The Numbers of the Day
September 11, 2015 § 27 Comments
A guest post from Steven Church, marking the day:
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.
Congrats…for being freshly pressed
Thoughtful post. Thank you for giving us something to ponder. I liked the comparisons of numbered events.
Handsome … 🙂
2977 gassed geese, 2996 dead human beings. Are you saying it’s all relative? how about the grieving relatives of the 2996 dead? How many of them are there?
I was trying to write a brief, essayistic and digressive meditation on my thinking during my visit, one year ago, to NYC, hopefully showing how it moved from looking up facts about Prospect Park to a consideration of the weight of numbers and how they identify us and this day. Not trying to dismiss or equate or say anything is relative, by any means. For me, it’s an essay about the coincidence of facts as much as anything. The number of grieving relatives is, perhaps, another loss that can’t be fully calculated or understood. Hope I didn’t offend in any way.
Reblogged this on wtcbank.
Things to ponder that are not quite linked and yet….I liked the last two paragraphs especially, somehow. An interesting perspective. My post today on 9/11 was very different with visceral, unedited feeling. I could find no logical balance even now but that doesn’t mean that I find your post any less valid. Thanks.
This is a powerful post, I can feel the grief and sadness associated with this piece. Moreover, the analogy of gassing the geese and lives lost is beautiful! An amazing narrative to capture the sad feel of article!
Regards, Chaitanya Haram 🙂
This is such a unique and an interesting post to read. I really love the observations here!
Check out my blog if you like this pointsoftwo.wordpress.com!
Time, space and numbers does seem to be the way we are most comfortable organizing information that is overwhelming. Good post!
[…] Source: The Numbers of the Day […]
I enjoy how out of place and almost dismissive your voice is in mentioning splarge, and then the geese, and then the numerical comparison. That kind of approach seems to make a connection for those who feel disconnected or like the pain or importance of this date is discounted.
Perhaps the most traumatic incident of the era . Losses are irrecoverable. Pains, changrin and disbelief are recorded in numericals
A great read, thanks.
Very nice… I enjoyed reading the the thoughtful reflections you captured. Thank you.
nice post……….literally liked it…….i also enjoyed it …:)
Thank you Steven for this powerful essay. What a fine exploration of the day that changed everything for all of us.
Enjoyable read, thanks
Really interesting observations, love the numbers theme.
I had no idea they killed all those geese simply because they were doing what they were born to do – fly.
Very nice post. Really interesting.
What a phenomenal account and brilliant discourse.
Great thought ..with numbers ..