By chance I was in New York City seven months after September 11, and I saw a moment that I still turn over and over in my mind like a puzzle, like a koan, like a prism.
I had spent the day at a conference crammed with uninformed opinions and droning speeches and stern lectures, and by the evening I was weary of it all, weary of being sermonized by pompous authority, weary of the cocksure and the arrogant and the tin-eared, weary of what sold itself as deeply religious but was actually grim moral policing with not the slightest hint of mercy or humility in the air, and I slipped out and away from the prescribed state dinner, which promised only more speeches and lectures.
I was way up on the Upper West Side of the Island of the Manhattoes, near the ephemeral border of Harlem, and as I was in the mood to walk off steam, I walked far and wide—down to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, by the vast Hudson River, and up to Joan of Arc Park, with Joan on her rearing charger, and up to the Firemen’s Memorial on 100th Street. I thought about wandering up to the great old castle church of Saint John the Divine on 112th Street, but by now I was footsore and yearning for beer and I stepped into a bar.
It was that russet hour between evening and night and the bar was populous but not crowded. Most of the people seemed to have stopped by for a beer after work. One table of men in the corner wore the faded coveralls of telephone linemen or public utility workers. Another table of mature women were in the bland dark uniforms of corporate staff. Interestingly, there was a young Marine in glittering full dress uniform at the bar, with two older men I took to be his father and uncle, perhaps; they were laughing and resting their hands affectionately on his shoulders and he was smiling and savoring their hands like they were pet birds he had not had on his shoulders for a long time.
I got a beer and sat in the corner and watched as the bartender, who wore a lovely old-style long bowtie, set a beer in front of the Marine and waved off the uncle’s offer to pay, and his little cheerful gesture made me happy, and I concluded that this would be the gentle, tender, respectful highlight of a day in which there had been very little respect and tenderness, but then the door opened, and two young firemen walked in. They were not in full dress uniform but they had their FDNY shirts on, and I noticed their sturdy work boots, and somehow you could tell that they were firemen and not just guys who happened to be wearing FDNY shirts.
They took a few steps toward the bar, and then something happened that I will never forget. Everyone in the bar stood up, silently. The table of women stood up first, I noticed, and then everyone else stood up, including me. I thought perhaps someone would start to applaud but no one made a sound. The men standing at the bar turned and faced the firemen, and then the young Marine drew himself up straight as a tree and saluted the firemen, and then his father and uncle saluted too, and then everyone else in the bar saluted the firemen. I tell you that there wasn’t a sound in the place, not the clink of a glass or the shuffle of feet or a cough or anything.
After a few seconds one of the firemen nodded to everyone, and the other fireman made a slight gesture of acknowledgment with his right hand, and the bartender set two beers on the bar, and everyone sat down again, and everything went on as before; but not.
Brian Doyle is editor of Portland Magazine and author, most recently, of A Book of Uncommon Prayer.