When I was asked to contribute a piece for the launch of Town Square Delaware, I spent a lot of time thinking about the concept of what a town square really is: a place to gather, meet up, discuss, debate. In a democratic society, the town square provides a place for neighbors to share ideas, to vet and/or test those ideas, and to move forward with what is learned as a result of that process. After thinking how to best describe the “town square experience,” and having finally mentally sketched my essay, the events of May 1, 2011, occurred. That night, after receiving confirmation from the President of the mission in Pakistan, a number of Americans gathered in and formed their own town squares—to assemble and share in an overwhelming sense of relief.
My wife, Anne-Laure, and I moved to New York City on September 7, 2001. Leaving my clerkship in Delaware, I had taken a job at a midtown law firm and was due to start there on October 1. After 2 days of unpacking boxes, Anne-Laure and I were preparing to fly to Asia for our overdue honeymoon on Tuesday, September 11. Since the temperature outside was perfect, Anne-Laure and I went out and had our first dinner at a sidewalk restaurant—a non-descript Italian place on Second Avenue.
The next morning, the phone was ringing, and Anne-Laure’s father from Paris was on the other end saying something about a plane, an accident. Having spent the night before trying to finalize our packing for the flight to Hong Kong, I could only groggily respond that plane accidents happened from time to time, and we would be safe traveling. I put Anne-Laure on the phone. We didn’t have a cable TV connection since we had just moved in, but Anne-Laure signaled to turn on the portable radio that I had sitting on a box. Then we learned of the Hell that was taking place only a couple of miles down the street from our apartment.
After listening to the description on the radio, Anne-Laure instinctively said, “We’ve got to give blood.” Walking over to Lenox Hill Hospital, we could see the smoke rising south of where we were and then I ducked as a pair of Air Force jets buzzed over our heads as we crossed Third Avenue. I wasn’t alone in doing that. At Lenox Hill, we began a 5-hour journey through the hospital: others had had the same idea, and the hospital staff and volunteers began to shuffle us from room to room to get us into the blood donation chair. I had my portable radio with me and strangers gathered around to listen to what was being reported. I looked around, realizing in a strange “moment of clarity” that these were my new neighbors.
After leaving Lenox Hill, I walked out the main entrance onto 77th Street. The line of people to give blood was down the street by this point, but ironically, several ambulances were sitting idly on the street next to the blood donor line with the medics sitting on the back bumpers. Tragically, there hadn’t been a heavy demand for the ambulances at Lenox Hill, since the buildings’ collapse did not leave much in the way of survivors. That night, there was a knock at the apartment door: it was the wife of the Building Super going through the building taking a census and seeing if we were alive. Another moment of clarity for me.
For weeks after that awful Tuesday, the subways were very quiet. One night, on our way to dinner with friends in Tribeca, we were riding a relatively empty subway car when someone stood up to exit the train from one of the handicapped accessible seats. The seat flipped up and hit the side of the subway car with a loud “CRACK!” Every person in the car jumped, and about 8 seconds later, a large man who had been standing close to the seat let out a stream of expletives directed at no one. It was the sound of an extremely tired person releasing the anger, fear, sadness, frustration that we all felt.
As we ate outside later that night, we tried our best to enjoy dinner. But the smell of the smoke that hung over lower Manhattan was too pungent, making you nauseous. Our topic of discussion that night centered, as it did for many weeks thereafter, on what had happened, what the ramifications for the acts of that Tuesday would be. While I don’t recall the exact details of the discussion, I do remember being struck by the vivid notion of how incredibly evil the events of that day had been: people going to work, doing their job, being targeted for the purpose of sending a message. As a student of history and international relations, I remembered textbook descriptions of terrorism as “politics by other means.” It was the company of friends discussing a real topic that night together in the macabre setting of lower Manhattan that elicited another “moment of clarity” for me: smelling the sooty air that night placed the events of that Tuesday squarely into the category of a crime against humanity. Another moment of clarity.
* * *
On that Tuesday almost 10 years ago, we all had our own experiences and we all sought comfort in different ways. Lenox Hill had served as an ad hoc town square, bringing me together with a number of strangers to collectively share what was happening at the moment—to do our best to help our neighbors—but also to help ourselves process the moment. There were multiple other town square experiences, such as the dinner in Tribeca a few weeks later. While many of these memories are buried pretty far back, they do emerge from time to time. On the evening of May 1st, they were back.
Undoubtedly, when I moved to New York, I was excited about the experience, but troubled by the fear that there would be no real relationships with the people around you. As a native of Sussex County, the image of the New York neighbor barely emerging from the apartment next door every 3 years, only to retreat at the first sight of you behind a slammed door and quick flick of four dead bolts, was what I somewhat expected. While there were undoubtedly examples of that while I lived there, it was more of the exception than the rule. What I ended up discovering was that the small size of the apartments forced us to expand our living rooms into the various restaurants that permeated the city. And discussion did happen, especially following that September Tuesday. Certainly, there was less reluctance on the part of “neighbors” to interject themselves into discussions.
Having moved back to Delaware, I have realized at times that the same isolation that I feared in New York can be experienced here. Without an opportunity to collectively process what is happening to us as neighbors threatens each of us with the potential of leading a life that is unexamined. Very quickly, we can become used to processing events and circumstances only in the manner that mass media itself dictates that we process such events and circumstances. Without the expansion of our own living rooms beyond the boundaries of our property lines, our comfort zones, ourselves, we can quickly find ourselves dehumanized.
While the events of 10 years ago and the closure of a lengthy chapter last week brought us together in a collective discussion in the ad hoc town squares that appeared in D.C. and New York, the virtue of the “set” local town square is that we can elicit on a regular basis the discussion and debate that will lead, every once in a while, to those “moments of clarity,” push us to re-examine those moments, and allows us to reach (hopefully) a higher collective discussion. I am not naïve to expect that there won’t be the inane that emerges on the town square—again, it’s a democratic society which allows us to at least float those ideas and have them sink or swim. But the prospect of entering the town square on a regular basis is too valuable to fear the white noise of inanity.
So, for the tremendous opportunity of joining my neighbors in a collective discussion, and most importantly, for those moments of clarity that emerge as we embark on this project, I am thrilled to be part of this welcome to Town Square Delaware.