To Boston, with Love

I'm supposed to write a blog entry today, but I just can't concentrate. I had the television on all day while I was organizing what handmade jewelry I plan to sell at the upcoming Bust Craftacular. The big news was the falling price of gold... until two explosions at the site of the Boston Marathon became wall-to-wall coverage of pictures we know all too well.

I lived in New York City when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center. I watched from the roof of my daughter's middle school, standing next to the principal, as thick chains of black smoke filled the sky around the bottom of Manhattan. He asked me to stay for the morning because his 11 years of experience told him that parents would swarm the school to take their children out of the building, to have them close to them. They would be rocked to their core. And he was correct, for hours I matched "blue cards" with emergency contact information to the adults that flooded the main office, asking to pull a son or daughter or niece or grand daughter out of class.

I spent the afternoon with a young lady from a special education class, distraught and inconsolable, who said her father and brother worked at the World Trade Center. Due to the nature of her disability, no one knew if this was true. I held her like she was my own child. What if my own daughter was in that same position? Would someone comfort her? The girl's aunt picked her up around 4 pm. The next time I saw the two of them was at her father's funeral. Only her brother had made it out alive.

I've never told this story to anyone, but the next day I felt compelled to do something and the something I did was look in the Yellow Pages for where I could find small American flags, the kind that people wave at parades. I went to the store that sold them, and asked how many they had.

"I can give you a thousand," the sales woman said.  I thought for a minute. That seemed like an awful lot. "I'll take 900," I said, which was ludicrous. Really, what's the difference between 900 and 1,000? I get shivers now just thinking about it.

I brought the flags back to my neighborhood and stood on the corner, speechless. People saw me with them and came up to me, asking "how much?"

"One dollar," I said, "and it will all be donated."

When drivers started getting out of their cars at the red light to run up to me and get a flag, I knew that this was something I was going to have to somehow continue. Not even the Senegalese traders who traffic in counterfeit purses had the flags. The Senegalese have been the world's premiere traders for centuries and to think that my thought process was 24 hours ahead of them is a badge of pride I'll wear forever.

When I went to get more flags, the sales woman I met said there was no longer a single flag available on the Eastern seaboard, and you know what I thought? Should have taken the 1,000.

This is the kind of crazy I am. But I am also creative, so I went to a fabric store and this time I learned my lesson: I bought 6,000 yards of red, white and blue grosgrain ribbon and 10,000 safety  pins. I started cutting the ribbon into 6" pieces and flipped it into the popular style worn on lapels, fastened with a safety pin. I ripped up a Nike box and covered it with articles about 9/11 from the newspaper. When the box was full, I would go out to talk to people about what had happened, to share stories and bear witness. There was a cup for a quarter donation. Most people left a dollar.

The workers at Ground Zero wanted donations of tube socks. As they worked on the site, their socks got thick with dust and mud and clean socks were important to them. We wanted to buy the socks wholesale, so we went to the wholesale district and some 36,000 ribbons later, had donated too many socks to count.

That was our first encounter with the wholesale district. By then, a whole line of flag-oriented, 9/11 merchandise was coming into the stores in cardboard boxes that the store keepers would tear into. American Veterans would descend upon the boxes, filling shopping carts with merchandise to sell downtown, uptown, everywhere in the city. No one asked anyone for a TaxID, or for credentials to buy wholesale.

We got to know many of the store keepers, mostly Korean men and women. We never sold the 9/11 merchandise but we still made the ribbons. Now people wanted them decorated with little enamel flag pins, $6 for a dozen, and they could only be purchased in the wholesale district.

We donated hundreds of dollars to 9/11 charities, and one day the last ribbon was put in my jewelry box. People wanted to put what had happened behind them, and it was time to move on, to something else. But what would we do? Our shoe box of ribbons, the stories people told us, the things we saw, had changed us. We were now used to connecting with people through a simple, handmade gesture of compassion, and we didn't want to give that up.

My daughter bought some make up in the market and sold it at church flea markets. It was a colossal failure; the makeup softened and melted in the summer sun. Of course nothing would ever be the same as the handmade ribbons. But she turned her eye to jewelry. She was taking classes for teenagers at the Fashion Institute of Technology that summer, and was successful at putting together a collection that customers snapped up. Eleven years later, she's graduated from college and makes her living doing the exact same thing she did that summer. She sells a line of fashion jewelry she curates. Every Saturday she's at the Hester Street Fair, connecting with young women over what makes them feel beautiful. And she and I both work on pieces we design ourselves for our etsy site, Wink and Flip Handmade.

Today, as the TV news subtitles their coverage "Terror in Boston," the deja vu is crushing. Today, I feel the weight of 9/11 and now, 4/15. Are we going to call it 4/15?

And I'm left thinking the question we always think when something like this happens: Who in God's name would do this?

Today is different. I'm not jumping up to find some creative way to cope with feelings so inexplicably tragic that they give birth to wildly creative, inspired and fantastic ideas that send me spinning across this city. Because that is the primary way I handle crisis; to create something new, and wildly imaginative, that moves the focus off the difficulty and onto the creativity. And that is why, when I was still young, I became a writer; to reorder the world, sometimes against chaos, when it was necessary; to impose my own order, and arrange things in a way that made sense to me. Today, I can only think: Thank goodness for artists of all kinds, because they provide the salve for the world's wounds.

Susan/Wink and Flip