[This article, and its accompanying comments by Culture Catch writers and staff of the time, was originally published on 9/11/06.] One of my out-of-town friends recently asked me if I remember what I did five years ago to soothe my anxiety/disbelief/horror on that fateful morning. In the past, when faced with some sort of seemingly difficult emotional situation I would reach for a favorite piece of music or go see a silly movie to lift my spirits. I might have reached for John Hiatt's Bring the Family and let his cathartic roots-rock ruminations about life and family lift my spirit. Or slip on The Monkees' Greatest Hits and let the infectious sugar-coated pop-rock transport me to my childhood and right back to the knowing comfort of my mother's arms.
But that fateful morning there was no soundtrack to the tragic events that so quickly unfolded and changed the course of history. It began innocently enough. It was a beautiful late summer morning with just a hint of fall crispness in the air. I was getting my son ready for school when my neighbor Buff called me to tell me that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Towers. Initially I thought it was a small single-prop aircraft that must have had some emergency situation. Perhaps the pilot had a fatal heart attack? I flipped on the TV and didn't think too much about it, too absorbed in my new morning ritual of making Luca's lunch, brushing his teeth, combing his hair and getting him to school on time.
We dashed down the street and decided to pick up a bagel for him at our corner deli. The TV was on in the deli and a few customers stood watching the events unfold. Did anyone know what happened? No. Too much speculation. That's when I looked up from counting out my change for my son's bagel and watched the second tower explode. From the angle of the television coverage we were we watching, you didn't see another plane slam into it. I thought that perhaps the fire from the first crash sent an explosive fireball shooting into its twin tower. But it was still too soon before we would all come to understand what really did happen.
After calling my wife at work and talking to her about what we should do, we decided to send my son to school, as many of the children had already been dropped off. We would sort things out from there. Then the mighty Towers fell. I staggered back to our apartment. The city was deathly quiet. Suddenly two F-16s roared overhead, breaking the unearthly silence that blanketed one of the noisiest places on earth. I was paralyzed. I couldn't fathom what had just transpired a short hour earlier.
Amazingly I had I still had my Internet connection. Since our mobile phone and telephone lines were jammed, we couldn't reach any of our family and friends from around the country to tell them we were safe -- five miles north -- on the Upper West Side. I quickly sent out a flurry of emails to let everyone we were okay.
There was no Hollywood music soundtrack to play behind me. I didn't even think about music to soothe me. I was on autopilot. Then I just stopped and pushed myself away from my desk, stood up, and walked into Central Park. I found an empty park bench and just sat there in morbid silence as the jets made another futile sweep around our shattered island paradise.
I don't remember when I even played music for first time, or if I did for the next several days as New Yorkers pulled together to help each other climb out from the wreckage. Everyone knew someone who perished in the tragedy that day. My partner Richard lost his brother-in-law. Even if you didn't, you were still connected just by the sheer humanity of the collective grieving. Strangely, I've stayed away from the documentaries, movies, public and private eulogies for that day. Now when I look back, I reach for one song from an artist I had lost touch with so many years previous. His simple song pierces my emotional armor every time I hear it. I wept this morning when I played it, maybe five years of tears that I'd been storing up, so certain I would never let my guard down.
"My City's in Ruins" by Bruce Springsteen
His modern day gospel track, replete with church organ and full gospel choir, offers me solace and positive energy that we shall overcome, we shall rise up, we shall move on. We shall find a way to bridge the insanities that face our world on so many seemingly complicated levels. That we will be able to strip away our differences and find a way to unite all of our indifferences.
I'd like to encourage you readers to share your comments. What did you do the day America lost its modern day innocence? And how do you remember? Is there a song that soothes you? A poem perhaps? Maybe a quote from one of our great thinkers from days past? Or do you care not to remember at all?
Photo credit: Derek Jensen, 9/11/04.
Mr. Wright is a content creator and culture curator. He is a contributor to the Huffington Post, a DJ at David Lynch's Transcendental Music Radio, the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released four solo CDs and one with folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.
I watched it all happen on TV. My roommate and I both worked in the Wall St. area at that time, but I didn't have to go in until 10 AM and she had to be there before 9 AM. She called me to let me know that a plane had hit the WTC, this had messed up the subway, and "you might want to turn on the TV and see what's up before you try to come in." As a result, I was watching well before the second plane hit.
It infuriates me that even then, we were spending a huge percentage of our national budget on the military, but somehow it wasn't possible to scramble a jet in time to stop the second strike. It's not as though the FAA wasn't aware that multiple planes had been hijacked - I distinctly remember this being discussed before the second plane hit. I'm not into conspiracy theories, but there are some questions that still haven't been addressed, and it's not like this Presidential administration inspires trust.
My favorite musical response to 9/11 came from an unlikely source, a white blues guitarist/vocalist who until then had impressed me with his guitar technique but not with any emotional depth. But Popa Chubby's 2002 album The Good, the Bad, and the Chubby (Blind Pig) opens with the moving "Somebody Let the Devil Out." Chubby avoids potential pitfalls: He's not maudlin, righteous, jingoistic, or showily outraged. This New Yorker's lyrics paint a realistic picture of a common man's reaction to the terrorist attacks: he hears the news from his wife and watches TV to see what's happening; he takes his children out of school amid the smoke, lying to them that nobody can hurt them; he sees people of supposedly opposed religions crying together about the tragedy. Making it work musically is a more down-home approach than he'd used in the past, with wailing harmonica and slide on what sounds like a National Steel. This sound ties the song into the Delta blues tradition of singing about tragic community events such as floods and crop failures. There's no sense of a musician acting opportunistically, just a man responding with simple sincerity to something nearly beyond comprehension.
Operating on a much larger and more public scale, the New York Philharmonic commissioned a new work by John Adams, On the Transmigration of Souls, which was premiered in September 2002, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003, and was released on CD by Nonesuch in 2004. On the Transmigration of Souls is a bit under a half hour in length, but seems timeless. Partly this is the lack of narrative, partly Adams' shimmering music. Adams keeps things down to earth. There's an underlay of taped sounds: traffic and street noises, and a reading of names of victims. The texts sung by the two choruses (New York Choral Artists and Brooklyn Youth Chorus) are taken from the homemade posters for the missing that appeared on walls and lampposts in New York City in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster. The first word heard is "missing"; the first sung word is "remember." Short phrases, even single words, commonplace in themselves, are woven into a dignified, emotionally moving tapestry. The effect is often meditative, but the element of conflict inherent in the acts of violence that took the lives of those whose names are being heard, and about whom the choruses are singing, is depicted by dissonances in the orchestra, clanging bells, and recorded sirens just before the emotional climax at the screaming anguish of the words "I wanted to dig him out, I know just where he is." After that, dissonance gives way to darkly lyrical music that's more soothing, sympathetic without pretending to have solved anything.
This morning, on the way into school with my son, I was struck by the achingly blue early September sky. The same sky of five years ago. I looked up, to see if the gigantic white cloud was piercing it.
On the day, I did pretty much the same as Dusty. Dropped son off at school. Got call about plane. Figured it was a Piper. Went to work. Saw the smoke. Looked bigger than a Piper, but...
The thing that struck me, living through it, was the lack of knowledge. When you're in it, you don't know what's going on. You react. You act. The minute the first tower fell (on our office TV), I split. I walked down to Madison and 31st, stuck my hand up, and caught a cab -- people still didn't know what was going on. True, car radios were on, doors thrown open, there were news reports about a plane hitting the Pentagon too, but nobody could quite make sense of it and there were kids to pick up.
I told the taxi driver to take me to PS 9, collected my kids, and went home. Then we listened to the silence and tried to reassure the kids that everything was going to be OK. In many ways, we're still doing just that.
It took me three and a half years to go down and look at the hole in the ground. Every time I drive in on the Jersey turnpike I see the hole in the skyline. I used to visit clients on the 80th floor of Tower One all the time. Now that incredible view, that corner office, that once solid platform of steel is just a slice of air. A slice of air that hundreds of people fell through.
I don't need to be reminded of 9/11..
I remember leaving my apartment. The doorman told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Having some avaition experience, I looked up. The sky was blue. No clouds? How strange. Pilot must of had a heart attack. I walked few steps, then remember Buff, my brother in-law, worked in one of the Towers. I went back upstairs to find my wife drying her hair. I turned on the TV and saw the blaze. This was no small aircraft. I asked which Tower did Buff work in - one or two? I explained there was a fire. Tower two she said with confidence. Cricket each year had helped Buff find her sister birthday, anniversary and Christmas gifts. She's very detailed oriented. I knew she was right. Thank god, I thought. I knew anyone above that blaze in Tower One was in big trouble. Buff worked on the 105th floor in Tower Two. I yelled back to the bathroom, he's very lucky. At that moment, the second plane hit Tower Two.
For days, we searched the hospitals, posted photos at the armory and search the internet for others who might had been on that floor. His wife and daughter went on Fox and Friends hoping but knowing it was over.
My birthday is the 13th. I made a wish that he'd come home to a group of family and his friends in his home in Greenwich. Five days later they found his body. I told my 16 year old niece that I was sorry my wish hadn't come true. She replied, "It has, daddy is coming home."
Five years have past. I don't need to watch the documentaries or fictionalized movies. I lived through it once. My emotions are still very raw. You don't need to sratch very deep to get to my anger or my sadness.
Two years after 9/11, I was asked to go to Iraq to make a film to help support the development of the private sector. The film was to be used to help convince foreign investment. Iraq's democracy can not survive without a thriving economy.
Go to a war zone to make a government film? The risk? I have a wife and family that need me. Never in a million years would I have considered working in a war zone an option.
I went. My decision to go was based on wanting to help with the liberation in a very small way. Also, I wasn't covinced that the action we took was the right one. I had assumed that it was all about the oil, then thought, that's gotta be news hype. I had an opportunity to learn first hand what was going on in Iraq. I knew Bush's decision would have a big effect on the U.S over the next centrury.
I just finished reading Bremer's book on his year as administor of Iraq, My Year in Iraq. It brought back memories of my short stay. A very good read. Excactly how I remember what our government was doing for Iraq. The situation is very complex problem. I was overwhelmed by the effort. For those who have an opinion about our effort in Iraq, you need to read this book.
Looking back, I really think I went to Iraq because Buff had died. He woke up 9.11.01 at 5 AM, took the train to Wall Street, and died working at this desk. He was one of the good guys. A man with moral fiber that is very rare. I certainly don't have it. Nor do I know many who do. I, like my friends, come close, but we do not reach Buff's level.
I'm a believer that there's a reason for everything. If Buff's death results in the freedom of millions of Saddam's slaves, then perhaps that's the good that can come out of 9/11. Iraq's a hell hole today, but that will change. It's going to succeed because the Iraq people want freedom. The terrorist will fight a long battle, but won't win.
I have to believe that for my children's sake.
One of the better things on 9/11 I saw today was on msnslate.com: a graphic storyline rendering/overview of the event, the history that led up to it, etc. Even in comic-art form, certain panels were chilling.
The world our children inherit is a far more conflicted one than we knew as young people. As a parent, this concerns me, a futile, gnawing concern. The perplexing jumble of jihadism, imperialism, Judaism, Islam, oil, and terror has taken on a complexion too dark to fathom, too entangled to smooth out, seemingly via any means.
But on that morning, at home, 2,000 miles to the west, just awakened from my last pre-traumatized-by-9/11 sleep, gazing in disbelief at the screen, at the surreal smoking towers, I was twisted to the core. That was my home town, the vast construction site where the towers sprung up was a teenage destination/fascination point. Quite a jolt for an ex-New Yorker. The percieved permanence of concrete and steel so vulnerable. I watched in real time as a tower went down. It was the first time, still the only time, in my life I fell involuntarily to my knees. I donâ€™t need any documentaries, I donâ€™t need any docu-dramas, there is no analysis for the paralysis. We need peace, and there is no damn light at the end of this tunnel yet.