I was in Sister Mary Evangelista’s fourth grade class when Mother John entered the room during our math lesson. We stood and were about to greet her with our usual, “Good morning, Mother,” when with her Irish brogue, she abruptly instructed us to sit down. She whispered in our teacher’s ear. Sister Mary Evangelista’s eyes welled up and she told us to get our things; we were going to Mass.
I was overjoyed. Anything was better than math. But as we marched around the corner to church, I overheard the Sisters whispering through their sobs.
“I can’t believe this,” they said. “The president’s gone.” They were talking about President Kennedy.
I don’t remember the service or Father Baretta’s sermon. I only recall that when we were dismissed, my mother was there to take me home. I thought, “Wow, she must be really sad. She didn’t even put on lipstick.”
For the next several days, I was happy not being in school, but annoyed that my favorite TV shows were pre-empted by news covereage of the assassination (a brand new-word). Emily, my older sister, was upset. She had just started working in an office, loved Jackie Kennedy and was the proud owner of several pillbox hats. The gravity of it all didn’t register with me and when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot, I was even more confused. I felt a certain uneasiness, but with my parents and relatives there with me, gathered around the television, I knew I was safe.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, my Uncle Tony picked my cousin Angela and me up from school because he was afraid of possible riots. I had seen Martin Luther King give speeches on television and felt bad when I saw his wife and children at his funeral service. I was just beginning to deal with that when Robert Kennedy was shot. Listening to his brother Teddy’s speech made me cry. I was thirteen, in the throes of my own adolescent confusion, and the possibility of losing my own father suddenly began to haunt me.
Fast foward to December of 1980. I was living at 708 Washington St., in the Village. One night, I was awakened from a flu-induced sleep by the ringing phone. It was my roommate Cathy. Her voice trembled. She started crying.
“Cathy?” I said.
“John Lennon’s dead,” she said. She told me she was calling from a pay phone near the Dakota. The streets were lined with people who had gone there to mourn.
“I’ll be home soon,” she said.
I hung up, walked into the living room and a few minutes later, Dolores, my other roommate, came in from her waitressing job. We hugged and cried. At the time, I’d just started working at Playboy magazine and our John Lennon interview had just hit newsstands. He talked about returning to the studio to record the Double Fantasy album and how much he loved living in New York. The city he loved was now the city that had taken him away. My feverish body craved sleep, but I stayed awake all night, watching the news with my friend.
Sixteen years later, while on the phone with someone in our Chicago office, I saw people running next door to the small conference room television. What they were looking at was the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. We all felt certain that this could only have been done by foreign terrorists and within minutes the shock jocks were on the air telling Arab jokes. Then we learned that the atrocity was carried out by a Gulf War veteran with a buzz cut. I’ve wondered since then what murdering children has to do with freedom.
On the morning of September 11th, I was in the office when one of the food editors emerged from the kitchen yelling that she heard on the radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We raced to a television, some of us ranting about the recklessness of the airlines. But minutes later, when we the second tower was hit, we knew it was something far more terrible. We screamed and whimpered. We huddled in groups trying to verbalize what we just saw. We called our families to see how they were doing and to assure them that we were okay. Our building is across the street from Grand Central Station and management soon announced we were evacuating.
The streets were filled with people as I walked the two miles home with some co-workers, yet filled with a strange silence. I got home, turned the televsion and tuned in to another tragedy.