Post-September Beauty

“The words that enlighten the soul are more precious than jewels.”, Hazrat Inayat Khan

Cowardly Lions Heroes.

When I reflect, years from now on the city’s response to 9/11, I suspect I’ll remember most the bravery of ordinary people gathering their courage to do whatever it is they had to do. After all, it’s arguable that it was the quiet strength and valiancy displayed by all the country’s citizenry, but particularly those of New York and Washington (for obvious reasons), that made the country’s recovery possible in such a short time.

But even among these ordinary citizens, a sub-group of individuals exhibited a unique show of strength. Ironically, they are those who, by definition, were the most frightened by the events of 9/11 and its immediate aftermath (to the point of being seriously traumatized) and yet managed to defy their fears. Liz, from my office, had the scared part down pat. The poor woman had the bejesus scared out of her on September 11th. By the end of the day, she was left frightened, bewildered, and traumatized.

Speaking to her that first night, I found her to be so rambling that it was difficult to carry on a conversation. Two days later, I was back on the phone with an slightly more coherent Liz trying to persuade her it was safe to come back to work. [Even as I questioned if I was lying to myself and her.] In part, I continued on the rationale we all had the responsibility to start the steps towards recovery in whatever way we could. As the office manager (and with Liz being more competent in her job than anyone else is in theirs), she was the operational key to getting our department back to a semi-functional basis.

Her hesitancy stemmed from fear so deep that she could not leave her home, much less her neighborhood. I talked to her several times, but each conversation ended without my knowing when or even if she would be back. Others in the office also spoke to her, as did her family, trying to walk her through her fears, but in the end, it was Liz and Liz alone who had to reach down deep into her reserves to find the strength to overcome her well-justified fears and to find her way back to the city and our new offices.

Even then, for weeks, she remained petrified (although it got slightly more manageable), and despite the emotional turmoil it extracted, she continued to make it in. On to the subway (a terrorist bulls-eye) – over the bridge (bulls-eye) – walking down the streets (bulls-eye) to her new office in the heart of midtown (bulls-eye) across the street from Grand Central (the mother of all bulls-eyes), day after day, week after week.

Obviously, when disaster strikes and heroic bystanders and professionals rush in, the courage exhibited is extraordinary. But equally remarkable to me were those who were frightened, had time to deal with (and dwell) on their fears, and then, remarkably, to confront their fear while simultaneously being punched in the stomach by it. No truer badge of bravery can be earned, or at least by civilians. I’m honored to count such a courageous person amongst my friends.

The Lost Vendor

There was a fruit vendor stationed daily at the footsteps of the WTC. He was a Middle-Eastern man usually dressed in some variation of Middle-Eastern attire. In comparing notes after 9/11, two guys on the desk “realized” that he had not been at his designated location that morning. Some in the office thought this quite suspicious (since he was there every work day); one of them so much so that he reported the incident to the FBI. The FBI took the information down, thanked him, and that was the last we heard of the situation.

Ten months later, I saw a photo of the man in the Broadsheet (the Battery Park City community newspaper) with a story of his ordeal in the months after 9/11. The noted absence reported by those on my desk was notably totally wrong. It turns out that he had set up shop that day and had only escaped from harm by the narrowest of margins as the debris rumble rained down on him. Naturally, his cart was destroyed, and while his safe escape is the most important thing, one has to make a living, and that was proving to be very difficult in the aftermath of 9/11. The economic consequences were devastating. He lost his cart and forfeited the $15,000 he had spent to lease that site from the vendor holding the permit for it.

After losing his cart and location, he remained unemployed for almost seven months until he got a part-time job working for another vendor. The part-time work provided little income, but while he was working in his new job, a woman from my apartment building recognized him. Jane, a customer of Mr. Daaod’s for many years, had been very concerned by his absence and after hearing of Mr. Daood’s dire straits, took action. Knowing that others in the neighborhood would share her concerns if they knew of his plight, the first action she took was to contact a reporter from the Broadsheet to get the story out. In conjunction with the publication of the article, she spearheaded a drive to raise sufficient funding for the purchase of a new cart. I spoke to her a few days after the story ran and was pleased to learn the community response had been overwhelming. Within days, most of the funding had been received, and a group from the area worked with the city officials to find an acceptable new location for Mr. Daood and his soon-to-be-delivered new fruit cart.

I was not surprised. The New York community behaved very well towards its Muslim and Indian residents. Admittedly, in the first week, with emotions running amok, it felt somewhat precarious, and accordingly, there were some concerns that violence against innocents could break out. The groups themselves were undoubtedly concerned. Almost all Arabic cab/limo drivers felt compelled (for safety reasons) to display American flags on their cars, and small Arabic grocers doubled up their duty clerks. Still, in the end there was little backlash against Muslims in the New York region. Frankly, I would say that having experienced firsthand the stinging bite of ignorance, there was little tolerance left in the city for intolerance.

In the Image of My Father

When it comes to matters of sociability, I am not my parents’ son. If friends are golden, my parents surely have the Midas touch. Wherever they go, they touch people in such a special way that they form lifetime friendships during something as simple as a three-hour tour. They have accumulated a tremendous circle of friends throughout the years, many of them strangers they met on their travels. I am not nearly so fond of strangers. In fact, a much-appreciated aspect of New York life is that it’s a good bet the stranger sitting next to me on the subway will not be striking up a conversation with me. So, the following anecdote is clearly out of character.

One afternoon in late October, I was riding on a sparsely populated subway (there weren’t too many people coming and going downtown), and I noticed a construction worker across the aisle from me. He was a black guy of such a large stature that he reminded me of the black inmate in the movie “The Green Mile”. He had a distant faraway look to his face that I had seen before on other construction workers toiling downtown. The work these guys were doing was mind-boggling, and the toll it extracted on their psyche must have been tremendous. And although by now they were all getting paid most of the workers in these early days were as much patriots as they were laborers.

As I observed the man, I thought I should thank him for the work they’re doing in the “ruins”. Right, I chuckled to myself. But the thought persisted, and the more I thought of it, the more compelled I felt to say something to him, to give a short but sincere acknowledgment of appreciation. An appreciation borne out of first, my realization that the mental turmoil that was part of this job was off the chart, and additionally from my knowledge that the danger level at the site was equally off the chart even by construction site standards. Hundreds of workers walking, poking, and climbing around amidst all the heavy machinery perched perilously on top of a giant pile of debris stacked up seven stories up and eight stories down make the work the most dangerous labor in modern-day America. For now, if not officially, they set aside all government safety regulations. Life and limb were undoubtedly at risk at the pile.

Not losing my stand-offishness completely, I waited until the train was a mere minute or two from my destination before starting my approach, thus ensuring myself an easy escape if the situation proved awkward. As I went up to him, he looked up with that brief glimmer of mistrust all New Yorkers display to any stranger who has the impertinence to approach them. I plowed ahead anyway, telling him I just wanted to thank him for the hard work he and all the construction crews were doing downtown. He smiled, wryly at first, but then appreciatively, unwittingly giving me the green light to proceed. I continued, but when I asked how he was holding up mentally with his work in the ruins, I could see just for a moment a veil of that faraway “downtown look” appear back on his face. He immediately snapped out of it and replied that he was “managing pretty good considering….” I nodded knowingly and then added, “Well, be careful out there and keep your head clear as best you can. Oh, and by the way, could you guys keep the noise down just a tad after midnight so that I can sleep better at night?” He laughed, and we shook hands again as I got up to leave. Then to my amazement (although not totally since these are all downtown people on the train) two other people who witnessed my encounter also went up to the laborer to shake his hand in thanks. As I left the train car, I heard one of them say basically the same thing as I did, but in a much shorter and cooler fashion: “We all support you, brother!” A more unlike New York (or Jeffish) scene could not be found.

Danielle into the Lion’s Den

Sometimes the common bonding would reach across chasms of differences not typically bridged. New York has thousands of churches of hundreds of denominations, but taken as a whole, the city surely is not the Christian Mecca. So imagine my surprise coming home one night and seeing a group of about 50 people clustered outside my building, dressed in an identical white tee shirt adorned with a Baptist church association logo.

Once inside, my doorman told me they were volunteers from a fundamentalist Christian group linked to the Southern Baptist Church Association and were cleaning apartments damaged on 9/11. This group came to NYC on its own nickel to help the residents of Battery Park City clean up the massive mess. The group was mixed racially and by age and gender. They formed 5-men cleanup crews, each working a single apartment from top to bottom. They worked only at my apartment complex, chosen because it has the closest proximity to the WTC site. It was free in every sense of the word, including no proselytizing.

A day or two later, I ran into one woman associated with the group. Her name was Danielle, and she was from Mississippi. She discussed she felt so devastated by the events of 9/11 that prayers and fund-raising just weren’t enough, that she wanted to do something with her labor to help in the recovery.

We talked for a bit about the day and its aftermath. She told me how to sign up for my apartment, and I promised her I would. And while I never took her up on the offer, it meant a great deal to me that these good people were here trying to make a difference in their small way, which was not so small in my book at all. And while I may have significant differences with many fundamentalists, or at least with some of their political /cultural beliefs, this helps to remind me we all share common humanness. Thank you, Danielle for reminding me of the purity of this truest of all truisms.

The Red Cross’s presence likewise was enormously appreciated, even though I had no use for their services. On each of my visits to my apartment, both pre-move back date and after, I was bombarded with many Red Cross and FEMA volunteers offering to help me in any way they could. These volunteers were mainly staffed by retirees who brought an unbridled enthusiasm for their jobs. In the weeks before I moved back in they offered vouchers to stay at local Hotels for months if necessary. Even though I accepted none of their generous offerings, they made me realize you didn’t have to die or be injured in the disaster to be a victim. Despite the appropriate focus on the missing, the displaced residents were also a leading concern. In the end, these sincere words of quiet encouragement, concern, and empathy were worth 10-fold more than a stack of hotel and food vouchers.

Compound Interest

Throughout the post-September 11th ordeal, there were so many moving stories that I would constantly receive inspiration, often from unexpected sources. My encounter with the Mississippi Baptists is a good example of this. Another unanticipated occurrence was tied into my job, and it touched me in a way I never could imagine that my somewhat “cold” profession ever could.

Back in the first week of October, the City of New York tapped the municipal bond market with a one billion dollar short-term bond deal to begin the process of financing the recovery. My firm was part of the syndicated underwriting team. Although relatively large (but far from the largest), the sale itself was expected to be uneventful. We marketed it to the traditional buyers in NYC and New York State seeking the bond’s triple exemption from the hefty trio of Federal, New York State, and New York City taxes.

It soon became apparent, however, that this was no ordinary sale as buyers from throughout the country “came in” to buy the bonds. To avoid turning this into a Bonds 101 lecture, suffice it to say that these bonds would not make good economic sense to U.S. investors not residing in New York and, therefore not in need of the New York State tax exemption feature of the bonds. Clearly, the bonds were being purchased for purely patriotic purposes.

But as inspiring as it was to witness this, events really turned topsy-turvy as we started getting calls from our overseas offices, first from London and Paris, then from our Singapore and Tokyo offices expressing interest in buying the NYC bonds. My initial reaction, having not thoroughly thought it out, was, “they want to buy what?!!” As bad an investment the NYC bonds were to American investors living outside New York, the bonds would make for an horrendous investment for international investors in no need of even the exemption from U.S. taxes. I then realized, with a (well hidden – except for now as I write of this) swell of emotion, that these investors were seeking a more intrinsic return on their investment, one not measured in dollars, francs, or pounds. Beautiful!

There were innumerable stories like these being played out in New York, D.C., and indeed throughout the world. Countless quiet acts of courage and small acts of kindness, each contributing an important building block to our post-September recovery. None of these acts or events were singularly earth-shattering in the manner of the actual event itself, but in their summation, they provided a crucial counterweight weapon in the recovery from and in the battle against the terrors released that day.

How do you fight the ultimate horror of suicidal maniacs mass-murdering innocent civilians? By sending the Liz(s), the foreign investors, and all the other everyday heroes into the battle. I’m not one to quote Republican Presidents, but George Bush Senior nailed it on the head years earlier under different circumstances with his “thousand points of light” speech. It turned out to be millions. The terrorists never had a chance.

Poetry in Motion

A few years ago, the NYC Transit Authority started its’ Poetry in Motion series. A program in which they posted amongst the subway car ads excerpts of poetry, oftentimes of a topic that refers to an aspect of urban life. Even for the half-Cretans such as myself, who usually wouldn’t know a Sonnet from a Haiku, the poems would often draw my attention (it’s really just a choice between reading the poetry or reading about $99.00 bonding special by Dr. Tooth on the ad next to it). I must confess I came to enjoy the series very much as I think many New Yorkers’ did. In the aftermath of September 11th, the Authority posted poems of the variety to help people come to grips with the tragedy or at least to gain some perspective of the world and its not-so-infrequent moments of madness. One poem, in particular, touched me: William Wordsworths’ Ode. Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. It didn’t provide any answers to the readers (partly because there are no answers), but although written 150 years ago, aspects of it seemed like the perfect homily to the destroyed towers. Following is an excerpt of the poem.

Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no
more.

Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Fallings from us, vanishings;
Moving about in worlds not realised,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised:

Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquished one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.