Instant Karma: 9/11 Up in Harlem

 

9:11

Collection 9/11 Memorial Museum. Gift of NYU Child Study Center.

A few words about this blog post…
It has been over 16 years since 9/11. And during these years, I have tried, at various times, to write about my experiences living and teaching in New York City on that day.
I couldn’t pull it off.
If I’m honest, I’ve just never have been able to do the sort of moment-by-moment reliving of that day that this kind of writing requires. It is, perhaps predictably, a difficult subject for me. Mainly, it has been elusive; the closer I’ve gotten to it, the further it has retreated. While I have briefly held it in my hands, here and there, it would always end with me opening them only to find feathers there. It has been, in the end, flimsy as gossamer. But there is a time to every purpose…
A few of weeks ago was the anniversary of that day and, in the time since then, little by little, I have found that I have been able to go back there, to those times, and, finally, relive those moments.
And then, this morning, the news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. The very thought that a madman was raining death down among innocent people whilst I was writing this…
Predictably, I had more than a few reservations about posting this–today, or ever. But after thinking about it, I feel that this post, about 9/11–and its follow-up post, regarding the next days after 9/11 (which I’m in the process of writing)–is a valid reminder that we should all pause, everyday, to cherish our time here with each other–and to also be brutally honest about how dangerous and fleeting that time can potentially be.
If you are one of the handful of people who have read this blog before, you know that its ostensible ‘purpose’ is to reminisce about growing up—mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. I touch on other times too, other topics, but what all of my posts try to do is to give a ‘feel’ of a time. This one is different. What you’re about to read here is drawn mostly from a daily journal I kept at the time—it’s all facts. In fact, it may be the closest thing to actual reportage as I’ll ever get.
I hate to use this word, but I got ‘lucky’. The fact is, I was merely keeping a detailed day-to-day journal of my experiences as a new-ish teacher living and working in Harlem. That’s all. I thought that, maybe, if I paid attention, if I wrote down the details of my days—after changing my career drastically, and moving (back) to the east coast—I thought I might be able to capture an important moment, when something was born, when things changed, maybe bottle just a little lightning–but purely for my own purposes. Maybe, to look back on, to reminisce. So, I stuck to it: I would, every day, cast my net, pull in the details of what happened and write them down–sooner or later, my thinking went, something of interest had to happen.
I had no idea…
NOTE: While I’m here, I should also warn you that I wanted to tell you the story, my story, the way I saw, heard, and lived it. Like I say above, this is as close as I’ll ever get to reporting, so I tried my best to tell it exactly as it was. Consequently, much of this contains material that can should be considered offensive: language, images, and…
Well, as the kids say, it’s NSFW.
PLEASE — EXERCISE DISCRETION.

 

Dateline: September 11, 2001 – Harlem, New York City

I can see by my watch that it’s 3:51 in the morning. The orangey street light glow that bleeds through the broken blinds and the noise from 135th street twelve floors below—the random yelling of threats and profanities, the sound of not-too-distant gunfire, the drone of traffic and constant honking of car horns—connive to bathe the room in a kind of perverted and inexplicably calming Muzak. It’s weird at first, but it soon feels familiar. You end up counting on hearing it in the morning, like a marker that things are in their place, that everything is where you left it before sleep took you over. But this… this is not that sound.

BOOM! BANG-BOOM!

Someone is pounding on my door.

“Open the door, motherfucker!” comes the plaintive wail of a young woman’s raspy voice from the other side of the steel door. She knocks and hammers on it so hard that I swear it’s going to break open. “YO!”

I get out of bed—which is only a matter of inches from the door in this barely 20 x 30 ft. ‘room’—just big enough for a child’s sized bed, a broken chest of drawers, and a small ‘student’ desk. I say, as assertive as I can, “You have the wrong room!”

“I aint got the wrong nothing, motherfucker,” she answers. “Why aint you fuckin’ open the door? C’mon…” she trails off. Then, nearly sobbing.

“Look, you’ve got the wrong room—The. Wrong. Guy. I’m not who you’re looking for,” I say more forcefully this time.

“Who the fuck is you?” she demands, as if she is just realizing that I am, indeed, not who she’s looking for.

“My name is Steve,” I say, obediently, and as I hear my voice say these words, I am certain that a more square, more milquetoast, nay, white, thing has never been uttered in the history of Harlem, NYC.

My name is Steve… Jeezuz. Of course, it is.

A pause. I put my ear up to the door and can hear her shuffling something, the sound of paper—I imagine a brown shopping bag, god only knows what’s inside. Then, finally, I hear her dragging her footsteps as she walks away from the door. I sit on the bed and exhale in relief. She’s gone. Maybe I can get back to sleep.

“I SUCK YOU FOR FIVE DOLLARS!” barks her voice through the door, loud as bombs. 

Shiiiiiitttt… I mutter under my breath.

“Uh…” I involuntarily begin, “No, thank you. You really should–”

“Well, FUCK YOU, THEN. STUPID MOTHERFUCKER!” she yells. “GO FUCK YOURSELF!”

I hold my breath, hear footsteps—loud, then soft.

I wait.

I wait some more.

Finally, I don’t hear anything but the rhythmic ‘chirping’ sound of a smoke detector warning of its dead battery down the hall.

How did I get here? How did I end up here, in the Harlem YMCA, in the middle of the night, berated by a desperate woman clearly on the margins of sanity? This is the only thought I have in my head as I try to get back to sleep before I have to wake up in two hours. I soon realize it’s impossible—sleep. Or an answer. Fuck.

The short explanation is that, in my late 30s, I chucked my previous life as a filmmaker and writer into the dustbin and headed back east to be a teacher, and to attend graduate school. (There’s a whole labyrinthine story in that backstory, so full of improbable escapades and personal misadventures as to rival any of those to be found in the pages of a Bukowski novel or an issue of Tales of the Unexpected. Let me just offer, for now, that I experienced a ‘perfect storm’ of both career-related and personal calamities, and like some ragged vagabond-with-a-past in some old scratchy black and white movie, I was exiled, searching for as much physical and ideological distance from my old life as I could muster—and so ended up here.)

The ostensible ‘reason’ I was here, back in NYC (my third tour-of-duty living there), was that I became a member of The New York City Teaching Fellowship. What that entailed was, roughly, this proposal:

  • Do you have a university degree and skill and ability in a field that could be taught in high schools?
  • Do you have teaching experience?
  • Do you have a felony-free criminal record?
  • Do you have the stones to teach in some of New York City’s roughest schools?
  • Are you strapped for cash for your master’s degree?

Well, if you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, boy, did they have a deal for you! In exchange for at least 2 ½ years of full-time teaching, you got a full tuition-paid master’s degree, and full teaching certification.

Not a bad deal, right?

There was, of course, some fine print, a checklist of attributes that just weren’t in any of literature:

  • Teaching assignments being in some of the most difficult teaching environments that you could ever encounter.
  • Having your students telling you to go fuck your mother. Every day.
  • Having to negotiate a student into handing over his firearm to you.
  • Having to break up physical confrontations on a daily basis.
  • Being harassed and threatened regularly with racist comments and threats of violence—from random toughs on the street to shop owners, barbers, the elderly, young children… (If you were, like me, one of the only white people in the entire neighbourhood).

(Give this link a whirl to get a feel for my school, just months before my arrival—it’s an article from The New York Post: LOCKDOWN DAYS AT I.S. 275)

If none of this put you off, there was the niggling detail of having to complete your master’s degree in the evenings and weekends—after you’ve logged in a full, beginning-teacher’s-day or were hoping for, at least, one day off. (And this program was no pushover. While others’ might have had easier experiences, my program was exceedingly rigorous; it consisted of difficult courses taught by tough professors with chips on their shoulders who would, when you finally defended your thesis, make you rue the day you applied to the program.) Oh, and one more thing: you had to do all of this in one of the most expensive cities to live in on the planet and all on an interim teacher’s salary. Pure joy.

Anyway, all of this (and more!) brought me to the sweet digs located at 180 West 135th Street between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard known as The Harlem YMCA. Now, a quick Google search will show the current incarnation of the YMCA in Harlem to be a clean, welcoming facility, with modern conveniences. With all due respect and gratitude to the YMCA organization, this was NOT the Harlem YMCA I knew and came to (begrudgingly) call home for a time.

During my time there, the Harlem YMCA’s residence facilities were used, among other things, surely, as a halfway house for newly-released prison inmates looking to make successful transitions to life on the outside. The availability of rooms was scarce (I snatched the only available room at the time) and to get one you had to provide proof that you were legitimately in financial need (I was) and that you were pursuing some sort of legitimate occupation (I suppose my teaching and attending graduate school covered this) and you had to provide this in writing—weekly.

The rooms were microscopic and had few amenities (although, as I was reminded regularly by the YMCA’s manager, my room did have one of the only working televisions in the building. It took nearly five minutes for it to warm up, and it only successfully would display three channels, but it was, I would find out soon enough, one of my only windows to the world outside of Harlem, or, for that matter, New York City.) The bathroom was… interesting. Communal, it featured a wall of showers, which were shared with large, tattooed men who were understandably bewildered at the slight (compared to them) and ever-so-white guy standing (with a nervous and bemused expression on his face, surely) next to them.

The toilets were lined up, opposite of the showers, none of which had doors on them, and all in various states of disrepair. This allowed you to see someone sitting, attending to their business on the toilet whilst they, in turn, could watch you shower. To say that this was a slightly unsettling experience is to sorely test the definition of ‘understatement’.

But it was worth it—all of it. The Travis Bickle styled micro-room, the harassment I received from the crotchety old guard that saw me into the building every evening and out every morning (What! You ain’t left yet?)… you see, this was, in the end, free graduate school, and a fast track to a legitimate career—and certification to make it binding. And it had an important feature: reciprocity. Once I finished grad school and got my teaching certification, I could (and would, as it turned out) teach in any part of the world. It was my ticket to the rest of my life. And it was free. As long as I could survive.

Which after being woken up so early and in such demoralizing fashion is starting to feel like a tough proposition. I have a long day of teaching and a full night of classes ahead of me. And, truth be told, I’m hungover. I spent most of the night in Jersey City, hanging with two other teachers in my program in a dive bar with a jumping jukebox and cheap, stiff drinks, arguing, appropriately, the merits of Springsteen’s Born to Run vs Darkness on the Edge of Town. By the time I stepped off the New Jersey Transit and made my way through the labyrinthine World Trade Center Plaza, a curious mixture of 1970s design meeting contemporary efficiency, to finally get on the subway to find my way back up to 135th street in Harlem, it was already well past midnight. It would be the last I would ever see any the World Trade Center—in less than twelve hours, all of it would be destroyed. It is September 11, 2001.

I take advantage of being up so early to take a shower—at this hour, the bathroom is empty and I have the shower stalls to myself. The water is, as usual, cold as ice. I finish as quickly as I can. As I finally turn the water off, I notice a used condom laying there on the tile floor. Nice.

I make it back to my room, and make an important decision: The Music. You see, my main concern right now—more important than finding the last clean pair of underwear, or whether or not I can wear those socks again—is to find The Music. This is imperative. My whole day could ride on this.

Ever since I was in high school, it has been important to find the right tone-setting music to listen before I left for the day. Back then, it might have been the first side of Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand! or, maybe, London Calling, by the Clash, or, if it was a sunny spring day, some Van Halen.

Today, it’s Legend Lennon, The Very Best of John Lennon. “Imagine” opens things up and, even though I’m not the biggest fan of this song, it’s just the sort of soothing tone my pounding temples and slight sense of vertigo (thank you, hangover) are asking for. I gather the last of my things and put them into my messenger bag as “Instant Karma” comes blasting out of my small laptop speakers…

I glance at my watch: my time’s up; I’ve gotta make it out the door, fast. Why? Because the Harlem YMCA is located directly next door to my school—I have to leave before any of my students see me come out of the building; I’ve heard them ruefully talk about the ex-cons that live there. If they saw me come out of there… well, I can only imagine their reactions–I would be finished. I take out the CD and put it back in it’s case, the cover poorly printed, a blurry picture of Lennon on the cover, just barely legible print on the back. The tell-tale signs of a bootlegged CD. I bought it—and a few others—in Chinatown, on my way to Jersey City the day before. While I might normally be against this sort of thing—you know, stealing royalties from artists, etc.—pennies are tight at the moment. Four bucks a CD is too good of a deal to pass up and, fuck it, I only boned Yoko out of a few cents at this point, so why not? I jam my lesson plans into my bag and head out the door. John’s words echo in my head…

You better get yourself together

                    Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead…”

My day starts off fine. The first period today is a planning period; time for me to plan out my lessons for the day and do any other preparations I may need to do—making copies, mostly. Please, let me make copies. Please.

I’ve been trying to make copies of my parent-student-teacher contracts (around 80 of them, for each student I teach) ever since the first day of school (just over a week ago), but have been unable to. This, naturally, undermines any authority I have with my students. I have been promising them a stern manifesto regarding class rules and policies—one that requires their parent or guardian’s signature, and going into the second week of school, I haven’t provided it. There are two messages I am sending, loudly and clearly, to my students:

  1. I am not to be trusted
  2. I don’t have my act together

(But, really, looking back on this, after nearly two decades of teaching and in a variety of schools in three countries under my belt, this seems all pretty quaint, at best, and legitimately worrying at worst. I mean, get real; as if a signed piece of paper is going to put an end to kids brazenly telling me to fuck my mother, or stop them from bringing knives or handguns into the building, or, seriously, get them to actually open their textbook. What I would, thankfully, learn pretty quickly is that students will do what you ask if they know that you have their actual best interests at heart and if they trust you to be there for them, every day—not if you’re telling them what to do. While I might have legitimately a high threshold for being uncomfortable, some street smarts, and varied life experience, at 37 years of age I had no idea whatsoever what made kids tick. Frankly, my naiveté, back then, is both charming and embarrassing to behold.

So, back to our story: what’s the problem with the copies? Welcome to Issues in Public School Politics, 101…

You see, the school does, indeed, have a working photocopier in the building, but there are complications related to just who has access to this thing and for what purposes. It seems that, technically, the photocopier is actually UFT (United Federation of Teachers) property—our union. I walk into the staff room—the last place I saw the venerated machine—and am barraged by a maelstrom of yelling and condemnations volleyed back and forth between our union representative and our principal.

But no photocopier.

The debate, as usual, revolves around who can use the machine, but also where it can be placed. Apparently, the machine—according to the union—can only be placed upon veritable hallowed ground, i.e. any area that is officially sanctioned as a union area in the school. This issue has become such a bone of contention that during a staff meeting being held in the school’s auditorium last week, a loud confrontation between our representative and principal became so heated that it resulted in our union representative’s physical removal by the New York City Police School Security guards. She screamed and flailed about whilst three large men, literally, carried her down the aisle, past slack-jawed staff, and out the door.

Then, mysteriously, the photocopier went missing.

Early this morning, the word got out: It’s in the basement! Get down there before they move it again!

So why am I telling you this? Because, this is September 11, 2001—about 7:45 am. And people are ready to throw fists over a copy machine. In a matter of an hour, all of our lives are going to be forever changed—thousands of people in our city are going to violently and grimly lose their lives—people we know and love, our relatives, our friends, our husbands and wives, our children… these people are going to be vanquished from the earth, and we’re arguing over a fucking photocopier.

I finally find it. It’s sequestered in a back room of the basement, like some crazy treasure cache in a pyramid antechamber. As I enter the small room, I pass a smugly satisfied teacher greedily clutching onto her stack of fresh copies as she scurries by. I quickly load up my originals… only to realize that I’m screwed: the code has been changed. I gamely yet uselessly punch in the numbers over and over, as if, for some reason, it’ll finally just work. It doesn’t.

Fuck this. I decide to go to the second floor, to the questionably named Teacher Center, a sort of catch-all area wherein you can get a life-shortening cup of coffee, and, at the very least, a place to stay during your planning period—as your room is almost certainly being occupied by another class. (This room, The Teacher Center, is not the staff room, that is NYC Public School property, this Teacher Center is a UFT enclave. Confused yet?) I decide to make some constructive use of my time and take out a copy of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl to ascertain whether or not this might be something I could get my students to read. It’s short, so I’m thinking that maybe this is the sugar that the medicine could hide in.

I’m a few pages into this thing, just after the part where the parents, who are seeking medical help for their baby—who has been stung by a scorpion—are turned away by the rich, corrupt doctor.

Instant Karma’s gonna get you

                    Gonna knock you right on the head…”

Lennon’s words echo in my mind when Mr. Jackson, the social studies teacher, bounds into the room and comes towards me, a peculiar smirk on his face. This going to be good, I think, bracing myself for another anecdote—Jackson’s been going on a post-divorce dating marathon and while it has yet to produce any meaningful relationships, it’s supplied him with endless tales to entertain us. In short, Jackson can tell a story.

“How’s it going, man?” I ask.

“Get this,” he begins. Here it comes. “Some dumb motherfucker just crashed his plane into the World Trade Center.”

“What?” I say. What the hell is he talking about?

“Yeah,” he says simply and shrugs his shoulders.

Into the building? Just how dumb can  you be? How could you be so stupid—I mean, how could you miss it? It’s only one of the biggest building complexes in all of New York City.

“Well, let’s check the Internet—maybe there’s a news story,” I offer.

We go to the computer station in the room and try Yahoo, but the ‘working’ icon just spins uselessly until, finally, we get a ”your session has timed out” message over and over again. The internet is down.

Then Jackson’s phone cell phone rings.

“Yo, whattup?” he answers, all smiles, recognizing the caller. But then his expression changes. The smirk and nearly constant grin are replaced with a look of seriousness. He suddenly grabs his hair, his hand comically pushing down his afro. “What…? Are you fucking for real? Just now?” then, pausing to listen, his head alternately nods, then shakes. People are coming into the room. I notice, in the background, the murmur of voices. “No… ah, hell no…” he continues. “All right, you too—go home. I’ll holler at you later. Right.” He closes his cell phone and looks at me and the rest of the teachers that have come into the room. “Another plane just crashed into The World Trade Center—TWO.”

“What? What happened?” I say, not for anyone to answer me, but to feel like I am saying something, filling up the awkward space. “What?”

“And they were jets—airliners,” he explains. “My friend, he saw it on the news.”

“Shit. This ain’t no damn accident,” someone says behind me.

We try the internet again. The same error messages.

I’m confused—moments before, I pictured a Cessna, you know, some single-engine plane, crashing into the building by accident, taking a bunch of lives—horrific, to be sure, but nothing anywhere near the horrors that were actually taking place, unbeknownst to us, at that very moment, just blocks away.

While we were happy about the fact that we didn’t have the distraction of a working television set in the building during the summer school session and, especially, during the first week of this new year, we are now desperate to find one, to even just to glance at it—if only to get some clarity on what’s happening, what has happened. The internet is down, there’s no TV, and we are limited to confusing and often contradictory information coming from various radios in the building, duelling on different stations, in low volumes in offices away from the ears of the students. The goal is to keep things as normal as possible until we, or someone, has some idea of what is happening, of what to do. And, noticing the time, I notice that I have just a few minutes before my first class.

I’m about fifteen minutes into the lesson, it’s around 9:45, when Mr. Jiménez, our special education teacher comes bounding into the classroom. Jiménez is tall, athletic, handsome, and always exudes an air of positivity, a permanent smile on his face. He is, predictably, exceedingly popular with the kids. But he’s not smiling.

He rushes next to me and whispers loudly in my ear, “Another jet just crashed into the Pentagon, and another one in Pennsylvania, so that’s four jets that they crashed and there’s a bomb scare at The Empire State Building. It’s fucking on!”

I stopped listening after he said Pentagon. My girlfriend was a manager at a department store at the mall directly across from the Pentagon. (Crazy as it sounds, it’s named Pentagon City and resides directly across Interstate 395 from The Pentagon.) I’m trying to focus my attention on my students alarmed expressions on me, what Jiménez is saying, all while trying to figure out how to get in touch with my girlfriend as soon as possible. Then, quickly as he burst in, Jiménez is out the door.

I turn back to the class and am met with thirty-five sets of questioning eyes—all on me. They look like they know that something is wrong, very wrong. I trust my gut and just carry on with the lesson as if nothing out of the ordinary is going on, as if Jiménez, someone they know to be impossible to annoy, anger, or distract, didn’t just look like he saw a ghost. No, I’m just going to take this moment-by-moment, minute-by-minute, one foot in front of the other, until I make until the end of the day. That’s the plan.

We were reading a short story aloud before the interruption, so I just pick up where we left off: “Okay, let’s get back to the story; I’m dying to know what happens next. Sandy, can you pick it up? Third paragraph, page seven?” She reads dutifully. And that’s just it; I can tell she’s distracted, her mind on something else as she dictates the words from the page. She gets a few more sentences in when, right on cue, Denelle, in the back row shouts, “Stop throwin’ shit, motherfucker!” Sandy stops reading. I look at the back of the class and, sure as shit, James, a small-for-his-age boy is throwing pieces of rolled up paper at Denelle’s head, trying to get the paper balls to stick in his hair. When I address James and ask him to stop, he pulls the classic teenage tactic of diversion by ignoring my intervention altogether and, now that he has the floor, to ask a question: “Mr. Hahn, what’s goin’ on, anyway?”

I hamfistedly say that there’s nothing going on at all and then ask Sandy to continue reading. She goes back to the book, her reading sonorous and, now, too soft to be heard. She’s a somewhat shy student—her studiousness and dedication to her work make her an easy target for most of the class; hard work in school is seen as something of selling out. “Louder!” yells Shaniqua, the class’s—maybe the school’s—tough girl. Then, and I don’t know why, James launches out of his seat and throws a looping haymaker at Denelle’s head. It connects.

All hell breaks loose. Everyone starts yelling, leaping out of their desks, and Denelle and James fall to the floor, arms tangled around each other, each trying to wrestle or punch the other (if they only could decide), wishing, surely, that the other would just plain stop. It’s more damaging to their egos than anything else. The sweet science, this is not.

I’m in the middle of sorting everything out, returning the rest of my thirty-three students to their seats (if not their books) when an administrative assistant comes to the door. I wave her in, relieved, frankly, to have another adult in the room.

“Pardon me, is Jeff Moore in this class?” she asks. Jeff’s face immediately slacks. He raises his hand cautiously. “Bring your things please,” she says. Jeff looks at me for direction. I nod for Jeff to follow her directions and go to her. “Jeff’s mother is here to pick him up,” she says as Jeff approaches.

“Did you remember your notebook?” I ask. He nods yes, but then looks at me with a worried expression. “Don’t worry; we’ll catch you up tomorrow on the story,” I say to him and, then, to the class, “No spoilers if you see Jeff later!” They groan and complain as Jeff and the assistant go out the door. As the door closes I think I can here, coming from somewhere down the hall, a radio, the dialogue indecipherable, and find myself keeping an ear on it, hoping to make out an odd word, here and there, to maybe get some idea of just what is happening. I successfully ride out the rest of the class. I purposely sit James and Denelle back in their own seats, in close and dangerous proximity, counting on them to provide enough distraction for the rest of the students so as they don’t get too curious about events outside of the building. They do not disappoint.

We make it to lunchtime. I’ve just lined up my students, and after nine—NINE—attempts at a quiet, orderly, or just plain quasi-peaceful dismissal to the hall exits, they are finally on their way to cafeteria food and hurried basketball games out in the courtyard. I’m on my way to listen to a radio, try the internet again, ask a colleague, anything to figure out what’s happening, when Mr. Jiménez flags me down in the corridor.

“Have you been outside? Have you seen it?” he asks anxiously.

“I’ve been in class all morning,” I say. “Seen what?”

“Let’s go outside;  you can see it from the corner,” he says as he hurries for the exit. I follow him, trying to keep up.

We shoot down the three flights of stairs and jog out to the corner of 134th street and Adam Clayton Powell (or Seventh Avenue). We look south, down the avenue, but, at first, I don’t know what I’m looking at. Or what to look for. But I know this: something is wrong, ‘off’.

“They’re gone,” he say. “Collapsed. Nothing left.”

All I can see is what looks to be a large cloud, or, maybe, a bank of fog down in the distance, in the distance where I would usually see… wait… The Towers. It feels, suddenly, like someone punched me in the stomach. We decide to cross the street for a better look down the avenue and as we wait to dodge the traffic, I notice the people who pass us—car service drivers, mostly, or the styled-out, young black men in tricked-out SUVs—they all have this look, this glazed look in their eyes.

We make it to the traffic island and I look directly down Seventh Avenue. They’re gone. The tops of the twin towers, things that usually looked like punctuation marks at the end of the avenue, are gone. Replaced by what looks like a soft, benign cloud. And just above the cloud and all around it, the bluest blue sky you ever saw.

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A view of the disaster from Harlem. (Image credit: http://drinkingacrosseurope.blogspot.ca/2006/09/)


“I’m sorry, Mr. Hahn, is Tanisha _______ in your class?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hahn, is there a Tyerell _______ in your class?”

“…Alicia?”

“…Kevin?”

“…Dameta”

“…Eric?”

And so on, as assistant after assistant from the main office come by my door to retrieve students. This scene plays out over and over for the next few hours, until, by the end of the day, I have nearly only a third of my usual class. With two hours left in the day and students, literally, being evacuated from my room, I realize that I have no choice but to come clean with my remaining students.

“Quiet, please… everyone, quiet… Terrel, I need you to sit down, sir,” I say, sternly, as Terrell does the exact opposite, standing up in his seat, readying what appears to be a projectile to throw at one of his remaining fellow students. “Terrel, NOW,” I bark.

There must be something different in my voice or expression because he immediately sits down and looks at me like he thinks I might have actually lost my mind. I go up to the front of the room and realize that I don’t have any idea how to say what I have to say.

“Well… you should know that… well, something happened today, a few hours ago, this morning,” I begin. The kids look at me intently, not making a sound. “Two planes—jets; airliners—crashed into The World Trade Center.” This is met with gasps, actual mouth-aghast gasps. And this look. A look on all of these children’s faces that I, to this day, cannot adequately describe. I’m reminded that these are, indeed, children, not the near-adult, tough guy and girl ‘gangstas’ in training—an image and lifestyle that they work so hard to convey the majority of the time.

“Apparently,” I begin, but stammer, thinking of my girlfriend, who, I’m sure, was, literally, across the street from the Pentagon crash. “Apparently, there were terrorists that hijacked, that stole, the planes.”

“On purpose?” John nearly yells.

“Yes, John, on purpose,” I answer, and this really sucks the air out of the room. “A plane also crashed into The Pentagon, in Washington, D.C., and another plane in a field, somewhere in the countryside in Pennsylvania.” They actually wince as I tell them this.

“Why? Why did they do that?” asks Shaniqua, looking at me like she’s certain that I’ll answer in a way that will make all of this make sense to her.

“I don’t know, Shaniqua. I don’t know,” is what I answer, and I don’t, but I want to blurt out to her and the rest of the class that people are shit and the world is fucked, and, goddamnit, just leave, get the fuck out of here this instant, go home and hug your mother, your sister, your brother, your father, your uncle, your grandma, your grandpa, the guy that runs the fucking bodega on the corner, look at your friends in this room and thank god or pure chance or whatever you think is responsible for what happens to you that you are still here, THAT… YOU… ARE… STILL… HERE.

And me? I selfishly, want to be anywhere BUT here. I momentarily daydream… I am skating, skating on a frozen pond, somewhere in northern British Columbia, Canada, a child, my yet to be born child, at my heels, and feel as if this already out-of-reach dream has, in a morning’s passing, already matured from the improbable to the impossible, an already wispy relic from a world that no longer exists.

A question rings out that brings me back, back into the moment: “Are they going to crash into us, our school? Are they going to crash into Harlem, too?” It’s Shakiel, visibly frightened.

“No, no, no, Shakiel!” I say, thinking that I would give the use of my legs to take away that look on his face that moment, because, well, because he usually has this smile on his face, this smile that, no matter what asinine thing he’s up to, just makes you want to hug this kid. But not now. Now, he has this look on his face that makes me feel helpless, that makes me want to cry, that makes me know that we are well and truly in it—all of us.

I say, again, “No, Shakiel,” and make the mistake of adding: “Why would you think that? Why would they…?”

But he cuts me off with: “Because we’re black?”

Let’s take a pause for me to interject something from the safe confines of 2017…

It may come as no surprise that I would like to think of myself as a good and reasonable person, and I didn’t back then nor do I now at the time of this writing, consider myself to be, in any way, racist. But let me make something clear. Or, at least, let me make it clear that I now know this to be true: I benefited then, I benefit now, and will likely always benefit from white privilege. (And, for me, it’s even worse: I am a white, middle-aged, reasonably attractive (or so I’m told) male. Doors open for me wherever I go.)

While I certainly tried my best back there to actually live what I preached/taught and would do so every day in a classroom since, my very questioning the notion that Shakiel’s bred-in-the-bone understanding that the very colour of his skin, who he is, makes him inherently guilty in the eyes of people who don’t look like him, deserving of hatred, of punishment, illustrates my clear ignorance of this fact. Big time. (But I thought I was doing the right thing. For example, even though I would, finally, move out of the YMCA, I spent the next two years living just a couple blocks from the school for two more years—my kids’ dangerous neighbourhood was my dangerous neighbourhood, too; it was important to me that I lived, as close as I could, to their experience—that was my thinking, then. Which, when I read these words now, with nearly two decades and a continent and a country between the me now and who I was then, is an ironic affirmation of my naieve and entirely priveleged point of view as I could ever conjure up.)

The fact is that me and my colleagues in my cohort—mostly white, upper middle class folks in their late 20s or early 30s—were, in a word, colonialists. With little experience or training, we were established as exemplars, as living ‘ways to be’ to people who didn’t want to be like me or my friends. Like all people everywhere, they wanted to be themselves, not anyone else, and certainly not me. But we were going to push it on them anyway. Even if we actually believed that we were doing anything but.

I clumsily stare at Shakiel in dumb silence. I am, literally, speechless. I have no idea how to answer this and as I sit there, I can feel all of the rest of my students asking the same thing with looks of expectation on their faces. I simply feel too small for this task. How can I convince a classroom of children, who feel that the world is predisposed to hating them because of the colour of their skin, that they’re safe, that no one would hurt them for no reason other than who they are, when I don’t believe it myself?


 

By the end of the day, there is only a fraction of my class left to excuse. I’m assuming that it’s a foregone conclusion that there will be no class tomorrow, although there has been no official announcement one way or the other. Following my efforts to maintain an air or normalcy, I assign a short writing assignment for homework. The final bell rings and they leave in a fury of chaotic laughter and giddiness. Watching them barrel out the door, I am envious of kids’ ability to be, well, kids in any situation.  As I am erasing my blackboard, there is an announcement to meet in the auditorium.

“You can’t be serious! You’re going to make these kids come into school tomorrow?” I  practically shout after it announced at the meeting that we will have a full school day, as usual.

Ms. Thomas, our principal, answers sternly, “Until we hear otherwise from The Board of Ed, we are going to conduct school as normal, Mr. Hahn.”

Ms. Jones, our too-kind-for-words literacy specialist comes to my aid. “How do we even know it’s safe? Not to mention the fact that these kids are going to have a difficulty time dealing with this.”

“Exactly!” I chime in. “Maybe, we should be giving these kids an opportunity to be with their families, people who can help them through this. I mean, at the moment, I don’t know how I’m going to process thisand, like most of us, I’m still not entirely sure what the hell is happening. Coming to school tomorrow, like everything is just fine is like telling our kids that nothing happened. That’s total bullshit!” Apparently, the rest of the staff just needed one guy to speak to the principal inappropriately, one Spartacus. Almost immediately, the rest of the staff is letting fly with Oh, hell no!s and Fuck that!s and the like.  My job here is done.

The meeting over (with a standing order to turn up tomorrow at 7:45 am, as usual), I head out onto the sidewalk in front of the school. I have class in about an hour, an adolescent psychology course, and I have just about enough time to make my way across the park and into campus. As I walk down the block, I notice a group of upper middle men hanging around the entrance to a deli, a boom-box tuned to a radio station. They’re all hovering around the radio, staring off intently, looks of concentration on their faces as they listen to the news reports. I can only make out the odd Afghanistan… President Bush… Terrorists… World Trade Center… thousands feared dead…

I cross over to 135th street and pass a row of brownstones. A few families sit on the steps listening to radios while kids, from young infants to early teens, hover nearby. The adults speak animatedly about the disaster.

“They should go over there and kill all of those muthufukas, ALL OF THEM! They whole fuckin’ families!” says a short, fat woman, a baby in her arm, venom in her eyes. She doesn’t say the words as much as spit them out.

Another woman sitting opposite her on the stoop adds, “Those muthufukas was celebratin! THEY. WAS. CEL-A-BRATING!” She let’s that sink in for a moment. “I saw it on the T.V.!”

Then one of the men, “They should get the fuck out of our country, know what I’m sayin’?”

The fat woman fires back with, “Should get outta our neighbourhood, you feel me?”

“Fuck them! Get the fuck outta our neighbourhood and take your muthafukin’ fried chicken with you!” says the man. (There are several fried chicken take-out restaurants, all knock offs of Kentucky Fried Chicken [Kennedy Fried Chicken, for example] that are, seemingly, largely owned and operated by Middle Eastern folks.)

“Uh-hmmm,” agrees the woman with the baby, as a small child races past me on a Razor scooter, swerving to not hit me and nearly ending up in the street. “Takyra, get you ass out the street!” the woman yells. Takyra’s head whips back as if she’s been shot and immediately redirects the scooter back onto the sidewalk.

As I pass, one of the men gives me a look of solidarity, a Can you believe this shit? sort of look that I return. Just yesterday, probably, I might have gotten the What’re you doing up here? look, or, as an owner of a deli said to me last week as I approached the bullet-proofed plexiglass that held him and the cash register at a safe distance, “You fuckin’ lost or something?” Something about this, all of this has, for the time being anyway, erased some of the lines, or, at least, blurred them.


 

I stare at the signs on the front doors of the university.

SCHOOL CLOSED. ALL CLASSES SUSPENDED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

I don’t know why, but it’s this that makes it click in my head, that something is really happening. I haven’t seen a T.V. or even heard a full radio news report, so I don’t know what’s actually going on, or, for that matter, really, what’s happened, but when I see that the university has shut down, I know we’re really into something. It’s completely stupid, I realize, but I chalk it up to my plain inability to make any sense of things in a sensible way at that moment.

I’m heading back to the YMCA when I see a woman from my program walking up the steps. I don’t know her name—that is to say, I don’t remember her name—we worked together on a data analysis exercise in another class over the summer. She’s an African-American woman, early thirties, who always dresses like a fashion conscious Black Panther member.

“School’s closed. No class,” I say and nearly stupidly add, “So that’s good!” but stop myself. (I have a bad habit of trying to make a joke of everything and anything when nervous.)

She walks up to me and says, “Yeah, I figured. But, you know, I just had to check.” She looks at me and says, “This… this thing.. it’s so…” Suddenly, spontaneously, she begins to cry long, hiccupy sobs. Reflexively, I hug her and her head falls onto my shoulder. We’re standing there for what seems like a long time, her heaving sobs in my ear, when, finally, she stops, looks at me. I say. “It’s going to be okay. You’ll see,” and hope that this is going to be true for her.

We sit on the steps and she says, “I don’t want to go home just yet.” I agree. We sit there, in silence, until, finally the skies begin to darken. We walk through the park and awkwardly stand at the 135th/Lenox subway station. Finally, I say, “I’ll see you in class,” and cross the street to head back to the YMCA.

The first thing I do when I enter the lobby is go to the payphone. I punch in my phone-card and dial my girlfriend’s number. I immediately get an error recording saying that my call cannot be completed as dialled. I hang up and try the operator, for a collect, person-to-person call. Finally, after three attempts, I get the operator—who tells me that any long-distance phone calls are, until further notice, impossible. There’s nothing I can do but hope that she, my girlfriend, not the operator—although, really, I’m throwing a wish her way too—is, like me, okay.

I exit the elevator on my floor and head to the bathroom; its windows look directly downtown and it offers a real postcard view of lower Manhattan. This postcard, however, is postmarked from somewhere I’ve never been before.

The first thing that strikes me is just… well, where in the hell are the Twin Towers? Where are those two buildings that have been such a part of my conscience for all of the years I’ve lived in New York City? (How many summer evenings did I spend in Washington Square Park, looking at the setting sun bouncing off the Towers in the distance, marvelling at their existence in my skyline, two beacons watching over me, telling young version of me, on the precipice of my life, that I had made it—all the way to New York City!) All I can see now is a gap in the buildings and that large cloud I saw earlier in the day, stubbornly hanging over the entire end of Manhattan. I sit transfixed, staring out the window at it for a long time. I’m finally interrupted by someone flushing the toilet behind me.

In my room, I throw my messenger bag on the bed, close the large metal door, and turn on the T.V.. It takes a long time for the picture tube to warm up, but there is, almost immediately, audio. “…a disaster of unprecedented proportions,” says the newscaster, and then, right on cue, the image fades onto the screen: one of the World Trade Center twin tower buildings, black smoke spewing from a gaping hole. Then, suddenly, and almost peacefully, causally even, a plane, a fucking airliner!, flies into the other building like a knife going through Jello. It is the most jolting thing I have ever seen and I catch my expression in the mirror over the desk. I look like a cartoon; I actually have my mouth open, stunned. I think about what I’m doing at this moment, this moment when hundreds of people are instantly vaporized: I’m cursing a photocopier. It’s all too absurd to comprehend.

I watch this news coverage for, literally, hours. It doesn’t get me any closer to understanding anything at all about what has just happened today. If anything, the constant loop of footage of the planes crashing into the building, people flinging themselves from floors hundreds off feet from the ground, the buildings collapsing, all just come together to make it all more abstract, more incongruous, more unreal. Finally, I decide to get some food—it hits me that I haven’t eaten a single thing all day.

I walk to the corner of Adam Clayton Powell and 134th. There’s a deli near there, but I notice that the block is cordoned off by police. There’s a police precinct on this block and this is obviously a precautionary security measure. I walk across the street anyway, thinking, maybe, I can still get into the deli, but I am almost immediately confronted by an obviously annoyed policeman.

“May I help you?” he says, but what he means is “What the fuck do you think you’re doing, idiot?”

“Uh, I was just going to the deli,” I say.

“Deli’s closed,” he says and looks away, making it clear that he doesn’t have time for any of my stupid bullshit. I turn on my heels and head, instead, to a Chinese takeout joint a few blocks in the opposite direction.

I walk into the place, approach the counter, and wait next to an elderly woman. She looks dignified and kind, a real contrast to the surroundings of the ‘restaurant’.

You see, this place conforms to the two distinct variations of Chinese ‘restaurants’ here in Harlem:

  1. Just a glorified window. Just enough space to walk in, stand, and order through a hole in a thick, multi-layered plexiglass wall. There is absolutely no sitting, no hanging around in places like this—get your food and get out.
  2. This one: same as above, but with an actual room with a few rickety fast-food bench type tables, horribly lit by bare overhead fluorescent lamps—get your food, sit uncomfortably for a few minutes, and get out. Honestly, it looks like the sort of warehouse back room where tortures are committed in movies or something. Interspersed between the ‘tables’ are stacks of cardboard boxes, their contents, thankfully, a mystery. Again, in this one, the cooks and the cashier are safely behind a full wall of plexiglass—there’s just that hole to yell your order through and to collect your food.

“Pardon me, ma’am, have you already ordered?” I ask the woman.

She turns and smiles. “Oh, yes. Yes, I have. Go ahead.”

I say thank you and order a pork lo mein. The cashier looks at me like she wouldn’t like anything better than to see me drop dead right there, right then.

“This is an awful thing, isn’t it,” the elderly woman says to me.

“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “Unbelievable.”

“So much hate in the world. So much hate… it’s a shame,” she says, looking off, somewhere, some other time and place. After a few moments, the plexiglass door flies open and the cashier thrusts a bag of food at the woman. “Your oder!” The woman, unfazed, smiles graciously, and takes the bag. “Thank you so much.” She turns to leave, then says to me with a smile, “Have a good evening, sir. Be safe.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I offer. “You too.”

Later, back in my room, eating lo mein out of a styrofoam container, I’m thinking about her, the elderly woman, and wonder what she’s seen over her life, how this will all fit in, or if it even will. It’s when I’m trying to picture where she went with that order of food, where she went with that grace in the face of such ugliness, that an announcement comes over the local news: Mayor Guliani has closed all public schools tomorrow. I feel vindicated.

But, he insists, the city must “return to normal” as soon as possible, imploring all NYC residents to “go to restaurants, go to stores”, and so on. I wonder how many people—particularly folks in this neighbourhood—consider going to restaurants or stores as a barometer of normalcy. And it is also in this moment that I understand, just a little bit, where so much of the hatred and abject misunderstanding that we, all of us, have with each other. There’s a lot to pick up on in that tone-deaf proclamation for ‘tough New Yorkers’ to get back on the horse by opening their wallets and, I realize, from that moment on, that if you’re not part of the solution, sooner or later…

Instant Karma’s gonna get you
Gonna knock you right on the head
You better get yourself together
Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead

What in the world you thinking of
Laughing in the face of love
What on earth you tryin’ to do
It’s up to you, yeah you… 

 

 

CONTINUED IN:

Imagine: 9/12 at Ground Zero

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One comment

  1. Alyson · October 3

    Found this post by accident but what a powerful read. Thanks for sharing your memories of that momentous day.

    Like

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