Transcript

194:

Before and After
Transcript

Originally aired 09.21.2001

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Sarah was at Pier 94 in New York City a couple days ago. It was the place of families of people who had worked in the World Trade Center were going to give DNA samples to police for use in identifying their loved ones. And she was standing in the parking lot.

Sarah

Then I saw this guy walking around basically in a circle, looking at people. And he kept touching his hand to the top of his head, like kind of rubbing the top of his head. And his movements were so strange that I actually thought that maybe he was deranged a little bit. Then the circles got a little bit smaller, and he came closer to where I was.

And then I just realized that he had a flyer pinned to his T-shirt. And the flyer had a picture of this guy, black and white pictures, and some writing on it. And I realized he was somebody's relative.

Ira Glass

He'd been walking all over New York City, posting this flyer over a 40-block area. It had a picture of his father. He'd gone to the Armory. He'd filled out a missing persons report. He tried to reach other people in his father's office on the 93rd floor of the World Trade Center. He'd gone to every hospital. And he'd just given some DNA.

Sarah

So I said, what are you going to-- what do you do now? And he said, I don't know. And he said it like-- not just like, I don't know. But he was like, I don't know where to go. I just-- he just had no idea where to go or what to do. And he couldn't go home. It was like, I think there's a sense like, as long as there's daylight, you should be traipsing around the city, you know, looking for whoever.

And it was still sort of early afternoon, and I could just tell. He just had no idea what to do, physically, with himself. He said, I was walking around over there, and I realized I was literally walking around in circles. And I don't know what to do.

Ira Glass

What's so strange is that it wasn't just people touched so directly by the tragedy who felt that. Don't you feel like we've all been in a little bit of a fog? It's hard to sleep. It's hard to know what to think of things. We want to help somehow, but beyond a few simple things, it is not clear what to do or how to do it.

Walking in circles is such a primal response. A friend who was in Washington Square Park in New York when the World Trade Center buildings collapsed said that a man that he was standing there started walking in circles at that moment, screaming. And maybe it's just me. But before last week, I could have never imagined the feeling that would lead to somebody doing that. But now I can.

In Chicago where I live, when I'm in the car driving around, I find myself obsessively staring at the Hancock Center and the Sears Tower, two buildings that are about as large as the World Trade Center buildings. And I look at them and try to get my mind around the scale of it. About what it means for something so crazily big to come tumbling to the ground. For two of them. Two somethings that big.

Somebody told me that for the first week that this happened, she slept with the radio on because she didn't want to miss the chance that somebody would explain why this happened. And don't you feel this? That no matter how much we've all learned in the last two weeks about Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan and the huge military bases that have been in Saudi Arabia since the Persian Gulf War, bases that people hate our guts for-- and you know, who knew? Who knew?

No matter how many of these facts that we learn about why people in other countries hate us-- facts and facts and facts-- somehow in your gut, don't you have this feeling that it still just doesn't add up? It still does not make sense to you? So you know, we all keep trying.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Our Glass. Today on our program, stories about the news of the last two weeks. About what to make of things now that we've gone from what the world was before to what it is today. We have stories from David Sedaris, from David Rakoff, from Haruki Murakami and from others. Stay with us.

Act One. In The After Of Before And After.

Ira Glass

Act One. In the After of Before and After.

Lynn Simpson is 50 and worked on the 89th floor of 1 World Trade Center for a small company called Strategic Communications, where the entire company was located in that building. They did marketing and communications for financial firms. And although she knows people who died in the attack on the building, the 20 or so people in her company all made it out. She escaped the building with about a minute to spare, and as the first tower collapsed, she was one of the people on the street who got showered with glass and debris and that huge cloud of dust and ash.

She spoke with me from her apartment in Queens. I wanted to talk to her about what she's doing now, and especially what she makes of what happened to her. But we began by reviewing briefly how it is she made it to safety.

Lynn Simpson

Well, there were five of us in the office. We were the early birds. And all of a sudden, there was an enormous crash. And the building actually-- it shook. We could feel it shake. The lights went out. The sprinklers came on. The ceiling came down. The file cabinets fell. Everything started toppling. And smoke immediately filled the entire office.

Ira Glass

On the floor where you were, how many floors were you from where the airplane hit?

Lynn Simpson

I believe the airplane hit either just above or just about the 89th, 90th, 91st floor. The only reason that I'm here, partly, is because the airplane hit on the other side of the building. My office had a view Uptown of the Empire State Building and the Hudson River and the East River. The lights were out. It was smoky, it was dim, and it was getting very hot.

I did try it the emergency stairwell and that door was locked. And we drank water, we covered our noses, and I called my boss, my boyfriend, and my mother.

Ira Glass

What did you say?

Lynn Simpson

I said-- I said to all of them, I'm all right. I don't know what's happened, but I'm all right. And my mother and John, we know me the best-- could hear that my voice was shaking, and I was shaking, and I was afraid. And I told John, I said, the doors are locked. I can't get out. I can't get down the stairway.

A few minutes after that, people knocked on the door, and there were people, men with flashlights, knocking on the door, saying, come out and let's go downstairs. And the doors were opened at that point in time.

Ira Glass

The stairwell that you hadn't been able to get into.

Lynn Simpson

That I had tried before. But then we started down. And about the 83rd floor, we had to cross over. And we crossed over. That floor was devastated. It was pitch black. Full of smoke. The sprinklers were coming down. The ceiling had come down. We had to hold hands to walk across it. And the only light we basically had was one man's cell phone. And we made our way across that to another stairwell.

And then we proceeded down, I believe, to 78. At 78, we had to cross to another set of stairs. And when we crossed on 78, it was as if nothing had happened. The lights were on. No smoke. Air conditioning, carpeting, it was all perfect.

Ira Glass

How strange. That must've been so strange for you all.

Lynn Simpson

It was very peculiar. Very peculiar to go from one extreme to the other. But at 78, we had to make a decision. There were two exit signs. And one, I've since learned that one exit went down to one floor and then stopped. It was just dead. And the other exit, which somebody said, trust me. I know we have to go down this staircase. And we did. We trusted that person and we went down that staircase. And that led us to the bottom.

And then we continued down. We had to move over to the side, because the firemen, in full gear, were coming up. And they started, they met us at about 50, and they started coming up.

And when we got to the plaza level-- the plaza level is the level between the two towers. And there's a fountain out there, and they often use it for concerts. They told us, do not look up. Do not look out. Do not look down. Just keep going. And we need you to hurry. Run. Could you jog?

Ira Glass

I'm sure that in the last week and a half, you must have thought a lot about the fact that you made it and a lot of other people didn't.

Lynn Simpson

Yes.

Ira Glass

What do you think when you think about that? How are you putting that together in your head?

Lynn Simpson

A lot of it has to do, I think, with timing, with luck. There's a small part of me that feels that it was fated. Perhaps there's something else in the world that I'm supposed to do. I don't know. Part of me does feel that, definitely.

Ira Glass

But part of you feels like it's just chance.

Lynn Simpson

Part of me feels like it's chance. I do know that my outlook on life has changed. I know that for me, I'm going to not put off things that I want to do. One of the things that is important to me is horseback riding. It's been important to me since I was seven. And John and I also live in Pennsylvania. And I told the next door neighbor, who is interested in horses, to please go out and find me two horses.

And I also want to spend more time with my family, with my friends. They also sat with the minister-- my sister called the minister-- and they all sat in my mother's living room and, as they said, they watched me die as 1 World Trade Center went down. Because they hadn't heard from me since that nine o'clock phone call. And they said they grieved for about half an hour, until John called and said, I heard from Lynn and she's alive.

Ira Glass

Wow. So for half an hour, they thought you were gone.

Lynn Simpson

Yes. And John also thought I was gone, because he watched the towers go down. And nobody had heard from me. It was impossible to call.

Ira Glass

Where did you finally call them from?

Lynn Simpson

I called them, I was walking across the Williamsburg Bridge and there were two guys walking to my left. And everybody kind of looked at me, because everybody walking with me looked normal. They had obviously been evacuated from their buildings and were leaving the city. I did not look normal. I was dust-covered, filthy, and staring straight ahead.

And they asked me. They heard my story. And he had a cell phone. And I said, may I please use your cell phone? He said, yes. I'm having trouble getting through, but you may use it. So I punched in the number, called John. I did it twice. It didn't go through. He kept hitting redial and redial for about five minutes, and he kept talking as we walked. And all of a sudden he got-- he said, it's ringing, and he handed me the phone.

And I got on the phone, and I said, hi, John. I'm walking across a bridge. And John just screamed. And he told me that he fell on the floor. And he said, you're alive, you're alive, my God, you're alive. And I said, I'm alive. I'm walking across the Williamsburg Bridge. Please call my mother.

Ira Glass

Anybody who's been watching TV has seen the images of the Towers being hit and collapsing over and over and over. So you must have been seeing that as well.

Lynn Simpson

Yes, I saw it. I did decide to watch it. And I did decide to watch it on Wednesday, the day after. I did not watch it on Tuesday night.

Ira Glass

And when you first saw what it was and what it looked like from outside, what did you think?

Lynn Simpson

I was horrified. At the first plane that went in, I counted the floors. And I know that it went in very near my floor. On my floor. It impacted the floor.

Ira Glass

Does it seem more horrible watching the pictures of it and seeing it from the outside than it seemed when you were inside?

Lynn Simpson

Yes. It seems much more horrible from the outside. Because inside, I don't have those images. I have my own images of smoke and flames and dust. But I don't have the image of-- I mean-- of the plane.

And also, I cannot watch the TV with all of the missing people. That truly breaks my heart. And the tears well up.

Ira Glass

Because you feel like, oh, that could have been your family.

Lynn Simpson

Yes. It could have been my family. The fact that John was grieving here in New York and my family was grieving in Pennsylvania with the minister, and they were mourning me because they thought I was dead-- I mean, I can picture that. I can picture them all in their individual places, just mourning me. And my brother packed a black suit, a black tie, and white shirt, and drove to my mother's from New Jersey when he heard. Because he felt that he was going to be going to a funeral or memorial.

Ira Glass

And are you sleeping OK?

Lynn Simpson

Not really. No, not really. I do wake up a lot. And I try and put images out of my mind and go back to sleep. But it's hard. For the first several nights, I would wake up in the middle of the night and just have those images of the Towers in my mind, and the smoke.

And also, that was when I couldn't get the smell out of my hair. The very acrid dust smell. And I just had to get rid of that smell. And it's a smell that I will never forget. And it's a smell that's on my clothes. I have the clothes that I was wearing that day-- my shoes, my socks, my slacks, my top. Even the little, I wear a little thing in my hair which keeps my hair clipped back. And I don't know what to do with them.

Ira Glass

You still have them?

Lynn Simpson

I still have them. I don't know what to do with them. I don't want to throw them away. I don't want to have them cleaned.

Ira Glass

Why don't you want to throw them away or have them cleaned?

Lynn Simpson

I don't know. It's-- I don't know. I just can't quite let go of them. It is a bunch of trash. But it happened to me, and I survived. I just know that I have them in a bag and I keep the bag in a little corner. And I will eventually do something with them, because that's clutter, and clutter is not good. But right now, I just can't do that.

Ira Glass

You know, when you talk about the World Trade Center, you do it in the present tense, as if it's still there. You talk about, there is a fountain, you know--

Lynn Simpson

Yes, yes. I know.

Ira Glass

Do you feel like you fully accept that it really happened, that the buildings aren't there?

Lynn Simpson

Well, I accept it because I have crossed the George Washington Bridge and seen that they're not there. That's the reality. But no. It's almost-- it's surreal. It's not real. It's hard to believe that it's not there. Hard to believe I'm not going to go to work tomorrow.

Ira Glass

So you haven't gone to work in a week and a half, right?

Lynn Simpson

No. Have not. There's no place to go at the moment. The company is going to try and start up again. They are leasing space and looking for computers. Because everything was there in that one office.

Ira Glass

All your records, all your billing, everything.

Lynn Simpson

Absolutely everything.

Ira Glass

People owe you money.

Lynn Simpson

Yes.

Ira Glass

But you have no idea who they are or how much they owe.

Lynn Simpson

That's right. That's true. And we owe people money.

Ira Glass

And then how does that work? Is it some sort of insurance paying for your salary?

Lynn Simpson

Well, it's two things. They they did receive an insurance payment

Ira Glass

Your firm?

Lynn Simpson

My firm, yep. And so they are paying people. The first thing they did was to pay salaries. And the second thing they did was to tell everybody to go out and buy a computer and a printer, and they're going to get everybody company cell phones. Because the company-- they're very anxious to get back to work.

And if I could have bought a computer today, I would have gone out to buy one. But unfortunately, in the New York area, it's very difficult, if not impossible, to find a computer.

Ira Glass

Oh, because all the ones have been bought up by these businesses to restart.

Lynn Simpson

They've been bought up. Every laptop, every desktop has been bought up.

Ira Glass

When do you think you're going to want to go back to work?

Lynn Simpson

Well, I don't know. Probably next week or the week after.

Ira Glass

When you get up in the morning, do you think, oh wait, go to go somewhere, but you don't know where to go?

Lynn Simpson

Yeah, I'm a little startled sometimes when I wake up in the morning. Because I don't set the alarm clock.

Ira Glass

Are you flying a flag?

Lynn Simpson

Oh yes. And the flags are very heartwarming to see. It just makes me happy. It makes me smile.

Ira Glass

I was wondering. When you see a flag, do you feel like it's the rest of us saying to you, you know, you barely made it out and other people's lives are touched in various ways, that we're with you? Like, our hearts are with you?

Lynn Simpson

Yes. And we're together.

Ira Glass

And you're actually feeling it that way. That it's a message from us, to everyone, to you, who just got out, and all the other people whose lives have been touched.

Lynn Simpson

Yes. I do. And it's so many lives that have been touched. It's a good feeling. And it makes me feel as if we're putting aside petty differences and petty things that we all deal with on a day-to-day basis and get annoyed about and are uniting. And it's crossing political parties. It's crossing religious barriers. It's crossing everything. And that's everybody working together.

Ira Glass

Do you want revenge?

Lynn Simpson

No. I think that we, in America, need to understand why America and its way of life is hated so much by so many people. And I think that we need to protect ourselves and our shores and our people before there is retaliation.

Ira Glass

Is there a part of you which feels like, you know, don't do this for me. Like, I was in that building. Don't do it for me.

Lynn Simpson

Yes. I feel like-- this was not a personal attack on me. It was an attack on America.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Well said.

Lynn Simpson

It's not personal. I was an innocent bystander. The people who died were innocent victims. And what I'm saying is, we should not go and retaliate against other innocent victims. It cannot be indiscriminate bombing of Afghanistan or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or any of those other places. It cannot be. That is not right. That should not be what we do.

Ira Glass

Lynn Simpson in Queens, New York.

Act Two. Watching From The River's Edge.

Ira Glass

Act Two. Watching From the River's Edge.

Trying to make sense of what has happened, we have turned for solace and understanding and perspective to look at how people have struggled with other urban disasters. One of our regular contributors, David Rakoff, lives in Manhattan, and tells the story of one that touched a neighborhood close to where he lives.

David Rakoff

Near the north end of Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, a memorial fountain still stands. Erected by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies, it commemorates the fire aboard the steamship the General Slocum in 1904. The conflagration claimed the lives of 1,031 people, mostly women and children from what was then the German immigrant enclave known as Kleindeutschland. A sign near the fountain calls the fire "the worst disaster in the history of New York." In the most painful and horrifying example of this great city's capacity to top itself and exceed all previous expectations, the sign will now have to be changed.

It was on June 15, 1904, by all accounts a perfect day, that some 1,300 members of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church boarded the General Slocum at the 3rd Street Pier for their annual summer picnic. At 9:40 AM, the steamer, named for the Civil War hero Henry J. Slocum began on its way, passing under the Brooklyn Bridge, a mere 21 years old at the time, and headed north, up the East River, to a picnic ground on Long Island Sound.

In the days after the disaster, a minute-by-minute account of what happened on the steamboat was pieced together. At 9:57 AM, a boy noticed smoke seeping from underneath the door of the lower forward cabin. Among the preparations made for the day had been three barrels filled with drinking glasses packed in hay that were stowed there. A discarded match had started them smouldering.

At 10 AM, an inexperienced deckhand opened the door and the embers burst into flames, which spread through the lower hallways and lounges, triggering the panicked escape of the terrified passengers. Another boy ran to tell the captain, William Van Schaick. "Get the hell out of here and mind your own business," he replied, thinking it a prank. He didn't realize it was true until six minutes later, when he looked out his cabin and saw the flames and the burning passengers. By this time it was too late.

The spanking seaworthiness of the Slocum, newly painted and festooned with bunting and flags, was a fiction. The hold was littered with debris. The crew was new and largely untrained and had never practiced a single fire drill. The fire hose, deployed far too late, was useless anyway, the linen having rotted through and splitting along its length immediately.

The lifeboats had been painted fast to the railings of the boat, and what life jackets this could be pulled free from the overhead mesh were over 13 years old. Some tore open like the hose, showering the heads of people with the crumbs of their disintegrated cork filling. Other life jackets held together, but they proved lethal. A woman dropped her daughter over the side wearing one, only to watch her sink like a stone.

All was pandemonium. From the shores of the Bronx and across the river in Queens, people watched, horrified at what was happening just 200 yards away. Some swam in to try and save the scores of people who jumped from the vessel, some on fire, some caught up in the ship's paddle wheels.

The General Slocum fully exploded into flames at 10:06, eventually coming to rest, a burning hulk, on North Brothers island at 10:10. It took less than a quarter of an hour. Among the 1,031 dead, not one crewman, nor the captain.

There were hundreds of funerals that weekend in Kleindeutschland with miles long processions leading the hearses across the river to the Lutheran cemetery in Queens. The owners of the steamship company were prosecuted and fined. The captain, William Van Schaick, was convicted of negligence and manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing. He was paroled after three and a half and pardoned by William Howard Taft on Christmas day of 1911. The boat itself was, unbelievably, salvaged and converted into a cargo barge, which finally sank in the storm near Atlantic City that same year.

Accounts of the horror of June 15 itself are many. There is also a well-preserved transcript of the inquest and trial. By contrast, there are almost no details of the emotional aftermath. The closest that I could find is a posting on the General Slocum website from a woman named Jacquelin Duffy who writes, "My father's family lived on East 5th Street, and according to him, there was not a tenement on that street that did not have at least one crepe at the doorway."

If the need to speak of calamity is human nature, we are also predisposed to suffering our lasting sorrows in silence. There is more than one posting on the website about families that never spoke of the day again. How does one articulate the ongoing sadness of after? An anguish so great that the only recourse for people was to leave forever the buildings and streets that now only held memories of death?

The articles about the General Slocum almost all end the same way. That Kleindeutschland was never the same afterwards. That's the term they use. "Never the same." The German community uprooted itself, resettling on the Upper East Side and in Queens. Some men simply moved back to Germany.

What seems to have scattered the survivors was despair, not economics. The dead were, for the most part, not breadwinners. They were women, grandparents, and children. Half of the victims were under 20 years old.

Today there are bedroom communities on Long Island and the New Jersey-- Manhasset, Montclair, Ridgewood, Summit-- that are missing hundreds of parents, neighbors, and friends. Entire ladder companies of fire stations are gone. Right now, we New Yorkers are being told that our spirits are not broken. That we will rebuild, and we will do it quickly. We would do well to remember, in this time of stalwart rhetoric, that for some people, rebuilding will be harder. It's not for us to say.

If there is a difference in the immediacy of the experience right now between New York City and the rest of the country, there is a far more profound separation within the city itself. Between the people directly affected by the terror and those not. I can count myself lucky to be among the latter, essentially untouched and never more superfluous in my adoptive city than right now. Beyond donating blood or money, I am of about as much use as a Belgian chocolate.

The memorial fountain is a nine foot tall slab of pink Tennessee marble, now quite white with age. In relief are the heads of two children, round-cheeked, angelic in profile, a blossoming branch framing them. "They were earth's purest children, young and fair," it says on the front. About three feet off the ground, a marble lion's head shoots forth a stream of drinking water. If one didn't work around to the side to read the memorial inscription, which has faded with the years, one might easily mistake this fountain for a municipal nicety, its image of the children and the words about them nothing more than a turn-of-the-century paean to the innocence of childhood, perfectly suited to a park where families might take a stroll.

There are countless makeshift altars to Tuesday the 11th all over the city. Clusters of votive candles, flowers, and a heartbreaking, staggering number of fliers with photographs and names of the missing. Tompkins Square Park is no exception, but curiously, there is nothing around the fountain. No one seems to have remembered the fearful symmetry of this spot.

A block away is St. Mark's Lutheran, the church of the Slocum's victims. It is now an Orthodox synagogue, and it is the first day of the Jewish New Year when I walk by. A boy, about eight, runs down the steps and gives a holler. His father comes out after him and calls, "Wait up!" He says it like a schoolyard pal. The boy stops, and his father catches up with him, and they continue down the block.

If you didn't know, it would seem like a perfect day. But of course, you do know, and cannot imagine a day when you won't. Perhaps the only comfort to be taken in all of this, and it is a cold one, is that such a day will come. Such a day is inevitable.

Ira Glass

David Rakoff in New York. He's the author of the book Fraud.

Act Three. Notes From The Underground.

Ira Glass

Act Three. Notes From the Underground.

On our search for events that might somehow eliminate what we've see in New York this week, the staff of the radio show came across a book by the Japanese fiction writer Haruki Murakami. He went out and interviewed survivors of a terrorist attack that happened in a fantastically crowded city during rush hour just six years ago. On March 20, 1995, a radical doomsday cult called Aum Shinrikyo dropped plastic bags of poison gas on the Tokyo subway. The kind of gas they used was called sarin. It is reportedly 26 times as potent as cyanide gas. Over 5,000 people were injured. 12 died.

Murakami interviewed dozens of survivors about what happened and how they got on with their lives afterwards. The English edition of the book is called Underground: the Tokyo Gas Attack in the Japanese Psyche, and he gave us permission to re portions of it here. You'll hear a number of different voices representing different interviewees.

Man 1

I left the house as usual, just after seven. But as luck would have it, the bus was about two minutes early. It was always late, but for once, it was ahead of schedule. I ran for the stop but didn't make it in time, so I had to catch the next bus at 7:30 instead. Looking back, it all started because the bus was two minutes early.

Man 2

I looked up to see this man sitting directly to my left wearing a leather coat. I was still wrapped up in my book, but it really began to get on my nerves. Leather coats often smell funny, don't they? A disinfectant or a nail polish remover kind of smell. This guy stinks, I thought. And I stared him right in the eye. Only he doesn't seem to be looking at me. He just stared back at me with this, you've got a problem, mister? kind of look. He's looking past me to something on my right.

I turned around to look and saw something about the size of a notebook lying at the feet of the second person on my right. It's like a plastic pack. In the news they said it was wrapped in newspaper, but what I saw was plastic, and something spilling out of it.

Man 1

That's when I got a sharp smell of isopropyl alcohol. We use the stuff for wiping clean the glass in our copiers, so I know it very well. I always carry it on the job.

Man 3

It was somehow syrupy sweet. Not unpleasant at all. If it had smelled really bad, everyone would have been in a panic.

Man 1

I felt a strange tickle in my throat. You know when your dentist gives you anesthetic and it's seeping back into your throat? Just like that.

Man 2

So that's what's making the place smell, I thought. But I still just sat there. Soon everyone was saying, open the windows, it stinks. So they all opened the windows. I remember thinking, it's so cold. Can't you just put up with the smell?

Woman 1

I stood at the front, next to the driver's compartment, holding the handrail by the door. Then when I took a deep breath, I got this sudden pain. Really it was like I'd been shot or something. All of a sudden my breathing completely stopped. Like if I inhaled anymore, all of my guts would be spilling right out of my mouth. Everything became a vacuum.

It seems kind of odd, but I thought, just maybe my granddad's died. He lived up north and was 94 years old at the time. I'd heard he'd been taken ill, so maybe this was a kind of sign. That was my first thought. Maybe he died or something.

Man 1

Then suddenly I heard a woman scream. A loud, piercing squawk like a parrot. At least I think it was a woman. It came from outside the car. What now? I thought. But the platform was so crowded, I couldn't see anything from inside the train.

Suddenly my eyesight went funny, as if I were seeing fireworks or something. Odd, I thought. Then ten seconds later, my eyes blacked out totally. It was a bright, clear day, then out of nowhere, this curtain descended and I couldn't see a thing.

Woman 2

The train went above ground for awhile, and for some reason, the sky was dark, as if it were black and white, or sepia, just like an old photograph. That's odd, I thought. Today was supposed to be sunny.

Man 1

My legs started to feel shaky. My eyes stopped working. Suddenly, it was as if night had fallen. Damn, I thought. I should've stayed back there with the others.

Man 2

I moved from strapped to strap until I reached the pole near the door. Finally I stepped off the train, my hand out ready to catch myself at the far wall of the platform. I remember thinking, if I don't make it to the wall and crouch down, I'm going to fall and hit my head. Then I blanked out.

Actually, I hadn't left the train. I grabbed the stainless steel pole and just slid down to the floor. What I thought was a wall was in fact the floor of the car, which felt chilly to my right hand. They ran a photo of me in the tabloids so I could see later what happened.

Man 1

I couldn't see. I couldn't run. It couldn't have been far, but I tripped on something and fell. I'm going to die like this, I thought. It'd be pathetic to die like this. When I was six, I nearly drowned swimming in a river, and I remember thinking, saved back then only to go blind and die like this? I just didn't want to die. Not there. Not like that.

Man 4

I phoned the office to tell them, I have to be hospitalized for I don't know how many days. I'm sorry to trouble you. But could you tidy up my desk?

Man 5

I'd been right at the epicenter. But instead of shuddering at the death toll, I felt like I was watching a program on TV. As if it were someone else's problem. It was only much later that I began to wonder how I could have been so callous. I ought to have been furious, ready to explode. It wasn't until the autumn that it really sank in, little by little.

Man 6

I'd just got back from a ten-day business trip to South America. Strange, you know. While I was in South America, I was invited out to karaoke by someone from the Japanese embassy in Colombia. Then I almost went back the next day to the same place. But I said, no, let's try somewhere new. And that very day, the place got bombed. I remember thinking when I got back home, at least Japan's a safe place. And the next day I go to work and the gas attack happens. What a joke.

Man 7

Afterwards I probably went a little funny in the head. I went around telling people, something's out there. You'll see. Something strange is going to happen. I was buying survival gear camping stores. After I came back to normal, I thought, what a fool I've been. But at the time, I was deadly serious. Now, what am I going to do with a survival knife?

Man 1

Right after the attack, I was insane with anger. I was pacing the hospital corners, pounding on the columns and walls. At that point, I still didn't know it was Aum. But whoever it was, I was ready to beat them up.

I didn't even notice, but several days later, my fist was sore. I asked my wife, why does my hand hurt so much? And she said, you've been punching things, dear.

Woman 3

Of course I was furious. But to tell the truth, stronger than any anger now is the feeling that I just don't want to remember anymore. Between the time I was hospitalized and the time I was sent home, I wanted to know everything that had happened. I was devouring the news on TV, but now I can't stand it. I changed the channel. I don't ever want to see another image of the gas attacks.

The question I hate being asked most of all is, do you have any aftereffects? I just can't bear anyone asking me that. Although my dislike of being asked if there are aftereffects might itself be a kind of aftereffect.

Woman 1

I'd just like to know what the criminals thought they were doing. I demand a full explanation and an apology. I'd absolutely insist on it. I might easily have died there. I do you think about that. I'm still nervous going out alone. It's not even whether to take the subway. Just to go out walking scares me now.

Man 8

I live alone now, but at the time I had a family. A wife and kids. Sorry drag out the sordid details.

To be honest, the day after the gas attack, I asked my wife for a divorce. We weren't on the best of terms at the time and I'd done my fair share of thinking. Still, even after all I'd been through, she would barely speak to me.

After being gassed, I phoned home from the office to tell my wife what had happened and my symptoms and everything, but I got almost no reaction from her. Perhaps she couldn't really grasp the situation-- exactly what had occurred. But even so, I knew then that we'd come to a turning point. Or else the state I was in had gotten me all worked up.

Maybe that's what it was. Maybe that's why I came straight out with it and said, I wanted a divorce. Perhaps if the sarin thing hadn't happened, I wouldn't have been talking about divorce so soon. I probably wouldn't have said anything. It was a shock to the system, and at the same time, a kind of trigger.

My family had been in such a mess for so long that by then, I didn't consider myself very important. Not that the possibility of dying wasn't real. But had I died, I probably could have accepted it, in my own way, as just a kind of accident.

For a while after the gas attack I felt like throwing everything away. I'm generally good at holding onto things. I still have my plastic pencil case from elementary school. But I wanted to toss everything out. It was like nothing's worthwhile anymore. I even felt like giving away my most precious Bonsai.

Man 6

After the gas attack, I had terrible nightmares. The one I remember best was a dream in which someone pulled me out of my bed next to the window and dragged me around the room. Or I turned and suddenly saw someone standing there who was supposed to be dead. Yeah, I often met dead people in my dreams.

Man 4

Afterwards I wasn't scared to travel on the subway. No bad dreams, either. Maybe I'm just dull-witted and thick-skinned. But I do feel it was fate. Usually I don't go through the first door nearest the front. I always use to second, which would put me downwind of the sarin. But that day and that day only, I took the first door for no special reason. Pure chance.

Ira Glass

Excerpts from Haruki Murakami's interviews with survivors of the Tokyo gas attack collected in his book Underground. Our readers included Richard Henzel, [? Scott Jacques, ?] Jennifer Angstrom, Gary Brichetto, Richard Brown, Elizabeth Rich, Evelyn Friedman, Rick Peoples, Todd Bachmann, and Justin Kaufmann. Thanks to Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and to Erica Daniels for helping us find the readers.

Coming up. David Sedaris writes about the news. In a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Four. Far From Home.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose some topic, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that topic. Today's program, stories trying to make sense of things in the aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, as our country heads towards war.

We've arrived at act four our show. Act Four. Far From Home.

David Sedaris lives in Paris, France with his boyfriend Hugh, which is where they've been following the news over the last two weeks.

David Sedaris

Living as a foreigner in another country, you learn that your welcome can turn on a single newspaper headline. Like the dollar, public opinion fluctuates between one extreme and another. So when the exchange is good, you try to stock up, knowing that tomorrow, anything could happen.

Hugh and I recently moved, and in the days following the attacks on New York and Washington, each of our new neighbors came to introduce themselves and offer their sympathy. Are your friends all right? Your family? Do you need anything? Shopkeepers heard my accent and sometimes went so far as to touch my hand-- a gesture no less shocking than a full-frontal bear hug. Businessmen and widows from the embassy offering their beds to Americans stuck at the airport. And at noon on the official day of mourning, pedestrians stopped in their path and cars pulled off the road to observe the three minutes of silence. I stored it up.

People started leaving flowers in the little park across the street from the American embassy. And it was genuine until the TV cameras arrived, at which point it became self-conscious. The planes move in, the towers collapse, and people react with heartfelt shock and horror. You cry because you're sad and frightened, and then, before you know it, the images are repeated in slow motion with the Samuel Barber soundtrack and a close-up photograph of a singed Teddy bear. Then you cry because somebody's making you, and you wind up feeling confused and manipulated, like your own feelings weren't quite good enough, and you needed professional help.

Two days after the attack, my friend Kristin and I attended a service at the American Church. Unlike the service held the previous afternoon at the American Cathedral, this was a media event, attended by the mayor of Paris, the prime minister, and President Chirac. The church was small and half the pews were cordoned off for members of parliament and the American diplomatic corps, who swept in from the rain under heavy security. The line for the rest of us stretched around the corner and down the street, and for every American, there were two journalists with cameras and microphones asking how we felt The instinct was to say that oh, aside from a slight sore throat, you felt pretty good, but of course, you just couldn't.

The service was broadcast on television, so although it was an American church, the sermon was delivered in French with short speeches given by a minister, a rabbi, and a Muslim cleric. It was all very tasteful, but failed to satisfy the 200 or so Americans who'd come with a sudden desire to be with their people. It's different for visiting tourists, but the Americans who actually live here go to great lengths to avoid one another. Now we wanted to hang out and share our emptiness, but it wasn't on the program.

The service ended, and just as the last politician filed out of the room, a man on the balcony started singing "God Bless America." It's a song I always associated with homeroom and high school sporting events, but under the circumstances, and on foreign soil, the lyrics became significant. The man started singing, and little by little, the rest of us joined in. The couples with bilingual children, the college students, the nannies, and across the aisle, soprano Jessye Norman, who placed her hand over her heart and sang as if she were just a normal shattered woman, rather than an opera star.

The thing about "God Bless America" is that after a certain point, nobody seems to know the words. "Stand beside her and guide her" is almost always followed by a prolonged mumbling that lasts until we reach the mountains and prairies. Then there's that strange bit about the oceans white with foam, which is odd in that it's not in any way a national phenomenon. Lots of countries have foam. They just don't talk about it.

What killed me-- what killed us all-- was the very end. "My home sweet home." Because regardless of what we tell ourselves, Paris is not our home. It's just a place where we have our apartments and furniture. If it were our home, we'd have wanted to stay put, rather than catch the next flight back to New York or Kansas or wherever our family sat helpless in front of their televisions.

I worry here that in mentioning this moment, I only served to destroy it. To package what had felt genuine and pure. The days pass and I can no longer separate what I'm feeling from what I'm watching people feel on TV. Am I supposed to cry now? Am I supposed to feel proud, to feel pity? Everyone I talk to says the same thing. Tell us what to do and we'll do it.

I'm told that in the United States, these loose feelings are being corralled towards retribution. But the French news is different. It doesn't point you one way or another. Rather, it just fills you up. I'm not seeing Bin Laden on an FBI wanted poster. I'm seeing him smiling amongst this comrades. And for the first few moments, I'm always mistaking him for Cat Stevens.

The BBC has offered exhaustive coverage, but in the absence of breaking news, they, too have brought out their teddy bears. I heard that the survivors will need counseling. I heard that the rescue workers will need counseling. And then I heard that even the people who reportedly watched it on TV should consider talking to a professional. Now I'm hearing that our politicians need counseling. Although they're constantly surrounded by other people, the experts said, presidents can often feel terribly alone. It would be a lot easier if the terrorists sought counseling, but it's not going to happen.

I don't understand how any of this offers the slightest bit of hope or comfort. But like everything else, I store it up.

Ira Glass

David Sedaris is the author of Me Talk Pretty One Day and other books.

Act Five. U.s.a., Me-s.a.

Ira Glass

Act Five. USA, Me-SA.

There's so many flags waved right now. But the trouble with the flag is that when it's waved, it can be waved for any of a number of different reasons. In the first day or two after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it seemed to me that the American flags all were being waved as a kind of act of mourning. It felt like, OK, we're all in this together.

And then in the days followed, as the president and other figures started to say that there's going to be a war, but without actually laying out any particular plans or details for what that war would be-- waving a flag started to feel like, it started to be like you were giving a red, white, and blue blank check to them to do whatever they wanted. I think, like a lot of people, speaking for myself, anyway, I wanted to hear a plan first before I cheered it on. It made me uneasy, all the flags, because of that.

I think there's a deeply American ideal of, you know, all of us banding together and doing what has to be done. And then there's an ideal which is exactly the opposite and just as deep as a tradition, which is to be completely skeptical of government and its intentions at all time. And like a lot of other patriotic people, I think I felt torn between the two.

Now, of course, the president has declared his intentions in his speech before Congress. But the flag still means different things to different people. A case in point. Here on Chicago's Southwest Side, every night during the week after the terrorist attacks, hundreds of cars jammed one particular neighborhood, honking and waving flags. Shirley Jahad went down there as part of the news team for WBEZ, The Public Radio station where we do our radio show from.

Shirley Jahad

The location where they are right here is right in the midst of one of the biggest Arab-American communities in the region, and it's a block or so away from one of the bigger mosques in the region. The Bridgeview Mosque, yeah. So it takes on a whole different edge, the shouting of "USA, USA," by virtue of where they are and who they're surrounded by.

Ira Glass

Are there flags?

Shirley Jahad

Flags are everywhere. They're waving their flags out the window, they're draped over the back of the cars. There's people standing in the streets with these huge flags. Mostly all these people are youths. You know, young men. And so the groups of Arab-Americans are chanting back, "USA, USA. Yeah! USA USA."

Ira Glass

So each side is chanting USA?

Shirley Jahad

So at some point, it was as if it were the Sharks and the Jets or something. I mean, each side on one side of the street, the Arab-Americans on one side of the street, the Anglo-Americans on the other side, all waving flags and all screaming at the top of their lungs "USA! USA! USA!" Some people are sort of spitting it, and some people are, you know? And then there's people driving by in the middle of the street with the flags and the horns.

Ira Glass

And they're all chanting the same thing.

Shirley Jahad

And they're all shouting the same thing.

Ira Glass

But they mean something completely different when each of them shouts USA, USA, more or less.

Shirley Jahad

They mean completely different things. The white guys, when they're shouting USA, USA, they're basically saying, this is my country, and we want you out of here. You get out.

Man 1

We're sick of the Arabians being here and we want them out of our country. Simply put they're screwing everything up, and they're taking all our money. And I think you can see the degradation in the neighborhoods that were once flourishing.

So basically this is a message for all the Arabs out there. You can just pack up and get your damn towels on the damn plane, right now.

Man 2

This was my land before it was theirs. I'm not going nowhere.

Shirley Jahad

What if they were born here?

Man 2

Well, I don't give a [BLEEP] whether they were born here or not. Their ancestors weren't born there.

Shirley Jahad

And so that means what?

Man 2

So that means they came here. America let them in. And they [BLEEP] bombed the World Trade Center.

Man 3

Did you know my father served in the Korean War and I'm a Palestinian?

Ira Glass

Now Shirley, who is this guy?

Shirley Jahad

This is an Arab-American guy, a Palestinian guy, who was leaving the mosque and he drove upon the scene.

Man 3

My grandfather served in World War II. Can you believe that? We're in 2001. This should not be happening.

Shirley Jahad

You know, what was really interesting was the young man who said, you know, this is our country and we want them out of here, moments after he says this to me, he starts-- he continues shouting "USA, USA," and he's waving a flag. And then someone hands them a really, really big flag. It's a flag it takes two people to hold. So he's holding one end, and another white guy is holding the other end.

But in the crush of the crowd, somehow the other end of the flag gets transferred to another young man, and the other person is an Arab-American. Now here's the white guy and the Arab-American and they're both holding the same American flag. And--

Ira Glass

And is there a moment where they look up and each realize, where the white guy looks up and sees, oh?

Shirley Jahad

Definitely. And the white guy is completely at a loss as to what to do, because he's put in this perplexing situation. He's holding Old Glory, and he can't let go, but he's holding it with an Arab-American. So he starts, like, holding it as if he's holding it with tweezers, like with just two fingers, and now he's trying to pass it off to somebody else. He can't drop it. He can't let go of it. Because it's the flag. So he's got to hold it. So he holds it, and after a while, they walked together.

Ira Glass

Down the street?

Shirley Jahad

Not for long. But they did walk together, and they actually started a conversation.

Ira Glass

That conversation being, let go of the flag?

Shirley Jahad

So I don't know how far they got.

Ira Glass

WBEZ's Shirley Jahad.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by our senior producer, Julie Snyder, and myself with Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr, Jonathan Goldstein, and Starlee Kine. Contributing editors Susan Burton, Rebecca Carroll, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin and Alix Spiegel, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Nancy Updike and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Diane Cook. Musical help for Mr. John Connors and Mr. Steve Cushing. Hi, Steve.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who this week is mute. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.