I Ran All The Way Home
In the days since, reading accounts of New York City's achingly picturesque skies early on September 11th, I have noted that Toronto conditions must have been similar. It was gorgeous, a truly rare showing, like the city was sighing in the peaceful heart of an LL Bean hurricane.
I was running, even flying, I fancied, through the cemetery I haunt, and listening to the radio. I was almost grateful when at ten-to-nine a report cut into the momentum-sapping 'Hotel California'. A plane had collided with a World Trade Center building, they said.
And not a small plane, they said several times, with a queasy excitement.
An eyewitness said it looked big enough to be a commercial airliner. A what? Surely not. Alarmists. I continued running, leaving the cemetery early, counting down to the 9 o'clock update. After the news on one station included nothing about the World Trade Center, (a false report?) I turned back to find the same voice, now a good deal less reporterly about the 'bigger than a cessna' angle, describing another plane's crash into the second tower.
Then I was really running.
Collided with and crashed into have never sounded more different.
My friend Lee lives in lower Manhattan and is also known to run circles around perfect mornings. The difference is he runs along the Hudson river, through the financial district and back home. It was his birthday.
When the elevator door finally opened at my floor, the deadbolt, the telephone and the television were almost simultaneously engaged. The towers were righteous in their strife; they seemed to roar with smoke.
I thought of a sculpture I saw in the Capitoline Museum in Rome: thick snakes twist around Zeus' every limb, pulling him down, apart. His face is warped with rage and disbelief. Little cherubs, rent with despair, throw themselves at his feet; some are clinging to his thighs.
The voice on the phone told me my call could not be completed, yet with all the information flooding the room, I only wanted to know why, exactly, my call could not be completed. I stood in front of the screen, holding my discman, my keys and the phone, for about 10 minutes. I turned up the television so I could hear it while I showered. I had to go to work, if only to get to my email, to Lee and my cousins in the city. My building's elevator opened at the ninth floor and an elderly lady holding a cup of coffee got on. She took one look at my pale face and said, "We're going to war."
She was on her way down to tell the construction workers out front about the war we were going to, and I concentrated on swallowing repeatedly. A worker gave me a long looking over as I approached- the messenger a few paces behind me- and a 'Well hellooo' as I passed. I turned from him and suddenly found myself close to tears.
The sound of transmissions, not voices, was everywhere on the 10 minute walk to work: radios of cars were cranked and doors hanging ajar, as if in service to the passing public, televisions muttered through open windows. The streets were uncharacteristically blank and the few faces I saw looked determined to get somewhere. For the first time, I noticed a sign on the lawn of an apartment building I pass twice a day: "Israel is calling. It's time to answer."
I started to trot, and broke into a run as I turned south onto Yonge street. I looked down the street and saw the CN Tower, like an exclamation mark, at the other end of the city.
50 000 people!
They say the CN Tower is made of 130 000 tons of concrete, and that that's like 23 000 elephants. The tower is a few hundred feet taller than the World Trade Center, we used to brag about that.
At work, a TV station, all TV's were on, all offices were filled with people and all their faces were blank. No one could look at anyone else. By the time I got there both buildings had fallen. I wondered how long it would be before we could look at each other, and where we would look if this, inconceivably, continued to get worse.
I was typing to Lee, to my cousins, and soon enough they were, mercifully, typing back. I called Lee's Boppa in Maryland. There was a sound, in the few words he spoke before I, a total stranger, was able to tell him that his grandson was safe, that I hope never to hear in anyone's voice again.
After that the walking began. From office to office. TV to TV. Floor to floor. Washroom to washroom. From the stall to the mirror and back. Then I walked out of the building, counting my footsteps like so many surnames, wondering if their numbers would ever approach the loss. How many thousands, how far have they gone? I passed my apartment because the steps seemed too few yet, I tried to record the details, to impress a map of them into my streets, so I could refer to something real. I wanted to count the hairs on the head of each body lost to the sky, every fingerprint adrift in the rubble.
When I was a child, after saying my prayers in bed, I would give myself a very hard, very long pinch. Until it hurt, preferably until my eyes welled. I was trying, albeit piece meal, to absorb the pain of Jesus on the cross. I couldn't fathom the agony a nail through the hand or foot or even a crown of thorns could wreak.
My solution was to simulate the pain of a single thorn from the crown each night, because that was reasonable, and thorn by thorn, I could ease His pain. I don't remember when I was satisfied that I had the entire crown under my belt; I think at a certain point it seemed bad form to go on pinching without a finite number of thorns to shoot for, and folly to simply go on pinching forever.
I walked toward places where I was not expected and yet not unwelcome. I walked because I didn't know, in the pinball limbo between fear and grief, what to say, how to help, when to sleep, where to find the future, or whom to ask why.
I walked because I could.