It was hot. It was muggy. It was 2001 and I was in New York City on a mission. The morning started early with map in hand and a determined objective to walk from the hotel in lower Manhattan through the easily marked streets and avenues of the city toward the Financial District to the site where the twin towers had once stood.
At first I walked and crossed streets like a good citizen waiting obediently for the pedestrian light to turn green before hurling myself swiftly onto the busy intersections. It wasn’t until after five blocks into my “mission” that I stopped at a street corner and realized that I was the only one waiting for the green light, making it very obvious that I was the outsider. So at the next light, I followed the New Yorkers and crossed the streets pretty much the way people cross streets in busy cities around the globe….without regard for the crosswalk sign, look left, right and left and if all clear, just cross.
“Your breaking away from your norm?” questioned Soul in utter amazement.
“Yes, I am,” I said with a smug grin. “We’re in New York. I don’t want people to know I’m a tourist. I want to blend in,” I continued as I followed a crowd of pedestrians.
“Well for starters, you might want to get rid of the map,” chirped Soul, whose childlike consciousness was to become my sole companion on this mission.
“Point well taken!” I heeded her advice. We mapped the route from here to there clearly in our minds, and confidently, I put away the map, feeling very much like I owned the city.
We walked for hours allowing ourselves to ‘color outside the lines,’ as it were. We were unstructured and it felt good. We passed through Times Square, then in front of the Empire State building, through the garment district and antique shops, across a section of Murray Hill to take a picture of the Armenian Consulate on 36th Street, then down to Chelsea, through Gramercy, Greenwich Village, and Soho, all the while ignoring street vendors who were selling umbrellas with catchy signs that amused me. “$3 while it’s sunny. $5 when it wet and you’re sorry,” said the sign. I laughed. Sure, a few clouds had started to roll in but it didn’t look like rain.
“Don’t you think they know something we don’t?” nudged Soul. “Perhaps you should buy an umbrella.”
“Nah,” I said. “Besides, what’s the harm in a little water on our heads?”
Off we continued to Little Italy, then Chinatown and onto Tribeca before a thunderstorm rumbled in and burst open the skies above. Raindrops, the size of pennies, river danced their way on the streets as we entered Tribeca. We were soaked to the bone in our light summer dress and open toe sandals. Leaping long under eaves and canopies, if any, of store fronts and cafes, we too danced our way on pavements and into a small Greek restaurant whose name I cannot recall, and had a bite to eat. What I do recall are the bubbles of laughter that Soul and I shared as we waited for the downpour to cede and for us to resume our quest.
“Perhaps we should take the underground,” I suggested. I was tired, and the map I had folded and put away was beginning to feel like a two ton weight in the purse strapped across my chest.
“That’s so unlike you.” Soul was quick to reply. “We did that yesterday at Penn Station, and remember what you said? You said people gathered there looked like pigeons who, waiting for their feed, huddled together and fed into open doors of subway trains instead of dispersing at the sound of an approaching train. You said you didn’t want to be one of the masses. Yet this morning you wanted to fit in and not look like a tourist. Which is it?”
“Do you really listen to every word I say?” I asked somewhat annoyed but at the same time amused by her gait.
“There, see that,” said Soul, ignoring the question and pointing to a church across the street. “That’s where we should go. You can get some rest there.” Her voice was encouraging with new found energy.
Shadowed between tall buildings, the church appeared to be a sanctuary to my tired and aching feet and to a Soul that refused discouragement. We walked in. It was delicately beautiful and somber. It took but a moment for us to realize we had accidentally stumbled upon St. Paul, an old Episcopal church, which had served as a refuge for the policemen, firemen, rescue teams and the injured after the collapse of the twin towers. Miraculously, it had remained intact and undisturbed throughout the chaos of 9/11. The interior was full of memorabilia from the catastrophe. Letters and notes, personal belongings and objects, even prayers of love and gratitude graced the walls from floor to steeple of the chapel. I was touched. But it was Soul who touched me more. “The irony is that some places of worship become sacred shrines through the evil of mankind.” She sounded so innocent, so guileless, like an injured child whose belief and trust in the goodness of mankind could not be shattered.
“The air is thick with sadness here,” I sighed and shook my head.
“The air is rich with kindness here,” she observed.
Tears welled in my eyes. After a weighty pause, I asked, “How can you talk of kindness and goodness when evil is clearly dominant and more powerful?”
I felt her wrap herself around me. “Of course, evil is powerful because it abides by no laws except the ideology to win fast.” Soul had captured my complete attention.
“You mean to tell me that good doesn’t share the same ideology to win!?” I challenged her.
“Oh yes it does,” she affirmed even more adamantly. “But good also abides by rules and laws, laws that are wonderfully strong and at the same time terribly fragile. In times of threat and crisis, we think that these laws weaken us through their limitations, but in reality, they are the strongbox that govern us, safeguard our values and ultimately crown a slow victory over evil.”
“That’s the problem, right there,” I said. “SLOW victory. By the time ‘good’ works its way through the rule of laws, the ideology of winning is so far into the future that it becomes moot to say ‘mission accomplished.’”
“Let’s hope not,” she smiled.
Our whispered words and soft footsteps echoed from the stone walls as we left the chapel and onward toward our “mission.” We made our way around the corner and in a sudden moment of reality, there it was, an immense block of empty space…ground zero…a dug out of massive broken concrete and metal that once formed the foundations to two towers that had graced the New York skyline and which now would be found only in history books that document the rise and fall of empires.
Amid the deafening din of a city in motion, we were silenced, my Soul and I.
This I humbly write with faith in the rule of laws.
(Ten years later, on May 1, 2011, President Obama announced the capture and death of Osama Bin Laden whose organized attack on the twin towers claimed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians.)