I should have known I was on shaky ground when I took my usual position on the 9th St. platform this morning — right at the spot that spits me out in front of the turnstile on my stop — and in permanent marker on the post nearest me was a brutally racist remark scrawled in hatred and large enough to read standing several feet away. I was puzzled. Maybe I have been naive in believing that level of ignorance was nearly extinct, especially in this great metropolis. It seemed like the work of an adult. I tried to imagine him. It was a him in my imagining. Unemployed, underemployed. Poisoned with hatred, but why? I almost took a picture, thought about drawing attention to the fact that racism is not dead but is alive and … not well. I decided not to give it more attention than it might already be garnering. I would not engage in sowing revulsion. The image in my mind of the handwriting gnawed at me as I tried to reverse the course my day had started.
At work, I comforted myself by settling into my routine after grabbing coffee, yogurt, and trail mix in our building’s basement cafeteria. I was running late from the time I got up and didn’t have my usual breakfast of oatmeal and coffee at home. My next-door-office neighbor, friend and colleague came into my office to discuss a matter he was working on. I complimented him on his snazzy running shoes (he’s a pretty serious marathoner and nutritionist in his free time). I noted I should keep a pair of sneakers in the office. We started in to working on the matter at hand, and called a supervisor at another branch to help solve the issue and, as the three of us were on speakerphone in my office, and I was just beginning to feel like the day might be getting back to normal, I spotted a very small bug on my desk, coming straight for me. ”Oh, fuck,” I whispered. I have worked in this building for four years, and have sat on five different floors in that time. Moving from floor to floor, you get to know people. You hear things. One of those was of a rumored bedbug infestation on another floor. I smashed the bug, still alive, in my coffee napkin and took it to property management in the basement. Phyllis looked up at me, raised her eyebrows nearly to the locks above her head and said straightaway, “that’s a bedbug.” We handled the thing like it was an explosive device. After I turned it over to her, she smooshed the life out of it, placed a piece of tape over it and began to solicit more seasoned opinions. After I went through twenty minutes of controlled freak-out, our resident expert inspected the creature and informed us all it was not, in fact, a bed bug. He produced a bedbug in a baggie for me to compare. Indeed, mine was not a bedbug. I went back to my office feeling certain the day could only get better from there.
But we know what happened next. I have never been in an earthquake before, so to me it felt more like standing on the grates above an active subway station in a windstorm, times 10. I was talking to a coworker on the phone when the ripples ran through lower Manhattan. I needed no further warning. I sprang from my desk, grabbed my bag, and when I realized I didn’t know where the stairs were (what was I doing during all those fire drills?), I took the elevator down the seven stories to ground level, half-apologizing to my colleagues for not sticking around (to watch the building come down), explaining that I watched the first tower come down on 9/11, and I know better than to wait around. We got down pretty quickly but the street was already filling up with suits, tourists, vendors, workers, all trying to overhear other conversations about what who had felt and what who had heard. I collected some quick news from my partner whose office is in midtown, one text and a quick call then the cell service was down. In midtown they had seen the lights shake. Thanks to my partner, I knew it was an earthquake (not a bomb, as some had thought). I tried to get away from the tallest buildings, and planted myself near the Trinity Church cemetery. A cluster of people were exchanging what they had heard: Maryland had been hit; the epicenter was in DC; Brooklyn shook bad; someone in Jersey had felt it. I threw in my two cents about lights shaking in midtown. Soon I had enough of a picture to make the decision to head back to Brooklyn. It was the middle of the day. I had been Sametimed by my boss for help on an assignment. This is just one of two days I work in the office. I knew it was risky to leave without checking. But I’ve seen people jump from buildings. I headed for the R and hightailed it for terra firma.
People waiting for the train on the platform didn’t know what had happened. They hadn’t felt the tremors. Some said they saw people pouring out of buildings. Another said they heard firetrucks, but hadn’t felt anything. I tried to spread whatever news I had. I told the Asian man in the business suit and his girlfriend in the too-tight dress what I had felt, and asked if they felt anything. They stared at me with wide eyes, obviously trying to figure out if I was a lunatic. I smelled alcohol on their breath, and moved on to the next group. A family visiting from Michigan, the mother obviously trying to figure out how serious this was without out and out asking me in front of her two children, probably 7-10 years old. I stood with them for awhile, talking midwest nice and trying to get cell service. I knew I wouldn’t be able to but something makes you try the impossible in situations like this, where you don’t know what really just happened and what lies ahead. The towheaded little boy innocently suggested I use the payphone on the wall, an idea that struck me as genius until I remembered how rare it is to find a functioning pay phone in New York. Again, trying the impossible, I picked it up hoping to get a dial tone but instead my ear was pricked by the loose wires where the earpiece used to be. Eventually, an elderly MTA worker came along and I prodded him to find out what was going on. He shuffled down to a red service phone that he pointed out should be used in an emergency. A few minutes later, he returned triumphant, his dark eyes lighting up beneath his broad forehead that was now glistening with beads of sweat. ”TRAINS ARE RUNNING,” he bellowed with pride. The train came along as if on cue. Before the family from Michigan got off at the next stop, I handed them my card – sometimes you have to rely on the kindness of strangers. After Whitehall, in the long passage between Manhattan and Brooklyn, I listed to two girls talking rapidly to each other in Spanish. Although I couldn’t catch everything, I understood that one was afraid this was the end of the world. The other was teasing her but obviously ill at ease. I struck up a conversation with them, and found out then that the earthquake had happened in Virginia. The girls had been leaving work, ground level, and hadn’t felt anything. One was able to reach her aunt in Sunset Park who told her some of the details. The younger one still seemed nervous this was the end of the world. I told her with confidence that it certainly was not, and that the end of the world would come with much more fanfare – something extravagant like horses with wings and the Pope on fire. By the time they got off the train, they were giggling and we all were wishing each other well. The man next to me overheard our conversation, and asked what was going on. He was on his way to work at the Bureau of Prisons in Brooklyn. At his apartment in the city, he said he felt his bed shake but thought it was just his wife trying to wake him up for work. But she had been in the other room. I gave him what I had gathered from the time I left my office until then, including what others had experienced.
Everyone, it seems, felt something different. My colleagues on the 11th floor, I later learned, barely felt it. On 7, we all stopped and didn’t hesitate to flee our offices, the tremor was so strong. A friend in another building that faces the back of the stock exchange later told me she saw people running out of it. The folks I saw underground were either trying to appear nonchalant, or were busy reading other people’s faces to see whether anything more had happened. In this way, it reminded me of how people were when I worked downtown Manhattan in the weeks following 9/11, or what the sojourn from Manhattan to Brooklyn was like in the blackout of ’03, or the faces of my own neighbors this summer, in the days after Leiby Kletzky was killed. This is the way a city communicates. We gather bits and pieces from strangers as much as the people we know. We rely on each other. We count on each other. We exchange odd little nuggets of data and knowledge to put together an incomplete picture, but one that will satisfy us until we have the energy to mine for more.
In telling the prison guard what I had learned, I missed my transfer to 9th Street. He was getting off at the next stop but told me to wait two stops till I could cross over without having to pay another fare. I did. It left me a bit disoriented, and I stood on the platform for a long time before realizing the trains were not going in the direction I wanted them to. I asked an elderly Chinese woman for help. She explained that I had to go to the other side and take it back a few stops to catch the F. There was kindness in her eyes.
Since I now was transferring in a different direction than usual, I didn’t pass the post on the platform where I stood this morning, reading hatred. When I got to the transfer, I rushed up the stairs, eager to see daylight. The train was largely empty, a good sign. There was no apparent nervousness or searching of faces, an even better sign. Above ground, I stopped at the corner bodega where I heard the earthquake was in DC. I talked to three different people on the phone in the block and a half walk from the subway station to my door. Before I reached my house, I found I also had a voice mail from a friend in Indiana. and a text from another in Harlem. Everyone just checking to make sure everyone is okay. Once home, relieved and exhausted, I powered up the computer, logged in at work, and took a quick check on NPR to see if there was any news.
There was. Today, August 23, 2011, a memorial to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was opened to the public at the National Mall in Washington DC. The statue is inspired by Dr. King’s “lifelong dedication to the idea of achieving human dignity through global relationships of well being [that] has served to instill a broader and deeper sense of duty within each of us— a duty to be both responsible citizens and conscientious stewards of freedom and democracy.” (www.mlkmemorial.org). The “Stone of Hope,” a 30-foot sculpture, which took almost five years to build, faced countless obstacles and challenges to its being there. The brainchild of members of Alpha Phi Alpha, the fraternity to which Rev. King belonged, the statue that began as an idea in 1984 took President Clinton proposing its construction, joint resolutions by Congress for its establishment, a design competition that generated controversy, and fundraising more than $100 million to build it.
But build it we did.