“Wow you are so brave”
In another time, on another continent, I worked for the Fire Authority. I was proud of my service, but with strangers, I learned to avoid mentioning it. Why? Because if I did, I would inevitably be greeted with a doe-eyed look which implied “wow you are so brave.” I wasn’t of course. I was just a professional. Like thousands of others who work in potentially dangerous occupations, I never woke each morning contemplating the hazards of my job. I thought about the weather, how my team sucked, how I regretted that blistering argument with my girlfriend. My mind was filled with a thousand mundane reflections that are a common currency to everyone, from first responder to village librarian.
But post 9/11 this “wow you are so brave” look felt particularly counterfeit. Those Americans who died manning the engines and ladder crews woke that morning, like me, thinking about life’s mundanities. It was their subsequent sacrifice that set them apart from the rest of us. Forever.
Haunting or horrific?
Though I have lived in New York for over ten years I had never visited the 9/11 Memorial before. Even decades on it seemed too raw. Then a restaurant date in Battery Park, a wrong turn and there I was, by complete accident, at Ground Zero. For what seemed an age I was unable to move. I was struck initially by how small the plaza seemed. So many lives lost in such a confined space. Like much of New York, it was claustrophobic. But it also possessed an aura unlike anywhere else in the city. I wanted to say it was “haunting,” but that would have been too mystical, and there was nothing supernatural about the violence perpetrated that day. It was calculated and depressingly mortal.
New York got the memorial right
The City of New York was criticized by some for the memorial they erected to those lost in the twin towers. “Underwhelming” seemed to be the most persistent attack. But to me, they have got it just right. A Gothic “look at me” monstrosity reaching to the sky would have been insincere and grotesque.
Instead, the footprints of the twin towers contain two reflective pools of water. Each pool is enclosed by black granite walls bearing the name of the victims. Uncomplicated certainly, but in no way underwhelming. This simple design enables the viewer to concentrate on those who died, rather than being overwhelmed and distracted by the architecture. Every name is inscribed on the bronze parapets surrounding the pools, inviting human touch. It is a summons to interact with each one as an individual. Every single name represents the extinguishing of a creative force.
The memorial is a spiders web of humanity, with every race and religion covered by the 61 nations who lost citizens here. It is a perpetual link between the inanimate, the dead and the living, that if not healing the pain exactly, then going some way to alleviating it. I am not sure the City could have done much more than that?
I ran my fingers over a single name at random. Thought about where this man would be now? How had his family coped? Did he have any children? Suddenly next to me, two giggling teenagers broke my concentration. Both wore Minnesota Vikings T-shirts. They were tall, blue-eyed and blonde. Corn fed beauties only three generations removed from the fjords of Norway. With their backs to the pool, they were laughing whilst taking the ubiquitous “selfie”. I was momentarily outraged. This was a lack of respect. I turned to chastise them but something about my British reserve stopped me. This, after all, is not my country.
On the train home, I thought about the two girls. As I sat down my mood was close to anger. But by the time I arrived at my stop, it had completely changed. These girls were not being disrespectful. In their own way, they were celebrating the lives of those who died in the best way they knew how. They were vital, passionate, full of life. Living proof that terrorism can never bow a nation like the USA let alone subjugate the wider human spirit. Their grieving may have been in stark contrast to others that day but it wasn’t any less appropriate or respectful.
No one can tell you how to grieve
I learned a valuable lesson standing at the memorial that day. One of tolerance and respect. There is no correct or incorrect way to grieve. There is no fixed algorithm for the expression of sorrow. But between the city, an ex-firefighter and two laughing teenagers, I like to think that that day we had most bases covered.
Tipping in the USA is more American than baseball. But is this tradition good for the customer let alone the workforce? Read my blog on how tipping is a Corporate cop out http://www.englishmanlovesamerica.com/tipping-impoverishes-the-american-worker/