Intro: Remembering 911
I grew up in suburban New Jersey on the commuter line into New York City. I worked my way through school as a junior account executive for a brokerage firm on Wall Street during the dot com boom of the late ’90s and early ’00s. Back then, the streets of lower Manhattan seemed to be paved with gold. A short while later they were covered with concrete, ash, and unanswered prayers.
In August, 2012 I secured a publishing contract for the book Heartbreak Yoga. It was intended (and pitched as) as a collection of yoga asana postures to help one navigate romantic heartbreak. When I sat down to write it, the following chapter was the first thing to spill out. I didn’t know that was buried in there all those years later. Turns out all the vinayas, deep breaths and Hanuman Chalisas really did help to clear the gunk out of my heart.
Thank you to FMT + LA Yoga for publishing this first-hand account of the imprint September 11th left on me, and countless other in the New York Area. May all find the healing that they need. Om Namah Shivaya. (Following excerpt reprinted with permission from Changing Lives Press. Copyright Amy V. Dewhurst 2013.)
That One September: Pain Is Part Of The Deal
“Pain is part of the deal. When I think back to that time, I was so sure someone must have the answer. I wanted someone to tell me how to make my life-pain free. Looking back, I can’t imagine who I thought got through their entire lives and managed to avoid the pain. Now I realize there is not now nor has there ever been a single person on this planet who has successfully avoided the pain of being a human. Pain is part of the deal.” –Gurmukh Beloved Kundalini Yoga Teacher and owner of Goldenbridge Yoga, Los Angeles, CA
It was a typical middle-class, suburban community smelling of freshly cut lawns. Behind picket fences were well-meaning but nosey neighbors and Detroit-built SUVs. The teens made out on church retreats, smoked spliffs on their way to varsity practice and sang Syd Barrett Songs as they aced the SATs. Proud parents snapped photos at prom parties, comparing curfews, report cards and whose virginity was still believed to be intact. Fourth of July Fireworks fell down on Memorial Fields as “The Boss” blasted from beer trucks. We were proud to be “Born in the USA.”
City Tragedy Touches Small Town Life
There were the typical triple “our town” tragedies: horrific earth-shattering car accidents, awful overdoses and the stand-alone suicide. This community came together in joy and grief like a Grecian epic, getting good at repurposing embroidered black funeral wear for Little Suzie’s wedding just by adding a colorful wrap.
Then there was that one September when we perfected the skill. Our small pond police chief would go to Ground Zero to get the bodies, as Claire at Beaugard’s would make a place for them to rest. The main street was short and the words were few. “Todd. Thursday.” No one needed to say much more than that—time and funeral parlor location were well understood. I was working on Wall Street and going to school in the city. Based on proximity, willing creativity and the irrepressible urge to grieve optimistically, I took over “Celebrating the Life of . . .” collage duty. The college kids would comment on my compositions, coming home on weekends for wakes.
My group of Jersey Girls became like a team of professional, fashionable mourners, trading in our standard issue 20-something Steve Madden shoes for more reasonable flats. The grief/heat combo of standing room only funeral services always concluded with a fainting or two. I observed early on it was the girls in three-inch-plus heels who had to lock out their knees to stand up straight that were usually the first to hit the floor. But who could blame them? They wanted to say goodbye to their first loves in style. “It’s what he would’ve wanted me to wear,” she said, uncharacteristically strong. We stood together sobbing as Scooter, her 20-year-old atheist, anti-establishment boyfriend’s corpse was being carried out of the Catholic Church, draped in an American Flag.
First the leaves fell, then the snows came. Stockings were hung from the chimney with care, in hopes that “The Missing” would soon be there. New Years’ Resolutions consisted of “Please God, if you bring ________ home, I promise, I will never ________ again.” It was around Valentine’s Day the DPW finally cleared the crowded commuter parking lot. If there was no DNA discovered, they would donate unclaimed cars to the fire department for “scared straight” DUI drills during driver’s ed.
We buried empty caskets, and with them, mom and dad’s dream that little John-o’s job in the big city would afford him a slightly better life than they had had; an extra AC in the den, power windows & vacations “down the shore,” even during leaner years.
Searching the Faces of Survivors
Meanwhile, Back at Work . . . combat soldiers with uzis had been deployed downtown. The Bull and The Bear were barren. Subways, sidewalks, StairMasters and bar stools were all eerily empty. Government issued IDs allowed entry to the cobblestone streets of Old New York. There you would frantically search the faces of survivors striding past.
Desperate families would plead with handmade flyers, “Have you seen my dad/mom/husband/wife/brother/sister/son/daughter/lover/neighbor/ rabbi/priest/dog/cat/fiancé/ friend . . .?” A regretful shake of the head was the default response. You couldn’t make eye contact with the families. You could barely breathe from the ever-escaping fumes.
There was a woman at The New York Sports Club who would ALWAYS take my treadmill during my assigned time. She would pretend she couldn’t see me waving the sign-up sheet in her direction over her Financial Times newspaper. She would pretend she couldn’t hear me shouting “Excuse me, your time is up!” over her Sony Discman tracks and StarTAC cell phone calls. She would pretend she couldn’t respond, having just taken a big sip of Pepsi from the can. She would pretend she couldn’t feel me tapping her shoulder. Of course not, she was winging her bony Rolex & Harry Winston-clad arms around trying to fling me off. I hated that bitch and her gorgeous red Kate Spade bag. She loathed me, Miss PYT, probably 30 years her junior, flagging around the stupid treadmill sign-up sheet, indignant about time.
Her tycoon husband had left her for a younger woman before I had even been born. She learned to day trade out of divorcée defiance, victoriously taking over 51 percent of his brokerage firm. You know what they say about a woman scorned—she joins the boys’ club at Harry’s in Hanover Square and smokes Cuban cigars just a few minutes after burning the bras. She felt, despite NYSC standards, she was entitled to the extra fifteen minutes of cardio at my workout’s expense. “Show some respect for your elders!” she spewed.
That ornery old bitch was one of the first recognizable faces I frantically scanned in early October. With overwhelming relief, I fell into her ugly old chicken-arms. I cried grateful but silent sobs, as she wailed aloud, “Thank God you are okay, I have been looking for you everywhere, I knew you commuted on the PATH Train, I thought . . . Oh God, Sweetie, thank God you are ok. Thank you God. Thank you God. Thank you God.”
But that story was just one in a million (1 in 2,997, to be more precise). Never again did I see the funny, sweet guys from Fire Company #5 who teased me each time I emerged from the World Trade Center’s basement mall, Banana Republic bag in hand:
“Uh, Oh, somebody didn’t make it home laaaast night.” “Woo-hoo, walk of shame shopping trip.”
“Hey Bertolino, your girlfriend’s cheatin’ on ya.”
“Ah ha ha ha . . .”
The homeless woman who slept on the steps of Trinity Church: “Alms for the poor? Thank you. God bless you.”
Gloria, the woman who worked at Mangia Deli, who took the lunchtime delivery orders over the phone:
“Amy, Kerri & Dan? One twenty Wall Street, right? The usual for you guys?”
My personal trainer Blythe: “One more rep, you can do it, I believe in you . . .”
My friend Todd: “Hey, I’m going to make the 7:14 train, can I grab ya a Heineken for the ride home?”
My friend Jen’s dad, Mr. Fialco: “Give your old man a call. Tell him I’ll drop ya home on my way. Save ’im a trip to the train station.”
And many, many, many more . . .
What wasn’t conveyed in those overused images of the towers tumbling down was the innate silence the city suddenly fell under. Well, that and the smell. I’m not brave enough even to begin a description of the smell. A re-watch of Schindler’s List, Born on the Fourth of July, or Glory may help you imagine it. Sucking in dry wall dust during a renovation might help you breathe it. Add to that the paranoid fear of a cop driving behind you after you’ve had three glasses of wine at dinner, or the way your hair stands on end in historically spooky spaces— Alcatraz, Amityville, Auschwitz. There. That’s the zygote of a description. I’m braver than I thought. You probably are too.
I tell you this grim tale not as a victim, but as a survivor of earth-quaking, building-breaking, heart-shattering, soul-squeezing, mind-numbing, God-questioning, wholly humbling, totally vulnerable, on-my-knees, “How could this have happened?” heartbreak. Some forthcoming melodramas may have seemed hysterical and ungrounded otherwise.
With love and respect to all who survived, and especially to those who didn’t, I’m grateful to have had the following experiences. I missed my train that Tuesday morning.