A Heart, a Cross, a Flag

Everyone here now asks, “Where will you be?” They don’t say “on Sept. 11.” They don’t have to. Everyone knows. Most everyone has a plan. Some people are leaving town. They just don’t want to go through it again, through the nonstop TV and the weeping families and the memory of the smoke and the sound and the sight of it all. A lot of people are staying, of course. Those who are working, or going to school; those who can’t leave, or won’t. I’m one of the latter. I feel a kind of loyalty to that day, and those who suffered through it, and I’m not leaving.

So on Wednesday, on Sept. 11, 2002, I plan to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge before dawn. I will, as I pass under its two heavy stone towers—the original twin towers of downtown Manhattan, and still the most beautiful—reach out my hand and touch them lightly, as you would the arm of an old friend.

On the Manhattan side of the bridge I will make my way to Ground Zero, and watch the sun come up at dawn. I don’t know why. I just want to see the new beginning of a new day at the place that was the World Trade Center. I want to see the sun rise and light the skyscrapers all around it.

I will carry in my pocket a little metal cross about two inches high, and a little metal heart the same size. They’re twisted and bear burn marks, like pots left too long on the stove.

*   *   *

One night after Sept. 11 I went to a church near the site. I poured coffee for construction workers and Con Ed guys on the overnight shift. A construction worker who’d been at the site since Sept. 11, first trying to find and save people, then trying to clean up, walked up to me. He was a big man in work clothes with a hardhat. He looked beat. He told me he had read my columns, and he told me he’d heard I was here, pouring coffee. He said, “I have something for you.” And he pulled from a soft brown paper bag the little cross and the little heart. He had cut them from a beam that held up one of the towers.

To me they were like an old bullet pulled from the ground of Gettysburg, a treasure of history. When people come to my house and see them on the wall, they’re always silent after I tell the story.

I’m going to bring them with me, back to where they came from, on Sept. 11. I’ll probably look at where the towers used to be and think, “The buildings were here. A year ago today they were here. And then they became the cross and the heart.”

*   *   *

A year ago on Sept. 11 it was so beautiful, just the most beautiful day. The school year had just started, and kids downtown were being walked to class. They heard the first plane. They were walking on the sidewalk when the shadow of the plane passed over them.

Where would we be if the shadow hadn’t come, if 8:46 a.m. that day had not happened? Where would we be if the whole day had been as peaceful as its start?

We’d be where we were on Sept. 10, 2001.

On Sept. 10, 2001 we were, a lot of us, immersed in a national culture—a big, vivid, full-network, broadband, opens-soon-at-a-theater-near-you culture—that allowed us to live knee deep in distraction. What’s on tonight, who’s pitching, when are The Sopranos back, who won, when does the sale start? There was nothing inherently wrong in this—fun is part of life, or should be, and entertainment, art and sports are worthy endeavors. But for a lot of us our emphasis was off. We weren’t paying attention to core things, essential things, first things. We were staring at the peripheral, missing the big picture.

And then Sept. 11 came. The demonic cloud chased modernity down the street. It chased businessmen down the tall and narrow pathways of downtown Manhattan, a city that lives on the periphery of the continent but is at the core of its commercial life, its art, its hedonism and hipness, its focused and full-throttled pursuit of the tangential.

Thousands died. The buildings disappeared. And were transmuted into the cross and the heart.

*   *   *

The heart, to me, stands for the explosion of human sympathy, kindness, forgivingness and generosity that came from the people of our city starting at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s been—and here I think, oddly, not of an American word but of the highest accolade used by an old friend from New Zealand—brilliant. Brilliant and shining. You all know the stories—the friendliness on the streets, the helpfulness to strangers, the millions of volunteers, the money given, the hands held.

The cross stands for a renewed sense of the centrality of the spiritual in our lives. People say it was fleeting, but I don’t think so, and I base this simply on my interactions with friends, family and acquaintances who are New Yorkers. Something big happened here. The spiritual was reborn. It started with the spontaneous shrines that filled the city sidewalks last September and it has continued with a greater sense of individual pondering. People are thinking about God. I believe I have witnessed from so many people an enhanced sense of the sacredness of ordinary things, and a greater ability to see grace at work in the lives of others, and ourselves.

This week Newsweek had the story of the boy in the red bandana. He was a young man in the north tower who didn’t think first of his own safety after the planes hit, but tried to help strangers. He pointed them to exits in the smoky corridors, led them down the stairs, carried a woman on his back. He was last seen going up the stairs as others walked down. They found out later who he was, a 24-year-old equities trader. Life is rich and unknowable: You don’t know when you’ll accidentally bump into hell, you don’t know what angel you might meet there.

*   *   *

“He was last seen going up the stairs.” Those are famous words here now. Usually we say it about the firemen. It’s going to be a long time before we get used to the idea that 343 of them lost their lives that day. Or rather gave them.

Those 343—they were mostly tough Catholic men with soft hearts from the outer boroughs. They were Italians and Irish and Poles and Puerto Ricans, and they lined up for absolution, received a blessing and ran into the buildings lugging their gear. Their funerals were at Our Lady Queen of Peace, and St. Rose of Lima Church. And sometimes at the funerals they played an old ‘70s song whose title you’ll never hear the same way again: “Stairway to Heaven.”

The other day I got a letter from the mother of Michael Dermott Mullan, Ladder 12, Engine 3, 19th Chelsea. He was a graduate of Holy Cross High School, a registered nurse attending Hunter College School of Nursing, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves stationed at Fort Totten, and a New York City fireman. He must have been some guy, Michael Mullen. His mother wanted all of us to know who he was. She wrote, “He was dedicated to the well being and protection of his fellow man.” She wrote, “He was second generation Irish by way of County Tipperary, County Down and County Kerry.” She wrote, “He loved his God, his Country, his family and his city.”

Michael Mullan called from his truck on the way to the Trade Center the morning of the attacks. “He called to tell us, ‘I love you. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.’ Michael never said goodbye—it wasn’t a part of him to think goodbye, he would always say, ‘See you later,’ or ‘Take care.’ But that fateful day he said goodbye to his family.” His body was found on Oct. 7. Then the Mullan family found out about his last hours. After Michael called home he bowed his head and, with a friend on the rig, prayed. Michael and his crew went to the Marriott Hotel, next to the Trade Center. It had been badly damaged, and later collapsed. They made their way to the upper floors and then were ordered out by their lieutenant. The way was blocked, but they found a path down. Then word came there were two firemen on a higher floor who couldn’t find a way down. “Michael’s last spoken words,” his mother said, “were, ‘I’ll go back and get them.’ ”

He was probably last seen going up the stairs. He was a man of the heart and the cross.

*   *   *

And the flag. For that was the other things that re-emerged, the explosion of America-love.

We had been losing it as a society, and for a long time.

The immigrants of a century ago arrived to a flag flying culture. They were told that they were investing their lives, their futures, their unseen grandchildren in something high and good and decent. Free speech was here, the free practice of religion, democracy, the ballot, free markets—everyone, from the brilliant and altruistic to the bright and merely greedy, could get in on the great bazaar, and make his way. What a country—all that freedom and the streets were paved with gold.

They were taught to love America by the culture all around them—the penny newspapers, George M. Cohan, John Philip Sousa, the nascent movie industry, the stage, the schools—taught a burly America-love.

Which was good. Because when you don’t love something you lose it.

We were losing it. But now the flags are out again, and loving America isn’t considered a faux pas, or evidence of limited intellect. The thing now is to see it doesn’t degenerate into mere conceit: “We’re No. 1, we have the best tanks.” That’s triumphalism. Patriotism is solid and grounded; it holds up the ideal of a nation founded on the equality of men; it has to do with founding documents, guaranteed freedoms, clear rights, stated responsibilities. That’s what the flag stands for.

It’s certainly how Michael Mullan must have seen it. And the boy in the red bandana, too.

And that in the end is my Sept. 11, a trauma that was transmuted into a heart and a cross and a flag. Each expressing a facet of a great and fabled people who are still, one year after, the hope of the world.