This past September 11th, I found myself with little to do. The weather was clear and cool, exactly as it had been years before. That other 9/11 morning, I was in Times Square because they’d evacuated my office building. Firefighters sped by, stuffed into commandeered minivans. Battalion trucks with unfamiliar sirens honked at the traffic; they were from Massapequa, a place where I’d never been. Around me on the monitors were images of the smoldering towers. Then they fell.
People screamed. Others cried and in that mess, my boss and I headed downtown. We passed a man listening to the news on a shower radio. We turned a corner and there it was: a ghostly pillar of smoke, shaped like one of the towers. After I took my boss home, I kept on walking downtown until I reached a place near the smoking pit, as close as I could go.
People passed me covered in chalky sheetrock dust. One woman was completely white except for her dark eyes. Corner stores were making money selling water. Kinder souls gave theirs away and set up folding chairs. Dozens sat on those chairs and fell into themselves. Others walked. Still more shouted nonsensical things. I saw a high schooler pose for a camera in front of the evacuating crowd, as though she were at DisneyWorld. Others said nothing. I kept wandering.
Of everything I’d seen that day, the most vivid image for me was of an exhausted firefighter, alone in that firehouse. Tears were streaming down his chalk-whitened face.
The subways were shut. All over the city people had to walk. There were personal odysseys over the bridges and down the avenues. Many were in shoes not meant for anything other than walking to the copy machine.
At Canal Street, I listened to a skateboarder talk to a businessman. They were having what my playwriting teacher called a duologue: the skateboarder was saying, Man this is big. This is like the biggest shit…Man, dude…Man while the businessman droned, The Economy…World affairs…War…Harumph…War. Neither listened to the other, but both still spoke—it was better than being alone.
At my local firehouse, they’d lost six of their thirteen men, almost half of their crew. Of everything I’d seen that day, the most vivid image for me was of an exhausted firefighter, alone in that firehouse. Tears were streaming down his chalk-whitened face.
For days after, couples hung close. Singles met and had quick and desperate sex. Others, like me, broke up with our girlfriends because it had all seemed so needless.
I wandered every night. At the magazine where I was working, we had bomb threats. We had suspicious looking mail assumed to be anthrax. Men in Haz-Mat suits walked our hallways. Panic had taken over; we were given the week off.
My own neighborhood was under lockdown, guarded by teenaged soldiers armed with semiautomatics. You couldn’t visit unless you could prove you lived in the area.
Past the barrier, the streets were eerily empty. No cars moved. In Washington Square Park, people sang spirituals and Amazing Grace. I was surprised—along with probably everyone there—that we knew the lyrics of these songs. To our surprise, America had something beyond Top 40 to bind us together, a baseline tradition.
I fell in love with New York all over again. I realized I was a patriot for this city. I realized New York was my greatest ambition and my longest-lasting love. New York was a constant surprise and a pain in the ass—just living here might be the best thing I’d ever done.
I found a way into the cordoned-off area just outside of Ground Zero. I broke in and saw workers sweeping the streets and washing signs. They were doing it gently, as if with love. Two National Guard soldiers were running about, actually playing tag.
Then Christian groups came in from everywhere. They were there to save our souls. The implicit message for us was that our wickedness brought on the attack. They used bullhorns and shouted about Jesus to the shellshocked populace.
This past 9/11, those Christians were back. They clogged downtown, wearing inflammatory tee shirts that denigrated homosexuality, Islam, and the proposed “Ground Zero Mosque.” They still wanted war. At worst, they espoused hate. At best, they exuded the smug arrogance of the saved. Their gimcrack religion and personal Jesuses seemed to tell them, it’s OK to be ignorant: many of them didn’t seem to even know where the “Ground Zero Mosque“ was.
I heard them ask one another, Where is it? Is that it? Is that the Ground Zero Mosque? Of every building under construction, they asked, Is that it? Is that it? They wanted to protect the sanctity of something they knew nothing about.
These Christians then went over to street-side sandwich wagons. They ate falafels and kebabs made by Muslims. They ate Halal, but didn’t know what that had meant. They were driven here in taxis, likely by Arabs who needed the Park 51 Community Center as a place to worship.
One protester wore a soccer jersey for the British team Arsenal. Arsenal jerseys of course bear a logo, Fly Emirates—as in United ARAB Emirates. Someone waved a banner with the misspelling, “Amerrica.“ They said things about “Idiot New Yorkers—even though, if they were Red Staters, which I suppose many were, we New Yorkers support them with our taxes.
My theory about New York is that those of us who live here—and who weren’t born here—came to New York to be free from America and its petty behaviors.
I grew up in the Bible Belt and went to Southern Baptist schools—I know my scripture. I also know that my Southern relatives supported segregation and even formed their own all-white church. My grandfather was a deacon there. My sainted grandmother, who I loved more than anyone, told me that if I married a black woman, she would disown me.
Slavery was just fine with the earlier Bible-thumping Southerners—after all, it’s approved of in the Bible. Classically, the KKK recruited in small-town churches, under the guidance of the white preachers. Just fine with the pope: Nazism. Ignored by a series of popes: child rape. We could go deeper into the past, to the obliteration of the native cultures of North and South America. We could mention the Inquisition. The Crusades.
I see very little for Christians to be high-handed about. Christians will say, But you’re ignoring the spirit of the what Christ said. And of course, when attacked for their religion, many Muslims say the same sort of thing. Neither side—as near as I can tell has lived up to the spirit of their founders—and Christianity doesn’t deserve more benefit of the doubt than Islam. Timothy McVeigh was a Christian. The crazed members of the extreme far right with their assault rifles count themselves as Christian, too.
There’s a mosque in my Manhattan neighborhood (a real mosque, not a community center). I see its members praying there day and night. It’s a religion demanding much from its faithful, more than Christianity. Because of their rigorous faith, I know exactly where Mecca is: I see street sellers praying in its direction. It’s not uncommon to see a man roll out a carpet right on a Midtown street, and pray toward Mecca. I have no idea where in hell Jerusalem or Rome is. (Long ago, Christian altars were to face the direction of Jerusalem. But we’ve forgotten about that.)
Christianity has blood on its hands. It’s a poorly thought-through tribal fairytale filled with empty, comforting words for its followers—and hate and death for its enemies.
That said, I don’t object to Christians exercising their freedom of religion; that’s what this country is all about. That freedom, however, extends to Islam—and to me also, who doesn’t care for any of the Abrahamic religions.
I also don’t object to those living in New York City—specifically Manhattan—who are against having the Park 51 Islamic Community Center a few blocks away from Ground Zero. Manhattanites have earned the right to their opinions—after all, it’s their neighborhood. They deserve to speak their minds. What I object to is this: those who come in from off the island of Manhattan to bully us into not having the city we want.
My theory about New York is that those of us who live here—and who weren’t born here—came to New York to be free from America and its petty behaviors. We live in an effectively neutral place, free from blowhard America while at the same time enjoying its various freedoms and values. As the joke goes, we came here to live on an island off Europe.
New Yorkers live alongside people from every part of the world. We’re not afraid of other cultures—and many of us, in fact, enjoy their presence. We lead varied lives here, not enclosed by car windows and daily, soul crushing lunches at Applebee’s. Arab people are our neighbors and friends. We don’t need a fearful, angry horde from outside the city to tell us how to lead our lives.
So I say this: stay the hell out of godless Manhattan. Pray for our demise. Only, leave it to your God to destroy us. Many New Yorkers are entirely comfortable with that: after all, we chose this island so as to have the water between us.
Bio: Meakin Armstrong is Guernica’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @meakinarmstrong.