from Liz Gilbert
Letter from New York City
Wednesday, September 12, 2001 5:01 AM EDT
New York City
Dear Ones -
It's the middle of the night here in New York, a city which doesn't generally sleep even under the best of circumstances and which is certainly lying awake tonight. I have walked and ridden my bike around the city today. I have seen both rivers, which are still there. I have seen the hollow mushroom cloud where the longest arms of my city's beautiful skyline once reached to the clouds. I have seen the stunned crowds on the streets at 10:30 AM and the erie emptiness at 10:30 PM. The city is quiet now except for the sirens from the tireless emergency vehicles. But the city is still here. That's primarily what I want to tell you tonight. We are still here -- horrified and stunned and shaken -- but still here.
I've been thinking today about a joke I heard a New York comic deliver years ago, after the first World Trade Center bombing. He said, "These terrorists tried to blow up the World Trade Center because they wanted to send a shock wave through New Yorkers. Hell, that's not how to send a shock wave through New Yorkers -- we walk around expecting stuff like that to happen half time anyhow. If you really wanna send a shock wave through New Yorkers, come to our city in the middle of the night and finish up all the construction work on the Queensborough Bridge -- that'll shock us, for real." Gallows humor, yes, but there is something to it. Namely, that even in the midst of this unspeakable tragedy, New Yorkers still insist on being...New Yorkers. An endless crowd of busy, bossy, thoroughly engaged, sarcastic but somehow holy wisecrakers. Which means that the life force does not stop, refuses to stop, cannot stop. The homeless are still out there tonight, picking up spent cigarettes off the street and jonesing for a cup of coffee. The subways and busses have inched back to life. Young recruits from the Police Academy -- dressed in their grey almost-cop uniforms -- stand in every intersection, keeping traffic organized and reminding the dazed civilians who sometimes simply stop moving in the crosswalks that the laws of gravity and physics don't stop just because of an appalling act of terrorism, so move it along, people. Storefronts are closed everywhere, but not universally -- there seems to be one deli and one pizza joint open on every block, and these places have become shelters and churches, where people come to find both food and comfort. The real churches are still open, too.
I met a doorman from Queens tonight who had been guarding his building since 7AM. It was almost midnight, and he was bleary-eyed and weary and nobody was coming in to take his post, but he refused to abandon his building. "Seventy-six apartments in there," he said, gesturing behind him. "I'm not letting down my guard. No van or truck is parking in front of this building tonight, I'll tell you that. I don't care if I have to go after someone with a baseball bat -- nobody's messin' with this building." I felt safer somehow knowing that this one piece of New York was in his hands.
A man on his cellphone, complaining to a friend as he walked down the street, gave those around him the first smile of the day with this line: "Damn! Last week my wife was tryin' to kill me, now the A-rabs are tryin' to get me." He seemed equally unthreatened by both. And here's the oddly most comforting assurance that business continues as usual in New York tonight. I locked my bike up to a parking sign for an hour this evening and came back to find that someone had stolen my back tire. See? See how we ALL -- even the pettiest little theives among us -- insist on perservering, even in the face of tragedy? I swear, I found inspiration in even that. The city cannot shut down, you see, anymore than life itself can shut down. As long as we live, we move. And that movement is our deepest salvation and greatest healing.
I went to give blood today at Bellview hospital and found they had more volunteers than they needed. A line of people four-deep wrapped around the block. It was the same thing at every hospital in the city. Crowds of people of every age and nationality patiently waiting for the chance to give up their very blood to help save lives. The radio in the pizza place tonight said there were too many people down at the site of the collapse -- every volunteer fireman within 100 miles, all trying to help. They are turning people away, but we still show up because we want to help. We are all trying to help. I passed a massive triage center today that had been set up on the Hudson River. A vast assemblage of ambulances were lined up outside, still and waiting, and there were medical personnel everywhere. But only medical personnel. Nobody in need of treatment was to be seen anywhere. A young doctor with tired eyes told me, "There are hundreds of doctors here, but no patients. We've been here all day, ready to help, but they just aren't finding survivors down there. Everybody's gone. All gone."
Gone, but not completely vanished. The mushroom cloud that covers the southern tip of my city? That's where all the people are. The countless thousands of them. Their lives and their souls and their dreams are hovering above us in a white cloud of dust, which was very difficult to distinguish this afternoon from all the other fluffy white clouds in the beautiful blue sky. Exactly the same color, exactly the same shape. Just a little bigger and a little closer to earth than the other clouds. A little closer to us. There has been a gentle southward breeze all day, taking it all out to sea. The air smelled like autumn tonight for the first time.
It is late now, almost dawn, and I should go to sleep. I don't know what more I can do tonight except what I have done all day -- continue to believe in God, continue to believe in New York City and to steadfastly refuse to hate. Something unthinkable has happened here to our humanity, but all I saw on the streets today was calm, compassion, perserverance and resolve. What I will try to remember most from September 11, 2001 is this moment. I was in line to give blood. Someone from the hospital came out and made a loud request that anyone with O-positive or O-negative blood would please step forward. "We need your blood," said the nurse. "We need you." The message shot back through the crowd and the masses stirred and from within the ranks of us emerged these universal donors. One at a time they pushed forward -- a young black man, a professional-looking Asian woman, an old man in a yarmulke, some hispanic students, a city bus driver, etc. With reverance, we all parted to let them pass. They seemed for that moment to be the most important people in New York City. They shared nothing in common with one another except the same blood. A blood that can save any life because it does not discriminate. A universal blood. What runs through their veins is our best and only hope. God bless them.
Please pray for peace.
I love you all,
©2001 Liz Gilbert
Liz Gilbert is the author of Stern Men.