Monday, September 03, 2007

Remembrance

I've been watching political movies lately. I prefer the fictionalized, the re-telling rather than the news coverage. I need a remove to be able to process.

On the other hand once I am there, once I stand on whatever ground I choose, the chances of me leaving it or forgetting the cause are very slim.

Tonight I watched Bobby. I am ashamed to say that I didn't know anyone else had been shot when RFK was shot. I knew he'd been shot in the kitchen of the hotel. I knew to expect that because I was working a gala in a hotel where President Clinton was speaking many years ago and the security measures made our schedule very tough but someone explained that they were because of the RFK shooting and because no one wanted that to happen again.

Last week I watched The Guys. It's based on a play by Anne Nelson that was written right after 9/11. The playwright, through a series of chance connections helped a firefighter to write eulogies for the men his firehouse had lost on 9/11.

The news reports here in New York are about the 6th anniversary of 9/11, coming a week from tomorrow. Or they were the last time I could bear to listen to them for any length of time. The people who are re-building the structure that will stand on the footprint of the former World Trade Center have asked the families and friends of the victims to move their memorial to a different location this year. I haven't, or I couldn't or perhaps I simply wouldn't listen to why or to what the resolution has been. Not knowing makes me no less incensed.

I find it difficult to talk about my thoughts and feelings about 9/11. It's not because my experience of the day was particularly more or less intense than anyone else's but because my experience crosses that of so many other people. Everyone has different opinions, different rules for how they observe the day or what they choose to say about it. To follow one's own rules is often to break someone else's. The Guys talks about this, it addresses the feeling of inadequacy we feel for our stories when faced with someone whose story we quantify as more, more important, more painful, more worthy or just some unnamed more. Nelson then goes on to emphasize how important it is to keep telling our stories, regardless, that to forget is to dishonor those who died or to smooth over a conflict that hasn't been solved.

I've heard that message before. Generally I've heard it from people creating questionable artistic monuments to their own minor experiences of the day in a multitude of media. If the construction of that sentence doesn't make it clear I'll just tell you that I've had no small amount of disdain for those monuments. I'm sorry for that because this conflict over the memorial proves how right Ms. Nelson was about the importance of every single story. Every voice here counts because already, a mere 6 years from the event, the first instance of the anniversary being on a Tuesday, as was the original act of violence, people are forgetting and dishonoring. A week from tomorrow we'll have gone to work on a Monday, it may well be a sunny day with crisp blue skies that starts out cool but warms up to perfect walking weather, we will take the subway to work and we will, we hope, take it home again at the end of a relatively uneventful day. Six years ago next Tuesday we did most of those things.

Almost every time I see a fire truck go out these past 6 years I watch it for a moment. I look to see the face of a guy in the truck. I resist the childish impulse to wave and sometimes I don't win.

About a month ago I was in the grocery store and a couple of firemen cut in the line next to me which seemed odd because they're usually super polite. Then I noticed that the older woman bagging that checkout was waving them toward her speaking loudly, "My heroes, my heroes!" She was about my height, black with an island accent and her face smushed against the t-shirt of the lanky, greying white fireman when she hugged him. She reminded the cashier that FDNY gets a 10% discount at this store before bagging his things up quickly. She remembers. Maybe she doesn't. Maybe they are her heroes for some completely unrelated event but I suspect she remembers and she knows that remembering is all she can do for them but at least she's doing something. "My heroes," she said again as she waved the pair on. I realize that's why I watch the trucks go out. In my head I'm always saying, "Be careful" as I watch them go, even though I know that people with a tendency to be careful don't generally become New York City Firefighters and that no amount of care could have saved the 343 souls from their ranks in that particular fire. But I can't stop thinking it.

In the last couple of weeks 2 firefighters were killed and another 2 wounded in two separate instances at an ex-bank building near Ground Zero. A combination of shoddy building practices, safety measures to protect citizens around the construction site and the difficulty of using safety equipment when trying to save lives contributed to the losses. So near 9/11, in the midst of the controversy over the memorial service these guys had 2 more die and I thought about how little we notice them.

One day last week the squad near my job was pulling out as I came back from lunch. One guy without his coat or helmet was stopping traffic while the truck maneuvered out, he was briefly replaced by another fully suited guy while he got his gear. The first guy turned his back to me as he swung into the truck and I noticed his name in bold yellow across the bottom of his jacket. I read it twice or three times and I looked back to catch his face again in the window. I wanted to be able to identify him if his face came on the news later that day. Initially I'd felt foolish stopped on the sidewalk staring at a regular occurrence but I wanted to know that I hadn't passed by him without looking. I can tell you that his name started with a D and ended with an A, it can't have been more than 7 letters but, sadly, I can't remember it. I'd probably know it when I saw it and I'd certainly remember his face.

It's not OK to move the memorial. The thought that anyone who has spent any time at that site can ask to have it moved is unfathomable to me. If you were there that day, if you lived in or were visiting New York that month, if you have worked to restructure that site then you have breathed those people in. In whatever small amounts you have that dense smell of burning concrete and melting flesh inside of you. They are part of you and whether you agreed to it or not you must honor them by remembering. They are still in the asphalt and stone and dirt that is being shaped into something, something we won't know until we see it, something I'm not certain I want to see, and their presence makes it sacred.

Someone asked me a while ago why it mattered where one was buried. "You'll be dead, what do you care where you are?" As usual for me I had the perfect answer three days later. When you choose your place of burial you choose how you want people to remember you. They don't have to come and they may not get out of it what you would but they know they're there because of you. 2,819 people did not choose to be buried amongst the particles of hotly contested real estate in lower Manhattan but it is where we remember them and they deserve to be honored with a time of rest and reflection in that space each year. Their families and friends deserve that small comfort. We as a nation, especially given what has come after that event to divide us deserve a moment of coming together.

Anyone can see that, can't they?

At the end of Bobby a brief wrap up is written on the screen. It says, "Robert Francis Kennedy died at Good Samaritan Hospital on the morning of June 6th, 1968. His wife Ethel was at his side." I had a moment of wondering why the director, Emilio Estevez, would point out something so obvious until I realized that it's something that happened outside of my lifetime, if barely. The cast is star studded and likely to draw a number of younger viewers and they probably wouldn't know the end of the story.

What's more, I'm finding, some people just forget.

3 comments:

  1. Bobby really affected me.
    I watched it some time ago.
    I don't know how factual it is since I have read other retellings.
    You should wave at the firemen.
    There should be no shame in that.

    The rescue workers that came to OKC bombing are my angels. I still keep in touch with some of them.

    Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door. ~Saul Bellow

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  2. You have such a gift with words my dear. Your voice was in my ear that day, and until that phone went kaflooey, it was saved on there. I think your story, and everyone's story is still relevant and as important as the next persons. It was how we mourned. How we grieved. How we tried to heal. By telling. and retelling. and visiting. and honoring...so to you I say wave. Stare. Hug. Do whatever you want to do.

    I feel really really strongly about having the memorial at the sight as well. It needs to be there. It's a tuesday. it's the time and the place. I agree. loud and clear.

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  3. Miflohny4:08 PM

    It makes me sick that the footprint is not considered sacred ground. And it makes me sick that broadcasters don't understand that the important point of the memorial is not stupid speeches and whatnot, but the reading of the names. I remember the first anniversary NPR was broadcasting the ceremony, and cut away / were talking over the ceremony when the names were being read. It made me sick. Don't broadcasters have souls? Then this year, whatever network is covering the event wanted to stop coverage when the names were being read. Ugh! Sure, over time, this event will be memorialized less and less, and it makes me sick that these deaths have lead to soooo many other deaths, but at least we can have some modicum of respect for the people who died at ground zero, and hopefully, the others abroad, both military and civilian, as well.

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