Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

"Outstanding…Moore Triumphs! Publishers Weekly

Mike's Letter

September 22nd, 2001 12:00 AM

Tears Down the West Side Highway

Dear Friends,

The drive across New Jersey has been the longest portion of this trip across America. It is only 60 miles to New York City and I am having trouble keeping my eyes open. I had just pulled off the road in Allentown, PA, to throw some cold water in my face. Kathleen and I have grown very silent. It is the dread of what is ahead.

As we cross the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, the plume of smoke from the lower part of the island hovers, bright blasting searchlights attempting to crash through it. The college radio station from Fordham is playing Dylan's "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall."

Instead of making the turn south to go home down the West Side Highway, I go north and head toward the town where our daughter goes to college. It is one in the morning, and when we arrive on campus we note that every single light in the dorms is on (when do these kids sleep?).

We call Natalie and tell her we have made it home. She directs us to the nearest gate where she is with some other young women who are working on the school paper. We pull up, she comes out... and this is, as it always has been, the happiest moment of our lives. We hug her, and hug her again. She is happy to see us, and she generously, good-naturedly, tolerates our weepy parental doting. She is, after all, the only reason we have made this drive. Nothing else matters at this point.

We eventually leave her to her own life and head toward New York City. It is now deep in the middle of the night and the radio plays "O Superman" by Laurie Anderson ("Here come the planes -- they're American planes!... hold me in your arms... your military arms...") and then the DJ says that he is going to play a song that they have never let him play before on the station. What an odd thing to announce, I think, considering we live in a free country where you can play whatever music you damn well please.

I recall the email I received the night before from a radio station manager in Michigan. He passed on to me a confidential memo from the radio conglomerate that owns his station: Clear Channel, the company that has bought up 1,200 stations altogether -- 247 of them in the nation's 250 largest radio markets -- and that not only dominates the Top 40 format, but controls 60% of all rock-radio listening.

The company has ordered its stations not to play a list of 150 songs during this "national emergency." The list, incredibly, includes "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Peace Train," and John Lennon's "Imagine." Rah-rah war songs, though, are OK.

And then there was this troubling instruction: "No songs by Rage Against the Machine should be aired." The entire works of a band are banned? Is this the freedom we fight for? Or does this sound like one of those repressive dictatorships we are told is our new enemy?

The song the college DJ goes ahead and plays is, "Hey, War Pig," by Katrina and the Waves, and he dedicates it to the "all the war mongers out there." Yes, there is hope, the kids are all right.

We arrive at our apartment building and I am too tired to drop the vehicle off at the rental car place, so we unload, head upstairs, and hit the sack.

I awake at noon. A horrible stench has filled the apartment. I did not notice it a few hours earlier, but the winds have shifted. It is the odor others had warned me about. It is a smell I have never smelled. I am told by someone in the building that it is a combination of chemicals, rubber, sheetrock, and... he pauses. He does not want to list the final ingredient, and I do not want him to.

I thank him and go back upstairs and close all the windows. I look at the cereal box I had left half-opened before our trip to L.A. I stare at this box for a long time. Nine days of ash has descended on the city. It is everywhere, microscopic, invisible, non-discriminatory in where it has landed. No part of the city is untouched, and all are treated equally to the smoke and stench, regardless of station in life. There is no way to turn away and ignore it.

I take the rental car back. As I park it, I look across the street and see our neighborhood firehouse consumed in flowers and candles. "They lost nine firemen," the rental woman tells me. "It's a pretty sad place."

There's a firehouse every few blocks in New York. Back in Michigan, I grew up across the street from a fire station and I have always loved the sound of that screeching siren. The (mostly) men who work down the street from us now in New York are our neighbors in the truest sense of the word.

They are quintessential New Yorkers, right to the bone, and when they are called to do their job (for which they are grossly underpaid), they never stop for a moment to think of themselves. I always enjoy shooting the breeze with these guys, and when possible, I've put them on my show, as they are natural-born comedians and wiseguys. I have never once complained about the wail of their fire trucks as they barrel down my street.

I walk across the street to pay my respects. A lone fireman spots me coming and approaches me, arms outstretched. He grabs me and hugs me. He says, "Mike, thanks, thanks for everything you do for the..." I am stunned and embarrassed by this, and I cut him off. "Stop," I say, "I haven't done shit. I am here to thank you and to tell you how horribly sorry I am..." He cuts me off. "Shutupwillya! Lemme say what I need to say..."

He continues to thank me, I can't take this -- I HAVE DONE NOTHING BUT RETURN A DAMN RENTAL CAR -- and I break down in tears. "Oh, don't go gettin' mushy on me, Mike -- c'mon, we're Irish!" He laughs, I laugh, I grab him and hold him and these two big Irish lugs and crybabies make for quite a sight in the middle of a Manhattan street. Kathleen and I sign their book and we take down the name of the fund for the nine families of our neighbors. "Don't forget," our fireman friend says as we leave, "We need your prayers more than we need the donations."

I cannot go to work. But I have a film to finish. Our editor has been unable to make it in from New Jersey, but he is there now waiting for some word on what to do. I can't even think about this movie. I don't WANT to think about it because if I think about it I will have to face an ugly truth that has been gnawing through my head...

This started out as a documentary on gun violence in America, but the largest mass murder in our history was just committed -- without the use of a single gun! Not a single bullet fired! No bomb was set off, no missile was fired, no weapon (i.e., a device that was solely and specifically manufactured to kill humans) was used. A boxcutter! -- I can't stop thinking about this. A thousand gun control laws would not have prevented this massacre. What am I doing?

My wife does not want to go down to the memorial to the victims that has spontaneously taken over Union Square in the Village -- she is still in too much shock having returned to this sullen city -- but she encourages me to go, and I do.

The Square is filled with hundreds of people. But, more importantly, the walls and fences around Union Square are covered in a blizzard of "MISSING" posters of loved ones. Thousands of handbills, flyers, photos, notes -- all pleading to contact them should anyone know the whereabouts of their mother, father, son, daughter, infant.

Yet, all of us who stare at these faces, we know their "whereabouts." And the smoke, the ash, the odor is much thicker down here, just 20 blocks from The Site. The faces of the victims, culled from wedding photos, birthday party home videos, vacation snapshots, are striking in their diversity. Easily, the majority are African-American, Arabic, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish.

Their jobs at the World Trade Center are listed. They were clerks, secretaries, janitors, security guards, assistants, dishwashers, waitresses, receptionists -- all the people who HAVE to be at work first thing in the morning, the lower wage workers. The wall is also filled with the faces of brokers, lawyers, managers, accountants, insurance agents -- it is endless, it is everyone, it is America.

I am told that there may be over 500 "illegals" -- those less-than-minimum wage workers that the commerce of America depends on -- who are also among the dead, but there are no photos of them. Citizens from over 80 countries are victims of this attack and, remarkably, the country that seems to have the most people who were killed is the Muslim country of Pakistan.

For two hours I walk through Union Square, listening to the debates that rage in various small circles, between hippies and Army guys, Israelis and Palestinians, those for war and those against. They are heated, passionate -- but never do I sense the threat of violence between them. No police are in sight. "We are self-policed," one kid tells me. Others are singing or rapping, many are quietly crying.

I leave and go down to Canal Street. It is as far as they will allow civilians to go. The odor is now nearly unbearable. I tell the officer I would like to volunteer, to do anything that is needed -- carry buckets, lift, haul, relieve, whatever. He tells me that no more volunteers are needed. He says that, right now, they do not expect to find anyone alive.

The job they are doing is one of recovery of the dead and the removal of all the steel and concrete, and they have left these jobs to the professionals. I can't help but think they could still use an extra pair of hands -- surely, at least ONE person could still be alive! I remain upset and appalled that Wall Street has ordered its employees back to work -- to trade stocks! -- next-door to a mass, open graveyard of yet unburied bodies. How cruel is this to the workers who must walk by, or to the dead who are treated to this sacrilege? And, in my mind, what IF someone was still down there alive? How can you be running around a stock market floor when you should be on your hands and knees digging out the possible survivors? I just don't get it...

As I sit here in the early morning hours of Saturday, September 22, 2001, I cannot untangle much of the past 24 hours. I am exhausted from the trip, from all that has hit me upon returning to New York. I have to unpack eventually. What was it exactly I had packed all these bags for in the first place? Oh, yeah, The Emmys in L.A! Big friggin' deal now, eh? I tick off the list of everything that no longer matters.

I watch Bush speak in front of Congress, but I cannot answer him right now, I am tired. The mayor has drastically upped the death toll. My phone rings off the ... whatever phones ring off of these days. Calls from the BBC, CBC, Canal+, ABC (Australia), Swedish TV, Dutch TV -- all want me to appear live on their national primetime newscasts. Not a single American network has called.

Frankly, I don't want to be on anybody's TV show no matter where they are from, but I cannot help but feel this sinking feeling in my gut that the rest of the world wants to hear what I have to say, yet in my own country, I am to have no voice in the media (other than through these letters on the Web). This is MY country. I love MY country. Every channel and it's the same damn repetitive drumbeat WAR WAR WAR WAR WAR...

And yet, I have just driven 2,944 miles, a drive that began on the corner of Wilshire and the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, California. I have heard the voices of the scores of fellow Americans I met, the average Joes and Janes, who are NOT screaming WAR WAR WAR! Why can't their voices be heard?

Forget about me, I can barely utter a sentence anyway; I don't wanna go on no TV. But where is Noam Chomsky, or Howard Zinn, or the editors of "The Nation" or "Tikkun" or "The Progressive" or the thousands of college kids who protested at noon on Thursday on 148 American campuses? Don't they count? Is this still the America we believe in, the one we are being asked to defend?

Coming home tonight, I noticed a strange sound in the city. I did not hear a single car horn being honked! I have never heard that sound in New York City. No one was yelling, it was quiet and peaceful.

I called my dad on my cell phone. He tells me of things getting even worse back home in Flint, the city now bankrupt, the state preparing to take it over. The fire department has had to lay off over 50% of its firefighters. Fires now are just allowed to burn because they have neither the trucks nor the people left to fight them.

Then he said, "Mike, that guy you call 'The Boss' -- he's singing right now on TV!" The nationwide telethon for the September 11th victims has started. I could hear Bruce Springsteen singing in the background. My father (bless him and his Big Band soul at the age of 80!) knows how much I love Bruce and says, "let me hold the phone up close to the set so you can hear him," and he does, and I hear Springsteen sing these haunting words: "My city is in ruins, my city is in ruins... c'mon, rise up!"

I love my dad and my mom, my sisters, my wife and my daughter, and I am grateful for this life and for the privilege I've been given to live it with all of them. I come upstairs and Kathleen and I watch the rest of the telethon. Neil Young appears at one point, alone at the piano, and he does not sing one of his own songs. Rather, he sings the banned "Imagine." The Walrus had to have loved that one from where he was watching!

My wife looks over at me. The tears won't leave my eyes. I tell her what I was told today.

"Woody (our assistant editor) saw a rescue truck going down the West Side Highway to help in the relief effort," I tell her."On the side of the truck, it read 'FFD.'"

The Flint Fire Department.

All the way from our home.

To our home.

It was more than either of us could bear.


Michael Moore

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