Beacons of Light

The World Trade Center memorial beacons are back on.  I caught a glimpse of them as I was walking along my street in Park Slope and glanced up at the night sky to see those two shafts of light piercing the clouds. Those simple, silent beacons are turned on for a few evenings surrounding the 9/11 anniversary each year and they never fail to catch me by surprise; a sudden wave of melancholy follows, particularly when the night sky is clear and crisp, as it often is in early September here, and as it certainly was on that day. I didn’t lose any loved ones on 9/11. I was one of the lucky ones. But the memories of every day of that entire week are as crystal clear today as they were nine years ago.

I was living on 14th Street in Manhattan at the time, the effective dividing line between uptown and downtown, between where life continued as normal—businesses open, transit running, deliveries made–and where life stopped. Where the intersections were patrolled by National Guardsmen with rifles—a sight we’d never experienced in New York before, but have become all too accustomed to since—and no one was allowed to go any farther south without proof that they had a good reason.  The smoke and smell of the burning pile was heavy in the air, hard even to escape inside my apartment, on the top floor of a five-story building.

Fourteenth Street, from the West Side Highway east to Broadway and Union Square, became a parade of iconic 9/11 images,  ones that were experienced by those of us on the ground a half day or so before they became familiar to the rest of the nation on television: people gathering for candlelight vigils in Union Square; the growing mound of food and supplies heaped outside the Salvation Army headquarters, sent by Good Samaritans in faraway places; people lined along the West Side Highway, holding signs thanking the rescue workers who came rushing from near and far; and the missing-persons photos. They started appearing on Thursday morning, two days after the attacks. I saw the first as I headed into the A train stop at Eighth Avenue on my way to work: a snapshot of a smiling young woman dressed in a wedding gown. It was too heart-breaking to contemplate, that happy young woman and the desperate loved one who had made photocopies and went around plastering them up and down the street. There were two flyers that morning, but when I emerged from the same subway stop that evening they were everywhere. . . . posters and pictures affixed to every available surface:  lampposts, street signs, mailboxes, walls, storefronts and subway entrance railings; dozens of faces, dozens of snapshots of smiling, happy people.  The missing.

There was still some hope in those hours. Hope that some of those smiling faces would somehow make their way home, that they were maybe lost in a daze or unconscious in a hospital somewhere.  For the rest of us, there was a feeling of awkward solidarity in our stunned, collective grief. It was evident in the stoic face of the elderly gentleman on the subway, dressed in a suit and tie and clutching a tiny American flag to his chest; in another man, an utter stranger, who turned and gave me a long hug at a noontime memorial service at the Catholic church near my workplace, sobbing into my shoulder; in the voice of a woman who dialed my home number by mistake. She was calling from Florida and had got me while trying to reach a relative, “But oh honey,” she said with maternal concern, “Are you OK?” And on Friday evening, at the end of four unbelievable days, we watched from my friend Nathan’s rooftop as one person after another stepped out onto the sidewalks of Second Avenue with a lit candle. Word of a simultaneous nationwide, twilight vigil had spread virally online that day and we weren’t sure anyone would really take part. But there they were, even the taxi drivers pulling over to park and stand silently by their vehicles with candle in hand.

The days passed in a haze as I readied to move from Manhattan to Brooklyn, where I’d found a new apartment two days before 9/11, not stopping to notice that the view of lower Manhattan from the back bedroom window included the Twin Towers.  Like any member of the family, I’d not paid attention to them standing there, even as I looked right at them.  So there’s always a chill when I look out the same window each year at the powerful beacons of light that reach upward toward infinity.  They are a simple, eloquent reminder of so much that has passed, but also of how easily the familiar, the everyday and beloved can disappear from sight.