Every day is the anniversary of something. The date on the calendar ripples with other dates, other stories.
It’s now a month since the tenth anniversary of 9/11, when, two days earlier, a dozen of us marched into Manhattan’s Bryant Park wearing somber black vintage clothing, clutching manual typewriter boxes in our hands. Our up-dos and pearls lent us an air of Old New York secretarial efficiency. We were not to appear casual or chatty; we would not be using our cell phones.
When we first took our seats on the plaza, tourists snapped photos as if we were museum specimens. Gradually the first hesitant talkers sat down across from us, then a few more, until the hours passed quickly in an exchange of words and a clattering of keys.
The model for Sheryl Oring’s Collective Memory project was simple: a row of typists, dressed in early 60’s vintage, on the plaza of Bryant Park would take dictation from anyone who wanted to respond to the prompt, “What would you like the world to remember about 9/11?” The responses would be collated and become part of a traveling exhibit. I volunteered to help Sheryl because I am a writer and always dreamed of being a village scribe. Set me up with a carton for a desk and a duffel for a stool; sit across from me and tell me your story so I can write it down for you, clean up your grammar, make sure your words meet their intended destination. This scribal role is not so different from the best moments of writing fiction or poetry; the surprise of inspiration and the work of crafting precise transmission are here, albeit in a diluted form. But what I did not expect was how privileged I felt being the recipient of a stranger’s words. Sit down and open your heart because I am here. My ancient and efficient Underwood will write it all down for you. The illusion of the past will carry your words into the future. What were you doing that day?
We were to receive every narrative with interest; we would be occasionally moved and often not. Some told stories of where they were when the planes hit. Many narrated pithy sentences, as if there was a moral to be found:
Live in the moment.
Do not hate.
Care for one another.
One woman said, “I am a New Yorker and we did not intend for this to cause a war, we did not want a war.” A young woman blatantly told me how the event seemed unreal to her all these years, like a movie, and, now that she is older, she is beginning to consider the import of what really happened. One woman narrated her words for the typewritten record and then told me the real story of how volunteering at Nino’s Restaurant down at Ground Zero in the weeks and months after 9/11 changed the course of her life. Another spoke of how the falling grey ash that day made all the survivors appear the same; all differences were blotted out. Some responses were defiant and political. Many speakers paused between sentences, considering the flow of their words.
Most willingly gave their names, first and last. There was a quiet satisfaction in being heard, in one’s words being recorded on these ancient keyboards.
Thank you for doing this.
Thank you for stopping by.
The act of inviting the telling was beautiful to me, and as fitting a memorial as anything could be.
After two hours I returned to the Bryant Park offices, combed out my up-do and exchanged my somber black dress for jeans. My co-typist slipped on a motorcycle helmet. We found our cell phones, checked email, rode the elevator down to the street, and descended further down into subways.
Sitting on the 1 train, I was once again an ordinary passenger, but what I most wanted to do was turn to the person next to me and ask her to tell me what she was thinking. Not because it was the anniversary of 9/11 but because the words of a stranger speaking through the cracks of her heart felt necessary, and remains necessary every day. I have a typewriter. Tell me a story:
Where were you when something big happened and what are you thinking about now?
Amy Gottlieb is a writer and editor living in New York City. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in the Forward, Lilith, Puerto del Sol, Zeek, and other publications and anthologies. She is the 2010-2011 Poetry Fellow and Resident at the Bronx Council on the Arts and is finishing a novel.
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Lead photo by Dhanraj Emanuel.