The Fall After Sept. 11

This is written for you to read when you come back from vacation, either this weekend or next week if that applies. So just park it if you like, and come back.

I want only to say: Welcome back.

Maybe you are tired, and need a vacation from your vacation. Or maybe you’re a little sad that vacation is over—it was so wonderful, like a gift. Or maybe you feel a little disheartened—you planned for months and arrived at the hotel and it rained and the kids fussed and work called and nothing was really . . . peaceful. And that’s what you wanted, peace, harmony and love.

But: Welcome back. Put down your bags. Uncrick your neck. Wonderful things are about to happen.

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I have no particular standing to welcome you but someone should, and I have nominated me.

I have been home in Brooklyn the past few weeks. I have been keeping the city safe for you. So has Tomas, who works in the Garden of Eden food shop in Brooklyn Heights. He is from Mexico. He did not have a vacation this summer. He worked, stocking produce and removing products that approached their expiration date. When I talked to him he was spraying the lettuce with water so it would look fresh and bright. He was in a happy mood, and so was I. We have been preparing the city for your return and have had a good time doing it. Everything has been slow and non-intense. Now, as you return, everything will pick up. We’re glad. We missed you.

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So: You just got home from the beach, or the lake, or your aunt’s guest house outside Knoxville, Tennessee.

You unlock the front door, walk into the living room and put down your stuff, your gear—dirty clothes, boogie boards, portable CD players, a backpack full of books, a bag of corn.

You open the windows, put on the air conditioner, get the air moving. The house smells unlived in. It smells the way empty houses smell when the real estate agent unlocks the door.

You’ll cook something soon and the house will get back its people live here smell.

You pick up the mail. Bills, circulars, a post card from Paris. Sale day at JC Penney. School supplies at Tarjay.

Realize: It is the beginning of the year. Not the end, but the beginning. This is when school starts. It’s when college begins. It’s when the new secretary begins work, and when the new vice president at the bank takes over Gil’s old office.

It’s when you return to a new year.

It’s when the latest first impressions you get to make will be made. It’s when the government returns, the network anchors return. They will need news. The government will supply it.

It’s when the new leather of shoes smells fresh. You’ll shop for loafers for the kids tomorrow and pick up one and smell it and every autumn of your life will come back—every autumn. You will half swoon.

Autumn is the beginning of everything.

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Are you ready to begin again? It takes a bit of courage on some level, doesn’t it?

Don’t worry. No one else is ready either. You don’t have to be. Autumn just comes one night at 3:11 a.m., and you step into it in the morning and are in it and running.

This year the thought of autumn fills me with some kind of longing. On the days now that it’s cooler than 80 degrees in New York I walk with a spring in my step. I miss autumn, my favorite time of year, and the tenderest time in New York. The parks, never more beautiful than they have been the past few years, are at their most beautiful. The Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum hang big colorful sheets with the names of upcoming shows from their facades. They billow like sails. They move in the breeze. When the wind is high you can stand under them and hear them snap. All the outdoor vegetable and fruit stands have new bounty and color. All the kids are rushing to school in their very newest faded jeans and distressed cotton shirts.

We haven’t had an autumn in New York in two years. We lost last September last year. It was the summer of ‘01, and then before the leaves could turn it was the trauma of ‘01, and we woke up six months later, in the spring. So all those tender leaves—they didn’t register. I would walk along the streets and think of the old song from The Fantasticks: “Try to remember the kind of September when life was an ember about to billow.” It was sad here as summer elided into winter.

But this year we will have autumn, and we will notice it. This is good.

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We will of course mark Sept. 11. A big question people here ask is: Will the non-stop all-network Sept. 11 memorials on TV do harm or good? Is it wallowing? Do we need closure? I think for those fully mature, fully stable people who have successfully absorbed the past year, the TV stuff won’t hurt. And for those feeling deep wounds and damage, for those who have not so far successfully absorbed, the memorials may help. In any case they’ll happen, and we’ll watch them.

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The other day I walked by Saint Vincent’s Hospital in downtown Manhattan and thought, as I always do when I walk by: This is where they waited for the wounded. The interns and nurses waited outside right here with gurneys for patients who didn’t come. Because so few people were “wounded.” The three thousand were dead. What happened to them? They were exploded into air. They became a cloud. We breathed them in.

None of us here in New York will ever “get over it,” as they say. But most of us have gotten over it. We continued our lives and enjoy them, and if you go to any restaurant in the five boroughs there will be laughing and flirting and people joking and being intelligent and enjoying the food.

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The other day I had lunch with two men who run a company that lost 61 people on Sept. 11. Sixty one out of less than 300! They suffered. They were on the 84th floor of Tower Two. A wing from the second plane probably tore into their floor. They’re having a memorial on Sept. 11 and they asked me to speak. I don’t know what I’ll say. No one, really, knows what to say that day. That’s why the politicians and governmental leaders will be reading the Gettysburg Address.

We talked at lunch about what that day had been for them. One, Brian, who had been an office fire marshal, had helped a man trapped under debris and then, he still doesn’t know why, walked down and out of the tower instead of up. He lived. So did the man he helped from the debris. The only person Brian saw walking up in the tower as he was walking down from the 84th floor was a co-worker named Jose. Jose worked in plant management and security. He had a walkie talkie in his hand. He was going up the stairs because he’d heard from another co-worker who was trapped above. He went up to find and help the trapped co-worker. Jose died, and so did the man he was going to help.

A week later Brian had a dream. He dreamt that he was sleeping soundly in his bed when he woke and saw Jose standing at the foot of the bed, dressed in a kind of billowing white shirt, or gown, and he was fine, and he wanted Brian to know it was all all right. Brian was astonished in the dream, and blinked his eyes wide. Then he awoke for real, blinking his eyes wide, with his head off the pillow and tilted forward, as it would have been if he had really been looking at a man standing at the foot of his bed.

Classic wish fulfillment. Or something else.

I asked him what he thought it meant.

“That Jose is all right,” Brian said. “That they’re all fine, all those who died. And that we’ll be fine too.”

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People here keep asking each other if they’ve changed since Sept. 11. I say I think I’ve just become more so. Everything is provisional and tentative. Everything is infused with grace. Life can turn on a dime. There are levels of mystery we don’t understand. Life is good in and of itself. These to me are facts that, once you have absorbed them, leave you moving on, and appreciating the moment you’re in, and looking forward to steak and Merlot and the brightness of friends.

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Life is here.

It is a new year.

Breathe in that new shoe leather, get those new school supplies, make that pie, rearrange those clothes, get out those suits, retire those sandals, line up those pencils, make that appointment, call that meeting, start that diet, gas up the car. It is good to be alive. Sleep good tonight, and deep. Tomorrow you just might step into autumn, which is the beginning of everything.