The Ashes

I don’t profess to know what it felt like for those in the shadows of iconic towers ablaze.

I watched the beginning of the impossible from a television set in Far Rockaway, Queens. I couldn’t have been further away from Manhattan, leaving a birthday voice mail for a friend while the first plane hit.

I remember sitting on the edge of my coffee table wondering how a pilot could have miscalculated their trajectory this way. Even the news reporter was speculating about the pilot when out of the corner of the screen came a second plane and then it was clear: This was no accident. The world would never be the same.

I don’t profess to know the devastation of losing loved ones in a grave of concrete and steel and speculation.

My mother and I called feverishly from the outer boroughs trying to reach my sister and my father who worked in lower Manhattan. My cousin worked the closest to the area where fire and panic flashed across my television screaming third-world unrest rather than metropolitan New York.  I remember the anguish on the faces of town-criers calling names while clutching hand-made posters asking, “Have you seen…” And these cries kept bare hands feverishly turning over rubble and bone, armies of volunteers razing through ashes of ground zero in hopes of finding life.

Because the towers fell.

Even watching the towers aflame,  I still sat on the edge of my coffee table wondering how New York’s Bravest would battle the blaze. Couldn’t be by ladder. How would they… and then the impossible unfolded before my very eyes, rocking everything I understood about home and longevity and stability. The World Trade Center had been targeted before, bomb threats and bombs in parking garages in the 90’s, but  no one could have imagined an emptied New York skyline — but it was happening.  The towers imploded against pristine blue sky, spilling debris and spirit and devastation down neighboring streets, coating every thing and every one in thick clay-like ash. I held my breath and the tears were immediate. I watched dumbfounded as New Yorkers held make-shift masks to their faces emerging from alley ways or building entrances that only partially shielded them from the onslaught. Caked in yellowed-clay they moved slowly, uncertain. I could only watch.

When my father, sister and cousin were found safe, we listened to the stories of where they were and how New Yorkers, who stay in their lane as a matter of survival, checked on each other, shared news, offered rides or a strong shoulder as they made their way through lower Manhattan to get back to homes that were forever changed.

I had to see it for myself.

I don’t remember how long it was before you could get into Manhattan and you certainly couldn’t get too close to ground zero in those first weeks, but my friend Conrad and I drove to Manhattan one night, two poets moved to collect the words and sights and sounds. We were in mourning with our fellow-New Yorkers and sought to pay our respects, but just could not find the opening line.

The air smelled of fire and smoke and we bought masks at a Duane Reade that looked like it was being guarded by the marine out front.  He sported heavy artillery and kept his eyes turned to the street where a military Humvee wobbled by.  We walked through Washington Square Park and bowed our heads to pray over the make-shift altar of hundreds of candles, messages and images. The silence seemed broken only by heads shaken in disbelief. We walked on. Away from television cameras and in the tradition of freedom synonymous with the Village, we encountered a crowd in heated debate about the U.S. relationship with Israel. The two men in the circle made their points to incredulous groans or shouts of support from on-lookers who seemed to wait their turn to broadcast their view of how and why this happened. It was a new chess game in the park for an inconceivable time and we watched impassioned word play with amazement before moving on. It quickly grew too cantankerous for mourning.

But it was a needed change from the images and stories caught on the news broadcasts. The news anchors, who had been just as confused as the devastation unfolded, had now stopped showing shadows falling from windows and had decided that no one needed to see the towers implode over and over again. The news was now putting actual faces to our loss  and updating us on our resolve as a newly-galvanized nation. They could not delve too deeply into U.S. history and its political liaisons.

This was not the time for that. Or was it?

I can’t recall just how long after the events of 9-11 I attended the taping of HBO’s Def Poetry where Amiri Baraka was the featured poet. I studied under Baraka at Stonybrook University and even had the privilege of attending some readings in his New Jersey home, so I looked forward to hearing what the sage had to say. New York was trying to get back to some sense of normalcy and my soul craved the company of poets and intellectuals because I still couldn’t get the pen on the page. The air was thick with tension and sadness and disbelief and patriotism and religious-profiling and anger and resolve. I needed words for all of this so as Mos Def welcomed the audience with playful chiding and impromptu rhymes, I sat back and waited to hear what I might learn.

As soon as the title rolled off his lips I knew that this poem would not be aired.

Not with Americans donning red, white and blue to combat the pain, exact revenge and express resilience.

I didn’t even look to my left or right as if I was now in some backroom headquarters for the revolution. If I didn’t know who was in the room then I couldn’t tell. As the opening line rose into a finished verse, I waited for the gestapo to drop out of the ceiling to drag this revolutionary poet some place where he could do no harm. But no one came. Right then.

And we leaned in to listen as Baraka make jazz of the American policies both domestic and abroad that fueled our enemies and birthed new ones. Those who witnessed the poem live, couldn’t help but nod –ever so slightly– and admit to ourselves that poems of mourning paid tribute and honored those lost, but poems challenging the U.S. to do better , to be better, especially in our names, were of the utmost importance. Race, class or religious belief did not matter that September morning. We had been targeted as a nation and I understood then that patriotic hats and pins had to be accompanied with a desire to understand our nation and become active participants in its formation–going forward.

A promise, a tribute and a necessity marked with ashes.

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