Dust and Ashes

On Sunday, September 9th, 2001 I find myself on the usual over-booked airplane, traveling from Newark, New Jersey to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. My mother is ill and the next day I am to speak to a neurosurgeon. On the flight, I sit next to a woman who has, I believe, an Israeli accent. “Sabra? (Native born Israeli?)” I ask. “No, Lebanese,” is her response, “although I haven’t lived there since maybe thirty years.” She is charming and beautiful with dark hair and sparkling eyes. She tells me longingly with a touch of melancholy about her beloved Beirut, the way it used to be. She reflects, “It’s criminal what they did to my beautiful country. It was an oasis, a garden, and they destroyed it. The world, everybody sat back and watched, let them make it into garbage.” We talk about my mother, and the woman gives me her airline sandwich to take with me. “Your mother will be hungry. It’s South Florida,” she laughs, “if you don’t give her this, she will never forgive you.” Then it’s on to pick up the rental car. My cute red compact is there with the keys in the ignition. But also inside, there is a horrid smell, like that apartment in the city where the lady kept 46 cats all a’ meow, meow meowing for something to munch on besides each other. This aroma is going to require more than a cardboard pine tree air freshener. I watch in disbelief as the attendant sprays a few shots of deodorizer at the dashboard. The car now reeks of animal urine and country fresh pine. It’s starting to rain torrentially. Mine’s the last car left and the attendant reminds me that the car gets great mileage. “With the windows open?” I ask. “Take it or leave it,” he responds. We look in the trunk to discover, in the corner by the wheel well, a mother mouse and a nest of wee baby mice. I gaze astonished as the attendant scoops them up, sprays the spot, closes the trunk and whisks them away from their cozy nook. Yet, the rear suspension makes a loud squeaking sound as I start to roll. “Pretty funny,” I say, “larger mice in the shocks?” “They all do that,” says the attendant, referring to the make of automobile. “Will there be anything else?” Yeah, bring those cute mice back, and how about a three-foot tall pine tree air freshener to wear around my neck.

I thought Monday at the neurosurgeon’s office was the ultimate horrendous day, until the events of Tuesday the 11th. What was I thinking? The Lebanese woman, the mice, the smell, the flight, thoughts of insecurity and mortality…and those television images I refuse to look at. Is there no plane back? Do I want a plane back? My rental car does have unlimited mileage. Could I endure twelve hundred miles of squeak, squeak, sniff, sniff, barf, barf? Maybe I should have known something was up – the bombing at the same address a few years ago – that was a subtle hint. I start to hear personal stories and learn of losses, such as Jack’s brother Jeff Hardy, a stand-up guy who played stand up base who wouldn’t harm a fly but was unfortunate enough to find a job at a restaurant at the WTC. That’s just one unlived innocent life out of thousands. What, no Entertainment Tonight drivel on the evening news? Context drifts into an age of slow news days. I get lucky the following Sunday with an available return flight, I just have to rise at 2:30 AM and wait in line for a few hours, and hand over my nail clipper and look suspiciously at another passenger, who looks suspiciously back at me. The plane is almost empty. I haven’t traveled on an empty plane in decades. For some reason, most folks have decided to forgo flying. No air traffic, so the plane heads in, a half-hour ahead of schedule. The cabin has an eerie feel to it. As we ready to set down, the pilot informs us, in professional sounding pilot speak, “We will be landing at Newark International Airport in a few minutes, please be sure your seatbelts are securely fastened.” There’s lower Manhattan to the right of the plane. A few gasps are heard from those who dare to look at the altered landscape. The pilot continues, “Thank you for flying Continental. Welcome to Newark where the temperature is 60 degrees through haze.” He pauses, (I thought he was finished speaking), then adds, “But that’s not really haze…it’s dust and ashes.” I have just listened to a profound, unexpectedly jarring editorial observation from the pilot’s pulpit. In biblical times it was a sign of penance – to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes and apply them to one’s head. The words hang in the air like that yellow cloud we are flying through, and seem a profound hook for a song waiting to be penned, one that I have no desire to write. The Sing Out! email listserve group has a discussion today about the relative merits of gathering for patriotic house sings. Perhaps some other time, I’m really not in mood for singing much of anything at the moment, I just want to crawl into my nice, safe little nest by the wheel well.