Beyond New York
This morning was the first time since the 11th that I can recall hearing a siren. That wasn’t the only noise.
The jackhammers started at about 7:30 am. I don’t think there’s any connection to the attack.
Our power company, Con Edison (or, as their web address so amusingly puts it, coned), used to have this slogan plastered all over their construction sites: “Dig We Must for a Better New York.” “Better” can be a synonym for “greater,” and “Greater New York” has been a synonym for the New York metropolitan area.
On Wednesday, we visited friends in Manhasset, a suburban community on Long Island. They told us about a memorial event they’d attended there. It wasn’t a memorial event being held in solidarity with those of us in the city; it was a memorial event for those residents of Manhasset who remain among the missing.
There doesn’t seem to be a suburban community in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut that does not number its residents among the missing; cars remaining in train-station parking lots serve as grim reminders. There are also names on the list of the missing from points beyond the tri-state area — even from quite a few countries outside the United States.
Prior to the attack, the worst disaster in New York City history had taken place on June 15, 1904. It was the fire on the General Slocum, a side-wheel excursion vessel carrying the congregation of St. Mark’s German Lutheran Church to their annual picnic on Long Island. More than a thousand died (at a time when the city population was only 3.5 million), and the neighborhood, Kleindeutschland, never recovered. St. Mark’s Church became a synagogue.
Few New Yorkers have ever even heard of the General Slocum. More are familiar with a pair of front pages or covers from the mid-1970s that seemed to characterize what was then the rest of America’s attitude towards New York and New York’s attitude towards the rest of America.
The first was the large front-page headline on New York’s tabloid Daily News on October 30, 1975, the day after President Ford said he would veto any bill to help New York out of its fiscal crisis. “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” The other was Saul Steinberg’s hugely influential New Yorker cover of March 29, 1976, “A View of the World from Ninth Avenue.” It showed a view to the west of few blocks of low Manhattan buildings, the Hudson River, a narrow strip of land representing the rest of America, more water, and, in the distance, the hills of China, Japan, and Russia.
Today, it seems we are all New Yorkers, and we are all Americans. Today, workers in Central Park are encircling every lamp post with red, white, and blue ribbons and a big white bow. Today, I received from the brother of a hero of the Pentagon attack a memorandum circulated to all in that damaged building.
It begins, “NYC Need Our Help! New York’s tourism has been particularly hard-hit… Four Broadway shows have announced that they will close by the end of the week and six other plays may be in trouble, a theater official said.” The Navy brass were organizing a mission to Broadway — at full-price tickets and hotel rooms. It probably sounds funny here, but my eyes welled up as I read the original message.
It is now 17 days since the attack. Under current law, Rudy Giuliani will remain mayor for another 94 days. Two of the major candidates for mayor, Michael Bloomberg and Mark Green, have reportedly gone along with the idea that Giuliani might continue for another 90 days, until April 1. The third, Fernando Ferrer, isn’t going along with it, which means there is a new issue for voters to consider in the primary runoff.
The mayor says the removal of the debris could go on for another year. That’s 365 days.
American flags appear everywhere here, which is unusual even on the 4th of July. Today I studied them.
Like many exposed to the counterculture of the ’60s, I have mixed feelings about the flag. But I recalled an incident that took place in Billings, Montana in 1993.
It was around the time of the Jewish holiday Chanukah. A Jewish family had stenciled a menorah (a ritual candelabrum) on the window of their five-year-old son’s bedroom. Someone threw a brick through it. The police recommended that the family take down its Chanukah decorations.
When Margaret McDonald read about the incident in the local paper, she tried to imagine being forced to explain to her children that they couldn’t have Christmas decorations because someone hated them. Instead, she started a campaign to get Christians to put Chanukah decorations in their windows.
Soon, between six- and ten-thousand homes around town sported menorah decorations. Alas, that didn’t immediately stop the violence. A Catholic high school with a “Happy Hanukkah to Our Jewish Friends” sign was shot at. Windows were broken at a Methodist church with a menorah; houses and cars with menorahs had their windows shattered. A cat at a menorah-bearing house was killed with an arrow. But the brave people of Billings kept displaying their menorahs, and the violence waned.
So, today I saw the American flags not as symbols of American might but as symbols of solidarity with those who were attacked. They are our menorahs. And I hope I can be as brave as the good people of Billings.