[Second of a series. Part 1 here.]
My connections to 9/11 are many. In the 1980s and early 90s, I lived in the Jersey City neighborhood which was home to the al-Qaeda cell of Sheik Rahman, although I didn't know that at the time. His Masjid al-Salaam occupied the second floor above a storefront in Journal Square two blocks from my home, next to the A&P where I sometimes bought my groceries. I walked by that mosque every day to get to and from the PATH train via which I traveled to New York. In my naivite, I used to look up through the windows at the ceiling fans of the "mosque of peace" and imagine pious worshipers below them meditating and praying. The idea that they were planning mass murder was the farthest thing from my mind.
I later found out that the small grocery store on Sip Ave. -- the store where I bought pita bread and olives and where I discussed with the owner the difference between the regular feta and the triple cream -- was likely a focal point of that al-Qaeda cell. I discovered that in increments. First, during the news coverage of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing when the man with whom I had discussed the finer points of feta cheese was pictured in the local news at the right hand of the white-bearded, white-robed and Rayban-wearing blind sheik, escorting him to some public event. I more fully made this connection after 9/11 when local newspapers reported that the apartments in the building in which the grocery store was located had almost completely emptied out after 9/11, with dozens of residents mysteriously departing leaving behind furniture and positions.
I had noticed some odd things about that grocery for years -- things which I explained in ways familiar to a third generation Jersey City native. To be specific, the grocery was located a half-block from the building where I lived and was visible from the front of my building. I very frequently saw drivers pull up in front of the store, park illegally, and run inside for transactions which took seconds to complete. My assumption, as a resident of that notoriously mobbed up community, was that the store was running a numbers racket, selling drugs, or both. I've come to believe that it was instead a transit point for information about al-Qaeda activities, or the site of a hawala banking operation, or both.
There were other signs. Rahman's gang that couldn't bomb straight got caught because they incredibly tried to collect the deposit they had put on the van they blew up with a homemade bomb in the WTC basement parking garage. That act of criminal genius resulted in the gang, including it's leader, getting busted. Immediately after Rahman's arrest, his followers organized a massive demonstration outside the Masjid al-Salaam, closing off my entire neighborhood to traffic, and filling it with angry, shouting faces. I remember walking on my block that day, and coming face to face with a bearded man who looked at me with a rage I can scarcely describe other than to say that he had murder in his eyes. How accurate that observation was would become clearer eight years later.
And there were other signs. There was the summer day when, as I walked by the window of a ground floor apartment on my block, a breeze gently blew aside a curtain and revealed a poster showing a masked jihadi brandishing an assault rifle. Around the corner, on Kennedy Boulevard, there was the store featuring racks bearing Arabic magazines with grossly anti-Semitic cover art. There were also the warnings of my Egyptian and Lebanese friends in the neighborhood that there were dangerous people living among us. I wrongly took their lack of more specific information to be evidence that their concerns were not well-founded. Boy, was I ever wrong. They knew more about that neighborhood than I did.
It hadn't always been so. Jersey City had been very familiar territory. It was the place of my birth and early years, the home of my grandparents. Journal Square was the site of my earliest movies and restaurant meals, departure point of my trips to the New York of my early childhood back in the mid-60s. It was where my dad and my grandfather had their offices. I thought that I knew the place. In 1981, after college, I moved to the Journal Square neighborhood because it was familiar, very convenient to New York City, and cheap. Since the time of my childhood, the skyline of Manhattan had been permanently changed (or so we thought) by the two huge towers which were visible even from the other side of Kennedy Boulevard, well over the crest of the hill on which Journal Square sits. Those towers dominated the skyline of that neighborhood. The neighborhood's residents had changed too, from Italians and Irish, to Arabs and South Asians. For a very small group of those new residents, those twin towers came to represent something the rest of us living there couldn't begin to imagine: a target of their rage at the non-Muslim world.
For about a year in the mid-80s I worked in the then still somewhat gritty neighborhood which had just been renamed by the real estate industry as Tribeca. Before that, it had been known as Washington Market, and was the home to countless print shops and warehouses most of which looked like they had been built in the Civil war era. My work hours generally ended at 9 PM, so the view of the illuminated and cloud shrouded towers as I walked to the PATH train station became my nightly beacon. In that year, I became increasingly familiar with the towers and began to associate them with something good -- my trip home after a work day.
One of my coworkers at that time worshiped at the Tribeca sufi mosque and meditation center started by Lex Hixon. I call it a mosque, but it would better be described as a meditation or even yoga center, at least to create the proper image of what the place looked like. It was a clean, simply but brightly decorated place with a bookstore/entrance area in front and a large room without furniture in the back. A friendly young woman with a clipboard checked in members as they came for worship or meditation. Later I would buy Lex's great book Heart of the Koran at his mosque's bookstore. That congregation morphed into the congregation that was slated to fill move into the Islamic cultural center planned for two blocks north of the World Trade Center. (In case there is any doubt about this, let me make clear that, whereas that congregation was part of that neighborhood for more than a decade, its bigoted opponents were not.)
Later, I worked for more than a decade just a block away from the towers. I bought my morning papers and coffee there. I frequently ate lunch, and shopped for books and clothing there. I bought the guide books and maps that my wife and I used on our honeymoon in August 2001 at the Borders there. The arcade level of the World Trade Center became a very familiar part of my daily and even my nightly landscape. In the aftermath of 9/11, I had nightly dreams that I was in a ghostly version of that arcade, walking with ghosts among the empty stores in a state of mind I can only describe as silent terror. I woke up from those terrible dreams wet with tears and sweat.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote here about my some of my experiences on 9/11. I think I only got to the point when the towers collapsed, at which point I was near Canal Street, escaping from disaster with two other evacuees: a coworker and friend who has a crippled hip and who can only walk half-step by half-step, and another coworker who had a child in the daycare center at the World Trade Center, and who had not yet located her child. We were unable to travel to our homes because the subways to Brooklyn had stopped running. On our journey walking north away from the smoke and toward subways we thought might be running, we saw some incredible things I'd like to share with you sometime soon. I hope you won't be too bored by 9/11 by that time.
I'm writing these posts on the fly with little time to reflect. I think that's better because over-thinking will just stop me from posting them. Reader feedback would be appreciated.