When the planes flew into buildings seven years ago, our focus--like the entire world's--was on Manhattan. But we were also particularly concerned about and focused on Washington, D.C. At the time, our daughter was a student at Georgetown, and from the house where she was living, she and her roommates could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon burning after the plane crashed into it.
While seven years is not a long time, it is enough time that some memory begins to fade. In class today, I departed from my usual approach, and just spent a bit of time asking the students how their lives have changed because of the events of September 11, 2001. The truth is--they are so young, most of them 18, that they do not recall a time when you didn't have to remove your shoes to fly on a plane. One student said--well, his life had changed because with the high price of gas, he had to drive the speed limit. (Humph, not a bad thing, maybe!)
But there are many, of course, whose lives changed forever. The people who died in the planes, in the World Trade Center, and in the Pentagon all had families. Those family members will always remember how their lives were changed that day.
However, time will pass--and some day, the observances will be historical, not personal. Fewer people will remember where they were when they heard the news. September 11, 2001 will become like November 22, 1963, or December 7, 1941.
I want to share with you a terrific poem by a Brooklyn born poet, Martín Espada . I first read this poem very soon after September 11, 2001, and thought the poem captured perfectly how to remember this event.
Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100
by Martín Espada
for the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center
Alabanza. Praise the cook with the shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook's yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.
Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy's music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.
After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the booming ice storm of glass from the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook's soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God's beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.
Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan to Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.
from Alabanza: New and Selected Poems, 1982-2002 (W.W. Norton, April 2003).