MAXWELL:  A slow return to normal after tragedy

9/19/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



The garbage truck came a few minutes ago. I walked to the window and watched the giant arm grab my plastic can and dump the contents into a huge container.

I was relieved.

Life had returned to a semblance of normality.

After the truck disappeared, I spread a measured amount of sunflower seed on my walkway. Within a few minutes, at least two dozen doves _ both Eurasian Collared-Dove and Ringed Turtle-Dove _ had come for their morning feeding. I had not fed them since the World Trade Center imploded exactly a week earlier.

I had not felt like driving to the store to buy food for mere birds. Suddenly, that simple act seemed senseless _ absurd, wasteful. But now that the birds are back, their squabbling over the seed and their familiar cooing are soothing and reassuring.

As I walked and drove around my Coquina Key neighborhood, I looked for signs that people have realigned the currents of their daily existence. As a writer, especially as a journalist, I am keenly aware of some of the differences between how public figures, especially elected officials, and average Joes and Marys live and cope with tragedy _ especially shared national tragedy.

I coped by writing, not just by working on my columns but also by working on my screenplay at night. One of my favorite teachers at the University of Chicago told my class that to one degree or another, everyone is neurotic. Artists have a safety valve: their art.

Indeed, the process of making art is therapeutic. Each night, after putting aside my work for the St. Petersburg Times, I plunged into the fictional world of my characters. They seemed more real than the world of tragic events bombarding me hour after hour on television.

Reading also helped me pull through. During the last eight days, I read four screenplays, the diary of writer/actor David Hare and a biography of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

A lawyer friend of mine coped in another way. She stayed to herself and cried a lot. She said she cried until the pain was gone. She also telephoned friends who felt passionately about the tragedy but who had thought about it dispassionately. She is back at work and performing like her old self.

A friend in New York’s SoHo area who is a documentary filmmaker overcame by going down to ground zero day after day and shooting untold yards of footage. He does not know what he will do with the film. “I had to shoot,” he said. “I didn’t know any other way to make sense of things. No, not make sense of things, but to give sense to why I needed to be there.”

He has worked in some of the world’s most troubled spots _ where, each day, human carnage lies just around the corner or in a mass grave in the nearest field. He has sold footage to prestigious news outlets. None of these experiences prepared him, the most intrepid photographer I know, for the twin towers massacre.

“My work will never be the same,” he said. “My life sure won’t.”

For me, one of the most interesting barometers of a community’s recovery from crises like the World Trade Center attacks are public school bus stops. During the afternoon of the tragedy, I watched the kids at Coquina Key’s various bus stops.

Children who normally hung around for a few minutes to shoot the bull, horse around or instigate fights promptly walked home, or their parents were waiting for them. Not until Monday did I see life at the stops return to a hint of normalcy.

Two boys on my street who bully a few other kids are back to their bullying ways. The kids, mostly black girls, who dare traffic to hit them, have resumed their tough-gal poses.

Other school-related antics have returned to my neighborhood. The kids who try to, and do, steal from the 7-Eleven are up to their tricks again. The ones who hang out at the coin laundry are back to lounging on the machines and chilling on the tables.

As for my workplace, the Times newsroom, things started getting back to normal rather quickly. In this pressure-packed environment, where we report the news for everyone else’s consumption, mourning has a short shelf life. The very act of serving the public forces journalists out of themselves and into the lives of others.

Grief is grief. But ours is a place of movement, column inches, picas, compelling headlines, page-turning leads, correctly spelled words, deadlines. Copy must be written. Photographs must be shot. The presses must roll.