The funny thing about islands is that you can always feel their edges. Even as now, brunching in an outdoor café securely anchored in Chelsea, I am aware of the Hudson River about six blocks to my left; the East River seven blocks to my right; and the Battery ‘way downtown. Only the Harlem River separates Manhattan from the Bronx, but all the same, you know you’re on an island.
This fact became became excruciatingly clear on that magnificent fall day in 2001 when smoke and ash clouded the city and all exits were closed off. In the following days, restaurants gave away salad, and grocery stores, food, till we were fairly running on empty.
Pedicabs furiously biked stranded Wall Streeters uptown; otherwise, the streets were bare and eerily silent. Late one night, a line of yellow school buses suddenly appeared on 23rd Street, stretching from river to river; then just as mysteriously disappeared a few days later. For weeks afterwards, chagrined New Yorkers didn’t even honk at each other: a worrisome development in a town known for its aggressiveness and lack of compassion.
It was the silence, however, that was the most disturbing side effect, intensified by occasional siren shrieks as ambulances and ash-coated police cars engaged in futile dashes downtown. Ash billowed from the tops of fire trucks, as well, as they ran up and down the island.
Given the nature of my childhood summers in Wisconsin, such a silence would normally have been welcome. But it was a different kind of silence than that of “9/11”, on a different kind of island, that informed those languid green months.
In our 40 acres of pastures and woods, the stillness was so profound it was broken mainly by the dark rustle of maple and birch leaves. The only similarities to that surreal New York day were the blue clarity of the air — a constant in the north country — and the tension of held breath that occurred only in the heavy air before a storm.
If I listened, I could always hear the distant sigh of an occasional car on Highway 41, a mile west of our cabin. Once a day (or was it once a week?), a small plane or high-flying jet would stitch a growly white line across a corner of the sky. The neighbor’s dog two farms away could be heard barking if the wind was westerly. Or a cloud of white boiling dust would announce the passage of a car on our road before the gravelly sound reached our ears.
Otherwise, the swish of grass against my jeans, the buzzing of a dragon fly, or the wind brushing through the trees is all I remember breaking the eternal silence. If, while I was roaming the meadows, Mom left the cabin to dry a towel on the scaly driftwood fence, or toss a bowl of wash water onto the baby cedars (now 35 feet tall!) bordering our house, I could see the rainbow necklace of water drops flashing in the sun before I heard the screen door bang.
These were bittersweet days for me, an only child longing for company, yet cherishing my solitude. Here, on my vast “prairie”, my shyness would melt away, and I would belt out partially understood songs from Oklahoma or South Pacific in my childish alto.
Often I carried my BB gun with me, carefully lodged in the crook of my arm — with the barrel pointing down, as my father had taught me.
“Never point a gun at ANYone, even in fun,” he’d drilled into me since I was five. “And never place your thumb across the stock when you shoot: you could break it one day, if you ever shoot a real rifle!” Words I lived by when I was hunting in the mountains and deserts of Syria, many years later.
Instead, we hung aluminum foil pie tins on strings suspended from bouncy branches on the apple tree, and used them as slowly moving targets. From 10 to 20 yards away, I was a dead shot with my BB gun. But Dad also taught me to use his .38 and .45, using them with the same respect. With these, I always tensed against the unbearable explosion of sound, usually missing the mark. The BB gun was mercifully silent when fired, and so remained my favored companion on my solitary adventures.
I also carried a pocketknife, with which I could peel the end of a springy apple branch, and whittle a point at the peeled end. Then I would spear a small green apple from our tree, bring my arm back as if I were pitching for the Cubs, and hurl the apple from its catapult so far I sometimes couldn’t see where it landed. Dad and I competed to see who could throw them the farthest, and we’d go for long walks through the tall grass afterwards searching for our small missiles.
Our 40 acres was laid out in 10-acre strips, each about 10 to 15 feet above the other, terrace-fashion. Even as I felt the boundaries of our land when I was walking, I also felt the edges of the island upon which it was situated. One and one-half miles to our west the sun set over the white limestone beaches and cliffs of Green Bay; while 10-15 miles to the east, it rose over the flat duney wildness of Lake Michigan, colder and darker than the placid Bay. Approximately 20 miles to the north, both bodies of water tumbled together in a roiling straight, poetically named “La Porte des Morts” by 17th Century French fur traders. Even today, our island/peninsula is known as “Door County”. 25-30 miles to the south, 19th-Century Swedish engineers had bisected the peninsula with a wide channel, deep enough for the huge ships produced by the local shipyards, and traversed (in my youth) by a single drawbridge.
Small as it was, our part of this island also had it known boundaries. The “Swedish mafia” — the majority of the Northern Door population — ran the political scene, while the Norwegians banded together with the Moravians in Ephraim to stand up to them. On Washington Island on the other side of “Death’s Door”, the indignant Icelanders periodically tried to cut their moorings and secede to Michigan.
South of Egg Harbor on the Lake side, the Polish and Belgians divided up the land, while Germans were sprinkled covertly thoughout. There were also French Canadians, but no one seemed to ever mention them. Perhaps we all mistook them for Belgians.
The light was always white in summer, rather than yellow, with deep blue cloud shadows lazily gliding up and down the hills, over pasture and woods. It bleached the meadow grasses and mullen to sage green, enhancing the white daisy faces that populated every square inch in June. Entering from the white gravel road (which was later paved and named “Juddville Road”, to everyone’s surprise), our various cars would follow the grassy track down the middle of the second “terrace”, carefully descending between two white boulders to the next level, where our summer home was situated, while the undercarriage bubbled with the sound of daisy heads springing up beneath us. Leaving the car, we would see its guileless headlight eyes gazing at us in embarrassment, while its foolishly grinning chrome grill clutched bunches of flowers in its metal teeth.
What I miss most, though, are the thunderstorms. Our cabin, like most of the county, was not electrified, and we dropped a 25-pound block of ice into our top-loading ice box (which doubled as a settee) once or twice a week to keep our food fresh. The drained opened directly over the ground, and in the hours before a storm, small animals would take shelter under our house, clanking their teeth on the metal as they sucked the salt out of the moistened wood around it.
As the sound of a porcupine’s teeth heralded a change of weather, the air would thicken, becoming slightly more opaque and palpably darker. Everything — trees, grasshoppers, crickets — would seem to hold its breath, and I would find myself forgetting to exhale, as well. Straining to hear distant thunder, I could first perceive it as an indistinct vibration in the pit of my stomach.
Sometimes, when I was small, we would be on the pier near Mama Bach’s giant log cabin on the Bay when this happened. Each village on the Green Bay side of the Northern Door sector was nestled on a small “fjord”, flanked on either side by a high bluff (New Jersey would call them “mountains”). These were suitable for skiing in winter, and separated each settlement from its neighbors. Mama Bach’s cabin was just north of Fish Creek in what is now the State Park. Green Bay is 25 miles across — so wide the opposite shore is rarely visible — and the canvas of sky and water that stretched before us encompassed all horizons.
We would be picnicking on the large, flat, round stones or on the pier by the water, and the wind would begin to cross the bluffs, absently stroking the water to blackness as it ran its fingers across the waves first in one direction, then in the other. Eventually these conflicting winds might swirl together to form a black or white offshore tornado, or waterspout. We would eagerly anticipate these, often seated comfortably in sunlight while the storm flared from greeny-black clouds over Chambers Island, several miles offshore. Once we saw six of these wiggling fingers touch down by the three Strawberry Islands, not far from our beach. But we always counted on them dissipating when they reached the land, even as “real” tornadoes die at the water’s edge.
The violence of the storms, and of the dangerous whirlwinds they spawned, provided us with all the entertainment we could wish for. Sheet lightning and forks of pink and blue would leap between the high-piled clouds, or strike land and water like devil’s pitchforks. The echo of the thunder claps would roll from bluff to bluff and return off the water as if it were taking place inside a giant electronic reverberator. The leaves on the maples would sigh and turn over to show their silver sides as the front hit the land.
If we were snugly tucked into our little beds in our cabin, safely reading by kerosene light, the rain would drum on the roof and walls until it felt to me as if my scalp were being gently massaged. To this day, I count a good thunderstorm among the top five of life’s most serious pleasures!
Perhaps it was this experience with storms that made the “9/11” silence in New York so peculiar: the black smoke billowing from downtown was reminiscent of those massive thunderheads; but instead of the explosion of sound you would expect from something as cataclysmic as two skyscrapers falling, there was . . . nothing. Only the occasional siren. And that awful, earsplitting silence. In vain, I hiked from hospital to hospital, hoping to volunteer. But as the day wore on, and the streets filled with chainsmoking doctors and residents in green scrubs, the awful truth began to dawn on us.
The next day I went to the Javits Center, which had been prepared as a triage center, and made signs organizing the volunteers into groups: carpenters, plumbers, heavy equipment operators, welders, etc. At the end of the day I encountered a stranded corporate helicopter pilot from Connecticut, who’d flown into Manhattan at the request of the NYPD, only to be locked down at the Midtown Heliport and charged by the hour for “parking”! He ended up being my first roommate, staying 4 days: I’d just finished constructing two bedrooms in my Chelsea loft to offset an upcoming rent increase.
The third day (again, perfect Door County weather: high 70s; sunny; humidity-free) we attempted to fly the helicopter downtown to assess the damage. No sooner had the blades begun to rotate, however, than an Army Blackhawk seemed to rise out of the very ground (but more probably off the Intrepid) in front of us. Its rear bay was open and facing us; and two soldiers in fatigues, opaque black glasses and dangling legs pointed AK47s directly at us.
Needless, my pilot-friend killed the engine, and we slowly emerged from the craft with our hands up. Inching crablike to the side, we were about 4-5 yards from the helicopter before the Blackhawk took off. Suddenly we remembered to breathe out.
We then decided to make our way to the 38th Street ferry terminal, where we “booked” a short “cruise” across the Hudson to Weehawken, NJ. A brief walk through a magnificently planted garden separates the marina at Arthur’s Landing from the ferry terminal. There we relaxed in comfortable chairs on a canopied dock, sipping brightly-colored umbrella drinks from the bar while we watched downtown Manhattan furiously burn. The black cloud rolled and tumbled up into that clear cobalt sky; it must have been visible from appallingly far away.
Clearly we had the best view of New York a person could have under any conditions, looking up to Harlem and beyond from a vantage point opposite 48th Street; and down to the Battery, Staten Island, the Statue, and finally the sea beyond the Verrazzano Narrows. This view became even more splendid as dusk fell and the ligths of the city winked on — far enough away to screen out the dirt and lend the city that Oz-like air it has in old movies. The smoke downtown billowed white in the night sky: little did we know then that it wouldn’t abate for another six months!
In mid-August in Wisconsin, a different kind of smoke threw a pale white cloud from horizon to horizon, across the ebony night sky. During the Leonid showers, when meteors fell like snow, the Milky Way would actually shed a faint light light onto the sea of grass and trees that surrounded us. Better than that, however, were the green or white curtains that unfolded against the black, eerily moving like silk scarves being tossed by an unseen hand. These were the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, and were visible to us primarily because our cabin faced open pasture to the north.
Although these fantastical veils could appear at time of year, my strongest memories of them are in the summer I turned 21, when they took on every form imaginable and appeared — always in white — every night. Sometimes they were like searchlights sweeping the skies from Green Bay to the zenith, perfectly mirrored in the still water. Other times, they were concentric circles of fabric descending from the celestial apex, and again, reflected in reverse on the Bay. At other times they were just a glow, like frozen sheet lightning, slow-dancing to silent music.
Again, the year my parents retired to our new permanent home on a higher terrace, solar flares caused the Northern Lights to swing and dance in pink and red and green every night; till the week I brought my new fiancé up to the woods to see them, when they completely disappeared. (To this day he has never seen them!).
So it was that in 2001 I felt a similar thrill when, on the 1-week or 2-week anniversary of the disaster, I was in my favorite pub at 22nd Street and 7th Avenue. All the wait-staff had returned, and the neighborhood was huddled together in shock. Gradually I became aware that my friends were gathering the votive candles from each of the tables, and I grabbed a couple, following them outside.
All up and down the Avenue, in spite of the light traffic, a hush still pervaded the streets. At the top of each of the rectangular buildings lining 7th Avenue, people stood shoulder-to-shoulder, holding candles aloft, even as we did. As far as we could see — looking south to the Village and north to Times Square — the city was lit like Santa Fé at Christmas, the buildings outlined in twinkling lights in an unheard-of show of neighborly solidarity. All of us were moved to tears. I don’t remember if we were singing and if so, what — America the Beautiful? Battle Hymn of the Republic? — but if and when we stopped, we were silent, as were all our neighbors.
“We’re here to stay”, we seemed to be saying to each other, “Together. Invincible.”
I was proud to be a New Yorker!