September 2009


A Reckoning

By Richard Wilbur

At my age, one begins
To chalk up all his sins,
Hoping to wipe the slate
Before it is too late.

Therefore I call to mind
All memories of the kind
That make me wince and sweat
And tremble with regret.

What do these prove to be?
In every one, I see
Shocked faces that, alas,
Now know me for an ass.

Fatuities that I
Have uttered, drunk or dry,
Return now in a rush
And make my old cheek blush.

But how can I repent
From mere embarrassment?
Damn-foolishness can’t well
Entitle me to Hell.

Well, I shall put the blame
One the pride that’s in my shame.
Of that I must be shriven
If I’m to be forgiven.

In Response to A Reckoning
By Richard Wilbur

By Hudson Owen

Dear Sir, in matters of regret,
I know a thing or two, I’ll bet.
And though not one to blab or tweet,
I’ll write a few lines, short and sweet.

This reckoning of yours, you write,
Calls to mind a rush of fright;
Things you said or left undone:
Faces, ghosts, perhaps a pun,

Surging forward, brash and bold,
To haunt you now that you are old.
Right off, I’d say the shame’s on them,
To trouble you like cough and phlegm.

They’ve had their chance to romp and snort,
These characters, but came up short.
Something in you judged them thus
When they were young, so let them fuss

Awhile, until they tire of their rant.
Then fold them up like shirt or pant—
You know how, you’ve earned that grace—
And slide them gently back in place.

Having lived through shot and shell,
You cannot serve two tours in Hell.
Therefore, things must be looking up.
Enjoy the sun, each dawn’s new cup.

Richard Wilbur’s poem A Reckoning appeared
in the August 31, 2009 issue of The New Yorker.
My poem, as the title indicates, is a response to
Mr. Wilbur, who was kind enough to communicate
with me years ago when I first began writing
poetry in earnest. You will notice that Mr. Wilbur,
the grand old man of American poetry, at age 88,
is still young enough to blush.

I sent my reply poem to Mr. Wilbur. He wrote back,
thanking me for my “witty and well-turned” response.
He especially liked the first two lines of the final
stanza. He was a combat veteran for three years
in the European theater during World War II and penned
some of the finest verse to come out of that war.

Mr. Wilbur typed his reply on a manual machine,
by the looks of it, the same machine he has
used since the 1970s. I don’t know if he surfs
the Web or not; I provided my email address,
which he ignored in favor of the typewriter.
His mind is sharp and the keystrokes accurate.

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Here is what I remember from that day.

In the morning, around 8:55, as usual, I boarded the bus in Marine Park for my day job in Lower Manhattan. It was a beautiful September day, with deep blue skies. At the Kings Highway station, I took the train to Atlantic Avenue, changed trains there, and continued toward Manhattan. We passed through the Park Place station without stopping. I noticed there were only a few persons standing on the opposite platform, which I thought was a bit odd.

I left the train at Chambers Street and exited from the station facing due south. At that proximity to the North Tower, I had to look up to see the top of the 110-story structure. I saw a gigantic hole in the North Tower that nearly bisected it. It was as if Godzilla had punched a hole in the tower. Flames were licking around the edges of the hole and papers were drifting out. I had no idea what had happened.

Once outside, I saw that the South Tower was burning. A crowd was gathered in the street and the street was closed off by police barricades, barring any traffic going south toward the World Trade Center, a half dozen blocks away.

The street was filled with people and cameras, large and small. It was about six or seven minutes before 10:00AM. People were transfixed by the burning buildings. It’s rare to see raw fear in people’s faces even in New York. People were saying things like “Oh, my God.” I approached a young cop standing at the barricade and asked him what had happened. He looked down at his shoes and said: “There has been a fire and an explosion.”

The South Tower went down from the top, spewing out plumes of debris. Hundreds of windows popped out whole and glittered in the bright sun like silver graffiti as the building collapsed into itself, with a roar. In seconds it was gone. An angry cloud of dust and smoke traveled up West Broadway, funneled by the buildings.

A man with FBI on the back of his jacket said: “Get out of here!” I walked hurriedly uptown toward my office and ducked into Duane Street, looking for an open door. I covered by face with a handkerchief. The cloud made it up to where I was standing and petered out. I got a whiff of it.

Minutes later I was walking down the hall toward my office just as the staff was closing the office. We were being transferred to another office. It was then that someone told me we had been attacked by terrorists. We were sent to the call center, with a full view of the World Trade Center. We were replacing the morning shift of young personnel who had witnessed the planes striking the towers, freaked out, and were sent home. The phones were oddly quiet. I think we received two calls. I went downstairs and got a cup of coffee.

We had a clear view of the burning North Tower. The flames were traveling fast from floor to floor. I remarked to the man standing next to me that I had probably ridden on the last train from Brooklyn that had passed under the WTC. No one had said anything about what was going on in the city. No one. Plenty of people had cell phones in 2001, and the trains and buses were equipped with P.A. systems.

The North Tower went down the same was as the first one. For a second, a long spike of vertical beams on one corner held position, and toppled over. Someone called out: “There goes the other one!” A number of people have described the collapse as “surreal.” One minute the mighty structures were there, the next they were not. You knew what you were seeing.

At 11AM we were summoned to the hallway outside the Commissioner’s suite and were told that the building was being shut down. People were hugging each other and crying. Some people were afraid to go down in the elevator. I told a colleague it was the worst day in New York history.

Downstairs I fell in with a group organizing rides to Brooklyn. I piled into the back seat of a sedan with three other persons. The city was locked down at that time; no vehicles could leave or enter via the bridges. Because we were driving an official NYC car, the cops allowed us onto the Brooklyn Bridge. We were the only passenger vehicle on the bridge. The only other vehicle I saw was an ambulance. I saw an endless stream of pedestrians walking along the roadway from Manhattan, covered in a ghostly white ash, toward Brooklyn. Many were wearing surgical masks.

Traffic was slow in Brooklyn. The driver told us he had seen six jumpers. The ride was calm. Someone said it was probably better to jump than to burn alive. Two hours later I was dropped off at my door. I was really lucky getting a ride like that.

I called my sister to let her know I was safe. I turned on TV and watched the impact footage that was being played over and over again. Early reports were that 6,000 people had perished. Reception was very poor. The antenna I depended on for reception went down with the North Tower. I rode my bike around the track in the park for awhile. Around and around. I could see and smell the smoke coming from Ground Zero. The park was nearly empty. I told the next door neighbor: “It was a bad day in the city,” and went inside. The official number of dead in New York stands at approximately 2,800.

My building, and nearly all of downtown south of Canal Street, shut down. My building was closed for a week-and-a-half. I kept in touch with my supervisor over the phone. When I returned to my office, only one phone was working. Number Seven World Trade Center, I believe, housed the main hub for downtown phone service. Verizon was working like crazy to restore phone service. They had placed temporary phone carts on the sidewalk for public use. There were satellite dish vehicles parked on many streets. The National Guard was out in force in humvees. The Salvation Army was another presence, I remember. They had an office downtown.

It was difficult getting around downtown. The NYPD had set up barricades on some streets and were checking IDs. Wearing a surgical mask, I walked down to Ground Zero. The air was terrible, sickly sweet from the burning flesh and just awful. The mask only helped a bit. The city had erected a wood fence around the pit at Ground Zero, so that all you could see from ground level was the lattice of sections of the exterior of the North Tower stuck into the ground. The entire site was destroyed, all 16 acres of it, all seven buildings, either by falling debris or fire. There were jagged holes from flying steel girders in buildings directly across the street from the site. People died in those buildings. Flying steel traveled more than one hundred yards across the street striking the Winter Garden in the World Financial Center, destroying two palm trees.

All of Broadway was closed down there; the buildings were covered in whitish-gray ash. Some large office buildings had transferred all their staff to other locations and were empty of people. During that period my office carried on with its regular business. It was an old building not hermetically sealed, so the odor got inside. This was also the time of the anthrax letters. We were given rubber gloves to handle the mail, but it was clumsy wearing the gloves, so I took my chances with bare hands.

The odor hit me when I stepped from the subway from Brooklyn in the morning. The Chambers Street station was closed, so I had to use another subway line a few blocks away. Buildings displayed huge multi-floor American flags in those days. Vehicular traffic was restricted during certain hours in the city, so traffic was light. Pedicabs helped to move pedestrians around near City Hall.

During my lunch hour I walked uptown to get away from the smell, through SoHo and Chinatown. Plenty of people walked the streets. New York looked like a normal city outside of Ground Zero, which resembled Berlin in 1945 after the Allied bombing. It was strange: the war zone and the functioning city.

Heavy trucks, sided and flatbed, rumbled endlessly along West Broadway, removing the rubble from the city. I saw twisted beams chained on the flatbeds, the biggest steel ever put into a New York skyscraper. I saw a green, crushed object on a flatbed stopped at the light. I looked long and hard before I realized that it had been a fire truck.

The worst part of it was the smell and walking past the hundreds of flyers of missing pasted on walls all over the place. Have you seen Jenny, Arthur, Ruben, Marie—and their picture. I went down to the site a few times to take pictures. People left fresh flowers at the fence. The iron fence around St. Paul’s Chapel, directly across from the WTC, was covered in mementos, flags, cards, ribbons, photographs, thousands of signatures from people who came to that place from around the world. St. Paul’s was the spiritual center of the city in those days. Demolition workers and anyone, really, came there to pray. People brought candles and tributes to the fire houses, who had lost so many of their own. Back streets were lined with cars covered in ash that would never again be moved by their drivers.

Vendors set up tables along the sidewalks all over the downtown, selling photos and other depictions of the burning towers. Many of these vendors were Asians who worked in local restaurants that had not reopened. Gift shops sold replicas of fire fighters.

Near the end of the year I watched from a side street as Number Five WTC was slowly demolished. Firemen were hosing down the burning building—the fires burned for 100 days—even as a wrecking ball was knocking the beams down. Bong bong bong, tolled the sound as if from a giant, sad bell.

Number Five, on the corner, was my favorite building. It housed the large Borders bookstore. I went there often on my lunch hour to browse the magazines and newspapers. Celebrity authors signed autographs. The underground mall was a refuge on winter days when I wanted to get out of the office and it was too cold to stay long outside. I shopped there, browsed, and just walked.

On winter evenings, walking toward the subway from work, the North Tower offices were lit for the night cleaning staff. The lights were a kind of friendly beacon. As architecture, I never cared much for the twin towers. They were too bluntly modern for my taste. I did like the spacious lobbies of the towers. I ate lunch outdoors in the plaza on summer days. In 1983 I watched from the street as “spiderman” Dan Goodwin ascended the side of the building with suction cups and footing in the vertical tracks designed for the window washing platform.

I had one dream directly related to the attack about a week afterward. I visited the doctor and showed him my arm, which was covered in big bumps. “That’s from fear,” he said.

Years ago I worked as an office temp in the North Tower, on the 95th floor. It required two elevators to get you there: one from the ground to the 72nd floor, if memory serves, and a second bank for the short hop upwards. There was never a problem with the elevators, though some individuals refused to ride alone in them. It was a financial institution, where I temped, and it had recently moved from a much smaller building and was replacing staff who didn’t want to work in so high an office space. There were no interior columns and you could walk around the perimeter of the office, 200 feet on a side. The view from all sides was fantastic. The men’s room was in with the elevator banks. You could hear the building creak even on calm days, and the water in the brass water basins swirled around from the building’s motion.

You could stand at the narrow windows and look straight down all the way to the ground. All of the people on that floor on that day died. I don’t remember much of anything about them, their names or their faces.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

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