Never Forgeting

September 18, 2009

Never Forgetting

Never Forgetting











9/11/09.  Today, just as I did nine years ago, I had lunch with my friend Rosalinda. We had been at an all day data entry training for a system that has since gone obsolete. We had lunch at a restaurant that has since changed hands. We decided to opt for a final bit of civility in the face of what then seemed like the morning of Armageddon. I called my wife and filled my gas tank on my way home. Two time zones away panic was drifting west. The President had disappeared, the Vice President was removed to a secret bunker. Smoke billowed and billowed on television. Planes were crashing in New York, Washington, Pennsylvania. They would be falling here soon, crashing into more buildings. No one knew anything useful, except that every plane everywhere was landing and every flight was cancelled. Acting as normal as I could seemed the most natural course to me.

I went home. Carol, my wife, was already home. Two old friends, Drew and Michael, called within the next hour. Their flights to and from somewhere else had been grounded. They were coming to stay with us—it was both a comfort and the first real connection to the reality of the bombings. Until then it was only another television faux catastrophe. When we sat in the living room watching the buildings burn and collapse again and again on our own television, it seemed more real. Tired and confused TV voices kept talking.  Our friends arrived and we had dinner, then sat in the den watching the dark images and  imagining the near future. It seemed to me like the opening scene of a play where a few characters would say something prescient then credits would roll over us, we’d fade to black and then ten years later would appear.

My two friends and I had been making prudent bets on a long roll of middle class fortune. We’d graduated college, hadn’t been arrested, drafted or shotgun married. The worst jobs we’d ever had were summer and temp  jobs while we were waiting for a career. Drew and I were college roommates, Michael and I had run marathons together. We were there for the birth of one another’s children. We had, as many of our contemporaries, quietly prospered in the relative peace that followed the Viet Nam War. We had grown accustomed to a military mostly relegated to squandering money and limited incursions.

As the information came out, despair grew as the confusion and panic settled to a steady boil. The peaceful aspirations of many reasonable people were nearly fatally damaged by the time we finished dinner. “The Dogs of War are loose now.” “No one’s going to stop the military boys from doing anything they want.” The last illusions of control were slipping away from our dreams of a peaceful world of free trade and open society. The Baby Boomer luster seemed to be dulling. All sorts of dreams were diving and twisting. Where this was going to end was nowhere good for anyone concerned.


One summer’s night when I was eleven years old, Vince De Niro was killed by a gangland bomb in Youngstown, Ohio. Ten blocks away the explosion shook me awake. My family piled into the car and drove up Market Street to see. Every store window was shattered. His car looked like one of the unfinished model cars kits I left in the basement. The fire department was still hosing down the smoking chassis. Maybe we saw a partial corpse, maybe we didn’t…I believed I did, at least in my dreams. My hometown had armed gangs of thugs who operated as private militias for criminals.

People learned to develop their private myopias to negotiate the daily corruption and intimidation. Hardworking people who went to church together, paid their taxes, sent their sons to the army and somehow expected they’d be protected from racketeers, or at least left alone.  Everyone I knew was somehow related to a mobster, it was a way of marking of status. Everyone also knew the price of those relations was silence, the silence that signifies. It’s a standard rule of classic organized terrorism that has grown in the void of post feudal societies.

 From 1950 to 1966 there had been 75 bombings and 11 other “unsolved” murders in the little city where I rode the bus to school. Local terrorists donated windows to churches, paid off every bookie bet, occasionally provided merchandise at fell-off-the-truck discounts and tipped lavishly. In exchange they were allowed to destroy a city bite by little bite from a couple of nondescript office buildings, dingy cocktail lounges and a few Italian restaurants with excellent veal. Every padded contract, skimmed union fund, bribed official, standing crap game, theft, and loan was negotiated with a real threat of death. People could be beaten, disappear or exploded. In spite of the fact that these criminals had houses in the suburbs, rolls of ready cash and dressed in expensive clothes, they were brutish uncivilized men.

Civility creates cities; terror creates ghosts and ghost towns.

 So what am I supposed to never forget about 9/11?

 That gangsters can attack any country? That simple people can persevere in all manner of chaos?  That anyone can be killed?  That innocence is relative?   That no place is genuinely safe?                                                                                     

That civility that must function under the threat of violence and death is not merely  a romantic gesture?

That violence unchallenged creates  spiraling strings  of chaos?

That a bombing is a public statement more than a mere cold blooded murder?

That criminals remain criminals regardless of what religion they masquerade under?

That what seperates us from criminals isn’t a moral imperative, but our behavior.

That any dream or nightmare, even if it’s collective dream, has an ending and a meaning— but meanings are seldom what we think they are until we search them honestly. 

In many ways I learned these things in my childhood.

But I also learned how living in a world where violence is common can make you feel numb, depressed and angry all at the same time. That a child whose life is punctuated by bombing and killings doesn’t grow into the same adult they might have…and there are thousands more children growing up that way and much worse. But somehow in order to live they have to learn methods of forgetting merciless violence, and learn ways of living with intolerable things. 

For the last fifteen years I’ve spent my days teaching children who grew up, or stopped growing up, surrounded by actual violence. I’ve taught grammar to classrooms of twelve year olds carrying bullet wounds, Dickens to classes of expelled students who had illegal guns and drugs in their home, but no books or food. Children who couldn’t walk to the store or their friends’ houses to play without legitimate fear of assault.  For much of suburban America children have to be taught that the world isn’t a safe place. For the others, children of violence, teachers are faced with trying to find a way to help them to imagine the possiblity of a safe world—some world where studying  the conventions of written punctuation makes more sense than the end stops of a violent world…someplace they can live.


6 Responses to “Never Forgeting”

  1. Vivian Macias Says:

    For these children…you are the face of courage.

  2. DEZ Says:

    I believe you have it reversed.

  3. Michael Flaharty Says:

    I remember it all too well..having come home from the gym early that morning..and getting dressed for a 10 am meeting with a client in WTC7…a call from a friend in Chicago who had seen the first plane hit.

    As i recall, the surreal nature of the next week is something that will stay with me forever.

    Having said that, I find interesting how 9/11 solicits emotions outside of the NYC area. I have continued to find the resilence of New Yorkers regarding their “get on with it” attitude. I say this from my interactions with people directly involved in the event (business associates in WTC2, adjoining buildings and firemen responding to both the event and cleanup) as well as most of the victim’s families who are probably more omnipresent in the local news outlets here in NYC. A friend who lived 1/2 block from the site (well within the shadow of WTC 1 had it toppled to the east instead of straight down) serves as a good bellweather. She like many others, underwent counseling provided through city and FEMA services and has moved on. That is no to say that she ignores it…far from it. But, she is clearly of the spirit that to be crippled is not in anyones best interests.

    I guess, as i re-read your comments, the defining characterstics I see are a collective attitude that while certainly a horrific event, we persevere and move on with the understanding that the world is filled with brutality and antagonisms which can reach us anywhere.

    I spent the past 2 years working in an office sandwich high on the 31rst floor between the NY Stock Exchange and Ground Zero. Everyone there has a clear sense that any future actions against America will most likely have the center of the bullseye within that few block area. Yet, we all come to work through the same transportatioh hub, (the former WTC subway/PATH station in the basin of Ground Zero’s “bathtub”), climb the steps to the street and go on with our lives.

    Immune? No. Aware? Yes.

    Life moves forward and it is all in how we pass on our traditions around the fire ring: myth and fear versus acknowledgement, empathy, understanding and a recognition that life is preciously fragile and subject to being snuffed in a NY Minute…

    But as we proceed, as we must, celebrate and dig in..there is work to be done.

    Thanks for the post, Dom. Good thoughts on perspectives.

  4. Mike Says:

    “on fait ce qu’ on peut” / Who wrote it? in what novel? Who taught it at Xavier University? What is the translation? ///
    I stopped here this morning for a little inspiration from the previous entry about teaching before I set out to do a little volunteer work before I clean an area in my warehouse for a yoga class tonight. ///


  5. Mike Says:

    [on fait ce qu’ on peut = one does what one can]
    Joseph Conrad speaking through a French lieutenant in Lord Jim. Dr. Fontana included Lord Jim in a British novel course at Xavier University; he said that heroism was better defined by the French lieutenant than by Jim.
    From my perspective, your years in the classroom are heroic. While it may have taken you a few years to find your stride – struggle is often a part of heroism – the long course of your career is heroic.
    “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” (from Ted Kennedy’s eulogy for Robert Kennedy, (with my apologies for the masculine pronoun; suggested revision: Each time one stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, one sends forth a tiny ripple of hope . . . )

  6. Mike Says:

    “(on fait ce qu’on peut)”

    ” ‘ Man is born a coward (L’homme est ne poltron). It is a difficulty–parbleu! It would be too easy otherwise. But habit–habit–necessity–do you see?–the eye of others–voila. One puts up with it. And then the example of others who are no better than yourself, and yet make good countenance . . .’ ” (French lieutenant speaking to Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s novel, “Lord Jim”)

    countenance – noun 1 The face or features. 2 Expression; appearance. 3 An encouraging aspect; hence, approval; support. See synonyms under FAVOR. –tr. verb synonyms under ABET, ENCOURAGE
    (transcription source: Brittanica World Language Dictionary)

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