Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years Ago

September 11

I was on the first real vacation I had taken in years, beginning with a trip to Northern California for the big outdoor art show in Sausalito over the Labor Day weekend. My stepdaughter Amy had a booth at the show, and I went with her and her husband Phil to stay in a sweet little in in San Rafael. During that leg of the trip I had managed to hook up with an old boyfriend, himself also single again, in San Francisco. He took me on a wondrous tour of the nighttime city -- wandering into haunts in Chinatown, catching the music in a great jazz club, and eating cioppino at a garlicky little restaurant.

I then went for a week with a friend I had known in junior high at the Organic School and had not seen since. Neil and her husband Neal -- yes, that's their names -- turned out to be delightful grownups, gourmets, nonconformists, and living in the Silverlake section of Los Angeles. They only had one car and they had no television set. They had a charming little storybook cottage with no pets except for the feral cats who lived in the backyard. Neil and I had been having one of the nice catching-up visits that old friends sometimes are lucky enough to experience. I was scheduled to fly back home through Pensacola on September 13.

On this morning five years ago Neil came in to wake me up at about six a.m. L.A. time. She told me of the terrible situation in New York. Remember, we had no tv to watch; she and Neal were listening to the radio. Then their friends began calling, realizing that they didn't have a television set, and thinking that would be the only way to learn about what was happening. Neal had worked at the World Trade Center only a few years before; he was beside himself with worry about friends. Neil and I worried about our own safety, and I knew there was no way I was going to fly back home in two days. But I wanted to get out of Los Angeles as soon as I could. Neil assured me that she had a sixth sense about these things and didn't think Los Angeles was going to be hit. Never mind that, no airport felt safe; I had to get home somehow.

Someone suggested the bus. Nothing sounded safer than a Greyhound Bus at that time, the big old lumbering behemoths that used to take me from Fairhope to Mobile on a Saturday afternoon to watch a movie. I knew it was going to be a hell of a ride from Los Angeles to Lower Alabama, but I cancelled the plane tickets and went to the bus station. Neil and I looked around and the little station looked clean and all but empty. This was going to be rather nice. I'd just get off when I got weary and find a nearby motel and get on the next bus going east when I got up in the morning.

Of course it was not that pat. The first bus from the clean little station took me to the main bus terminal in Los Angeles, which was teeming with humanity, and scared humanity at that. Luckily I had lived for 14 years in Manhattan and knew how to finesse myself to the head of a line while all the rest milled around looking confused. I felt a little guilty for that, but not much. I knew to pack a small carry bag with enough stuff to get me through three nights and check the big bag straight on through to Mobile. I got a decent seat and stayed on the first miserable bus for an hour or two and got off when it got dark, at the California border. I spent the night at a really cheap hotel, as if I weren't scared enough, had breakfast at daybreak at a nearby McDonald's, and watched a glorious sunrise on the next bus. And so it went. A tour of the Great American West, looking at sunrises and flags. Once a kid in uniform got on and sat next to me. I said to him "What are we going to do?" and he said, "Make a parking lot out of 'em." Bless his heart, I thought, he has no idea.

I went through Arizona and New Mexico, and then came Texas. Neil had packed a little food for me, and a bottle of water. She lent me two books to get my mind off things. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and The Liars' Club. Ya Ya worked best, it spoke of home, and supportive women, and an unrealistically competent heroine. I climbed into that book and stayed there the whole trip; I never did finish The Liars' Club, a far better book.

I stayed on the bus, sleeping through Texas, rather than prolonging the trip at that point. I did enjoy seeing familiar Southern scenery in Louisiana, marshes, bayous, and Spanish moss. I was getting toward home. I spent the night in a nice town, had one of the best breakfasts in my life, I'll think of the town soon. Most of it has since washed away in Katrina, but those people at the breakfast restaurant are still there; I know they are.

It was a sobering trip. I was glad to be home. People wonder what has changed now that everybody is saying that the world has changed. This is it: I have. The props were knocked out from under me and I am not the same person who went to that art show and heard jazz in San Francisco. Everything I do is tinged with the knowledge that this should not have happened, and that it happened because of mistakes our leaders had made, mistakes for which our country is responsible.

Unfortunately, since that day the mistakes have been compounded over and over until there is no longer much (if any)  credibility for our country's existence anywhere in the world. Those who say we need to wage more wars, do it better, stay the course, are just rationalizing the original error of our ways. I'm afraid there will be no way out in my lifetime, and no hysterical behavior on anybody's part is going to change a thing. All I can do is live my own life, feeling somehow apart from the country that raised me to trust it. Even the village that raised this child has become a place I don't recognize. If I can make my own space better by doing my best, all I can do is hope that it will have some effect on the betterment of others. That's fair enough.


Benedict S. said...

Great story, again. You've several times advised me about writing a book. I feel certain that this trip could be expanded into a book of at least 112 pages. Plenty opportunities there for humor, sympathy, and deep thinking. Hmmm. (Thinking now, searching for the title .....) AHA!!! "Travels With bin Laden" ... bound to sell on the title alone.

Finding Fair Hope said...

How about, A Trip with Usama? Suggestions, readers?

Benedict S. said...

Actually, the first thing I wrote was, "Travels with Osama," but that name sounds too much like the name of the junior senator from Illinois.

John Sweden said...

It was wonderful blog today and you are absolutely right all we can do is take care of our little corner of the world. In our peaceful ways just struggle to keep the local fires of civilization lit. In the end it is we the peace makers and those who beat their swords in plowshares that will be the ultimate winners. We have been consistently winning for over 3 million years. It just sad that there are those morons amongst us who continuously ignore the true lesson of history and need to be re-taught again, and again, and again, and again, that they are just plain losers.

By the way I think the title of your book could be "Osama's Driving the Buss" or "Excuse me Driver...I think you just passed never been to New York"

Robin said...

John S. We the peace makers??Since you didn't mention the UN then I figure you meant our military as peacemakers.

So, unless you are an advocate of world domination by superior military force, you need a UN to help make the
world understand your positions when they conflict with, or appear to be something they're not.

Bert Bananas said...

Fair Hope, I found your story a bit jarring because of the lack of commentary on the dialogues you could have/might have/did have on this three day journey. The only mention is the recounting of the man in uniform who didn't have a clue.

Were the conversations unpleasant? Was everyone more or less like the soldier, all blood-thirsty and thinking of revenge?

I see the competency of Humanity as being able to repeat itself endlessly. Beating swords into plough shares is a seldom followed byway that always followed by people beating plough shares into swords. There will always be people who want to be 'in charge.' And being 'in charge' means exercising power. And excercises in power are always followed for a desire for more power. There is to the abuses man is eager to inflict on others a sort of inevitability that mimicks the tides.

Joke: You might as well believe in the Second Coming of Christ as believe in the ability of man to be at peace with those he feels better/more powerful/more blessed, etc.

Lazthiests are cynically optimistic about being able to fly under the radar of other men's wrath.

John Sweden said...

I thought I'd share my thoughts at the time with you. This a letter I sent to our local news paper on the 15th of September 2001.

To the editor Götborgs Posten,

The thoughts and observations of a former New Yorker

This week I was brutally jolted back to the city of my birth and for over 48 years, the center of my life. As I sat watching the unfolding violence being directed at the defenseless secretaries, office workers, firefighters, emergency rescue personnel and others whose only offense was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the flood of images, emotions, and memories were totally overwhelming. I, like all New Yorkers, probably have a direct connection to someone now entombed in the rubble of the World Trade Center. For New York, despite its size is still a small town. A lifetime of living there invariably weaves one into a line of connection with thousands of others.

The first of many images to come into my consciousness was the image captured in the kitchen window of my mother’s apartment in Jersey City. It was situated directly across the Hudson River from where the twin towers of the World trade Center were being constructed. Because of a knee operation, I had to abandon my sixth floor apartment on 14th street, now the boundary line for the rescue efforts, to recover at her place. As the weeks passed, I watched them growing unrelenting upward, wondering how tall they would be. Now, I was watching them collapse, returning in a manner of seconds to the beginning of their journey skyward. As the second plane sliced through the south tower, I was struck with the memory of “Big Jack”, a big bartender, with whom I had worked. A construction worker, six feet five inches tall and 220 lbs, he was the size and stature of man I will always perceive to be necessary to construct such a structure. It would be his stories, of the challenges and dangers involved in his work, installing the huge elevators of the towers, which would bind me intimately and immediately, to the interior horror of sheared cables and trapped souls.

Over the years, I had many connections to the twin towers. They, like many buildings in a city of buildings, grew to become an intimate part of the lives of all New Yorkers. While I myself preferred the more intimate view from the Empire State Building, I escorted scores of friends and visiting relatives to the tower’s observation deck. I have served beers to a man who climbed the outside of the north tower. I have dined with dates, lovers and clients at the Windows on the World restaurant. I have participated in photo shoots in the plaza. In 1992, on one of the upper floors, I sat down with the management of the World Trade Center to discuss the possibilities of conducting an Art Therapy outreach program for the homeless who inhabited the lower basement levels of the structure. I was turned down because they feared I would attract more homeless into the area to do art. In the space of few hours, a horrible destiny has connected them all in a mind numbing crash of steel and concrete mixed with blood, bone and flesh.

The feelings, fears, apprehensions, memories, longings and loyalties that emotionally bind one to a particular place on earth have been washing over me in waves of anger, frustration and sadness. While anger against those who committed this senseless, barbaric and vicious act of violence is to be expected and justified, that anger needs to be sublimated into positive constructive action. I am frustrated. As I watch, the political leadership of the world prepares to pull out their guns for the big shootout at the OK corral. There is no talk of constructive action or sober reflection of the root causes of the acts. It is as if we have learned nothing and the thousands of deaths and events of past few days are just becoming a rallying call for more violence and more deaths. The sadness comes from realizing that their saber rattling and implied threats have already sentenced up to 5 million innocent Afghans to the possibility of death by starvation.

George Bush, Tony Blair, Nato leaders and a world of politicians have all used the words “civilized world”. Truly civilized people, don’t threaten to pull out guns for revenge and retribution. Civilized politicians, if they actually exist, will do the hard work of examining the total situation and honestly evaluating their own role as a contributor to violence directed against them. They would struggle to work in a peaceable and constructive manner to remove the root causes that give rise to that violence and provide real security to the people they profess to represent whether at home or abroad. They would not be preparing to fight the “first war of the 21st century”. Security cannot be brought with wars, guns, violence, retaliation and retribution. For fifty years, the Israeli’s and Palestinians have shown us it definitely does not work.

The government United States bears a huge responsibility for anger directed at it. It should be soberly and seriously rethinking the possibilities peaceful actions and positive engagement with its avowed enemies. If the self professed greatest nation on earth, in the face of its greatest tragedy, could for once rise to greatness and by example break the cycle of violence. That would be the real and courageous leadership of a truly civilized nation. It would be a big leap forward in creating a world that is actually civilized. It takes real courage to be men of peace when confronted violence. It’s time “to give peace a chance”.

I know that this is much to much to ask, even from New Yorkers. Maybe after the bloodletting has run its course.

John Sweden said...

Robin, Bite Me! For not naming every organization in the world devoted to making peace. I was referring to the specific personal aspects of ff’s blog. In my opinion, the current UN has become a corrupted (by the West) vehicle for peace and stability in the world, thereby making it ineffective and virtually incapable in fulfilling its potential as an organization. Having said that a UN is better than no UN and there is always a fairhope that with the demise of U.S. influence in world affairs it might once again become a way to peace and civilization for all the world's people.

Benedict S. said...

Great letter, John. I wish it could be read and understood by all the world's people.

Finding Fair Hope said...

More to John's point, I think, would be that it be read by U.S. government leaders. The world knows this about us; what we must do someday is look at ourselves, as John's chilling, "Maybe after the bloodletting is over," admonishes. Unfortunately it is not the people of America who are too dim to understand, it is that their leaders have become more and more proficient at the basic deception that is "advertising and public relations," fields in which John and I both have been engaged in the past.

I am afraid that the bloodletting will never be over. I was going to say "in my lifetime," but I know it is deeper than that; our sons are being conditioned in the ways that our fathers were, to believe that battle is the answer, revenge is the motivation, and through the essential evil of this, goodness (meaning our side, of course) will prevail.

Benedict S. said...

Miss FF: "...our sons are being conditioned in the ways that our fathers were, to believe that battle is the answer, revenge is the motivation..."

I read just this morning in The Nation that a Zoghby poll had shown that 85% of the soldiers in Iraq believe we are there to punish Saddam for his part in 9/11. The number was so high -- almost twice the national average -- that I wondered if the Army is not purposefully indoctrinating its recruits to that belief.