LONG-DISTANCE CALL

LONG-DISTANCE CALL

From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

Long-Distance Call

The power to unite is stronger than the power to divide.

From an AT&T commercial after September 11, 2001

To say that the events of September 11 changed the world forever is a gross understatement. For many of us adults who had never lived through a war fought on our own soil, it brought home to us our own vulnerability. For our children, September 11 meant fear and the certain knowledge that there was indeed the most heinous kind of evil in the world. I was saddened by my newfound knowledge and angered by my children’s loss of innocence.

I watched the images of the World Trade Center collapsing from my home in Chicago. Like everyone else, I was stunned and horrified. But my friend Sharon and I had one more reason to be fearful. Both of us have children at school in New York City. When we were finally able to reach them and were assured they were safe, we hugged each other and cried. Still, both of us heard the fear in our children’s voices. As mothers separated from our kids, we ached to reassure them. We couldn’t. But one evening as I sat in Sharon’s kitchen, she and I learned that sometimes the comfort our children need can come from others.

Sharon was making iced tea. The weather had been unseasonably warm in Chicago. It was hot in New York also as I knew from a conversation I had with my daughter, Rachael, earlier that day. Sharon’s phone rang. It was her son, Jake, and thinking that I would enjoy hearing the conversation, Sharon put him on the speakerphone.

But Jake’s voice quavered as he said, “Ma, we’re in trouble.” I reached over to take Sharon’s hand.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“We’re in Harlem. Our bus broke down. We’re at 135th Street and Amsterdam.”

Jake attends Yeshiva University, an all-male college for Orthodox Jewish boys all the way north in Washington Heights. Stern college, Yeshiva University’s sister school, is located in midtown Manhattan. The schools provide a shuttle bus so the kids can get together. Typically the boys go to the girls’ school because there is so much more for them to do in Midtown.

For the most part, the YU boys had never had any problems with other racial or ethnic groups and were used to traveling freely throughout the city. After September 11, we wanted our kids, as Mayor Giuliani said, to go back to living their lives normally. This meant not being afraid to take the bus into Midtown on a warm summer night to visit friends.

But now Jake was telling his mother that the bus had broken down in the middle of Harlem. To make matters worse, the electricity in the area was on back-up and few stores along Amsterdam were lit. For all that we teach our kids not be prejudiced, when Jake said that a group of about twenty black youths had begun to circle the bus, we were scared.

The bus driver had already called for another bus and notified the police. But the New York City police had their hands full with a city in turmoil. And no crime had been committed.

Sharon and I looked at each other, imagining the scene. She told Jake to keep the doors and windows locked and to wait. She wouldn’t let him hang up. We could hear sounds in the background. The Harlem boys were shouting for the Yeshiva boys to open the doors and come out.

“It’s so hot in here, Mom.” Jake said. “I don’t know how much longer we can stay holed up in here.”

Eight hundred miles away and only connected by a cell phone, we weren’t much use to her son.

Then Jake said, “Ma, one of those kids went and got a lady from one of the buildings. She’s coming over. Wait. . . . She’s yelling for us to come out.” At this point, Jake must have held the phone out so Sharon and I could hear. Sharon’s face broke into a wide grin.

“You boys come outta there this minute. Ain’t you got no sense? It’s a hundred degrees in there. You get yourselves out here and into that drugstore and get yourselves a drink this minute!”

We recognized that tone! We had used it ourselves many times. It was an order any mother would give to a stubborn child!

“Jacob! You do just what she says. And let me talk to her,” Sharon said decisively.

Then that mother’s voice said, “This here’s Bessie. I’m Duane’s mama. Duane and his friends was trying to get your boys outta this hot bus. They need to go stand inside where it’s cool and get theyselves a soda. What’s the matter with them? Ain’t they got good sense?”

Sharon laughed softly, “Evidently not, Bessie.” She paused. Then she said, “I’m sorry, Bessie. The boys were scared. They thought your son and his friends would hurt them.”

Bessie didn’t answer right away. But, I could hear a long exhale. Then her voice cracked a little as she said, “We can’t be thinking like that. They’s plenty of folks who want that; they’s crazy folks in this world. Here comes your boy. They got some soda pop. . . . Mama? You take care, now, hear?”

We heard. We heard New York City turn into a small town where mothers looked after each others’ children, chastising them when they needed it; where a group of white Jewish boys and a group of black Harlem boys became just boys enjoying a soda together on a street corner on a hot summer night.

September 11 changed the world forever. New York City and all Americans experienced the worst trauma, the worst horror imaginable. It sickened us all.

That night, at 135th and Amsterdam, a few of us began our recovery.

Marsha Arons

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