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Keep it to Yourself
By Albert Stern

After 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.

Business 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 Robertson-says-but-you-have-to-admit-that-sometimes..." church 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 RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINGS-AH!"

So 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:


Your pain? But the screen was gone, replaced by the menu of banking options.

My 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.

And 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.

One 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 everything.

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.

The machine dispensed the cash. After my receipt printed, I waited for the screen to refresh so I could reread the welcome message.

When it reappeared, it read:


PIN. Your personal identification number. Oh.

When 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.

The spirit of the season? There is more I could share, but I'll keep it to myself.


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