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Archive for October, 2011

October 17, 2011 seemed like a fine day to head downtown and see the memorial I’d avoided up to and just after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was another stunning autumn morning, with another cerulean sky visible through towers, half built with aspirations to touch the clouds that floated by. Hundreds of people going about their business were amplified by thousands more whose presence makes this, if not a world trade center, than the world’s visiting center.

I also planned to stop by another, much smaller site I remembered well: a 3300 square foot slip of green my husband would eat in on pleasant days when he wished to escape the long shadows of the World Trade Center. Then, it was called Liberty Plaza Park; now it is Zuccotti Park, renamed after the chairman of the reality company that provided for its restoration after the September 11th attacks devastated it. For several years, Zuccotti Park hosted the annual 9/11 anniversary commemorations. Currently, it’s hosting Occupy Wall Street.

Symbolism is important in making a statement, whether it involves words, notes, or physical space. So is context. The 16 acres known as ground zero was and is sacred ground to some; to others, a historically significant site. For me, ground zero is about the lives that were lost but also the resilience that was found, however temporarily, to go on, to make something better, to be better. Although I was part of a group that lobbied (unsuccessfully) for the addition of a cultural/educational component at the site–living monuments to a possible future and to the important freedoms the attacks didn’t take away—we lost. It helps to have a Visitors’ Center to supply some context, more of which the museum will also provide. Unfortunately, right now it’s possible to bypass the Center and most people do.

As a family member, I was directed around the absurdly long lines to enter the space, which consists of two massive waterfalls conforming to the footprints of the original towers and ringed with low granite walls bearing the names of the nearly 3,000 people.

MemorialName

Using the guide I’d been handed, I made my way to the far side of the north pool and located my  husband’s name. I touched the engraved stone and whispered “Well, here you are.” And waited. But the rush of emotions I anticipated– grief perhaps; but also reverence, awe, inspiration, a telescoping of past, present and future—never came. It was all very lovely but somehow…static.

As I walked over to Zuccotti Park, I was struck by the number of tourists; it seemed as if there were more of them than there were protesters. The park initially gave the appearance of being a mess but it really wasn’t; bedding was neatly stacked, except when someone was still sleeping. An older gent did a pretty good rendition of “God Bless America” on the bagpipes. I made my way tentatively into the trees, where people were talking or texting or reading. I saw several meetings taking place, conducted in relatively quiet tones, since neither megaphones nor sound equipment is allowed.

Zuccotti2I couldn’t hear what was being said; I’ve read elsewhere that a dedicated corps of occupiers is meeting to try and devise a set of demands. Sure there are some goof-offs, but the few protesters I encountered in my all-too-brief sojourn both wanted a change to a skewed system and felt frustrated that they were characterized as slackers or whiners, or insufficiently prepared to take on the entire system by which banks and businesses that don’t create jobs and CEOs who don’t produce dividends are nevertheless rewarded.

On the way home, I thought about how alive that little slip of green had felt and how…not so much dead as not alive the memorial had felt to me. Of course, that’s not the function of memorials; they are erected to remember the past and to honor the dead. The best of them, it must be said, can also deliver the message: never again.

As for the park formerly known as Liberty, it is teeming with good intentions and honest efforts and a target that its location should not obscure: not so much Wall Street as an economic system that accrues wealth for a disproportionate few; yet fights to keep at arms’ length any regulation that accrues to the common good. It’s the job of the protestors in a free democracy to draw attention to the system’s failings; it’s not their job to fix it. If we and our representatives allow the novelty of a group of people camping out overnight to distract from agreeing on and implementing solutions, then we will have robbed OWS of its important symbolic message: no more.

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My grade school tormenter reached me through Facebook. Actually, he located me on Facebook via some site called Classmates. I don’t protect-your-child-from-the-dangers-of-cyber-bullyingremember registering on Classmates but who knows? I might have hit the wrong button at some point. The bottom line is: he found me.

“Hi Nikki,” his e-mail read (he’d also asked to “friend” me). “Remember me? P—? I went to Richards School; I was two years ahead of you.”

I barely remember anyone from grade school; I have enough trouble recalling high school. Still, I thought: What would be the harm in friending him? Yet something made me hesitate. I couldn’t recognize him from his picture, obviously; nor could I place him by name. He still apparently lived in the small suburb where I grew up; he may or may not have gone to college. Nothing else gave me any indication as to how he had once fit into my life.

I e-mailed: “Hey P—another ghost from the past. How are you? What have you been up to?” I was hoping those innocuous couple of sentences would prod him into opening up; most people love to talk about themselves.

Instead, he wrote, “Congratulations on all your successes. It sounds as if you’re doing really well in life.” And then, changing the subject abruptly: “I really had a hard time tracking you down, you know, because you changed your name.” He continued. “When did you do that? I’m just curious. Why did you do that?”

Now I was puzzled. I didn’t change my name when I got married. As much as I loved my husband, the idea of becoming Nikki Potorti somehow didn’t work for me (“It sounds like the name of a small-time mobster,” I remarked to my patient fiance as we were standing in line to get our marriage license in Manhattan. Thankfully, he agreed).

What I had done is adopted the name “Nikki” (albeit with a different spelling)right after eighth grade graduation  because I liked the Haley Mills character in “The Moon-Spinners”  It became my legal name when I turned twenty-one.

No one had ever questioned me about it and honestly, I never thought about it. Who was this person from grade school who was inquiring about my name, or rather, my identity?

Instead of answering him directly, I wrote back, “What year did you graduate?” I needed more information.

“You don’t remember me, do you? Tall, thin, brown eyes?”

I didn’t remember…and then I did: P–was briefly my childhood tormenter.

The year I started fourth grade, P–walked home from school when I did and taunted me. He sang out vaguely scatological rhymes that involved my name and a body part. Sometimes he’d make comments about how I thought I was so smart; then he’d go back to making fun of my name again. This went on nearly every day for several months, and while I wasn’t really afraid for my safety, his words hurt more than any stick or brick ever could.

I was a timid nine; afraid of loud noises, dark shadows and confrontation. Yet I didn’t want to tell my parents or my big brother, even though I knew they’d rush to my defense in ways appropriate to a respected lawyer or a pugilistic teenager. There was nothing in place at my school or in my community to help victims of bullying; no support groups or services to which the picked-on could turn. I could have gone to the principal but that would have involved a call to my parents and some sort of notation in my permanent file and I didn’t want either. I briefly considered recruiting my friend’s brother, our local juvenile delinquent, who would have enjoyed administering a beating, I suspect. But I didn’t want him to get in trouble either.  I suffered in silence.

One day, P—was across the street as I walked home, teasing and taunting as usual. I’d had a bad day at school and suddenly, I’d had it. I stopped right where I was and yelled out, “You know what, P–?  You’re a stupid little ninny! That’s all you are; that’s all you’ll ever be! Leave me alone, you stupid ninny, you stupid little…twit!” I practically spat out that last word.

I’m not sure how I came up with “ninny” and “twit”; maybe I was having a Julie Andrews moment. But the words had their desired effect.

P—stopped walking and stood rooted to his spot, staring at me. I stared back at him for a minute, my heart racing wildly. Then I tossed my head in my best princess imitation and walked home. He never bothered me again.

Fifty years later, here he was, my tormentor; the mean little boy who nearly ruined my autumn that year. Here was my opportunity. I could admit I remembered him and I could make sure he understood how miserable he made my nine-year-old self. I wondered fleetingly if he even remembered; maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.

I realized I didn’t care. My nine-year-old self had taken care of my tormenter long before MySpace and Facebook and texting, true; but also before anti-bullying laws and YouTube messages of support, and awareness groups. I had confronted my bully then and I hadn’t thought about him since. No need for a rematch, a reckoning, or a reconciliation.

“Sorry,” I wrote back. “I don’t remember you.”

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