A Concert for New York
I never quite made it to the World Trade Center buildings before they fell. You know, one of those things I assumed I’d get to eventually. I did manage to stand within a couple of blocks from the site on September 12, 2001 (although of course I’d rather I could just hop on the subway and visit them today, still standing). Singing my first professional gig after achieving my undergraduate degree, I had a scheduled rehearsal on September 12 at New York City Opera (which, ten years later, also very sadly seems to be falling down) for I Capuleti e i Montecchi.
In 2001, I lived in Newton, NJ, a two-and-a-half hour commute from the opera house, with my husband at the time (Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus), a music teacher. Newly out of college and too poor to pay for cable, we had no television. We tried rabbit ears once during the World Series, but returned them when we could only view the RAI Italian network. On September 11, my friend called to warn me not to go into the city in case I had rehearsal. When she told me about the plane (only one had crashed by then), I assumed she meant a comparatively harmless private plane. Attempting to understand, I turned on the radio. As the plane crashed into the second tower, I only had one radio station left to hear, NPR. All other radio towers broadcasting to my region were conveniently located on top of the towers.
After a day of receiving images via the Internet, phone calls from my mother, and updates out of London on the BBC network broadcasting for NPR (not an exaggeration), I felt oddly out of touch with my nearest major city. I also doubted I’d have rehearsal in the morning but had no way of determining my next course of action. I called our rehearsal hotline. No change. Still no change. Still no change.
I took the NJTransit train in the next day from the Dover station, not knowing what to expect. What didn’t I anticipate? A free ride to and from the city on NJTransit, the only way into New York City on September 12. Plumes of smoke visible from the train, from Penn Station, from Lincoln Center. People walking slowly in Penn Station and locking eyes with one another on the subways. Strangers of all ethnicities praying together and speaking frankly, as if related to one another, on the trains in from NJ. An eerily empty Broadway.
With rehearsal of course canceled ten minutes after my arrival at Lincoln Center, I went to the now also defunct Barnes and Noble on 66th Street and Broadway to gather my thoughts, like a deer in headlights who couldn’t move. I stumbled upon a week-old article in a weekly Washington-based journal that asked the question, “What needs to happen for us to realize we need to change something about our intelligence community?” In the surrealism of that moment, I knew I wouldn’t turn around and go home.
I’d like to blame my lack of television coverage for the remainder of my actions that day, but I now realize I suffered from the same first stage of grief that most Americans felt: denial. My husband and mother would both scold me for venturing down to Ground Zero on September 12 but in doing so, I witnessed the heroes who continued to volunteer well after 9/11 and the unfathomable beauty of strangers made brothers up close. Taking the 1 train (since the 9 suddenly no longer operated) as far as I could, I got out at Canal Street and continued walking south. In itself, that fact still astonishes me, considering I get lost there now as a New Yorker, having lived here for several years.
More miraculously, I found a way to continue walking past the initial barricades designed to keep anyone but residents out of the area, after walking into a small chapel, praying, and leaving through the other side. Along with so many volunteers and residents, I was able to walk down to Stuyvesant High School, close enough to see the flag so famously photographed among the rubble and far enough to stay out of the way of the work that still continues, now ten years later.
Of course it broke my heart. Inhaling the death and ash, a stranger I’d met along the way and I picked up used doctors’ masks on the ground out of desperation to breathe. We saw someone’s incinerated résumé, cars that had hardly any metal and definitely none of the rubber left from the destruction, ash… Lots of ash. Amidst all of the turmoil (most of which lay one day behind and too far away to see), we had the moment to watch as each person present came together to offer support, provide food, search for survivors, and begin the process of picking up the pieces of our sometimes broken world.
As AT&T offered free phone calls across all pay phones in New York, NJTransit offered free train rides to and from the city, and countless people offered their time, energy, health, and lives, a strange and beautiful sense of community entered into the actual heart of our capitalist society. Since then, we have struggled. Plugging our money into wars, banks, and Ponzi schemes, we have lost things too this decade, in addition to the people who have also perished. Our hopes rise and fall, and we wonder sometimes where to place our faith.
Buildings tumbled, and we bled, but the biggest difference I came to understand that day lay in the fact that we embraced the truth of our common reality. Each of us who lives, breathes, and dies saw for a brief moment the precious human mortality we all share and made eye contact. We knew each other and understood, and it was beautiful.
I don’t preach for a living, I sing and act. Last night, I had the unspeakable pleasure of singing in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony No. 2 with the New York Choral Artists and the New York Philharmonic. Tonight, it airs on PBS at 9:30pm, following the President’s address. As I sang, I remembered that day, the day after, and all the challenging days since through which we have endeavored as a people, sometimes together, sometimes apart, to resurrect ourselves. Imparting a message of hope through struggle, we gave the best gift we know through free music, and the most grateful audience I have ever seen applauded for what seemed like an eternity. I leave you with a translation of the text of the final movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Gustav Mahler, along with my sincere belief that together, we will rise again.