Personal rememberance of 9/11

Posted on: Sun, 09/11/2005 - 13:41 By: Tom Swiss

Fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks today. I thought I'd post some things I've previously written. First, a little previously unpublished piece I wrote on the first anniversary:

Sept 11 2002

The Bards of 9/11

The show must go on.

Here it is, one year later. I'm back at the bar where I spent most of the day on that fateful famous Tuesday. I had a gig that day, my regular Tuesday evening gig at Leadbetter's. After spending the morning and early afternoon glued, like much of the nation, to CNN, I realized that I had an appointment to play music.

To play! Music! What a trivial activity at such a time. I wondered if I should bother, if anyone cared. But I also wanted to go somewhere, be around other people - a common impulse that day. So I threw my gear into the Toyota and drove down to Fells Point.

The streets were pretty empty, empty enough to make me feel uneasy. When I got downtown, I passed Baltimore's World Trade Center, surrounded by police and makeshift dump truck barricades. (Later, my mother told me that when she heard that the World Trade Center had been hit, she first thought it was our little five-sided junior skyscraper.)

When I got to Leadbetter's, thirty or forty people were there - almost certainly a record for a Tuesday afternoon. We sipped our drinks and watched the TV for news. Two young men at the bar turned out to be Marines on leave; a leave they knew would be cut short. The younger of the pair was quite boisterous, ready to go overseas and kick some butt, while the older was more thoughtful and resigned.

That young Marine was hardly the only one ready to kick butt. A pretty young Jewish nurse I'd seen there several times before said it was all the "fucking Arab's" fault. (A statement she later retracted.) And two young toughs who came in while I setting up to play said they were looking for Arabs. Actually I think they said "towelheads".

Yes, "while I was setting up to play". After I'd been there for a while, the manager - Fons, who lives upstairs from the bar - called down to ask if I was there and if I was going to play. I asked Kate, the lovely bartender who usually worked the shift I play, if I should. She said yes, that it would be good for everyone.

So. In a time of great national crisis, I found myself the object of attention of a roomful of people, looking to me for some sort of guidance or meaning or something.

I had been playing music in front of other people for almost eight years, since that first time at a Yule party at my friend Kathy's house. I'd always thought of it as a fun thing to do, a pleasant activity to pass the time. Now I saw the other side. "The show must go on" is not just some cliche; it is a sacred obligation that a performer takes on. This is the role of the bard; not just to entertain, but to guide, to lead the spirit of the people.

So I played. I don't remember what songs I choose, except for Neil Young's "Rocking in the Free World". My friend Mike Monroe told me he will always remember me playing that song on that day.

I made more in tips that day than I did the whole rest of the time I did that gig.

Next, this is an e-mail note I sent my father two days after 9/11. I hate to say it, but we have done it wrong, and has been like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.

From: Tom Swiss
Subject: Re: How are you doing?
Date: Thu, 13 Sep 2001 09:26:32 -0400

Doing as well as can be expected, I suppose.

I actually had gigs Tuesday afternoon and last night. It felt very strange to be doing something as trivial as playing music, but the show must go on I guess. Maybe it helped other people feel a little better, I don't know. I almost broke down and cried playing "Let it Be" last night.

I don't know how many people I've met at our karate hq in Manhattan (just blocks away) worked in the WTC.

I don't know which is scarier, the act itself or some of the responses. Bullets through mosque windows. I saw two angry drunk guys in Fells Point "looking for Arabs", I hope to hell they didn't find any.

I've heard people suggest responses that would be every bit as heinous as the attack itself. Maybe that goes to show that however much we want to distance ourselves from these bastards, however we claim that they've "dehumanized" themselves by their actions, at the core we're more alike than different, we're all human, dark and light rolled up in one messy ball. That's frightening, and promising, all at the same time; if we've all got dark, maybe we've all got light too.

The only thing I know is this: while we have to find the people who did this and do whatever is necessary to stop them from doing it again, if we do it from anger, from a desire for revenge, it won't work. We'll do it wrong, and it will be like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.

Love to you, Mom, and Jim. See you soon.


And one more e-mail I sent out in the days after:

From: Tom Swiss
Subject: it now has a face
Date: Thu, 13 Sep 2001 14:35:11 -0400

Hello my friends.

I just found out that someone I worked with in grad school was on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon. Charles Falkenberg - one of the kindest people I've ever had the pleasure to work with - and his wife and two young daughters were on their way to Australia aboard the flight from Dulles that was hijacked.

Suddenly, it has a face. A smiling face, because I can't seem to remember him any other way. A smiling face, cut down, lost in the fire.

Whenever I think of this terrible act from now on, it won't be something that happened to "other people". There's a name to go with it.

How many others will be drawn into this circle in the days to come? The dead number in the thousands; but those they touched are in the millions.

We're just starting to learn how bad it really is.


Finally, a haiku:

under the rubble / not slain by fiery blast / seeds of hope and love