I've suffered some more personal losses lately than the grand-scale tragedy that weighs upon us now. In August, I lost a dear friend to cancer. Just three weeks later, my own mother succumbed to the same horrible disease.
But in many ways, New York City has always been like a second mother to me. She's nurtured my photography and art, influenced my thoughts and philosophies, inspired my imagination and helped form my political ideals. Now a cancer has struck her, too, and I pray it's not fatal.
So this journey is a pilgrimage home, to sit face to face with friends and family, away from the politicians and media pundits who keep trying to tell me what, when and how I should feel, how America should feel. My mother is hurting, and I need to be with her, to stand wrapped in her steel and concrete arms and cry.
The Cincinnati airport is a virtual ghost town compared to the bustling center of activity it would normally be on any given business day. But this isn't business as usual.
Friends looked at me askew, with concern in their eyes, when I told them I was flying to NYC. I figured flying must certainly be safer now than it's ever been, though it took me only a scant few minutes to pass through security, even with carry-on bags. That left me with quite a bit of time on my hands, having arrived, as suggested, two hours early for my flight.
I could not help but scan the faces of fellow travelers in search of suspicious behavior. What does a terrorist look like anyway? Apparently they think they know in Minneapolis. The woman sitting next to me informed me that a plane full of passengers there refused to fly with three men of Iraqi origin. The airline eventually removed the men from the flight.
My advice to everyone is to get in an airplane and fly somewhere. Empower yourself. The industry is laying off hundreds of thousands because terrorism is working and people are afraid to fly. The trickle-down effect on our economy is only beginning to be felt. Everything is interconnected, and everyone will suffer from the effects of this fear.
As we prepared for take-off, passengers looked nervously around. Then, as the flight attendant began to run through safety procedures, an interesting thing happened. For the first time in all my flying experience, people actually paid attention.
I'd been in close contact with friends in New York ever since this horrid disaster occurred. Surely the country, the entire world in fact, has looked to NYC, the great epicenter of this tragedy, as a model for response and reaction. But besides rescue workers and politicians and dump trucks scrawled with the word "Revenge", the media has reported very little of how the people of this brave city feel. Is this a city crying for blood or a city that's just crying?
Things were slow at Kennedy airport, too. My cab driver, Cherry Erwich, was well aware of the trickle-down effect on the economy. "Usually I wait here 10 or 15 minutes for a fare at most," he said. "Now there are times you can wait for hours.
Everyone's pocketbook will eventually be affected by this."
As we approached the city, I caught sight of the skyline for the first time. Nearly two weeks later and a faint smoldering smoke still rose from the void where the imposing towers once stood.
I met my friend Steve in the East Village. He'd been at his girlfriend Monica's apartment on Sullivan Street, just walking distance from the towers, the morning of the attack. "We awoke to the sound of the first crash," he told me. "At first I thought it was some huge car accident."
They soon learned otherwise, watching in horror as events unfolded. "Monica owns the Sullivan Street Bakery just around the corner. We ended up there, not knowing whether or not to stay open. We finally sent the staff home and just began giving the bread away."
Monica was struck by the way the community came together. On day two she met the Iranian restaurant owner from around the corner. "He wanted to know if I was opening or not," she said. "He planned to give out free dinners that night and wanted to know if I could provide the bread. This was a guy I never thought really cared very much."
"Soon enough," Steve said, "there was just too much help. Everyone wanted to do something."
Steve and Monica continued to feed people, making sandwiches for the rescue workers and people left in the neighborhood. "We just thought, if this is the end of the world, how can we best live this moment? You focus on your life and say, 'Well, what's needed here?' "
Once the police and military had sealed off the area, the line was drawn as far north as 14th Street. People needed to make choices. If they left, they weren't allowed back in.
"One of the stories being lost here is the homeless," Steve said. "Thousands of people suddenly have nowhere to live. Even if your building is structurally sound, the air near ground zero is unbreathable."
Besides those without homes, tens of thousands were suddenly without work, their careers lying under a pile of twisted iron and pulverized concrete. The night I arrived we walked up to Union Square Park on 14th Street. Probably because this was where the original security line was drawn, the park has become a living, evolving shrine to the victims and a center for prayers and vigilance.
I saw people with many different agendas, from born-agains to communists, Buddhist monks to Scientologists, hippies to hard-core punk rockers. But mostly I just saw people who came to shed a tear, light a candle and say a prayer for peace.
The call for peace was rather pervasive here. Peace signs and words of love were all about, woven between the photographs and shrines to the missing. As America postured and readied for war, President Bush seemed convinced Americans can "stomach" the actions he feels we must take. The view from here told otherwise.
Said one man at the park, "They want you to believe that if you're against war, you are somehow un-American, a coward. But that's just not true."
The media was working hard to create an America united in its resolve to take military action against a vaguely identified aggressor. But as the president struggled to secure a coalition of world powers in his bid for war, another kind of coalition was forming.
On Sept. 22, the NYC Direct Action Network sponsored the symposium, "Vision and Resistance: Where Do We Go from Here" at Charas, a school-turned-community center on the Lower East Side. I attended a workshop on organizing across race lines, but workshops were offered all day on the history of U.S. imperialism, the Middle East and Afghanistan, and U.S. anti-war movements. It was standing-room-only, with people spilling out into the hallways. I could only assume the other workshops were equally well attended.
From Charas, I made my way across the East Village, drawn back toward Union Square like iron to a magnet. On my way I passed the Islamic Council of America, a lone police car keeping a quiet vigil just across the street. A few angry placard-toting patriots gathered here soon after the attack, but saner neighbors sent them home without much struggle.
On 14th Street I stopped at Engine Co. 5, just two doors down from where I used to live. These guys would have come if my apartment were burning, so it felt good to give my donation directly to them. The firemen here told me they lost two from their company and didn't know a firehouse that hadn't lost someone.
When I reached the park, I found everything was new in the daylight. Flowers and pictures and candles were literally being added by the second. The time lapse photography would look amazing.
There were perhaps 2,000 people here, but it was a migrating crowd and this shrine could have easily attracted as many as 30,000 per day. Buddhist monks chanted and prayed, Hari Krishnas sang and swayed, and Christians, Muslims, Jews, pagans and communist atheists all seemed bent on a heartfelt desire for peace.
A man in hat and tie nervously began talking on the steps. Obviously upset with what he was witnessing, his words came out in short staccato bursts that soon increased in volume until he was shouting in anger. He held flyers in his hands that asked, "Who is Jesus?" and accused the crowd of lying down when we must stand up and fight.
People widened their path around him, and no crowd gathered to hear him speak. It seemed the other Christians among us had already asked themselves the question, "What would Jesus do?"
Members of the anti-war coalition A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) arrived at the park and started handing out leaflets about the National March Against War and Racism in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 29. The group was being organized through the International Action Center, founded by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark (for more information visit www.iacenter.org).
Away from the park, friends seemed optimistic in spite of the impending war. Author Sarah Schulman saw this time to be full of creative possibilities. "A great void has been created, and we have the opportunity to fill it with good and wonderful things," she said. Steve and Monica echoed the sentiment. They're encouraged by the way New Yorkers have shown themselves to be the best kind of neighbors, though no one pretends the road from here won't be a difficult one.
Saturday night pulled me back to Union Square one more time. Again the shrine had evolved and grown. Heated discussions sprang up as people debated the pros and cons of war on the steps to the park. Lines were being drawn in America.
President Bush has made it clear to the world that "if you ain't with us, you're agin us," but it's clear the American people themselves are divided around this issue. A crowd gathered as people shouted out their point of view, believing perhaps that the loudest opinion must be the correct one. Yet the whisper of peace still remained at the end of the day.
As I traveled back to Cincinnati, I began to wonder what my journey accomplished. I saw old friends and touched home ground and was in turn touched by what I witnessed.
War is as certain as the sunrise, but I never thought my journey could change that. Yet perhaps it's what we do in the face of war and in spite of war that's most important. Loving and caring for one another is a start. Extending that love to our enemies might be an end.
In the Sunday morning world of a half-filled airport, I watch the still beauty of a group of Orthodox Jews saying their prayers toward the rising sun. I can only trust their prayers are the same as mine. ©
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