Over the course of the next few days the entire city in which I work, the entire country in which I live, would come to feel much the same way.
For me there was a peculiar reason for gratitude as the horrible events of that day unspooled in a long endless loop of cataclysmic news footage. When my husband called to tell me to turn on the television, we both thought there had been a freak accident. But as I watched the arc of that second plane as it smashed into the Trade Center towers just a few miles south of our narrow Victorian row house, I knew that something uniquely terrible was taking place. I also had reason to believe that everyone I cared for most was safe: My husband across the Hudson at his office. The children at their schools. My friend in the hospital across town. It was difficult for us to talk to one another, of course, with the New York City telephone lines out, the tunnels and bridges shut down, and cyberspace hopelessly jammed. One of the mementos I have kept from that morning are three identical e-mails from our son at college, who could not get through on the day of his birthday or for three days afterward. Each one is dated September 11, 2001, and says in capital letters I REALLY NEED TO HEAR YOUR VOICE.
The morning after, a new world burned and bloomed, too, beneath an incongruously cerulean sky. A group of my daughter's friends gathered in our kitchen and made hundreds of sandwiches and brownies to take to the Red Cross offices nearby. They bought enormous bags of dog food to bring to the local firehouse for their dalmatians and the rescue dogs looking for survivors downtown. The familiar strangers in our neighborhood lingered on the street to speak to one another, to pass along the newest stories about the horror to the south and the people who knew people who'd been inside the twin towers. Two days later the wind changed and the neighborhood smelled sharply of smoke. "I know that smell," an old man who lived in the apartment house on the corner said in accented English, and someone told me he was a Holocaust survivor.
Most nights, housebreaking the puppy we had picked up the day after our son left for school, I would run into a fireman who was heading home after working the wreckage, his eyes burning bright in a grimy face, his hands nicked and bandaged. He would pet our dog, rub her ears and muzzle, finally crouch to hold her squirmy little body close, and by the time he rose for the rest of the walk home there would be bright tear tracks in the dirt on his face. I tried not to cry until he was gone.
But despite the scent of death and the fighter planes flying low overhead and the interior rat-a-tat of panic and fear, there was also that hidden gratitude, the feeling on the part of most New Yorkers that they might have been downtown, that they could have gone to a meeting or a breakfast, that they somehow were still alive. For me that gratitude was also professional. The morning of September 12, 2001, I was at my desk first thing, no preliminaries, no computer games, seizing the chance to write about an event more destructive, more transformative, and more important than any I had ever written about during three decades as a journalist. And at that moment I thanked God, not only for the safety of my family and friends, but for the gift of being permitted to do what I do for a living.
It's a strange job, covering and commenting on the news. Life washes over us as it does all our fellows, and yet we see it in a completely different way than they do. Disaster, tragedy, malfeasance, change: Everything is always arranging itself into stories, making itself tidy and suitable for 900-word retellings. Nothing is too messy to be summed up in a headline or a sound bite. We are the people who go to wars with laptops instead of guns, who look at the scene of the crime without turning away, who stand in the flickering heat of a house fire and take down the details as someone jumps from a third-story window. We ask questions ordinary people would be ashamed to ask. We watch. That is our job.
Excerpted from Loud and Clear by Anna Quindlen. Copyright© 2004 by Anna Quindlen. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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