How to remember an awful day?
It is impossible for me to forget what I was doing on Sept. 11, 2001.
The phone rang very early that morning, waking me from a sound sleep. I heard my housemate pick up the phone and mumble something about letting me know when I woke up. Stumbling from my room yawning, I asked who it was.
"It was your mom," my housemate said. "Something about a plane crash at the World Trade Center." I cocked an eye at him. "Maybe we should turn on the TV..."
And there we saw the images that have haunted America ever since. The plane looping around and then smashing directly into the towers. The people jumping. The chaos on the ground. The smoke.
I remember walking over to Sam's Place, a little coffee shop on 45th Street. No one had heard anything, so I went home, grabbed my little TV, and loaned it to them for the day.
In the weeks and months that followed, I learned how many people I knew had been directly affected.
My friend Ruth's boyfriend escaped the building and ran all the way uptown to the elementary school where she worked. The school had taken pains to keep the students in the dark about the attacks to avoid panic, but that was all over when Josh burst into the classroom covered head to toe in ash and dust, weeping, "Look what happened, look what happened."
My friend Clay's brother worked at the World Trade Center, and had arrived early to prepare for a business meeting. As he stepped out the cab he couldn't help but look up at the two massive towers, just in time to see the plane crash into the building. He began running, and frantically calling his wife. But because the cellphone towers went down with the rest of the buildings, he couldn't get through. No one could. When he finally DID reach his family at 6 pm, everyone thought he was dead.
At the time, I was traveling back and forth from New York for rehearsals with a band that was about to go to Europe for a tour. We spent the day wondering if our drummer, who worked in the World Trade Center, was one of the dead. (He wasn't.) A few weeks later, my friend Neil and I stood on a wharf in Williamsburg, piled high with charred paper that had blown across the East River. We knew what it was, and where it was from. In those days, you could still smell the burning.
And last, but certainly not least, the woman who gave birth to my son was evacuated from the World Trade Center, and ferried across the Hudson to safety.
So it is impossible for me, and anyone else who watched the attacks unfold, to forget. And yet to this day, while proclamations are issued and communities gather for memorial events and services, there is no federal holiday memorializing the attacks of September 11, the people who died, or the people who rushed to the rescue. There is something deeply wrong with that.
One of my favorite holidays is the Martin Luther King Day of Service, which I've participated in for the past four years. It's an incredible event: people from all walks of life, from the wealthiest to the most humble, work on projects that improve the community for everyone. Two years back I found myself talking about FISA with Bob Casey while picking up toys for homeless children. The year before that I was painting the interior of a homeless shelter, much as I did this year. It's inspiring, and really makes you think about your community and your role in it. One of King's statements will always stick with me: "Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve."
A federally recognized day of service would be the best way to memorialize September 11. It's a holiday that would speak to our strengths as a nation, our ability to work together in the toughest of circumstances, to pull through no matter what. It's a message our fractured nation needs more than ever. By designing the holiday as a somber memorial and day of service, it would discourage car dealerships and retailers from hijacking the day as a sales event. And although it rankles my sensibilities, pragmatism says a day of service speaks more to our American sense of optimism than a day of mourning.
That's why I think it is high time our legislators do something about it. After all, one of the four planes went down in Pennsylvania. Senators Casey and Specter, along with every Pennsylvania representative and even Republican senate candidate Pat Toomey, should be advocating that September 11 be a federal holiday.
You can find contact information for the Pennsylvania delegation at the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate web sites. It is well past the time to honor and remember those who died and those who rushed to help in those bleak days and weeks after September 11. To do any less is shameful.
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