Is it possible to get through the portraits of grief in The New York Times every day and not weep? No, it is not. But through our tears we are learning a great deal about this city, and about the lives of those exotic strangers in our midst-the men and women we pass in the street, share elevators with or crowd up against in the subway.
First of all, many of the victims of Sept. 11 were not (as this writer is not) residents of New York City, and most were not Manhattanites. In the weeks after the barbarism of Sept. 11, many hymns have been sung to the enduring spirit of New Yorkers, and many tributes offered to the city’s resiliency. But the attack killed thousands whose claim to represent the best of New York would have been dismissed, as recently as Sept. 10, with a sneer in some of Manhattan’s most fashionable ZIP codes. The dead invariably hailed from the outer boroughs, Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey, making them members of the much-derided bridge-and-tunnel crowd. Downtown Manhattan may have absorbed the physical blow, but the human devastation of Sept.11wasmost cruelly felt in places like St.AgnesRoman Catholicparishin RockvilleCentre, L.I., wherealectorat Mass on Sept. 16 read a list ofmissingparishioners and didn’t stop untilhecalled30 names-including those of his son and son-in-law. The New Jersey towns of Basking Ridge, Summit and Middletown had double-digit losses; everybody in those towns knows somebody who was lost on Sept. 11. The whole of Long Island is, it seems, a giant wake for firefighters and cops. Staten Island, the least populous borough, lost more than 70 people.
UntilSept.11, this geographiccohort was considered the bane of Manhattan nightlife and culture. But now, when peoplespeakofthe courage and tenacity of New York, they aretoastingnot
the glossy-reading, celebrity-worshipping,brand-name-buyingchattering classes of Clinton-era Manhattan, but the immigrant staff of Windows on the World,theclerks who took subways to the Trade Center from central Brooklyn, the traders who boarded the Long Island Railroad, New Jersey Transit and the PATH trains that morning, and the cops and firefighters who leave behind hundreds of children in the civil-service enclaves of southern Staten Island.
According to a certain celebrated member of the Op-Ed brigade, before Sept. 11 we were a society immersed in trivia and ephemera, self-absorbed and materialistic. A society, it was said, of Sex and the City -a phrase that signifies nothing to me, but perhaps is a coded message that only select readers understand. Any day’s sample of The Times ‘ mini-obituaries suggests that “we” lead lives not of gossip, movie references and desperate materialism, but of the stuff that really matters.
The interrupted lives of Sept. 11 were filled with small joys signifying everything important: love, companionship, community, children. The Times’ portraits of grief on Oct. 15, a day chosen at random, included that of a broker from New Jersey who had three kids and still found time to volunteer as an emergency medical technician in his town; a firefighter and father of two who had no patience for colleagues who joked about their wives; a woman from Brooklyn who had juggled a job, marriage, a 2-year-old and dance classes; a managing director who made sure to get home in time to bathe his two daughters every night.
stories are inspiring, too, a wonderful antidote to those outdatedwindbagswho make sweeping statements about the emptiness of our lives. The portraits tell of parents who paid mortgages and endured long commutes for their children’s sake; immigrants who hoped to find better lives here; uniformed personnel who thought of nothing else but saving lives. These were lives filled with meaning and selflessness and community.
The world that was revealed on Sept. 11, that has been chronicled so brilliantly in The Times every day, is one worth fighting for. If Americans were as vapid and superficial as some seem to believe, we would have fled from the challenge of Sept. 11. Instead, we exhibit the everyday bravery of the good and decent, going about our business because there are bills to pay and people depending on us. Yes, some of us may be given to what was described so dismissively as the “paranoia of trivia,” but few of us have assistants to open our mail.
I don’t know how many of the dead would have agreed that they were part of a self-indulgent Sex and the City society; my guess is that many would find such a notion ignorant and offensive.
Besides, most cops and firefighters I know would sooner give up their uniform allowance than pay whatever it is that HBO charges per month for such fare.