E-MAILS FROM MANHATTAN

E-MAILS FROM MANHATTAN

From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

E-Mails from Manhattan

On this Earth, though far and near, without love, there’s only fear.

Pearl S. Buck

September 11, 2001
A Tragic Day: The Walk Uptown

Probably more for my own sake than anything else, I wanted to try to describe this morning to you. My office is in the building of United Jewish Community and Jewish Education Service of North America, located at Fourteenth Street just a couple of subway stops before the World Trade Center. When I reached my stop at about 9:00 this morning, the first thing I heard was the announcement that there would be no connecting or continuing service: There was an emergency at the World Trade Center. Basically, get out. I walked up the subway stairs and smelled smoke but didn’t know why. By the time I got upstairs, officials at UJC were already gathering everyone in the conference room. The room was not filled, despite the hundreds of people who generally work on the floor. Many had seen the planes crash and had never come upstairs. Others were stuck on the bridges, tunnels and subways, all of which had already been shut down. They advised us that the Consulate had not closed and that UJC was also not going to evacuate. Together, we saw the flames from our windows. We recited a couple of psalms. We heard the leaders speak. We knew that many of the people in the room had family and friends working in the World Trade Center. Within five minutes, we heard of the collapse of the second building. And then we heard that the Pentagon was struck. And finally, we heard that the Consulate had closed and we should leave the building.

But there wasn’t really anywhere to go. Those who came in from outside of the city were stuck, and even those from within the city were without public transportation. Outside, the streets were filled with everyone from the surrounding buildings. Traffic was stopped. Smoke filled the air. And the sirens blared.

So I started walking, along with most of the other residents of Manhattan. During my four-mile walk, I noticed the different tones emerging from downtown to midtown and finally to uptown. The sea of people for the first mile might be indescribable. The mood was quiet, actually. Some people were speaking softly to each other, most were on their cell phones, and then they lined up at pay phones once the cells were no longer working. It seemed like most of the callers were telling family and friends that they were okay. My calls were to people who were not downtown—trying to find people calmer than me to tell me what to do next.

At midtown, people were gathered around stores and parked cars that had news radio shows playing loudly. The phone calls took on a different tone: People were searching for friends and family. From block to block I heard, “I don’t know which building he works in,” “I don’t know if she went to work today,” “I can’t find him.” And still, “I don’t know where to go” and “I can’t get home.” It seemed to me that people were walking more quickly past popular buildings, not wanting to be near a potential target. Amazing, really, how quickly your mind-set can shift. I saw types of emergency vehicles that I had never seen before. All of them had sirens, and all the sirens blared.

Uptown, there were far fewer people. Anyone now on pay phones was yelling at operators, trying to find loved ones, able to get fewer and fewer dial tones. Mostly, the people on the streets were parents picking up their kids from schools that had decided to close for the day. The conversations now were mothers trying to answer the unanswerable questions of their young children. “Why aren’t I in school?” “Did people die?” “What happened?” And even uptown, “Why are there so many sirens?”

I’m in my apartment, with my roommates, watching the same news coverage as all of you. We have found most of the people we were most worried about and probably can’t fathom the hundreds of people we should be worrying about—all of you, your friends and family, parents of schoolchildren, spouses of coworkers, people who may have been on those airplanes. We appreciate that so many of you have called (or tried to call) here. I’ll send this message as soon as I can, but our phone service is sporadic and outgoing calls have been difficult. For those of you we haven’t been able to call back, know that we’re okay—just can’t get a dial tone.

More than anything, I hope this message finds you safe and that those closest to you are well.

Love,
Meredith

September 12, 2001
The Next Day

The news coverage is endless, and the stories are many, but writing to all of you is helping me to process and to stay connected to everyone.

The volunteer efforts of New Yorkers have been astounding. Red Cross centers have actually had to turn people away, asking them to come back later or tomorrow, pleading with them not to forget that in two weeks this will still be a tragedy that needs their attention.

My friends and I started walking towards Red Cross at 3:00 yesterday afternoon, not yet prepared to take public transportation (only buses were running). We picked up other friends along the way, teachers who had been in their classrooms all day and had only heard bits and pieces of what was going on. We told them to walk with us, and we’d talk on the way. We returned home five and one-half hours later, not having been able to give blood—they couldn’t possibly process all of the donors that were lined up. We were quickly interviewed to become volunteers, and soon after we became experts in conducting that same interview process. As a social worker, I waited to hear where they wanted to send the mental health professionals. Some were sent to the site of the towers to talk to rescue workers, others were bussed to morgues, and still others were sent to shelters. My roommate got on a list to watch after kids whose parents had not yet been found.

I spent today at Channel 13 with about sixty other mental health providers, probably none of whom felt prepared for our task. The television had donated space and phones to allow the Red Cross to run a missing persons hotline. It looked like a telethon, reversed. The phones rang nonstop as we wrote down the names of the people called in as missing. Later, I switched roles and called families. I had to quickly squelch their optimism of hearing from a Red Cross volunteer and let them know that I had no new information. I needed more details from them. “Are you sure they were in their office?” “Do you know what they were wearing?” “Are there any distinguishing dental features . . . scars . . . tattoos?” And the responses: “He works on the 104th floor and wears a silver chain.” “She has a tiny scar on her right cheek.” “She was at Windows on the World.” “He was working on the roof.” “She’s a single mother—please find her.” Children screaming in the background. Parents crying. “How old is your fiancé?” “. . . your brother?” “. . . your daughter?” Twenty-six. Twenty-four. Thirty-one. “His wife is stuck in Paris. Can you get a government plane to get her home?” I can’t do anything. You know more than I do. I haven’t even seen the news today.

My last call was to a twenty-six-year-old woman who has a voice like me. She is missing her fiance, whom she described while she looked at his picture. She told me what he was wearing based on what she knew was not in his closet. “He only has one brown pair of shoes and they’re not here,” she told me almost laughing. “He was so handsome,” she said. He worked on the 101st floor. She knew he was in his office. He brought his breakfast to work. That was my last call—I couldn’t hear another story.

My roommate is volunteering the night shift tonight, delivering food and blankets to the rescue workers on site. They’ve been detained, though. Buildings are still falling.

I think it’s important to tell the stories. These people have already died for nothing. Thank you for all of your messages. Everyone here is gathering together, taking care of each other in order to balance the difficulty of taking care of ourselves. We are grateful that we are all still here.

Love,
Meredith

September 13, 2001
The Best and Worst of Humanity

I left the phone hotline last night thinking that I was going to return this morning, or at least go back to the Red Cross to find out where they needed people today. By the end of last night, although day and night distinctions have become blurred with on-call volunteerism and night-long shifts, I recognized that I wouldn’t be able to handle two consecutive days. I was comforted by the absolute certainty that there would not be a hole because of my absence—quite the opposite, people here are itching to volunteer. When turned away at 7:00 in the morning, they return at noon. If space is full at noon, they go back at 6, prepared to work through the night, knowing that the next shift will probably begin at midnight. For many, the opportunity to deliver bottles of saline solution or water, or to buy groceries for drop-off sites is what they need to feel like they are helping. We all feel helpless and need to find ways to fill the days. Nobody is looking to be a hero—everyone I know realizes when they need a break.

What can I say about Manhattan right now? The pace of the city has changed. Everyone is moving slowly, quietly, often with dazed looks on their faces. People sitting by themselves on buses spontaneously break into tears. More stores were open today, and friends were able to gather at Starbucks and restaurants, most of which had been closed for the previous day and a half. The only conversations are those of the tragedy. My roommate and I sat outside and told each other we could only talk about unrelated topics. We found ourselves sitting in silence, listening to the tales of those around us.

Most people I know sleep limited hours, keeping the television on, with friends at each other’s apartments and the smell of smoke wafting through our buildings even on the Upper West Side. We remind each other to turn off the news, to take a break, to go outside, to eat. We keep track of where our friends are going, who they are with, when they’ll be back. We have somehow managed to break down at different times, at one point offering support and at the next point getting the support. My extended circle of friends has been extraordinarily lucky. None of us are missing, nobody close to us is gone. Everyone knows someone with a story of having been late to work on Tuesday. It feels like everything here has turned into a shelter. People are sleeping on the field at Shea Stadium. Battery Park City, a neighborhood between Wall Street and the river that borders Manhattan, has been completely evacuated. We heard they were brought to New Jersey. We don’t necessarily think we’re in danger, but as New Yorkers the sirens that we once learned to ignore suddenly make us jump.

A flag hangs from the doorway of our building. On either side of my apartment (7C and 7E) we have representations of the best and the worst. On our left is the third grader whose class is making sandwiches for the rescue workers tomorrow. Their goal is to reach one thousand. But on our right, two women are missing their roommate. She worked on the 104th floor of Tower One.

Things are not going to return to any type of “normal” for quite some time, and we pray for even one more missing person to be found alive. As I was talking to someone about tonight, each of us is dealing with this in our own way, and we each have our own way of thinking about the events of this week. My messages to you are just one person’s perspective, and I thank you for allowing me to process it in this form.

Best wishes for a peaceful New Year and a Shabbat Shalom.

Love,
Meredith

October 12,
2001 A Memorial

Last night I went to a commemorative memorial which, upholding the Jewish tradition of shloshim, marked thirty days since the attack on the World Trade Center. About seven hundred people gathered at this particular memorial on the Upper West Side, a service that brought together rabbis from Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, and united all of my friends and neighbors, who are usually spread out over the plethora of shuls that the West Side has to offer. For more than two hours, the rabbis and community leaders spoke, offered prayers, eulogized their lost congregants and paid tribute to the heroes of September 11, the ideals of America and the strong spirit of New Yorkers.

As I sat there wondering how much more the American psyche can withstand, I was struck by an intense challenge we are facing: the constant tug of opposites.

In my first e-mail to all of you, I wrote of the blaring sirens I heard throughout the walk from downtown to uptown. I couldn’t help but think of them again last night—this time not because of the noise, but because of the piercing silence in the room. Each rabbi spoke and sat down, and in between each there was nothing but silence. Several things were palpable: the tears falling down almost everyone’s cheeks, people looking around the packed room toward their friends for comfort, relief of seeing acquaintances we never thought to worry about, the solemn prayers of the rabbis, the touching words of community leaders and the silence. And then we heard from a firefighter, who wanted this job ever since he was a little boy. He lost two of his closest friends one month ago, and after he spoke about them and the people who do this every day, he said sweetly, “Next time you see a fire truck, smile and wave, and say a prayer.” All of a sudden, our silence became a thunderous applause and a standing ovation. The contrast was startling, overpowering, remarkable.

Two days ago we celebrated Simchas Torah. Usually on that night we get to feel like we’ve taken over the city. The police close off about twelve blocks of West End Avenue, we dance in the streets, we run into just about everyone we’ve ever met. A couple of weeks ago we were told that there would be no outdoor celebration, so we coordinated with our closest friends and decided which synagogues and apartment parties we would meet up at. We didn’t compromise our spirit for this night that comes once a year. We put aside our sadness, ignored our emotions, took a break from our World Trade Center conversations, and, well, drank until we were free to dance and smile and laugh and remember what our New York lives were like until a month ago. Two days later, just as quickly as we had created that mood for Simchas Torah, we found ourselves back in the midst of memorials, missing persons posters, vigils, banners, flags and the eerie calm of the city that used to be anything but.

We promise that we are moving on with our lives—that things are getting back to normal—and we know that neither is true. We feel the tug of opposing forces, of mutually exclusive emotions, of our strong ability for, and our strong resistance to, compartmentalizing our experiences.

It’s a strange new way to live, but I guess all over the country we each look for the good and attempt to strike our own balance.

Shabbat Shalom.

Meredith Englander

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