The River, the Floating Lanterns and the White Balloons

The River, the Floating Lanterns and the White Balloons
Photo by by Gigi

Friday, September 9, 2011.

My friend and neighbor Judy the Therapist and I ponder the upcoming 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. On that terrible day, Judy and a young couple from my building had just picked up the morning paper at a news stand around the corner; they saw the first plane hit. Another friend woke me up with a frantic phone call; she knew I live downtown, and wanted to make sure I was still alive.

As the tenth anniversary approaches, the city announces plans for bagpipes and color guards and government officials reading the victims’ names. I’m ambivalent about all this. Is it an appropriate remembrance, or is it an unnecessary, ritualistic dredging up of terrible sorrows? Does it re-congratulate the terrorists every year on their great success in inflicting pain?

I’m not even sure I have the right to ask these questions. After all, I didn’t lose anybody. Everyone I know got out alive.

I express to Judy my skittishness about all the pageantry. Judy points out that every person has to find their own way to grieve.

The previous year, I’d stepped out to Hudson River Park to see the Tribute in Light, and chanced onto a quiet, moving ceremony in which participants in canoes pulled strings of paper lanterns across the surface of the river. Sorrow and remembrance suspended in time. The ritual would be repeated for the 10th anniversary. Judy debates whether to keep to her plan to leave town for the weekend or to see the floating lanterns. She decides to go; she has plans, people are depending on her. Besides, there’s always next year.

Saturday, September 10.

After a long day at the computer, I head out to Hudson River Park. It’s one of the great urban refuges– a stretch of lawns, trees and flowers, sculptures, fountains and a wide path along the Hudson River, with the Statue of Liberty visible in the distance. I’m drawn there nearly every day in pleasant weather, and sometimes even in the snow.

As I stroll a little south of Canal Street, a small group of people stand in a semi-circle, the men all dressed up in suits, the women in cocktail dresses and heels, white balloons aloft from white ribbons wound round their wrists. Within the semi-circle, a gray-haired man holds a small book in his hands, facing a man in a suit and a woman in a white lace cocktail dress, a white bouquet blooming in her hands. A wedding in the clear September twilight, with the river flowing by. The wind pulls one of the balloons out toward the river; I duck to pass beneath the ribbon tethering it to a spectator. An older couple have stopped to watch. I don’t even try to suppress a smile. The woman whispers to me, “Isn’t this nice?”

The bride and groom aren’t kids. I’d put her in her mid-to-late 40s, him somewhere in his 50s. Maybe they’ve been married before, maybe not. Doesn’t matter. They’re making a declaration of hope on September the 10th, and we all admire them beyond words for it. A tall young runner steams past. “Nice” he comments to me, without breaking stride. Other joggers, walkers, couples with baby strollers stop to witness the ceremony. When the man with the prayer book says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” we all burst into applause. The river flows past us in shades of silver. Not far away, the almost-complete new World Trade Center rises– 80 floors up, 20 more to go.

September 11, 2011.

The tenth anniversary falls on a Sunday. I read the papers on-line, and watch some Falling Man videos I’d never seen before– footage of victims jumping or falling from the burning buildings, thousands of feet to the pavement– and realize why the network cameras stayed in long shot all day. I think about the office workers, the waitresses and the janitors, and the clerks in the ground-level store where I once bought some eyeglasses. I think about wedding parties bombed in Afghanistan, and children who died or lost their parents as President Bush gloated over our senseless assault on Iraq.

I surf around, and see a couple of mentions of a rant the cultural critic Touré launched into about the “9/11 nostalgia mill” and the commodification of grief. I check it out; he’s really really agitated, reminds me of a Viet Nam veteran I knew who suffered from PTSD.

As I head out to the park to see the ceremony, the sky is a moody gray, the river a muddy, disinviting brown.

A crowd blocks the pathway near Pier 40 where the boats will be launched. A little platform on the lawn serves as a stage. A couple of dozen Japanese and Japanese-American young adults in black T-shirts scurry around, giving people directions and programs, facilitating the event. The Fukushima disaster had hit six months earlier, and this interfaith ceremony would remember victims of both tragedies.

The kids chatter a little too energetically, smile a little too much, help a little too eagerly, almost panicky, as if they can’t bear the possibility of one more thing going wrong.

As I arrive, the preliminary greetings are ending. The great saxophonist Paul Winter, no longer young, plays the “Summer Solstice” theme, some of the notes a bit shaky, some achingly pure and true.

A guy struts past him decked out in spangled trousers, a flaming red jacket and a pork pie hat. Nearby, a clergywoman with a Roman collar, flowing black hair and a serene expression talks to a couple of older people. Whatever in the world, I think, made terrorists think they could kill this town?

Japanese recording artist Shinji Harada takes his turn. He’s an entertainer, doesn’t think first. “You guys having a good time?” he calls out. Hardly anyone responds. He launches into “The Light,” then “Yamato (Global Harmony)”, pop songs which recall end-title music from chick flicks. I read in the program that he was born in Hiroshima.

A little boy next to me can’t see over the adults, asks what’s going on. I lean over and point through the crowd, directing him to the table where attendees can write messages on the sides of the paper lanterns before they’re set onto the water. He dashes off in that direction; his mother and daddy nod and smile at me quickly, then follow him, carrying his little sister close behind. Below me on the sidewalk, a young couple have staked out their viewing position for the ceremony. The guy sits on the concrete, leaning against the railing, his back to the river, playing Video Scrabble on his iPhone. His girlfriend, her hair a trendy short platinum swirl, arrives with a couple of plates of what looks like beans, stew and nan. A group of Sikhs have provided the food.

The Japanese Ambassador gives a short speech. Then Gloria Williams, from September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, addresses the little gathering: “We reject war– here, in Afghanistan and Iraq.” She lost her brother-in-law Vernon Cherry, who she feels would say “Not in my name”. Out on the water, one of those fake riverboats passes on a party cruise, the Dinner Cruise barge not far behind.

On the stage, a nearly-bald, overly insistent Russell Daisey explains to us that his good friend Dr. Judith Kuriansky has been held up at another ceremony. They wrote a song called “Tower of Light” together, and Russell brags about how the song has taken him around the world. He sings the schlock ballad, “Towers of Light, shine in the night…” and I find myself wishing someone would chuck one of those plates of Sikh beans at him. Next opera singer Tomoko Shibata renders a haunting Finnish folk song from the days of the Russian occupation. She reminds us that twenty thousand people died in Japan.

The couple in front of me are on their feet, smooching and giggling. On the little platform, half a dozen Buddhist monks and nuns assemble, and Reverend T.K. Nakagati explains that they’re going to “chant for boundless compassion” as the lanterns are lit. One monk checks his iPhone before they begin. All the spectators, the kissing couple included, stop to fold our hands, close our eyes and bow our heads to the sound of the chanting voices. One monk prays aloud in English. “May we all be free from suffering. May we all be free from grief. May we all be free from pain.”

The chanting ends. The happy couple take off before the lanterns hit the water. To my right, a cop tries to pick up a pretty girl: “Is the river always this color?”

As the first canoe launches, trailing its lanterns, a raindrop hits my head. In an instant, rain splashes down and the crowd scatters. I’d grabbed an umbrella on my way out, pop it open and walk south along the river to Harrison Street.

Low-hanging clouds stub out the Tribute in Light. Memories of the terrible day ten years ago flash like a slideshow. The dust-encrusted office workers stumbling their way up Sixth Avenue. The man I saw sitting on the curb, his face buried in his hands. The hospital workers and ambulances lined up in front of St. Vincent’s, waiting for the thousands of injured who never came. Buying soap and energy bars for the rescue workers. The stunned conversations with friends. Anne who was working at the Stock Market, and outran the cloud of debris barreling towards her. Wendy who had been in both Trade Center bombings, and visibly shook as she spoke about this; she tried to tell a friend not to take the elevator, but the doors closed between their faces, and she never saw him again. The friend of a friend who was fired from her job on Monday, September 10, and told not to bother coming back the next day. The hundreds of flyers taped to the outside wall of St. Vincent’s: “Have you seen this person?” The day I walked down to see the Trade Center ruins, thirty feet of crushed and twisted metal, still smoking three weeks later. Shying away from the Times Square subway station for a couple of weeks, then just thinking, “Ah, screw it,” and charging in just as I used to.

The rain eases up as I turn back north. I pass the spot where last night’s wedding took place, and admire those people all over again.

A solo jazz trumpeter practices out on one of the piers. Three turbaned monks walking past turn their heads his way simultaneously, and I’m ashamed to admit they remind me of one of those YouTube videos featuring Weimaraners.

By the time I return to Pier 40, just a handful of spectators linger. The only music sounds from crickets in the lawn behind us, and waves slapping against the pier.

The rowers are nearly finished towing the strings of lanterns onto the river. The lanterns, about four dozen in all, bob quietly in the water, blending perfectly with the reflected orange and yellow light of the street lamps. The Japanese kids are cleaning up, still a little edgy and over-energized.

A bit down the pier, Mr. Tribute in Light is attempting to convince a couple of Japanese TV reporters that his song has built communities all around the world.

A Japanese-American security guard, elbows resting on a railing, stares at the lanterns in the water.

Judy had it right– each of us must find or own way to grieve. Ten years have elapsed since the trauma that bound New Yorkers together; we’ve scattered once again to our places in the great kaleidoscope of life in this city. When the horrible anniversary approaches, some of us– probably including some who suffered the deepest losses– still need bagpipes and wreath-layings. Some cook free meals for the crowd at a memorial service. Some of us contemplate the lights on the water, some still desperately scramble to cash in.
And some step bravely into the future, balloons floating to the sky.

“May we all be free from suffering. May we all be free from grief. May we all be free from pain.”

A native of Chicago, Illinois, Christine Nieland graduated from Northwestern University. She has worked as a filmmaker, playwright, screenwriter, journalist and story editor in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. She worked as a staff writer for the late Chicago Daily News, and her work has appeared in The Chicago Sun-Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered news broadcast, Esquire and other publications. Her stage plays have been presented at the Quaigh Theatre, the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Summer workshop, the Pearl and WPA Theatre companies. Her play NINETEEN MEN was named a finalist for the 2008 O’Neill Theatre Conference. She is currently a writer and story analyst for Great Point Media.

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