Refugees: Remembering 9/11

I woke up that September morning, eight years ago today, with a stiff neck and a sore right hip from sleeping on the couch in my cousin Dinaz’s living room. My fifty-two-year-old body, unaccustomed to narrow, hard mattresses and the slope of couch cushions, ached. Dinaz’s apartment in midtown Manhattan was air conditioned and so cold that I wrapped a blanket around my shoulders even though it was still summer and in the high nineties outside. I opened the blinds and blinked against the dazzle of sun. Fourteen stories below, the street was a narrow canyon shadowed by tall buildings.

Turning away from the window, I looked down at my son James, asleep on his bed of quilts on the floor. Sunlight gilded the soft down on his cheeks, limned his eyelids, and touched the tips of his long, black lashes. At thirteen, he had the voice and body of a man, but his face was a child’s: open, naked, vulnerable; all curves and roundness.

Let him sleep, I prayed to the goddess of children; let him be happy. He had been so sad since his dad and I had separated, six weeks earlier.

His eyelids trembled. I held my breath and watched him, knowing I ought to wake him. We planned to leave early, that morning, to get in as much sightseeing as we could. We were going to take the elevator up to the observation tower at the World Trade Centre, so we could see all of New York laid out beneath us.

James and I lived in Nanaimo at that time–a small town on the east coast of Vancouver Island. When my cousin called to invite us to visit her in New York, I knew we had to go. Both of us needed to find out where we belonged, in a world that had shifted on its axis that summer.

Dinaz rushed out of her bedroom, dressed for work in a gray suit, briefcase clutched in one hand. Her lovely face was ash pale, her mouth a twist of grief.

“Turn on the TV,” she said. “Turn on the TV.”

The sound of her voice woke James, who looked dazed and sat up in bed. Dinaz put an arm around his shoulder. The three of us stared in silence at the unthinkable events exploding on the screen. Dimly, I heard Dinaz’s heels click on the hardwood floor, and turned to see her disappear into her small kitchen. She called to us from there, raising her voice so we could hear her over the sound of the TV.

“Don’t go outside at all today,” she said. “It’s too dangerous. There’s lots of food in here. I’m going to the office to take care of my staff.” Most of her staff lived in the boroughs-New Jersey, Brooklyn, Queens. She didn’t know how long they’d be stranded in Manhattan, and she wanted to be prepared. She packed sandwiches for them in a large brown paper bag, added a thermos of tea and packages of biscuits. “I’ll see them safely home,” she said.

What was safe any more, I wondered. Where was home?

We watched it on TV, over and over. The plane heading straight for the building. The explosion. And, unbelievably, the second plane, the roiling flames. Fire. And smoke. Fire and smoke.

And bodies falling.

“They’re jumping from the eightieth floor,” gasped the announcer. His voice cracked and blurred. They had to choose. Jump or be roasted alive.

I thought: I know something of how this feels. Teetering on the ledge, caught between two impossibilities. Until the pressure at your back makes the unthinkable inevitable. And you jump because you can no longer bear the alternative.

James kept saying: “This is real, Mum. It’s on TV but it’s for real.” His voice was tinged with awe, disbelief, a thrill of excitement.

I thought: What had been going through the minds of those people on the planes? The people who had boarded their flight that morning, thinking they had time. When did they realize their lives were suddenly complete, that they would not get to erase or redress the past, or create a future? What was left of love or meaning as the buildings hurtled towards them?

And those men and women sitting at their desks, drinking their morning coffee when death came crashing like a meteor through their windows. Those who were killed by the blast. Those who jumped from the Twin Towers to escape the flames.

That day in Manhattan, we watched history explode on the screen as the Twin Towers were destroyed, over and over, on every TV channel. I wanted to do something, anything-but police spokesmen on TV were asking people to stay out of the downtown area. The fear and uncertainty in New York that day mirrored my own feeling of having lost a layer of skin; the whole country was waking up to the fact that we were all vulnerable, that there was no immunity, no safety anywhere, no permanence, nothing predictable, nothing we could grasp or control. There was only life in all its sprawling, savage beauty; only human beings acting out of fear or love or greed, out of the desire to keep their children safe or the longing to shape their own destiny. Human beings massacring each other to avoid feeling the cold breath of their own mortality.

It was our own deaths we saw in those images of burning buildings and falling bodies. And all our posturing and attempts at self-protection could not prepare us for how or when Death would finally arrive.

James kept flicking the TV from channel to channel, hoping to find something other than the terrible newscasts of the day. But most of the channels were blank because the main TV receivers had been on top of the World Trade Centre towers and had been destroyed. Eventually, we dressed and took the elevator downstairs. The doorman, sitting disheveled and red-eyed on his stool, didn’t look at us as we walked through the revolving doors.

Outside, people lounged on the benches that lined the perimeter of the building. Eating sandwiches, drinking coffee, smoking-the usual office lunchtime crowd. The Tuesday morning garbage pickup had been cancelled, and garbage was stacked all along the curb.

On Second Avenue, people walked briskly along the sidewalks. Large sections of the road were cordoned off, and there were few cars. Uniformed policemen were stopping buses and ordering the passengers to get out. The buses slid away, empty, their doors shutting with a hiss like a released breath. Many of the passengers were elderly and looked lost and frail as they stood in the middle of the road, trying to get their bearings. A white-haired woman put her arm around a young girl in a blue jumper, and led her to the safety of the sidewalk. Someone cried. James and I walked past a Lebanese deli, a Chinese grocery store.

Across the street, Forty-fourth was cordoned off at First Avenue by an orange municipal truck parked askew across the crosswalk. Behind it was the UN Plaza, surrounded by police cars and military trucks.

The adrenalin that surged through my body then was oddly familiar. Calcutta, 1970. The city teemed with terrorists: Naxalites, who belonged to a Marxist-Leninist splinter group, many of them young boys no older than James. They slid through the crowded streets carrying homemade petrol bombs under ragged clothing. No-one knew where the next bomb would come from, or where it would land. In the bazaars and bustees, in the streets and slums of Calcutta, people huddled together and talked in whispers about the random violence that menaced the city. Who would be blown up next? Was it safe to go to the sweetmeat vendor’s, to the greengrocer’s? Earlier, two policemen had been shot with their own rifles. It was fate, people said, wagging their heads Indian-style. Karma. Then the central government declared a state of emergency, and the tanks rolled out. More people died.

So that afternoon in New York, I knew better than to stop and stare. Because I grew up in India, because I lived in Calcutta during the Naxalite terrors and witnessed the bloody birth of Bangladesh, fear was etched on my DNA. I knew the rules of survival: keep your head down, but stay alert for any sudden movements-an arm emerging from a coat pocket, a man slouching over a railing, anything that makes your stomach tighten. Don’t run; walk quickly through the crowd, try to stay in the middle, away from men in uniforms. Blend in, disappear, be invisible; above all, be invisible.

I held James by the arm, afraid of losing him in the crowd. He announced loudly: “I’m hungry. I hate New York! I want to go home.”

I tightened my grip on his arm and hissed, “Shut up. Just walk, don’t look up.”

I looked quickly around to see if anyone had heard. Police. Authorities. Men in uniform who carried guns. How could I keep him safe, my North American son, who spoke his heart out loud? He lacks my genetic alarm, my birthright of necessary fear.

He said, again, with a teenager’s petulance, “But Mum, I don’t like it here. I want to go home.”

“James, shut up! There are men here who’ll shoot you because you’re brown. And young. And male. They don’t know who you are, and they don’t care. All they’ll see is the color of your skin, your black hair and brown eyes. You can’t just . . . blurt out whatever you feel.”

“Why not?” he demanded, this child of new world privilege.

“Because they’ll have you down on the pavement with a gun pointed at your head.” (I could see this as I said it, see him lying helpless, face down.)

This he understood, my child of television land. He has seen more cop shows than I will ever see.

But I have seen tanks chewing up the streets of Calcutta. I have seen a flood of refugees inundating a city so crowded it was in danger of tipping into the sea. Ten million refugees, the newspapers said, from East Pakistan. Radio and news reports talked of families drowned in rice paddies red with the blood of wives and husbands and children. Homes torched. Homes made of mud and straw and clay, coated with cow dung, thatched with dried fronds of coconut palms. Homes that burn. So easily destroyed.

I remember going to Howrah station to catch a train to Delhi and seeing thousands of refugees packed together on the platforms: old men in dirty dhotis, women still trying to keep their faces covered with the ends of ragged saris, children with terrified eyes, all huddled together on the cold, filthy platforms because their world had been destroyed by men with tanks and guns and flaming torches. They had nothing left, nowhere else to go.

So much of the world lives with the everyday reality of war. Bangladesh. Iraq. Tibet. Rwanda. Bosnia. Somalia. Afghanistan. What made us think we could remain immune?

Still holding onto James’s arm, I walked quickly up Second Avenue. All the stores were closed. Only a few small delis and corner grocers remained open, manned by brown-skinned men accustomed to doing business in the midst of chaos.

People stood on the sidewalk and stared at the sky, which was brown and oily with smoke; an acrid reminder, if we needed one, of the Towers still smoldering only a few blocks away.

We turned west on Fifty-Seventh Street, then south, down Third Avenue. Third is a one-way street and that afternoon it was jammed with traffic heading uptown. Cars, trucks, SUV’s, bikes, a few taxicabs. No buses. Exhaust fumes mingled with the smoke, searing my throat. Traffic was gridlocked as far south as I could see.

No-one honked. In all that traffic, not one honking horn. Terrorism silences everyday sounds, in New York as in Calcutta.

The sidewalk was a river of people flowing uptown. Some talked on cell-phones as they walked. Others stood, looking stunned, marooned, listening to the radio at news kiosks. Couples walked hand in hand, refugees in tailored suits.

James and I pushed against the press of bodies; we were the only ones walking towards downtown. Refugees of another kind, heading in the wrong direction, against the flow; the others all fleeing away from the disaster area. That’s what they were calling it on the portable TV at the corner news kiosk: The Disaster Area. The announcers looked as ravaged as everyone else.

There were armed police clustered at each of the four corners of every single street we crossed. And MPs, marines, National Guard, FBI, talking into radios and cell-phones, wearing side arms with unbuttoned holsters. Many of them carried bigger guns: rifles, machine guns, automatic weapons.

The Stars and Stripes fluttered everywhere, symbol of solidarity and patriotism, Americans closing ranks against an uncommon enemy. Flags draped over the sides of office buildings, flying from the antennae of police cars, even one full-sized flag drooping over the back tire of a shiny black Harley which idled in the stalled traffic.

Around Fiftieth Street, a sporting goods store was open for business; people crowded through its front doors. Curious, James and I followed. Inside, a tangle of men and women in business suits trudged up the stairs. James and I climbed up behind them, wondering what we would find.

The sign on the second floor read: Athletic Shoes. The room was cavernous, a warehouse packed with shoppers grabbing shoes off tables and shelves which were by then almost bare. People hurried past us, cradling three, four, five boxes of shoes in their arms.

I thought: there must be a fire sale. I wondered why anyone would have a sale on that disastrous day, but found myself looking around for shoes for James. The only shoes left were either too small or too big, or so geeky that James gagged and rolled his eyes when I held them up. Eventually, we gave up and headed back downstairs. On the main floor we browsed through racks of T-shirts and fleece pants, Nike-wear and sleek black Danskin leggings. There was something surreal about shopping while thousands of people lay dead or dying only a few miles away. But it was mindlessly comforting too, like chewing gum, or watching TV; except that watching TV had suddenly become an activity fraught with anxiety. So we shopped. James picked out a pair of black shorts. We stood in line along the cashier’s counter.

The woman beside me leaned forward at an odd angle, as though she were struggling to stay upright in a high wind. She seemed to be in her mid-thirties, with chin-length ash-grey hair in a blunt, swingy cut. Her face was carefully made up, marble-like in its stillness; her blood-red fingernails matched her lipstick. Still, there was something slightly off-kilter about her. She wore a short pinstriped skirt with a crisp matching jacket, but the hem of the jacket had come undone, and her gray sheer stockings were torn at the shins. I looked down at her feet, which were clad in brand-new Nike runners. Her left hand dangled at her side, holding a pair of black patent-leather pumps, covered in ash. Her hand trembled. She looked fragile as a moth.

I asked, “Are you all right?”

She looked blankly at me then, her face very still before she spoke.

“I just came from there,” she said, slowly, her voice rusty and hoarse, as though she had forgotten how to speak. “I walked the whole way.”

She smelled of smoke, and diesel fumes, and fear. A sharp smell that crept under my skin and brought the blood whooshing into my ears.

“I want to go home,” she said, her voice tremulous, on the verge of tears.

I stroked her back. What could I offer her but the touch of my hand?

Her body quivered as she mumbled, “I’ve got forty more blocks to walk. I just want to get home.”

I wanted to put my arms around her, cradle her close, comfort her as though she were James; as though I could keep her safe. I wanted to say: come home with us, we’ll take care of you; we live just around the corner. But this was New York, and Dinaz’s apartment was not my home.

I stroked her back gently and drew James closer. “Can I help?” I asked. “Would you like us to walk with you?”

She shook her head. Ash flew off her hair onto the back of my hand.

I felt her shock and exhaustion in my body. “I’ll pray that you get safely home,” I told her, love and grief and the yearning to keep her safe in my voice, in my hands.

I realized then that I’d known all along where I belong. I belong wherever love and kinship fill my heart. I had thought that being home meant being rooted like a tree in geography and genetics. But instead my roots are the roots of the lotus, floating wherever the currents of life take me. I can offer love and friendship wherever I am. And receive, in turn, the gifts that life brings in such abundance, in the midst of terror, destruction and the fire’s heat.

The woman with the ash-covered shoes turned and walked away, giving us a half wave as she left. We paid for James’s shorts and walked out of the air-conditioned store into the sweltering heat of the afternoon. Hungry and exhausted, we threaded our way through the crowd, back to the cool refuge of Dinaz’s apartment. I sank into the couch and put my feet up on the coffee table, while James rummaged in the refrigerator and emerged with a slice of pizza, which he folded in half and stuffed into his mouth. We leaned against each other on the couch, and waited for Dinaz to come home.

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