I just read a piece about the three network news anchors that were on the air 20 years ago this week, narrating true horrors that we all watched live on TV. Peter Jennings is sadly gone, so there’s no way to know what he would think of 2001 here in 2021, but the writers did get reflections from his counterparts on NBC and CBS. Tom Brokaw said he hadn’t rewatched his coverage of that day because if he’d heard himself made a mistake it would’ve eaten at him. Dan Rather said he chose not to watch his special coverage back because living through it once was enough.
I feel that. Having a good memory is great in a lot of ways, but on the anniversaries of global tragedies, not so much. It’s important to remember, no question, but it isn’t easy.
I remember how chaotic it was just to get a handle on what all was happening. What we were seeing live on screen was already bad enough, but there were also reports of explosions at the State Department in Washington, and supposedly explosions in Chicago, near where I lived at the time. Fake stories were traveling fast, even without help from social media or the internet. In fact, most of the day the internet was almost inaccessible. Dialup service providers couldn’t handle all the traffic. Trying to load Yahoo, the Google of that era, could take half an hour.
I remember the quiet. I lived under a flight path to and from Chicago O’Hare Airport. Plane noise was pretty constant, but for three or so days, there wasn’t any, because nearly all flights in the US had been grounded. It was eerie.
I remember the mail carrier knocking on the door to drop off the copies of my band’s new CD, while my wife and I were watching the live coverage from New York and Washington. I’d been excited for weeks about getting actual copies of our new music, and then… it didn’t seem like quite such a big deal. Though, later that fall, I remember watching a first responder in the crowd playing air guitar and doing some headbanging as The Who tore through “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” at The Concert For New York. Rocking out really can help when you hurt.
I remember a weird thing that happened at a small, independent grocery store near where I lived. They sold the freshest produce and foods from all over the world, including a flatbread with the brand name Kabul Bread. “Makes a great pizza crust!” said the wrapper, and the wrapper was right. After the attacks, the store took Kabul Bread off the shelves. They didn’t bring it back until the US had driven the Taliban out of power.
I remember that, of the many Big Statements people tried to make at the time, the ones who got the feeling most right were the writers at The Onion. Their “Holy F___ing S___” issue (“Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake” pretty well summed it up for me.)
I remember years later, after I’d moved to New Hampshire, learning that I’d moved into an apartment down the block from the family of one of the victims. They kept an anti-war sign outside their front door.
I remember the first time I came to New York, in the summer of 2004, when we stopped by the WTC site. Work was still underway there. The neighborhood fire station still had up the names of those they’d lost. Next to the chain link fences that surrounded the site where the unthinkable had happened, people were smiling and taking selfies.
The moment that stays with me the most happened while I was at work at a public library. The suburbs were not hugely diverse, but this town had a good-sized Spanish-speaking community – I did a special storytime once a week at a community center for English as a Second Language families, which was so fun – and a large community of people who were first generation immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. There was a mosque with a private school in town, and two of the families were library regulars. They had young kids and would always sign up for my programs with stories and art projects, even though my themes were frequently goofy and not well thought out, even when no one else would come, they did, and I was always grateful for that.
Regulars are pretty important for libraries, though they come for lots of different reasons. A woman who I’ll call Brynn was one of them too. She had three young kids who came in regularly to play games on the computer and pick out cartoons on VHS, or, as she called them, “Pokey-man tapes.” She was brash, she was loud, she loved to chat with the staff at the desk, I learned more about her personal life than I needed to know, she wasn’t a reader, didn’t follow the news much, but she brought her kids to the library and that counted for a lot. Still does.
I was working the afternoon and evening shift that Tuesday, and one of the families from the Muslim community came in, and the mom and I commiserated about the day for a moment. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but there were hate crimes being committed that day and that week against people who looked and dressed the way she did. It wasn’t impossible that someone might have come into our building and given her family a hard time.
Instead, here’s what happened: Brynn came in with her kids, set them loose to find their videos and play computer games, and made her way over to our Muslim family to say hi and check on them. “This must be so scary for you,” she said, and the two moms talked and shared and bonded and gave each other a little support on a difficult day.
So what I remember from 20 years ago – and from many other hard times since – is that when so much goes wrong and so many do wrong, there are also people in the world who rise to the occasion. Sometimes they do the hardest things you can think of, at the greatest cost. And sometimes they just bring a little grace to those under pressure. Some days aren’t easy to remember but it would be a shame to forget what good people did when those days came.