On my way to the airport for my trip to Seattle, my cab driver asked me where I was going and why. I told him I was doing some readings – I am always leery of the inevitable question, “Have you written anything I might have read?” and the comment, “I’ll wait and see it in the movie theater” – but this man seemed interested in my quick synopsis: looking at ground zero from the original ground zero. He asked me about Godzilla, and how I interpreted that cinematic celebration of the destruction of Tokyo in the context of the massive destruction of Japan during the war. He mused at how the Japanese responded differently than survivors of the Holocaust in Europe.
Then he told me that he was a school bus driver on September 11th, picking up middle schoolers in Brooklyn who were supposed to be touring the towers that day. He told me about his day in detail – about how when the bus drivers finally found out what happened and listened to the radio, they heard a report that the plane in Pennsylvania was shot down by friendly fire, a statement that has never been repeated. But I heard it, he says. Four of us heard it. He told me what it was like to drive in the area for the next several months, carrying shell-shocked children back and forth to school, and he asked me, did my book contain anything like that? Anything like his stories?
I was sitting in the back seat listening, trying not to say anything because the waves of sorrow that sometimes strike me when I try to say anything about September 11th were in full force. Finally, he told me about how everything hit him one day when he had to drive over a wooden ramp near the site and since he was high up in a bus, he could see over the blocked fence and into the devastation. He called his boss and told him he couldn’t take it anymore. He sobbed then, and he still gets choked up when he thinks of it. He was reassigned to a route in Queens.
For the first time in a while, I was listening to a survivor’s story. As the Hiroshima survivors did, this man picked his details and told the story that made sense to him. There were things he held onto, like the friendly fire. Details he must tell every time he talks about this, until they are rehearsed. He wanted to know – did my book contain anything like his story? Did I know what he knew, or enough of it, so that he could rest easy? I had a similar experience in Japan after September 11th: the survivors sought me out, needing a place to leave their stories in safety. Needing a witness.
But this time, I was given a new gift. Watching the terrorist attacks from Japan, I remember thinking, “This is a time for empathy.” The United States had not been hit on its own ground ever (unless you count Pearl Harbor). We didn’t know what it felt like to be a victim, or to be attacked because we were hated. Not that I would have wanted it for us, not that I took any satisfaction in such a terrible statement, but I thought, we can learn something about empathy, about sorrow, about love, from this awful attack. Maybe we will have a better understanding of what it means for a small, individual human being to be attacked, to be killed, how terrible it is for anyone, especially the innocent and unsuspecting, to be murdered.
This didn’t happen then.
But in my bus-turned-cab-driver’s story, it was there. He had deep empathy for the children, for the people who lived in the area, and for all New Yorkers, like him, who were witnesses and felt helpless. He still gets choked up, as I do. He carries no grudges that he offered; he lost no one dear to him that he mentioned. He just still feels it. He knows what it feels like. No rhetoric, no revenge, no war machine or narrative of the hero and the villain, has wiped that away.
(Reiko Rizzuto is the author of Hiroshima in the Morning and was also a client of mine)