2016-06-30
Recently, I had one of those experiences that crystallizes inchoate feelings. I was asked to do a report on the people, who stand on the median strip of the West Side Highway in Manhattan and cheer the rescue workers, firefighters, metal workers, and others, who go back and forth from Ground Zero.

I had heard vague stories about some of these folks, and I had a picture in my head of some patriotic characters waving flags and such. At that point, there hadn't been too many stories about them and I wondered who they were. I knew that, personally, as a Cold War red diaper baby, I was not about to wear a flag lapel pin, even after all this, but I thought I would have a look. Then I got a call from a science reporter at National Public Radio, who said he knew one of the leaders of this disparate group that gathers at the highway intersection of West and Christopher Streets. His name was Barry McQuade. He was a gay man, who has been HIV positive for twenty years. What's more, he had been volunteering at a local fire department ever since 9/11, and the local fire dept had adopted him as an honorary member. I thought this was pretty unusual; you don't ordinarily think of firefighters as being sympathetic to gays. So at nine o'clock that night, I went off to meet Barry in front of a fire station on West 19th Street in Chelsea.

Barry was carrying a very large and worn American flag that he had picked up from somewhere and tacked to a pole. He says he is known as the "flag man" at Christopher and West Streets where the people gather to cheer. He says he is a good twirler, a skill he learned in the Gay Pride Parade.

He showed me around the firehouse, where the guys all knew him. For two and a half weeks after the events of 911, he cooked for them, answered phones, helped neighborhood organizations respond to needs. He had no expertise, he said, but the skills he learned caring for his dying brothers gave him the knowledge of how to help.

The fire station, like all the firehouses around the city, these days, looks like a Tibetan Shrine, or one of our Pagan altars, with candles burning, pots of flowers, poems etched in stone and written on paper, walls of children's artwork, responding to September 11th, and, of course, pictures of the five fireman that this company lost. Notices of dozens of memorial services are posted on a bulletin board.

After the tour, we leave for Christopher Street and West Street. It's 10 p.m. The median strip on the highway has someone there most of the time. There are two or three black teens that Barry describes as homeless, who guard the signs, the bags of posters, and the cooler of water and sodas. One is riding around on a bicycle, but doesn't really want to talk.

There is a huge door, facing the highway, that Barry found on the street and painted with the words: "Hero Highway." Another sign, which faces the other way, says, "Point Thank You."

There are about a dozen people there, including an Irish American couple in their sixties (whose politics I would probably disagree with) holding signs saying "Thank you, Heroes." There's a young woman named Diane who jumps up and down with red, white, and blue pompoms, and a woman named Claire who has all these pins on her Yankee hat representing police and fire departments all over the country that have stopped on the strip to say hello.

As cars pass, particularly trucks with debris or busses filled with the next shift of replacements, the group cheers, whistles, and waves, and the vehicles honk their horns in response. Many of these people tell me that when volunteers were not needed at the site, they came here; it was something they could do. A policeman stops to say hello and thanks them.

Barry tells me a woman once stopped and told him that the people who cheer had saved her husband's life. He had been working for so many hours at Ground Zero, he couldn't see straight. He was driving home and was just about to close his eyes when he saw the people with the signs and flags cheering. They gave him enough energy to make it home.

A guy named Steve, a neuroscientist who only comes down occasionally, says to me, "I am doing all kinds of things I have never done in my life.... I am cheering police, wearing a flag, buying cigarettes for relief workers, when I don't believe in smoking."

It may different here in New York City--being in the terrorists' cross hairs so to speak--than in other parts of the country. A lot of us are going through convulsive and life-changing emotions.

For me, my whole 55 years of life was defined by being an outsider in my own country. I was the child of socialists, a Marxist, a Jew, a New Yorker, a woman, a Witch--all things that have made me "the other" in America. When John Kennedy was killed, I couldn't really mourn because our family was so afraid that we would become a target, since my mother belonged to the Fair Play For Cuba Committee, of which Lee Harvey Oswald was a member.

I always stood silent in my public high school during the pledge of allegiance, and I fantasized that I was the daughter of a Soviet diplomat. That was a fantasy, but the feeling of being an outsider in my own country was real. Although I fell in love with an American soldier in Vietnam, I also, for a few days, harbored a deserter, and believed, quite frankly, that we were supporting the wrong side. During the sixties, I came very close to joining the Communist Party; I was arrested in the Free Speech Movement and went to jail, was a civil rights worker in Mississippi, cut sugarcane in Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade, and was gassed in demonstrations in Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Berkeley.

For years I felt some of the desperation that fuels violence. While I don't know if I could ever do violence, I was so alienated from my own country in the late 1960's that I was sympathetic to the Weather Underground. More recently, my own deep frustration about the chances of saving the earth from environmental destruction led me to feel a slight bit of sympathy toward the Unabomber, and those who take drastic--even destructive--actions.

Now here I am, as always, in the city that was never loved by America. It was too diverse, too European, too sexually out there, too dressed in black. But suddenly, New York is the heart of America. We are a target not only because we are the business capital, but because we are seen as a symbol of all that fundamentalists from Bin Laden to Jerry Fallwell hate.

I am on a highway with people, who are often the "others" in America, Black homeless teens and gay men with AIDS, and they are waving American flags, cheering the rescue workers on--side by side with cheerleaders and older conservatives. And suddenly I find myself overwhelmed by emotion, by the feeling that I am no longer a stranger in my own land; I feel stirrings of kinship I can barely recognize, as if I have become a true citizen of my country for the very first time.

I am not alone in this newfound feeling. As I talk to my husband at breakfast, I realize that my whole family is changing its self-definition. We are no longer quite so much outsiders; we are part of a living community that feels under attack. We question these new feelings daily.

Giving up that sense of being apart, being a stranger in a strange land, an identity I've held on to so fiercely for five decades, doesn't lessen my concerns about America's political direction or its leaders, or my qualms about military tribunals, racial profiling, or attacks on civil liberties, but it does change my relationship to America--it has healed it in some odd way.

I don't think I will ever wear a flag pin, and I still believe that the U.S. Constitution is a better and more powerful symbol to fight for than a piece of cloth that's red, white, and blue. But there is this new feeling and identity: I feel enmeshed in my city, my community, and my country in a new and powerful way, and that change is larger than any I could have ever imagined.

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