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Life's routines press in on grief

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 14, 2001

By Thursday morning at Dave's, which is a diner on Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street N in St. Petersburg, the television that had temporarily occupied the left end of the countertop after the attack was returned to its proper place. This was not any kind of suggestion that things were better, but merely that it had become possible again to eat an egg without keeping an eye glued to the news every second.

Three days of constant watching and listening and reading take their toll. A degree of shell-shock sets in, and when the voices of Dan and Peter and Tom are not going on in the background, they seem to be there anyway. Only one thing stays immune from the numbness: the image of the impact itself. It never becomes routine. Each time the airplane nears the tower a silent wish wells up: Miss it, miss it.

President Bush has declared that today will be a day of mourning and prayer. He asks for noontime memorials, the ringing of bells and evening candlelight vigils. Americans will oblige him, not only because those are the right things to do, but because we feel the need to do something.

Something. Anything. For some people it means giving blood, or putting a flag in the front yard, or just adding the words "God Bless America" to a business sign. By Thursday, people were suggesting all sorts of other new enterprises.

One idea was a petition drive to award the Medal of Freedom to passengers of United Flight 93 (although in all honesty, the time for handing out medals is a little later). Another is a grass-roots effort to encourage those Americans who can to buy a little stock on Monday, to help drive up the market as a symbol of unbowed spirit.

It would be a good thing, for those who were turned away from donating blood, if they came back next week, or the week after, and still donated in the name of the World Trade Center and Pentagon victims. In fact, it would be a good thing if they did it next month or next year, too. If I were the blood-bank people I would set up a way for people to make that statement.

For a few people, the need to do something made them act badly. There were reports around the nation, some from our area, of people harassing or attacking or threatening other people just because of their race or religion. It was good to see that the elder George Bush, the ex-president, the architect of the Persian Gulf War, put out a statement that reminded Americans not to equate Islam with terrorism.

Does that even need to be said? Apparently so: This is not about Islam. It is not even about Palestinians. It is not even about people who have political differences of opinion with the United States. It's about people who think they have the right to commit acts of war against America, to take innocent lives to further their own cause.

On the third day, for a lot of people, there seemed to be a point reached of saying: I've got to turn away for a little, I've got to get something done. But unlike past tragedies and major media stories, it seems impossible. It's not as though we can go three days, or four or five days, and then say, "Okay, everything's back to normal." It might never be normal again. At first I thought the NFL should go ahead and play this weekend, but now that the weekend is here, it feels right that the league canceled its games after all.

Inevitably, the rest of the world begins to filter in. A guy robbed a bank in St. Petersburg on Thursday morning. The new shopping mall is set to open. Up in Tallahassee, a lot of people held their breath for the official estimate of how much money Florida is going to take in, which is hugely important.

Most pressing of all, of course, is the tropical storm out in the gulf named Gabrielle that could grow into a hurricane. A week ago its threat would have transfixed us and monopolized the news. The prospect of coastal flooding would have seemed an ominous threat. How now, today, does water in the garage rank on the scale of misfortune in this life?

- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at

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