Letters To America On The Drive Home
Part Six: Tears Down the West Side Highway, September 22, 2001
This is the last of my six letters, written on the road, 20 years ago this week. Unable to fly from LA to NYC, we grabbed the last vehicle on the rental lot and turned an expected four-day trip into a nine day somber pilgrimage of trying to find our way through a broken, bereft nation. We ended up meeting all along the way what we call America, stopping at diners and churches and motels, a long and winding road named Route 66 — a reverse Grapes of Wrath, on the very road the poor and destitute took to the promised land of California in the 1930s. Now we were headed to the ravaged graveyard of New York. We passed the time listening to talk radio, speaking to people, our people, hugging strangers, hoping there would be peace and not war as an answer to all this grief, this confusion, this bewilderment.
It was just two weeks after I wrote this letter I’ve posted here, written twenty years ago tonight, that we would start the bombing of Afghanistan. The war would not end until 20 years later, in defeat, with few lessons learned.
Thank you for letting me share these letters with you. They have not been read by myself nor made available to the public since I posted them between September 12-22, 2001. The CDs I kept them on are long gone. I pray I never have to write anything like this again. I know this is a prayer which may go unanswered. I guess my plea will be heard if enough of us refuse to give up. That I know is possible. (Many thanks to Basel Hamdan for finding these letters and encouraging me to post them on my new Substack site, on the same day I wrote each of them, 20 years ago this week.)
Tears Down the West Side Highway
September 22, 2001
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. We 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, with 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 turn 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.
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 really 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. Right?
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.
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 "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 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 still can't stop thinking about this. A thousand gun control laws would not have prevented this massacre. What am I doing? I just don’t want to finish this film. It all seems so small, so pointless.
Union 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, Arab, 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 HAD 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 hundreds of "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 dozens of countries are victims of this attack and, remarkably, the country that has so many people killed in the attack is the Muslim country of Pakistan.
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 really matters.
I watch Bush speak in front of Congress, but I cannot answer him right now, I am tired. But I turn on the TV and every channel has the same damn repetitive drumbeat WAR WAR WAR WAR WAR. Where am I? I refuse to call this my home.
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 other voices of the scores of my fellow Americans I’ve met along the way, the average Joes and Janes who are NOT screaming WAR WAR WAR! Why can't their voices be heard?
Forget about me, I’m ready to explode. I don't wanna go on no TV. But where is Noam Chomsky, or Howard Zinn, or the editors of "Mother Jones" 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?
Last night, 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’s in ruins, my city is in ruins... C'mon, rise up! Rise up!"
I love my dad and my mom, my sisters, my family, 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 watch the rest of this quiet 9/11 in-studio memorial concert. There is no audience. Neil Young appears at one point, alone at the piano, and he does not sing one of his own songs. Rather, he sings the radio-banned "Imagine." The Walrus had to have loved that one from where he was watching!
The tears won't leave my eyes. I think of what Woody, my assistant editor, told me what he saw today: a rescue truck going down the West Side Highway to help in the relief effort. "On the side of the truck,“ he says, choking up, “it read 'FFD.'"
The Flint Fire Department.
All the way from our home.
To our home. Here to help.
It was more than I could bear.
This letter made me cry today, as I look back on what was and could have been. We were the better part of a world united...a country grieving together with other nations around the globe. We had so much potential to make this world a better place. But the war mongers wanted vengeance and revenge, and they convinced a weak president that attacking a sovereign nation was the way to restore our country, to make it whole. In the years that have passed we have not been restored; we have become more divided than I ever dreamed possible. The hope of the Obama years became disillusion when he didn't end Bush's wars, leading to four years that were worse than most in more than a century. Mr. Biden has situations that rival the worst of the 20th century to contend with. We have a pandemic that is worse than the Spanish Flu. We have had an economic downturn to rival the Great Depression. We have racial unrest to rival the 1960s. We have fascism to rival the Nazis, but this time among our own citizenry. And we have a party that is willing to look the other way, and in some cases become complicit, when people have tried to overturn our elections, attacking the very seat of our democracy. I see the path our nation took, rather than the one we could have taken, and how it led here. No wonder I have cried.
Dear Michael, Your letter is heartbreaking. As a former New Yorker, who had lived near Union Square, it made me feel like I was there, with you. I was in Massachusetts, far from the city, but very near to those that left from Logan Airport. Our company traveled daily from Logan. My first stop at work, when I had heard the news of the first plane, was to our in-house travel office to see if anyone from our company was traveling that day. There was, but fortunately, not on those planes. Our fellow apparel folks at TJX, where not as fortunate. There were 8 buyers in that plane that was headed to CA that flew into the tower. It still blows my mind how this happened. Let’s hope and pray that America puts down the guns and helps the world with kindness and love.
Thank you for sharing your letters. I am so glad your daughter was ok. Keep up the good work! XO Sharon.