are closer to ground zero that most of Manhattan. My inlaws were in 911. They watched it. They walked home. They dealt with the aftermath. All those brave first responders who walked into the burning towers to save people, only to perish themselves, were the people my inlaws grew up with. Brooklyn, New York, is like a series of small towns and everyone is incredibly loyal to one another. It’s not so different from other places where friends and family love one another.
Ironically, a group of travelers from Trinity Lutheran Church on 45th Street in Brooklyn, Bob’s home congregation, happened to be in Minnesota when 911 hit. They had come in part to see Bob and wish him well in his first semester of seminary, and also to see their retired pastor who then lived in Minneapolis, Bob’s mentor, another Bob by the name of Nervig. Bob Nervig had set up a lovely itinerary to show the church group the sites of the Twin Cities and show them a good time.
The group had no idea they’d be stuck in the Midwest due to airport closures. But even as the facts took days and weeks to unfold, they pretty much knew immediately that the president of the church council had perished, as he worked at Marsh & McLennan, situated to take a direct hit from the first plane. I remember us all sitting stunned together in the chapel of Luther Seminary, the group from Trinity, Bob Nervig, my Bob, me, and a cavernous room full of others. We were shocked of course, as everyone was, and they were all wondering when they would be able to get home.
The chapel was full that day and I remember being bothered by the fact that no one else knew that this group from Brooklyn was suffering so directly. I felt like they needed some sort of special recognition or accommodation, even though everyone was confused and feeling the hit. Silly on my part, I know. You can’t parse anguish. It’s all relevant.
Of course this brings to bear the truth of all strangers – no one knows from where they come and what they’ve experienced, unless you take the time to listen and understand.
When 911 happened I worked at an international aid organization, and I was surprised by the condolences that came from so many people from seemingly scary places around the world. Kenya. Tanzania. Rwanda. India. Bangladesh. Niger. Peru. Indonesia. El Salvador. The Philippines. Plus, we had also just moved into family housing at the seminary and were living next to actual humans from many of these same places. I realized that all of these people knew what 911 was doing to us because physical insecurity was a daily reality for them. 911 shocked us, but not them. For many others in the world, it was another attack in a long line of attacks.
I was never afraid when I traveled to such places for my work and I was never afraid to live in New York City. It wasn’t because the danger didn’t exist, it was because the people around me were so decent and brave and determined to protect me. That remains my world view.
This past summer the youth group from our church, St. John’s Lutheran in Des Moines, Iowa, traveled to Brooklyn, New York to join Salaam Lutheran Church in putting on a summer vacation Bible school for the children. The children were mostly immigrants and refugees from Arabic speaking countries who had fled for safety with their families. Fear is relative. While other groups from the Midwest had canceled their trip to New York because of fear, these kiddos had come to New York for safety. Our kids from Iowa (including our son and Bob, who helped with logistics) had an amazing week and learned for themselves why they shouldn’t be afraid: because of the people. Honestly, I felt sad I couldn’t be with them but I am on to another job with it’s own set of commitments. Couldn’t take the time off. But during that trip Bob got to see his 86 year old mother every night, a great lady who worried for our daughter who was spending time in Paris. “It’s so dangerous there now,” my mother-in-said.
In the days that followed 911 Bob and I indulged in the 24-7 television coverage. With our own kids away in day care and kindergarten we sat in our apartment and watched the footage over and over again. The planes hitting. The smoke. The crumbling. I had nightmares of the people jumping out of the skyscrapers holding hands to their death. We wished we were there and felt jealous of the “mission trip” that would go there from the seminary without us. Felt like we should be leading those trips, or at least joining them. I had to remind myself that 911 didn’t just happen to us.
After a few days I decided to stop watching TV to preserve my own sense of reality. I had to get those images of death and destruction out of my head. I quit TV. Yet, I think by far the saddest outcome of 911 is that some have watched the fear-mongering TV for 15 years straight. As a country, we have swallowed the fear. We have internalized the hate. We have bought the idea that there is an “us” and a “them.” I for one do not.
A few weeks after 911 our neighbors down the hall, students from Norway, invited a group of us to dinner and drinks in their apartment. They first asked if it would be respectful to have a party when we were all mourning. We all said yes and squished together for food and friendship, laughter and jokes. Our hosts played music on their piano, which we bought from them before they returned to Norway. Being together felt so good.
That is my ground zero take-away: I am not afraid. Why? Because of the beautiful people.