My friends, this is the kind of column I used to do now and then before the world changed. I tell you what I’ve been doing and thinking and if you’re interested you get a cup of coffee and sit down and read along, and if you’re not you can go back to OpinionJournal’s main page, or Drudge, or Salon, or Free Republic.
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It is Christmas in New York. The weather as you know has been soft, nice and not freezing but often overcast. A friend who comes into New York each week from Chicago told me yesterday that on Michigan Ave. it’s hustle and bustle and the world hasn’t changed at all, it’s Christmas, but on Madison Ave. it’s dead. It happens that I often walk along Madison Ave. and hadn’t noticed that, but there’s some truth in what he said. Our great high-end commercial avenue doesn’t have quite the cheery bustle of years past. But there’s more love on it, more flags and more friendliness in the shops, and at a big expensive hand-made furniture place in the 80’s they still have the pictures of every fireman who died on Sept. 11, each face highlighted in the middle of a paper star, all the stars filling the store’s main window. (In New York there has been a slight below-the-radar anti-fireman reaction to this kind of thing. Some people are tired of hearing the firemen praised, and they have a brother-in-law who’s a fireman who’s a worthless oaf who can’t even pick up his shorts. The other day an Internet executive told me this. I said: “Believe me, as soon as 343 Internet executives rush into a burning building and die so that strangers can live, I’m gonna drop the firemen like a rock and celebrate executives.”)
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I have had a Christmas party week, a very social week. I am not an especially social person but it’s been a time for big gatherings, and I am grateful for it. In Brooklyn in my new neighborhood a house party in a grand brownstone mansion, thrown for the neighbors by a gentleman who in the ‘80s and ‘90s became rich. When I walked in I had the oddest sense of having been in this great home, or having been in a place very much like it long ago. The huge rounded doorways, the height of the ceilings, the size of the rooms and placement of the windows.
I was born in Brooklyn half a century ago and not far from here, but in those days Brooklyn wasn’t rich. It was still full of the families Betty Smith wrote about in “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” only two generations older than Francie, the schoolgirl in the book, and not impoverished but working class. We lived in an Irish and Italian ghetto that was turning African American and Puerto Rican. Living with our family were old aunts who’d been maids and cooks in Manhattan, and an uncle who was a carpenter. My grandmother was the coat attendant at a dance hall in Brooklyn called The Lenruth Room when I was a little girl. And I remember being there with her when I was a child, and seeing people dance and touching the coats.
My grandparents lived in an apartment on Myrtle Ave., in a walkup on the fourth or fifth floor, and their bedroom faced the Myrtle Ave. el, which was about 10 feet outside their window. The whole apartment shook, literally shook, when the elevated trains came by. When I was with my grandparents I would put my arms on the window sill like the old ladies of the neighborhood and watch the trains go by.
I’ll tell you who else did this, a generation or two before. The actor Tony Curtis, who a few years ago wrote a wonderful memoir of his years as New York street urchin and Hollywood hellion. He told this story. As a boy he would sit each morning at the window of his parents’ apartment and watch the elevated trains. Every morning he’d see a man on the 8 a.m. train sitting in the same seat, wearing a brown hat and reading the Herald Tribune. The train would stop, young Tony would glance at the man and the man would glance at Tony. Then he’d go back to reading the paper and the train would roar off. One morning the train stops and the man isn’t in his seat. Next day he’s not there, next week. Then 10 days later he’s back in his same seat with the paper and the brown hat. And he glances over at Tony and Tony glances at him. And for once they maintain their gaze. And the man lowers the paper and mouths, “I’ve been sick!” And the train roars off.
I love that story. It’s a metaphor for how we know each other and don’t know each other, how we have relationships we don’t even remark upon and barely notice until they leave.
Did I have a relationship with the house of the rich man whose home I was in this week? I didn’t see how I could, but I mentioned to the man’s friend, standing in his great hallway, that I had the oddest feeling of knowing this place even though there had been no mansions in our lives when I was a kid. The man said, “Oh, this wasn’t a mansion when you were a kid. He restored it to the way it was when it was first built. When you were a kid it was all broken up into 10 apartments. Regular people lived here.”
So I could have been there before. And now I am here as an adult, as a person who writes of presidents, and the house is a mansion. Brooklyn is, has been, will ever be a place of miracles.
* * *
At a party in Manhattan, I spoke to a close aide to Rudy Giuliani, our king. He told me Rudy doesn’t want to leave until the fire’s out. Mr. Giuliani, of course, leaves as mayor in January, but his aid told me he is obsessed with putting out, as his final act, the infernal fires of Ground Zero, which still burn. Rudy wants the fires out by his last day as mayor. The city, the aid tells me, has been using satellite heat-finding imagery to pinpoint exactly where in the dead zone the fires are. “We find out where, we force foam in from one direction and the fire goes in another. We force foam in from the other direction and the fire goes up or down.”
I asked him what, after three months, is still burning.
“Computers,” he said.
“Computers?,” I said.
He said the wires of computers, the innards and machinery of computers—they keep burning. “There isn’t a piece of glass in the ruins, not a single piece,” he said. The glass was melted and pulverized, turned to ash. There isn’t a desk or chair in the ruins either, he said—from two towers full of desks and chairs. Again, they were burned and pulverized by heat and force.
He mentioned another odd thing I’d noticed, we’d all noticed: paper survived. Paper from the offices of the trade center—merger agreements, divorce decrees, memos that Sandra in Accounting had a baby boy, custody petitions—the paper of the towers shot into the air. When the towers tumbled it created a reverse vacuum and papers were sucked up into the gathering cloud and dispersed all over downtown, the rivers, Brooklyn and Queens. But the binders the papers were in—the legal binders, the metal rings inside them—they didn’t survive.
What he told me made me think of a telephone repairman who wrote his memories of Sept. 11 and sent them to me after last week’s column. He had been working on a telephone pole in Queens. He heard the explosions, the lines went down, and soon paper was raining down on him and everyone else. One fluttered down and he caught it. It was a business card. A few days later he called the number on the card and asked for the name. A young woman answered. Yes, she said, she was alive, she had made it out of the building. No, she didn’t know her business cards had made it to Queens. (Hollywood: Use this. In your version they fall in love.)
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I went to a book party in downtown Manhattan, in the spacious condo of a man and woman who had been walking their children to the first day of school when the Towers were hit. They have three gorgeous kids, one of whom, aged about four, asked to stay up to see the guests this evening and then, overwhelmed by the smiles, crinkles, wrinkles, earrings and perfume of adults bending down to kiss, and frightened perhaps by the gooney look old people sometimes get when they look at childhood beauty, hid in her mother’s skirt and then her father’s arms. The guest of honor, a wonderful man of depth and charm, arrived late, from a television appearance. I hugged him, congratulated him, asked how he was. “My whole life is work,” he said, softly. Then he sucked in his abs, turned, shook hands with friends and worked the room.
We all feel that way so often: “My whole life is work.” We all work so hard. But it is, as they say, a choice. We wouldn’t have to work so hard if we would take everything we have and rent a $600 a month apartment just outside a suburb of Tulsa, and join a local church and get a job in a hardware store and be peaceful and kind and take the elderly neighbor to the hospital every other week for chemo.
But it is not the American dream to want to live outside a suburb of Tulsa in a $600 a month apartment. It is the American dream to, among other things, be at the book party celebrating your friend’s bestseller surrounded by brilliant, accomplished and interesting Americans who take part in the world, who are immersed in it and try to turn it this way and that.
We work so hard to find happiness. But more and more I think of what a friend told me on the phone 10 years ago after I had written an essay on the subject. He called and said: “This is a famous quote from someone, I forget who, and this is what you mean. ‘Happiness is a cat. Chase it and it will elude you, it will hide. But sit and peacefully do your work, live your life and show your love and it will silently come to you and curl itself upon your feet.’ ”
* * *
After the book party, I went to a dinner party in upper Manhattan, at the home of a writer and thinker and his smart, bubbly wife. It was the three month anniversary of Sept. 11, and naturally the talk was: 9/11. Normally these conversations end in something like resolve and laughter, with someone saying something upbeat. But not this night, and I was glad of it. I spoke to a man, a dynamic businessman and a good person who was, to my surprise, utterly changed. I hadn’t seen him in more than a year. I found out that until recently he had been at Ground Zero every day since Sept. 11. He had lost his office, scores of friends and co-workers, had rushed to the site and worked there for months as a helper and organizer.
Now he is a changed man. He used to carry success on his shoulders like a well padded suit, and now in his eyes there is grief, grief, a deep well of grief. “I had to go to a doctor because I couldn’t stop smelling the smell,” he tells me. It is the olfactory disorder of Ground Zero: Work there long enough and you can’t lose the acrid burning smell, your nose absorbs it as if it were a memory, and won’t let go. You wake up 30 miles away at home in your bed and it’s 4 a.m. and you smell it and you think you’re going mad.
He told me how Sept. 11 had changed his life. “I am more religious,” he said. He looked like he wasn’t sure what that meant and was surprised to find it happening to him, didn’t fully understand it but knew it was true: He’s more religious. And, he said, what he wants to do now is not make money but help people, serve the public, do good.
And he meant it. It wasn’t post-traumatic virtue disorder, it was: A life in change.
* * *
I find myself drawn to and heartened by people who can’t get over Sept. 11. Because I can’t either, and I never will. But then I talk to them and realize: They’re here, and I’m here, and we’re at the party, so we’ll get over it.
* * *
On the way home and for no particular reason I remembered something I was told a few weeks ago by a friend who had in another time and for other reasons become a changed person.
I have known him for years but had not known the story he told me. He had been a roaring alcoholic, a man who’d lived to drink and gamble. But something was changing in him, and one night he was at home drinking by himself when he saw something on TV—something someone said, something that moved him deeply. And suddenly he knew his life must change. He picked up the phone and called the 24 hour hotline at a local rehab hospital. And he said, slurring, “I want to spick to a dahkter, I think I’m an alcaholic.”
“Is that you Billy?,” sad the woman who answered the phone.
He was shocked. Someone must have reported him! They must keep the numbers of known local alcoholics!
“How did you know my name?” he demanded.
“Because you call every night at 2 a.m. How’s your daughter?”
For two weeks he’d been getting drunk every night and calling the rehab line and having long conversations with whoever answered. And it was news to him. The next day he entered rehab, and for many years he has been a changed man.
People change. It’s not true that they don’t. It is true that it is more unusual than it is usual.
* * *
At the dinner party a friend told me of his son, a Marine at Camp Lejeune. My friend and his wife may or may not see their boy for Christmas, it depends on his orders. The mother, a beautiful lady, frankly admitted her fear for her son. The father was proud and wistful. I mentioned an acquaintance of ours who has a handsome young son in ROTC, and who will join the armed forces when he graduates in June. I bumped into her and she told me that this is where parenthood makes hypocrites of us all—you know our country needs men like this, you know we must fight, but not my boy, not my son.
The father and mother I was talking to smiled and nodded. It’s the same for them. “Let me tell you what my son said to me when I told him how worried I was about him,” the father said. “Dad, I am fully capable, fully trained and armed to defend myself, and I am not the target. You are not armed and trained and you are the target. Worry about you.”
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I worry about all of us, and so no doubt do you. But Wednesday I had a wonderful, heartening experience online that I will share with you because it may help you too. I like to go to Christian Web sites such as www.redeemer.com, where you can find the Rev. Tim Keller’s inspiring and informative sermons. I go to Catholic Web sites too, and Wednesday I marked a great feast day of the church at one.
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It was the feast of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, a celebration of the event 500 years ago in which the Mother of Christ appeared before an earnest and loving Mexican peasant named Juan Diego. The appearance and the miracles that followed sparked what was probably the biggest mass religious conversion in the history of the Americas. And indeed Our Lady of Guadeloupe is considered by Catholics to be our country’s patroness.
As America becomes more Latin and Hispanic the feast has become bigger, grander. It was marked in Washington with a mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and there were masses and festivities in Albuquerque, N.M., Houston and Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz. But according to an article in Crisis magazine on a Catholic Web site the biggest celebration in the U.S. took place in Los Angeles. “Following a procession through the city’s streets, Cardinal Roger Mahony celebrated a mass for nearly 20,000 who gathered on the football field in the Cal State Los Angeles Stadium.” Twenty thousand.
And, most delightfully to me of all, yesterday in Rome, at the end of a general audience, Pope John Paul II for the first time ever activated a Web page. They brought him a laptop and he hit a key with his Parkinson-pained finger and suddenly www.virgendegaudalupe.org.mx was born.
At another site I found that people were writing prayers of gratitude and petition to mark the feast, and I read them. They were so moving and beautiful.
There is so much going on in America, in churches and on Internet sites, that no one in normal media, elite media or any media really seems to touch. But I continually discover and rediscover that there is a whole world of people who exist apart from the New York Times, the Washington Post and our beloved Wall Street Journal, who exist as part of a real and strong and authentic American community, and indeed a world community.
At the site I visited the prayers and petitions to Our Lady were in English, Spanish and French.
They asked for consolation for those who died or lost loved ones in the Trade Center attacks, they asked for protection for our country and peace for the world. “I pray for the people and kids in Afghanistan,” said one.
Most were in one way or another personal: “Dear Blessed Lady, intercede for me and pray for me that with your help I can get the money to save my home. Ask your divine son to show his infinite mercy.”
“Dear Lady, please . . . pray for dj’s, entertainers, artists, performers and media and writers.”
“Mama Mary . . . please pray for . . . all the teachers, everyone serving in the armed forces, President Bush, all the leaders especially of the Philippines, all the terrorists, bin Laden, all the priests and religious and our Holy Father.”
“Dear Lady of Guadeloupe, please let all my friends forgive me for all that I have done.”
“Pour les enfants abandonnes.”
“Senora, en tu dia te recuerdo y te amo. Gracias madre por todos tus bienes.”
“Je t’aime et mercies der ester avec moi et ma petite famille jet t’aime tres fort dis bonjourr a padre pio pour moi.”
“Happy Feast Day, my Lady Mother. You seem so close today, telling me to let the desire of my heart be that of your Son’s, and to let his desire be mine . . . bring me back to my monastic community, my Lady, though I have failed and fallen so many times.”
“Jesus, Son of Mary, our Mother—forgive me and help me to know and love her more. I desire to be just like her . . . Mama Mary, help me to let go of covetousness, vanity, lust for the flesh and food . . . and all the vices and weaknesses that separate me from your son . . . (help) all my students, especially John.”
“Blessed Mother on this, your feast day, please free [my loved one] from the bondage of drug addiction.”
“I beg for my estranged husband and for the purity and sanctity of my children . . . Please, my Mama, obtain a miracle for my family.”
“Dearest Lady Thank you for all the trials I have received these past few years for in them I have found a new love of God.”
There were men praying to be better husbands, wives to be better wives, prayers to be freed of alcoholism and healed after infidelity, for runaway children and broken families.
All were marked by humility and gratitude, many by pain and anxiety. They prayed so hard for our country, and there was a sense that they knew that they were praying at a time of heightened alert, and during Ramadan and in a time of extraordinary need.
I found it all so moving. So now I go there and pray along with them, and feel enlivened by their community. It’s as good as, better than, a wonderful dinner party.
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I will leave you with a happy thought. The other day into my imagination popped a scene that I dearly hope will happen. I imagined that I was walking along Fulton Street in Brooklyn. It was a pretty afternoon, just pre-dusk, and the street was full of shoppers. And suddenly a woman came running from The Wiz, and she shouted to no one, to everyone, “They found Osama! They caught bin Laden!” And the street stopped stock still and then someone cheered and then we all cheered, and we went into The Wiz and watched the reporters telling the story on all the big TV monitors, row after row of them. And strangers talked to strangers and people who hadn’t wept since Sept. 11 found themselves with tears in their eyes, and it was an unforgettable moment in American history.
Actually I shared this scene with my table at the dinner party earlier in the week.
“Dead or alive?” someone asked. I shook my head. “The way you imagined it, is Osama dead or alive?”
I said I didn’t know and didn’t care. A man said I should care, it’s bad if he’s alive, that means crazy hostage things and suicide bomber nuts. Someone else said, “I feel sure that when they get him if they get him it will be an unknown CIA agent who gets him, and we’ll never know his name.” He will be invited to the White House and shake the president’s hand and be assigned somewhere far away, and it will be one of the great secrets of all time. He will be The Man Who Got Osama. And we won’t even know his name.
I thought, “Oh no, we must know his name and dedicate things to him like mountains and libraries.” I said we have to know and she said no, if he is known he will be in danger, and so will his family: “the Jihad never forgets.”
Well, we’ll see how it goes.
We’ll see how it ends.
For me today more prayer sites, and a visit to the pained and peaceful people of faith. And then on to Fulton Street, where there’s a big Macy’s and a Wiz and television and appliance stores. On to the great street bustle of Brooklyn in 2001, where miracles still happen, and have.