it to Yourself
the 9/11 attacks, Christmas season was too soon upon us in New York,
arriving just weeks after the fires had been extinguished and the
smell of burning dissipated downtown. For nearly two months, cycles
of palpable, pervasive fear about a follow-up attack would somehow
gather momentum around a rumor or milestone, and then build to arbitrary
anticlimaxes that provided neither relief nor hope. The collective
subterranean ebb and flow of emotion reached a crescendo at Halloween,
after which most people, exhausted, seemed to calm down. Life must
go on, but as Yuletide approached, the WTC wreckage was still several
stories high and you could see and hear the cranes working nonstop.
Nobody was happy, least of all near the site.
brought me close to the WTC one day that December. Heading downtown
on Broadway, I walked past the makeshift memorial lining the churchyard
of St. Paul's Chapel, one block east. Standing in front were fifteen
or so well-scrubbed members of an "I-don't-agree-with-everything-Pat
group from the amber fields of grain singing "The 12 Days of
Christmas." They were merry and bright and against this backdrop
of decimation, earnestly demonstrating that people of good will
could flout evil with good cheer, none more so than the Jethro whose
role it was to it was to goofball up "FIVE GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWLDEN
figure I was already in a mood. I walked into a branch of my bank
on Broadway across from the WTC hoping the ATM would dispense some
cash. I get a bit uneasy at the bank, since I have little aptitude
or patience for things fiscal, and keep track of my balances in
a zenlike manner, an approach that often leads to a profound state
of emptiness. As I stepped up to the ATM and inserted my card, still
looking mainly at Ground Zero framed in the picture window, I glanced
down at the screen and read the following message:
DURING THE HOLIDAYS, SHARE THE SPIRIT OF THE SEASON
BUT PLEASE -- KEEP YOUR PAIN TO YOURSELF.
pain? But the screen was gone, replaced by the menu of banking options.
pain. Of course. At that place at that time, the overriding emotion
was pain. Pain was the holiday season's buzzword, definitively expressed
by a creative bit of business my girlfriend encountered in a subway
station: someone had torn up some "WET PAINT" signs and
reassembled the pieces so the message read "AIN'T WE IN PAIN."
Now a cash machine, instead of just asking me if I wanted a receipt,
was trying to help me get on with things.
why not the ATM, even if its tone was, in my opinion, somewhat flip?
If you want to communicate a message to as many New Yorkers as possible
it's as good a way as any, at least until psychotherapists, like
professional golfers, start selling advertising space on their clothing.
I've always thought New Yorkers feel emotionally vulnerable when
banking at ATMs -- you can see it in their posture around the machines,
hunched over like a dog over a food dish, and not only because of
the energetic criminal population in our midst. Maybe it's just
that too many a New York drama has reached its cruel denouement
with an unyielding ATM serving as the machina in which the
god Penurious descends.
has only to recall the bank lines in the last few days of 1999 to
realize the depth of the public's fear that someday, somehow, the
cash machines will stop giving them what they need. Personally,
I was surprised at the millennium to find that more people worried
about their ATMs than were grappling with my preoccupation -- that
at long last the Messiah actually would show up, and ruin
As for the ATM instruction to "keep your pain to yourself"
-- consider the scene my bank's lobby overlooked. After all that
the people who worked at this branch went through on 9/11, it was
reasonable enough to assume that they had their fill of talking
about it. Why wouldn't they program the ATMs with a little preemptive
message to indicate as much? They saw the fire, metal, and the desperate
rain down as they fled for their own lives, and had no doubt spent
the last few months wondering how many familiar faces were gone
forever. And now you come in caroling "The 12 Days of Christmas"
because you feel the need to connect? Well buddy, wassail this.
I remember that when I sat shiva after my mother passed, visitor
after visitor first told me how much they loved her and then launched
into their own tales of scabbed-over woe to keep my fresh anguish
at arm's length. What I wanted to say to my shiva callers then is
what I'm sure the workers at this bank wanted to tell the parade
of well-intentioned sufferers: I know you're in pain, but please
-- keep it to yourself. Just say, "Thank You, Happy Holidays"
when the teller gives you the roll of quarters you need to do laundry,
and go on mourning quietly amongst yourselves.
machine dispensed the cash. After my receipt printed, I waited for
the screen to refresh so I could reread the welcome message.
it reappeared, it read:
DURING THE HOLIDAYS, SHARE THE SPIRIT OF THE SEASON
PLEASE -- KEEP YOUR PIN TO YOURSELF.
Your personal identification number. Oh.
I opened the door to leave the bank, I was met with the whine of
gnarled metal being pulled apart by demolition machines. Although
each day more of the ruined towers beyond the barricades in front
of me vanished from sight, it was apparent as the holidays encroached
that there was still a lot of hard, hopeless work left to do at
the World Trade Center.
spirit of the season? There is more I could share, but I'll keep
it to myself.
version for easy reading
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