The Numbers of the Day
September 11, 2015 § 27 Comments
The date was Sept. 11, 2014 and I’d just left the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn after watching the 11:30 sea lion show. Not far away, across the Hudson River, in Manhattan, thousands of other people were celebrating the 13th anniversary of the attacks on 9/11. Celebrating is not the right word. Remembering. Grieving. Thinking. Trying to contain it in some way. And if collective thought has a weight, like barometric pressure, it seemed as if I could feel the memories hanging in the air that day like a rain that wouldn’t fall; people were quieter, the world a little slower and more patient, perhaps. Or maybe this is just the meaning I stitched to that day in the fabric of my memory.
After the zoo, I walked down and around the block, past the Brooklyn Library with its impressive edifice, and found a café where I could have a beer and a pork sandwich and use the café’s free wi-fi service to catch up on my facts about Prospect Park.
Many people remember, for example, the “Miracle on the Hudson,” on Jan. 15, 2009 when Captain Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River after slamming into a flock of Canadian geese shortly after take-off from LaGuardia Airport.
Not as many people, perhaps, remember that the geese had come from Prospect Park. And fewer people know that “snarge” is the word for the residue left on a plane or in its engine after an encounter with a bird. I didn’t know this, or that snarge can clog an airplane engine and, if there’s enough snarge, it can disable the engine permanently. Nor did I know that, one year later, in response to the snarge-related Miracle on the Hudson, federal authorities would authorize the capture and gassing of 1,235 Canadian geese in New York City parks, four hundred of them alone from Prospect Park. Authorities also suffocated 1739 goose eggs by coating their shells with corn oil.
I sat in that café and read the stories and did the math and thought, that’s a lot of dead birds. In all 2,974 geese or eggs were exterminated during the program. Next I looked up the official number of dead in the 9/11 attacks: 2996. A difference of twenty-two. The dead geese alone, if we assume an average weight on the low end of seven pounds, would weigh 8,645 pounds, or almost four-and-a-half tons.
A woman sitting across from me was reading a medical terminology textbook, scribbling notes, and occasionally talked to herself, mumbling the music of her discipline. She existed there, in the bustling middle of this world, and seemed to be studying for a test.
This world is full of tests, I thought, and troubling facts that can’t always be calculated, tallied with numbers in the margins. I thought about the weight of grief and the weight of loss and about the other side of miracles. I thought about my children, 2,922 miles away and how, the day before, my son had texted me to tell me that his bus was running late, expecting me to be there for him, and how I had to remind him that I wouldn’t be there, that his grandparents would pick him up.
“I’m in New York,” I said.
“Oh, right. I forgot,” he said, pausing for a moment. “You’re just usually here.”
That day, thirteen years ago, isn’t even a word. We don’t have language to contain the loss. We can barely name it, label it, or control it.
That day is a number. A collection of numbers. Code for a loss we cannot fully calculate.
Numbers dead. Numbers wounded. Numbers gassed or greased. Number of years at war. Numbers saved. My son, thirteen years old now, has never lived in a country that wasn’t at war.
That day in 2014 I felt the sinking weight of all the numbers that define us—phone numbers, social security numbers, confirmation numbers, account numbers, PIN numbers, patient numbers, and mileage numbers.
After lunch, I stopped to sit on a bench in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Briefly, reluctantly, the cloudy quilt of sky opened up and rained, but only for a few minutes, just enough to break the grip of humidity over the city. The people picnicking on the lawn had just started to scramble for cover when the rain seemed to rise back up into the clouds and hang in the air like a beaded curtain, waiting to part again and finally, softly fall.
Steven Church is the author of four books of nonfiction, most recently the collection of essays, Ultrasonic. His work has been published in Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and elsewhere. He’s a founding editor of the literary magazine, The Normal School, and teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.