Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Voices from 9/11


I could not think of a better way to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 than to hear from voices not usually heard in mainstream media. This month's Progressive Reading Series at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco's Mission District featured five local authors who read essays or book excerpts about their personal experience with 9/11. The evening was also interspersed with readings of much shorter essays selected from website submissions for this event. It was a grim reminder that the rippling effect of 9/11 has forever altered the collective (and individual) consciousness.

The first reader, Laura Fraser, an author and member of the Writers' Grotto, read a story about a man who she had briefly dated prior to 9/11. He ended their courtship at their last meeting and was set to leave for New York in a few days to attend a business meeting at The Windows of the World on the morning of 9/11. He perished that day. The story took a surprising turn when the man's former girlfriend, and executor of his will, contacted her to discuss his death as well as another secret life that he had led unbeknownst to Laura. Though Laura knew little of this man, 9/11 made his story broader, albeit darker.

Caroline Paul, a former San Francisco firefighter, an author, and a Writers' Grotto member, read of her encounter with another firefighter, Andy, from Brooklyn. Andy's strong dedication to firefighting prompted him to spend one day of his family's vacation in San Francisco riding the fire engine on Paul's shift, an unusual request. Andy and the San Francisco firefighters respectfully exchanged stories in the hopes of one-upping each other. Despite his easy-going demeanor, it was clear he was in another league as his stories confirmed New York's reputation as having the most dangerous, severe fires in the country. His ride on the engine happened weeks before 9/11. Paul did not share whether she knew of his fate, but for her, he was the face for all New York firefighters.

Joyce Maynard, a local author, was the only featured reader who actually was in New York on 9/11. Arriving in New York September 10 to visit her son at NYU, she stayed on afterwards. “Wait for a story to come,” she said, which is her advice for writing students. Her story came to her when she stumbled upon a flyer about a 13 year-old girl who was looking for her mother. Maynard wrote a fictionalized account of this girl and her family; the reading took us to the girl's classroom on 9/11 morning with images before, during, and after the news was announced in the school. She read about the girl's longing to see her mother again and her imagining of her impending move to California to be with her father. This heartfelt, fictionalized account of 9/11's impact on one young girl's life felt very real.

After the break, Tom Barbash read from his non-fiction book about 9/11. His friendship with the Chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald, the investment-banking firm located in the WTC that lost the vast majority of its employees, provided him with a unique window. Barbash interviewed the Chairman's driver, who spoke of standing with the Chairman on the sidewalk in the shadows of the WTC ready to enter the building when the first plane hit. Both the driver and the Chairman survived. Barbash quoted another survivor of the firm who said, “I can't look at my wedding pictures anymore because most of my wedding party has died.” At a meeting at the firm, management decided to read the number of survivors per department, rather than deaths. The list started like this: 1/36, 4/86, 16/140, 2/36. Barbash captured the depth and breadth of 9/11 through the tragic losses of this one firm.

Geoffrey Nunberg, local author and linguist, read from his writings about the language used in the media and government after 9/11. He noted how different media outlets chose specific words and discussed its effect on framing 9/11 in the national consciousness. Nunberg said that the San Francisco Examiner called the terrorists “Bastards” while other newspapers used words evoking an earlier era with words like “dastardly” and “nefarious.” President Bush became extremely fond of the word “evil” soon after 9/11. Nunberg noted how the political right in this country co-opted, very effectively, the word “patriotic” even though most liberals are patriotic too. According to Nunberg, the lapel pin of the American flag later embodied this newly found patriotism, initially a symbol of agreement with the Bush Administration agenda.

It's likely that the majority of those attending the reading were not in New York on 9/11. But these readings reminded us that the sense of loss would never go away, no matter where you were that day.

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