Washington Park stirs with signs of life this morning. Along the green lawn of the dog park, a towering wall of weeping cherry trees beckons me with long, flowing branches. I sense their burden as they bow deeply under the weight of prolific and cascading pale-pink tears. Entering deeper into the park, I encounter a stand of embittered crabapples. Why do they resist the dawn of spring, allowing no more exposure of their crimson petals than a narrow slit? Each bud looks wounded.
At the bone-dry fountain hundreds of tulips stand at attention encircling its statue of Moses. His staff has been stolen by vandals. The tulips before him shroud their pastel petals with thick green hoods, hesitant to open themselves to him. Perhaps they know that he has failed to deliver the Ten Commandments. Only the fiery orange tulips in the outer garden stretch their showy heads beyond Moses and toward the sky. I join them and follow suit. The sun, in an instant, permeates the chill and warms my face. Through the slit of one eyelid, I see the silver glint of an airplane flash against the deep blue sky.
I have not returned to this place since September 11, 2001, yet that day never feels far behind. I remember so vividly how I drove from Albany toward New York at 5 o’clock in the morning. As the sun rose, the golden fog had spun itself like cotton between pockets of pines. Enamored with the beauty of that particular dawn, I searched for the camera I had carelessly left on the kitchen counter. I sputtered aloud some poetic lines to capture what I saw, but found that even my best effort fell short.
FAA training took place over the span of two days every September, the 2001 session being the fourth anniversary of my hire date as a flight attendant. Normally I would grumble through the rigors of testing but, that morning, I was glad to have been witness to the beauty of daybreak. I attempted to mentally review first aid, evacuation, weapons identification and hijacking procedures along my drive, but by the time I reached the skyline, I was again distracted by beauty. The humidity that had softened silhouettes earlier had given way to a crisp, bright landscape. The entire city was gilded in sunlight, every detail razor sharp. I wanted to capture that view, cursing myself again for forgetting my camera. I took the scene in one last time before entering the training facility across the river from the World Trade Center.
Five minutes after I entered the building, the first plane struck the tower. The flight attendants who were lounging about the commons waiting for class to begin congealed into a gawking mass of slack-lipped witnesses. I joined in. As we thrust our faces against the window in disbelief, the second plane reinforced, with cruel clarity, the tragedy before us. Our only news buzzed in Spanish through the snowy reception of UHF. A limited translation amounted to suicide bombers, being under attack, and the grounding of all aircraft. As fellow flight attendants called parents trapped in the towers, some said their last good-byes watching as people began to jump. I ran outside, desperate to escape the horror, only to enter the parking garage in time to face the first tower collapse.
Military aircraft swarmed close over my head. Was it the U.S.? Was it “them?” I couldn’t see. I feared another strike and crouched behind a green pick-up truck. There I hugged my knees and rocked myself alone crying “Oh my God. Oh my God.” Unable to hold back the grief, my heart split. Unintelligibly, my horror spilled forth.
Gaining my wits, I found my car and drove back toward Albany, away from the hideous pillars of smoke. People impatient with the crowded highways sped past me on the shoulder of the road. I shrieked foul words waving my arms at nobody in particular. Distracted, I missed my turn. I had to look back toward the smoldering remains of 3,000 people, the second tower having collapsed.
As I drove West, Howard Stern clamored for war. I jammed my finger into a random button changing the frequency to something soothing. The further I drove, the more traffic thinned, making way to clearer roads. Officers in u-turn areas watched for typical speeders. In Albany, two people laughed on the corner of Madison and Pearl. I was infuriated. Didn’t they know? Hadn’t they seen? The announcer said the attack had happened four hours prior. How could that be? Trapped within a moment, time was marching on without me.
I met a friend here in Washington Park. It seemed appropriate having been a former burial ground. We sat reverent on the grass. Fractured thoughts flooded my conversation. “How can I wear my stripes now? How am I supposed to protect my passengers from suicide bombers? I wish my father would return my message. Will I be fired if I can’t bring myself to fly?”
Before me was the Corning Tower of Empire Plaza, a citadel bathed in sunlight, emerging from the tree line. How it stood, in the wake of what I had seen, defied my disintegrated logic. If lines could be drawn from the odd angle of the tower’s outer walls, they would merge where I sat. I remember sensing the geometric order and yet it offered me no comfort. What was the point?
On Willet Street now, the view of the park is spectacular. I looked for a brownstone apartment here once, just a few months prior to the attack. After the attack, the closest I came was a carriage house out back where I spent an hour at 3 o’clock every Thursday. There I attempted to piece together my shattered identity with Diane. She was a psychologist who had volunteered her service to those New York Police and Fireman suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She said she could help me to sleep, to move forward, and having taken a company offered leave for the next year, to explore what to do next.
I lived nearby on State Street then, number 332. Passing now, I see my old living room window looking out at Picotte Hall. I remember an earthquake rattling the foundation there that November. My ivory sheers have been replaced by red velvet drapes shut tight against the light. Across the street, I see ghosts of old friends who have moved away from number 335. The neighboring 334 is dark. The man who lived here was one of the “dust people” escaping the tower. He and his wife had just bought the building to create their dream home, yet it went up for sale in early 2002. I wonder where they are now; the homeless man too, who used to smile and call me “Fifth Avenue.” I hope he survived the winter. I used to give him gloves to fend off the cold. This damp, stone stoop remains unchanged except for a few planters. It always stood in shadow, no matter the season or time of day. Further down State Street, across from the Capital Building, the police continue to stand guard at Empire Plaza. They are lasting remnants of protective measures stemming from impotent arsenic threats to the governor.
I have moved five times since that address, downsizing along the way. I have held a number of jobs as well, from farming knee-deep in chicken feces and doing freelance publicity, to the part time designing of GUI systems for the United States Office of Management and Budget. I did what it took to pay rent, resorting to the trade of my new dining suite and antique sewing machine when necessary. I’ve learned that I’m adaptive and resilient, but that lesson came with the high price of all that I had and all that I was.
This neighborhood has new memories for me now, not tainted by September 11th. At the corner of State and Dove is where my fiance and I first kissed three years ago. He stood over six feet at street level and I hopped up on the curb to reach his lips. We threw our heads back and laughed in the soft glow of the street lamp as a lone electric guitar from a window above played Jimmy Hendrix. I have to leave this reverie now to meet Tim. We’re choosing our wedding bands today.
Back in Washington Park stands a statue of Robert Burns. Engraved in its base is part of his Epistle to Dr. Blacklock:
To make a happy fireside climb
To weans and wife
That’s the true pathos and sublime
Of human life
At the picnic table where I used to sit alone with my journal, a family of five enjoys a picnic lunch. Across the street, two daycare women push triplet strollers carting six beautiful children. A young boy and his pup enjoy the otherwise empty dog park, running in circles to and fro. These children are evidence of connection; evidence that this sublime human life is among us, within us.
I note the hour. Time has marched on, and now, I march with it.