Late on a not-quite-yet-Autumn Saturday night in 2001, while living in New York City, I ventured down to Greenwich Village to get my first — and so far, last — tattoo. Bargain shopper that I am, it took me a bit of time. I did not want to be taken for a financial ride but I also wanted something meaningful. I window shopped for a bit, and in my head played with the varying prices and designs. I had entertained the idea of a tattoo for years but up until that time, hadn’t taken myself too seriously about actually getting one. No specific designs had impressed me enough to possess them on my person for the eternity that is forever.
I found a design and price that was acceptable. Knowing what I wanted now came to who I wanted. A safe, acceptable artist, of course. Why I settled on Mad Dog, I don’t know. My recollection is that he was grotesquely pierced and tattooed over a large percentage of his body. Still, I had an odd sense of comfort when we met. By going with Mad Dog, perhaps I was showing myself some bravery for a change. I looked around at examples of his work and trusted he was good at his craft and knew what he was doing. I waited my turn and then bravely — or foolishly — endured a slight but prolonged discomfort much like the pain of 1000 white, hot suns being used for a circumcision at age 40. If the circumcision was over my left shoulder, that is.
I was told that the designs I chose to be above my left shoulder blade for all infinity were three Japanese characters signifying Peace, Harmony & Clarity. I reasoned that since I hadn’t been secure with feeling any of these in my life — at least for a prolonged period of time — I should have them with me and hope the power of suggestion would prevail.
I take solace in knowing my Internet language searches have not revealed Peace Harmony & Clarity to actually be an insult.
When I look at a digital clock at eleven minutes past nine, I notice the time. I’ve lost count as to how often I have glanced at a watch, clock or cell phone and cognitively taken in a time 9:11. Logic tells me that it had been 9:11 many times before 9/11. It happens at least twice a day, in fact. But since September 11th, 2001, when I’ve looked, I notice when its 9:11.
The time of 9:11 has no significance to the historic day. Some of the moments that mattered to many were officially listed as happening at 8:46, 9:03, 9:37, 9:58, 10:03 and 10:28. But 9:11 encapsulates the meaning for many with regard to 9/11. It is a time that has come to symbolize the date.
I was running late that Tuesday. Not horrendously late, but time was ticking. I stepped out of the shower and passed the TV as the Today show was reporting on the first plane crashing into the tower. I continued to get dressed and watched some more, hearing analysis, further reports, speculation it was a small Cessna, more speculation — until there was no reason to finish dressing for work. If not for my slight delay, I would have been down in the area as, at the time, as I was working at a Wall Street law firm. And if not there, I’d have been caught underground on the subway.
Because of images repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly shown over the days, weeks, months that followed, a numbness set in. While horrified by what I saw, I could not define it. I could not grasp what it all meant. I did not want to see it and yet I could not tear myself away from the TV. I did not want to look away as I hoped for some sign of good to be revealed.
A phrase that was often said at the time was “Never Forget.” While I certainly understood that challenge, almost immediately to me it was a double negative. I soon adopted the phrase “Always Remember.” I remember the moments. The moments of sacrifice and charity. The moments of confusion and clarity. Those who know me will hear me talk about “fa-fa moments.” Moments of emotion — joy or sorrow — where words simply have no energy to reveal themselves. There is a catch of breath, perhaps a short fa-fa sound. I’ve had quite a few since then.
During the 7th Inning stretch of many baseball games, God Bless America has often been sung or played at stadiums. And, if the timing was right, television cameras caught the singers and crowd and then would turn to the center field scoreboard noting the time of 9:11, as if the minute was supposed to change just at that instance. Again, at the time, I understood the raw emotions and feelings and need for some unifying moments. But I also wondered if it didn’t create its own form of lack of unity over time. No part of the globe can survive and thrive by standing alone. And certainly other places in the world have had their moments of senseless mayhem and tragedy. By asking God to only bless America, are we dismissing everyone else?
During the days that followed September 11th, I saw a video that stuck with me. And yet, I haven’t seen this video since. Not even a hint. Consequently, I have begun to doubt my memory and wondered if the video was just part of a wishful-thinking dream. But if a dream, why a dream of a news video and not part of the experience?
There was no interviewer. Only camera footage as things were unfolding. A man and woman making their way up the West Side Highway with a firefighter — all of them stunned — and like walking wounded. There was confusion on their faces and I saw the distraught emotion of the man, his business suit dusty with ash, as he frantically tried to reach his family on his cell phone. The woman — obviously shaken — was looking through her purse for, ironically enough, a cigarette, as she gasped for air. The firefighter’s face was dazed but he had a resolve I saw as he turned to go back to see who else he could help.
What I saw after the towers came down on the 11th affected me as much if not more than anything I had seen in my life. It was not as if I were watching a movie, as many witnesses said. But I was part of a stunned and captive audience trying to take it all in. Trying to comprehend what had happened and what meaning, if any, there was in the loss of life.
I was half-expecting God to get fed up and say “Do over!” By God I mean, God, Yaweh, Buddha, Allah, The Big, Giant Head, or however God is defined for each individual. And I recalled entertaining a concept as early as first grade that perhaps the dinosaurs were only one part of creation until they destroyed each other — or were destroyed by the evolutionary asteroid of time. (Bringing up dinosaurs, evolution and creation in the first grade — in a Catholic school, didn’t sit very well.)
So we’re here, in 2016. And there we were, in 2001. This perfectly imperfect of creatures doing our best — or worst — occasionally destroying each other. In the immediate time that followed 9/11/2001, I wanted a do over.
Ah, but if 4, 5 or 6 million deaths didn’t force a do over during World War II, 4, 5 or 6 thousand wouldn’t either.
Does that help me make sense of what happened in 2001? Of course not. But hopefully I can keep taking part in the on-going puzzle that is life. I may have mentioned in a previous writing; that’s what I feel life is right now. Like a puzzle. Like a constantly shifting puzzle. And sometimes your brother or sister or the bully next door comes along and knocks all the pieces on the floor, so you have to pick them up and start over. I’m like everyone else thinking I’m a significant piece of the puzzle even though I often put up arguments about my significance. Sometimes I fit and other times I don’t. Over time, I look forward to fitting in with the rest of the puzzle. But wouldn’t you know, the freaking puzzle keeps changing! Yes, Mom, I said ‘freakin’!
Walking the street of Manhattan and elsewhere in the days and weeks following the attacks, it was difficult not to pass living memorials of hope asking if people had seen survivors. Pictures were posted on chain link fences or walls or street poles. Hope was alive, barely … hopefully. But for many, the memorials were only the morning of their mourning process.
Following the attacks, my psyche was not the best. I was pretty much glued to the television hoping for something. Stories of survival. Miraculous recovery. Something. Nothing. My Ex at the time was also getting antsy with my immobility.
That Friday, I got up off the couch and went downtown, to the Jacob Javits Center, I believe, hoping to volunteer or give blood and I was unable to do either. They were accepting mostly skilled labor and I was quickly discounted. My ego did not want to be on the sidelines, offering snacks and coffee. I wanted to be in the moment but also knew right away that I could very easily get injured not having a background in construction or building. As much as I wanted to help — and was sick of sitting on my couch doing nothing — I was helpless.
So I went to give blood. I had donated blood plenty of times. However, having gotten a tattoo a few days earlier, disqualified me. So, I started to walk uptown, to look for an American Flag, something to grab onto if not physically, at least psychologically. I don’t discount the flag’s importance as a symbol, but I’ve never been one to think of it as more than that — a symbol. A logo in the major league standings of countries. Still, on that day, a flag was my quest.
Every so often someone brings up the idea of creating a National/Federal Holiday for September 11. While I understand the concept, I’m not a fan of this idea. All too often these well-intentioned ideas lose their initial meaning in just as short while. Too many would take this and make it an excuse for car sales, BBQs and “family” time that junior or sis will have to miss because “there’s a game that day” or some other excuse. If Madison Avenue had their way, every weekend would be an excuse for a sale.
The Church of St Paul & St Andrew is a United Methodist Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. SPSA held a multi-faith service in the early evening of that chaotic September 11th. Methodists and other Christians worshipped and prayed with Jewish members of Congregation B’Nai Jeshrun, an area synagogue that had been renting space from SPSA since the early ’90s. Also gathering were people of the Muslim faith, friends that the church had made over the previous 10 years.
Rev. James “K” Karpen described it as an impromptu service. “Everybody just, uh, I don’t know why they came. I’m not sure how the word got out, but the word got out. We had readings from the three faith groups.” The Imam was delayed and Rev. Karpen read from his copy of the Holy Koran. The section where it talks of if someone takes an innocent life, it’s as if they’ve killed all of humanity … and if you’ve saved an innocent life, it’s as if you’ve saved the world. Fa-fa.
Peace Harmony and Clarity. Enjoy the puzzle. Always Remember.
Addendum: The chicken salad I bought on a recent trip to Market Basket had an expiration date of 9/11.
Gary Trahan of Manchester, NH, has written and performed throughout New England, Colorado, Florida and New York City. Gary has written plays, sketches, screenplays and humor columns, including for almost three years as part of a rotating team of humor columnists submitting for the Encore section of The Nashua Telegraph. “Gare” received his BA from UMass/Amherst another lifetime ago, and has been learning lessons ever since. Writing and other forms of creativity help to keep him sane, uh, sanER. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.