Aftershock: Notes of a Formerly Stranded Man

“Get up, son,” my mother said, tapping softly on the door of the bedroom of my childhood home in Missouri. “Liz just called from New York. She says to turn on the TV. It’s something about an airplane hitting the World Trade Center.” I came awake a split-second later, my head full of memories. I thought of the day my wife had called me at my Manhattan office to tell me that the Challenger had exploded. Now she was calling from halfway across the country to tell me that the world had changed forever. I knew it was true, and I knew what it meant. For years I had wondered when the long arm of terrorism would strike again at New York. I thought of a sunny Saturday morning back when we were living in an apartment house on a hill north of the city. A small earthquake shook the building as we lay sleeping, and the groaning of the old walls woke us. I heard a soft whir through the open window, the rustle of the leaves on the shaken trees. It’s a car bomb, I told myself, unable for one stunned moment to conceive of any other possibility.

All these thoughts flew through my mind in the time it took me to pull on my pants. Then I trotted to the living room, there to behold the coming of the new age.

It came, as St. Paul said, in the twinkling of an eye, and now we were all changed. Even as I slept, I had unknowingly acquired a new identity: I awoke to find myself a stranded man, unable to return to New York to share whatever its fate might be. Of course I had it easy, far more so than most of the thousands of other Americans who had been caught short on that bright Tuesday morning. Some of them were in the air, others in strange hotel rooms, but I was holed up with my mother in the small town where I had spent the first 18 years of my life. My brother and his family lived just three blocks away. I knew my wife was alive, at least for the moment. As exiles go, mine was to be both comforting and comfortable—and brief. But it was an exile all the same, and with every passing minute, it grew harder to endure.

Merely to write those last few words is an unfamiliar sensation. To be an adopted New Yorker is to know innumerable people who visit their families as infrequently as they can, who live in New York because it is as far away from the scenes of their childhood as it can possibly be. Some have broken with their parents, others with their past, a few with themselves, if such a thing is possible (which I doubt). I am not one of them. Long before I first heard it, I knew the truth of the old Jewish saying, “Anywhere you go, there you are.” Even though I now eat sushi and happily give directions to mystified tourists searching in vain for Times Square or the Empire State Building, I have never tried to be anyone other than my small-town self, or to be from anywhere other than Sikeston, Missouri. I left a quarter-century ago to make my way in the world, but I always come back once or twice a year, if not more. New York is where I live: It is not my home.

So, at any rate, I had thought. But as I sat transfixed before the television, watching the scenes of now-imaginable horror repeated incessantly, first from one camera angle, then another, I knew I wanted above all things to fly to the city whose tallest buildings had been raped by faceless worshippers of a god who does not exist, a god who smiles complacently at evil and calls it good. Then came the now-conceivable news that Manhattan had been cut off from the mainland—all bridges were closed, all subways stopped, all planes grounded—and I knew I had finally cast off the last mooring from my home port and set sail for parts unknown, suspended between the beloved past and the invisible future.

For two days, phone service to Manhattan was hit or miss, mostly the latter, and I couldn’t even get a busy signal for anybody south of 14th Street: A shrill mechanical voice always told me to call back later. My laptop was in New York—I’d finished a book the week before and had gone to Missouri determined to do no more work for a few days—so e-mail was out of the question. All I could do was stare at the TV, which I did for hours on end, and pray—not without ceasing, but in half-articulate spurts that gushed out on the rare occasions when I was able to tear my eyes and mind away from the unfolding story: Dear God, please take care of my wife. Take care of my friends. Be with the rescue workers. Give the president wisdom. Pray for us sinners. Deliver us from evil.

One by one, the dead phones came back to life, and by Friday I knew that all the people to whom I was close were alive. That was the day when the National Cathedral in Washington was filled with the sounds of prayer and music—the first day I was able to weep. As I watched President Bush speak, I said to myself, He’s talking like a preacher, just like a preacher. And I thought of the words of Chesterton: America is a nation with the soul of a church.

Faith comes harder to those touched by the cold hand of modernity, and to some it does not come at all. To me it has come fitfully: I have spent my life being whipsawed between the uncomplicated, unreflective belief of a small-town childhood and the increasingly compelling but as yet not quite overwhelming recognition that there is more to it than that.

I am a man of words and of art, and so much of the progress I have made along the endless road to understanding has come as a result of artistic experiences. Among the books I brought with me to Missouri was The Woman of the Pharisees, one of the novels in which Francois Mauriac seeks to plumb the dark mystery of grace. How is it that great good may spring from seeming evil? The belief-crazed zealots who killed 6,000 of my fellow New Yorkers thought they knew—knew they knew—and it struck me as I looked from afar upon their diabolic error that Mauriac might prove a present comfort, as he had so often in the past. Alas, he did me no good: No novelist could have. My eyes glided uncomprehendingly over the pages, and after a few minutes, I gave up and turned the television on again. The time for reflection was not yet ripe. But a little later in the day, another memory filled my mind, and all at once I was back in my wounded city, recalling a long-ago night at the ballet.

I had gone to Lincoln Center to watch the New York City Ballet dance Jerome Robbins’s The Goldberg Variations, set to the music of Bach. It had been a fearfully long day at the office, and I was drained and dry when I took my seat in the theater. I actually thought about skipping the performance, but something kept me in my seat long enough to be drawn into it. Soon I was experiencing Bach’s crystalline notes and Robbins’s heartfelt steps more intensely and completely than I have ever experienced any work of art at any time in my life, before or since. When it was over, I felt a surge of benevolence toward everyone on stage. I left the theater and stood for a long time on the steps leading down to the street, taking deep breaths of the cold night air, filled with a warmth that seemed to buoy me up. Then I flagged a cab, and while riding down Broadway, I experienced an astonishing sense of release reminiscent of the ecstatic muscular exhaustion you feel after hard physical labor. It was as if all the cares of living in New York City, all the strains of my life, were slipping from my shoulders. The world around me appeared numinous, and I accepted everything in it, even the bright blue graffiti on a passing truck. It occurred to me that this was how a person might feel in the midst of the act of dying. Dear God, I told myself, please never let me forget what this feels like. Let me hold it in my memory forever, so that I can remember it when times are bad.

Grand Central Station came into view. The facade was brightly lit, and the clock and the lettering carved into the granite were as crisp and clear as the printing in an expensive book. I drank it all in as I got out of the cab and walked slowly into the main lobby. A three-piece combo was playing some old standard I didn’t recognize. I dropped a dollar bill into the trumpet player’s open case. I noticed that I had a minute and a half to catch my train, so I ran all the way to the track, plopped down in a seat in the last car, and hardly felt out of breath at all.

Once I got home, I went straight to my bookshelf, pulled down W.H. Auden’s Forewords and Afterwords, and turned to a passage I had recalled on the train, in which Auden describes a summer night in 1933 when, sitting on a lawn with three acquaintances, he suddenly found himself “invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.” The sensation overwhelmed him:

I recalled with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed by this spirit, it would be literally impossible for me to injure another human being. I also knew that the power would, of course, be withdrawn sooner or later and that, when it did, my greeds and self-regard would return…. The memory of the experience has not prevented me from making use of others, grossly and often, but it has made it much more difficult for me to deceive myself about what I am up to when I do. And among the various factors which several years later brought me back to the Christian faith in which I had been brought up, the memory of this experience and asking myself what it could mean was one of the most crucial, though, at the time it occurred, I thought I had done with Christianity for good.

As I read this passage, these words formed in my head: God is sending me this experience to help me endure life in New York. I sat down at once and wrote out an account of what has so far been the only true mystical experience of my life, so that I would remember it in every detail. No more than Auden was I transformed beyond recognition by my brief apprehension of the substance of things not seen. I am still petty, still vain, still lustful and slothful and doubtful. But I am not as I was before that night—not quite.

Five days after the World Trade Center crumbled to dust, my brief exile ended and I flew back to the place that I now knew to be my earthly home. As the plane descended, breaking the cloudless, transparent air, I gazed with terror and awe on the sight of lower Manhattan, into which a huge black hole had been burned, and heard in my mind’s ear an old camp-meeting hymn that Merle Travis used to sing: “I am a pilgrim and a stranger/ Traveling through this wearisome land/ I got a home in that yonder city, good Lord/ And it’s not, not made by hand.”

That Thursday, I went to Lincoln Center to hear the New York Philharmonic perform Brahms’s German Requiem in memory of the dead of September 11. Manhattan was gray—a slate-gray, solidly overcast sky that spat rain off and on all afternoon. By early evening, the air was heavy with humidity, the worst possible weather for a musical performance: Strings go limp, singers go flat. Broadway was clotted with yellow taxis, none of them vacant, many flying small American flags. I arrived a little before 7P.M., together with hundreds of other people, virtually all dressed in black or gray. Huge flags hung from the balconies of the New York State Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera House, and Avery Fisher Hall, the three houses that frame the plaza. The lobby was full of hastily printed signs reading “ALL BAGS WILL BE SUBJECT TO SEARCH” and long lines at the security checkpoints through which we had to pass in order to reach the escalators. One woman was carrying a shopping bag that contained a cardboard box. “What’s in the box?” asked the guard, noncommittally. “Two bottles of wine,” she replied. Then he broke out in a huge smile. “No drinking in the aisles!” he told her, wagging his finger, and we all laughed.

Inside the auditorium, every seat was full save for those occupied by the TV cameras broadcasting the performance. The lights went down, and out of an unquiet hush the first notes of the first movement materialized so softly that for a moment, I wasn’t quite sure the orchestra had started to play. New Yorkers are the noisiest audiences in the world, and I heard a modest amount of coughing, as well as a single cell phone that went off midway through the second movement, spreading a quick ripple of dismay. For the most part, though, the only thing I could hear in the pauses was the sound of people softly weeping. The young woman sitting next to me had never heard the German Requiem before, and she was overcome by the way in which Brahms set the familiar Bible verses, now made so freshly poignant by our still-raw memories of the week just past: Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted…. Lord, teach me that there must be an end of me…. The souls of the righteous are in God’s hand, and no pain touches them…. For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come…. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? She said to me afterward, “I imagined that all those voices were angels rising out of the towers as they collapsed.”

At the end, Kurt Masur, the conductor, lowered his hands slowly. The stillness that followed seemed to last for minutes, though it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. No one clapped—no one would have dared. Then Masur stepped down from the podium and joined hands with the soloists, and they vanished into the wings without a word. In the vast, resounding silence, the audience began to file out. Once people arose from their seats and started to move, they also started talking, and I eavesdropped. Most of what I heard was the usual post-concert chatter, but then, without warning, there came an isolated phrase that jolted me: “He died.”

So many deaths, so much hatred, so much fear and valor and love, all conjured out of the September air in the twinkling of an eye. So much to take in, to accept, to transcend. I will spend the rest of my life wrestling with it. But at least I am not a completely stranded man, stripped by cruel modernity of the cloak of faith. Mine is tattered and full of holes, and when the wind blows hard, I feel the chill. Perhaps I always will, until the day comes when all is made manifest and I behold at last that ultimate reality which God has seen fit to show me only in fleeting glimpses, as I sit in a concert hall or a New York taxi or the window seat of a jet airliner, looking for the presence of grace. But I will never stop looking.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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