On this day of remembrance, only the most unaffected among us can help but reflect on where they were and how time in our minds has forever been cleaved into two parts: before the morning of September 11th, 2001 and after.
Like everyone old enough to retain a memory of that day, I have very distinct memories of where I was (on the Metro North train heading to Grand Central Station) and how the day unfolded. (I was lucky and never made it into the City).
As indelible are the memories of that day--making it home after a time to the juxtaposition of my then six-month old beamish boy Taylor and the images that repeated on the television screen--what I think of more is the night before the world changed.
My friend Peter Frishauf invited me to see Les Paul perform with his trio at one of his weekly gigs at the Iridium. I had to go uptown from 42nd street and got caught in an flash downpour that made every cab in Manhattan vanish, leaving me to walk about 10 blocks. My umbrella was no match against the torrent, the rain bouncing up from the ground to leave me completely drenched. But even that was a treat as it gave me an excuse to trade my sopping wet dress shirt for a Les Paul t-shirt.
The show was remarkable in so many ways - Les' obviously arthritic hands couldn't play some of the furious riffs of his former years, but his gift for music was still undeniable. Even more, the field of musical gravity that pulled talent from the furthest reaches into his orbit. More than one famous rocker was in the audience that night, there to pay him homage, which he repaid by handing over his guitar and letting them sit in. Suddenly this big, bearded rock star turns into a little boy who has just been handed Superman's cape by the Man of Steel himself and told to try it on for size. I thought he might cry. Instead, he played it with reverence and skill--like the little drummer boy, repaying a gift he had been given with every ounce of his being.
It was an exhilarating, cathartic experience. One that provided profoundly needed perspective for what followed.
My strongest memories of what followed are from the Friday of that first week--my first day back at work in Manhattan. No one worked, really. We all spent time making sure that everyone was okay and keeping mindful of the continuing uncertainty of when and where the other shoe would drop. Grand Central Station had dramatically changed. Before 9/11, it represented to me the left ventricle of the world, where hundreds of thousands of people of all colors, shapes and dress traversed each day, pulsed with energy that seemed to flow from sheer momentum to the farthest corners of the world. Now it was a terrorist target, crawling with heavily armed police and soldiers and surrounded by large military trucks to protect it against bombs or chemical attack.
Since there wasn't much in the way of real work to do, I decided to venture out to see how close I get to ground zero on foot. I had been to the World Trade Center many times, taking my nephew to the observation deck just a month before and attending a two-day conference at the Windows of the World about a month before that. But I had didn't have any true perspective on how close it was from my daily grind.
So I started walking south. The first thing that struck me was how the character of New Yorkers had fundamentally changed. These people notorious for being abrupt and avoiding eye contact with strangers, were purposefully looking directly into one anothers' eyes. "Are you okay? Really, are you? I'm here for you" were the unspoken words exchanged.
Walking through Greenwich Village and Washington Square was perhaps the most surreal part of the journey. The candlelight vigil that had spontaneously formed that first night in the square had grown into an organic memorial of remembrance. And the Village, known more for its only-in-the-Big-Apple unique form of rebelliousness that was distinctly American but hardly patriotic, was shrouded in more American flags than I could possibly count.
But my first true sign that we would rise from the ashes of this tragedy came at the end of my journey: Houston Street, where a makeshift plywood barrier had been erected that kept all but those involved in the rescue and recovery efforts. There was a carnival of humanity--people milling about slowly, some still clearly in shock, others moving more purposefully. Within this milieu was an unmistakable sign of hope--just three days after this day of unimaginable horror, enterprising merchants had already created buttons and t-shirts commemorating the day. My favorite was one had been created in such haste that the grammar wasn't even correct: "I Survive the Attack" it read.
On further reflection, though, I decided that the use of the present tense was more reflective of our true condition. We do survive the attack and continue to persevere as Americans and as world citizens. Even now, as the long-term repercussions of that fateful day continue to make casualties of our economy, our soldiers and our psyches, we endure.
After 9/11, I wrote "United, We Stand"--one of my Infinite Poetry pieces--as a reflection on the day. You can find a hastily constructed video and recording of the song that I wrote several years later on YouTube. It says simply:
...United, we stand
Standing, we rise
Rising, we soar
Soaring, we're free
Free, we unite
United, we stand...
Beginning as it ends, it is designed to continue on in a virtuous cycle that reflects our better selves as Americans. It is this aspect of the American spirit that I continue to strive to emulate. Even in the face of challenge and even decline, we can remain true to what has made us a great nation and people--our unity, our perseverance, and the freedoms we enjoy, which make it all possible.
Spending that night before the world changed with good friends, a soaked shirt, and Les Paul, continues to inspire me to live my life in a manner honoring the spirit of that night and I am ever grateful to have had that special moment.