Oddly, the prolonged aftermath of 9/11 felt more stirring to me than the actual event itself. As one of the train passengers who was evacuated into the subway stop at Wall Street while the Twin Towers burned overhead, I took from that day, month, year a pronounced sense of having being spared. That sense stayed with me for some time and it obligated me in ways I could never fully explain. So I developed a series of private devotions around the people who had not survived; there were many of those.
Over a span of several months, The New York Times ran thousands of obituaries, and I made a point to read each one. I stopped at practically every makeshift memorial in my path and also attended the overflowing funeral of a family friend. When I visited the firehouse in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I was sure to sign my name in the worn guest book. And during my daily commute into Manhattan, I would read the fliers that were posted all around the New York City subway system, hundreds of them.
If I was going to my classes at seminary, I would linger over the fliers in Time Square, but if I was going to work at church, then I would linger over the ones in Union Square. Flier after flier featured the faces of people who had gone missing on September 11th, 2001. There were an awful lot of faces dotting the walls and medians, some in shades of gray and others in Technicolor, some hazy and others in sharp focus, some smiling and others not. Those fliers were riveting to see.
After only a matter of days, nearly everyone who rode the subway knew that those people who were still missing would in all likelihood not be returning home. But who wants to take down the very last scrap of hope hanging by a thin piece of masking tape? The fliers had surprising staying power. It seemed as if whole villages of disappeared persons took up a crowded residence underground. Besides, people like me could not take their eyes off them. Certain faces became familiar; a few became unforgettable.
Though we’d already given up hope of ever making a positive identification, I would line up behind the other commuters to study those faces on the fliers for something I might recognize. Before I realized it, I had a favorite. She was dear to me then and remains dear to me now and though I do not know her name, I could spot her flier at twenty feet. This woman was quite close to my age, but a little taller than me. She was pretty and she was missing and there was at least one other person in this world, but probably, additionally, many more who were desperately seeking her return.
The written description underneath her picture did not do the missing woman justice, but she had dark hair and brown eyes, and her dress matched her eyes. It was brown, her flier noted, with brown buttons. That last detail that left me breathless each time I read it. I remembered the dress I had worn that September morning; it had tiny polka dots. I myself remember the color of its buttons, which were white, but I could not swear that anyone else did. Yet someone remembered, distinctly, the buttons on her dress, and the effect was not at all monochrome. To the contrary – it was three-dimensional.
That level of detail might seems gratuitous to some, but it struck me as fitting. I thought it described precisely what love looks like — love lets nothing escape notice. Sometimes her flier seemed more of a love letter than anything else. If she had lived, maybe you could have identified her by her face or hair or eyes, since her photo was that good. Or maybe you would notice that her dress matched the color of her brown eyes, just as it did in the written description. But the buttons, brown though they were, would never be the deciding factor in whether or not she was lost. They were the signature detail in another way; what they told us was how much she was loved.
The time came when the fliers around the subway system thinned, and eventually the day arrived when they were all gone, and so I could no longer read about the woman my age or take any comfort in the love that remembered her brown buttons. By then, New Yorkers were starting to talk about the future, how to rebuild and what to rebuild, though they of course knew that nothing could or would be undone. They complained about the hole in their skyline, which was gaping. People missed those skyscrapers that had towered above them for decades. I understood that. At some point, we all had to move on and so we tried to, at least.
Seen from above, the losses the city suffered appeared staggering in their enormity. But for a brief time after 9/11, a few people offered New York a different kind of perspective, which they memorialized in their photocopied fliers taped around the city. Today I recognize as this as the view from below. Recent events had redrawn their world on another scale entirely, so that other things, like missing brown buttons, loomed so much larger than empty lots. For a while, I remember, I saw things from their point of view, and what I saw through their lens looked indelibly like love.