Editor’s Note: The essay below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
New York, New York
Katharine Cornell Clark is a native New Yorker. The 20-year-old was born in Youngstown, New York, and today attends Columbia University in upper Manhattan. She was asleep in her dorm when terrorists started attacking America Sept. 11. Her essay – “Qui est a L’appareil?” – was written Sept. 23.
Fortunately, I was nowhere near the World Trade Center when two hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers. Fast asleep, I could never have imagined the scene to which I would awaken. My family lives upstate and my closest relatives live miles away in New Jersey. No one, save the government intelligence members who have the remarkable job of dreaming up farfetched occurrences and ways to prevent them from ever happening, could fathom such terror and destruction. The last time I visited downtown was months ago and not witnessing the tragedy firsthand, I felt tempted to convince myself that it had never happened. The symbol of our national economy reduced to a pile of rubble? Impossible.
I struggled with how I would complete this assignment. A good friend volunteered at a hospital downtown and brought me back to reality with horrific stories of what was happening just miles away. The nightmare was real. She was struck by the stark contrast between upper and lower Manhattan. She likened the first to hell and the latter to “pleasantville.” Her voice wavered as she described the condition of the people she treated. Firefighters desperately wanting reassurance that their partner was safe. Answers she could not provide. I knew I could not interview her, doing so would feel immoral. In my mind, our friendship would be put in serious jeopardy. I put myself in her shoes and thought about how difficult it would be to answer even a few simple questions. Doing so would feel like an interrogation, for both of us.
The Sunday after the attack my story came calling. Literally. That morning, along with three thousand of my fellow New Yorkers, I attended a moving service at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. The speaker just happened to be Dr. Han Seung-soo, the President of the fifty-sixth United Nations General Assembly, who, naturally, addressed the tragedy and emphasized the importance of peace.
Each week, following the blessing, the State Trumpets sound to signal the conclusion of the service. An organ voluntary, which echoes through the holy walls, begins the procession of dignitaries as they exit down the center aisle. On any Sunday, the sights and sounds are moving and this week the organ played “America, the Beautiful.” I fought back tears, but gave in as my trembling lips sang, “God shed His grace on thee.” All around me the reaction was the same. Grown men in suits asked their wives to pass the tissues as young sons and daughters, too young to understand, stared at Daddy, wondering what was wrong. At that moment a few thousand strangers shared in a powerful collective memory.
My courageous friend was on my mind and I decided to give her a call. I knew by her voice that she needed company. Telling her I would be over in a few minutes, I gathered together strawberries, cashews, and chocolate; the makings of a tasty fondue. A hero in my eyes, it was nice to see her smile again. As I feared, we discussed the tragedy. We eventually moved on to less depressing topics like our course schedules and movies we wanted to see. Two hours later, I felt emotionally spent. She thanked me again and again for visiting her at such a difficult time.
The red light on my answering machine blinked frantically. My mother wondered where I could be. Didn’t I say I would be safe and sound in my room all day? She assured my machine and herself that I was fine and said she would call back in the evening.
The phone rang just after six o’clock. Convinced it was my parents, I raced toward it. Somehow, I got the strange idea of answering with a French accent. Why? “A-lo,” I said excitedly, waiting for the recipient of my silliness to respond. To my surprise and delight, the male at the other end duplicated my greeting.
For a fraction of a second I was convinced it was my father, playing along with my little joke. I repeated my greeting, but received a very different response the second time around. “Hello, hello? This is a call from France.” I stopped and turned off my radio. My father does not mimic accents that well.
The man continued, saying, “All my friends and I are calling people across America to give our support.” A bit stunned by my choice of accent, the fact that someone from France was actually on the line, and my embarrassment at having potentially mocked this poor fellow, I stammered, asking the caller to reveal his identity. He brushed my question aside, and had we been face to face, I would have received the gesture of a hand waving my query away. “It does not matter who I am as long as I give you this message.” Amazingly, he proceeded to assuage my tension about the call, and, of course, my feelings concerning the predicament in which the terrorist attack had left our country.
The mystery Frenchman pledged his allegiance to the American flag. “We all have them in our gardens and our homes,” he explained. “You must know that the French love and support New York and America.” I was equally grateful and confused and hung on his every encouraging word, attempting to slip in a “thank you” here and there.
“The United States will get through this … you are a strong people and the French stand behind you,” he continued. I made one last futile attempt to determine the identity of my caller, even though I now understood it was the message, and not some random name, I was to remember. Thanking him for his call, he interrupted and said that he was grateful just to speak with someone in America. “It is my pleasure; I love your country. God bless America and goodnight.” With those words our conversation ended, and I was left in a state of disbelief.
I called a friend I hadn’t seen for a few days to get her reaction to “the call.” We exchanged typical conversation before I was able to describe what had just happened. Her reaction caught me completely off guard. “That is the best thing I have heard for days!” she exclaimed. “I have to e-mail everyone about this.” We talked for a few more minutes, and when we hung up, I knew from her ecstatic tone that she really was heading for her keyboard. When I finally spoke to my parents, they were just as excited as my friend. “What a wonderful story,” my mom said. “I wish your French friend would call me!”
The goal of the mystery caller was achieved. With much enthusiasm, I told everyone I talked to that night about my special call. The reaction hardly differed and each excited voice pledged to themselves, even more so than to me, that they would tell as many as they could about the events that had transpired. Words of comfort and reassurance spread rapidly that evening, and even if they didn’t totally put one’s mind at ease, at least they put a smile on many a face.