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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

Angels In America

Submitted by on September 11, 2008 – 1:55 PM95 Comments

The evidence that Don is an angel is compelling, provided you're inclined to believe it in the first place: his date of "birth" is September 11; he appeared when I needed him, and withdrew (to New Jersey) when it seemed I could continue alone; and his name is Don. "Father." "Paterfamilias"; "protector." "Teacher," if you like. Or perhaps he is properly a Donald, a name which means "ruler of the world" — or, according to several sites I consulted, "brown stranger." Not very diplomatic, but not inaccurate either.

Diana Vreeland once said that magic doesn't come to those who don't expect it, and I have a similar belief about ghosts: if you don't believe in them, you won't see them (or become one). And I don't believe in angels, really — didn't then, don't now. As metaphors, yes; as beings that interact with us on earth, no. Everyone has stories from that day about timing: they decided for whatever reason to drop off dry-cleaning and it put them behind, they missed the train although that never happens, they called in sick when they'd ordinarily suck it up with a cold that mild. My story from that day about timing is Don, an actual flesh-and-blood non-wingéd guy with opinions about reality TV and Thai food, and I don't know the substance of those opinions, but he must have them, because he must be a mortal being, and he must be a mortal being because, in the end, I just don't know what in the hell an angel is doing escorting me up the FDR Drive with everything else going on.

I will stipulate that God works in mysterious ways, but assigning me an angel when it is an all-hands heavenly-creatures emergency five blocks away is straight-up bad management. I mean…why? Why. Makes no sense. I appreciate the assist, mind you, if that's what happened. I just don't get it. Angels carry briefcases now?

On the other hand, he's never turned up again. No "why" to that either.

The "why" remains, always. We know why, and yet we don't. It's like the time my bag got stolen; I knew why. But I wanted to find the thief anyway, not just in the hopes that s/he still had my bag and maybe a few of the things in it, but to ask why. Why didn't you just ask me for the money? Why couldn't you just take my Filofax, pick it for a credit card and the cash, and then dump it — why did you need all my addresses and my phone? My phone calls people I know; what do you need it for?

My mother had a friend whose daughter worked at Tiffany, and Tiffany had a line of solid silver key fobs with enamel coatings that looked like vegetables, so my mom got to special-order one for me, a tomato key fob from Tiffany. When it arrived, Ma found that Tiffany had sent a pumpkin instead, and even though her friend's daughter had done Ma a favor and Ma didn't want to make it into a whole thing, and even though my tomato tattoo does look like a pumpkin when my arm is at certain angles, Ma chewed her lip and took a breath and called her friend back and said, "I know it's a favor you're doing me, but…it has to be a tomato and this is actually a pumpkin," and I mean to tell you that these various transactions took months, and when the correct beautiful Tiff-mato finally arrived, I got it for Christmas instead of for my birthday in March, and you don't care about any of that, you probably think it's stupid and what kind of tweehole has a tomato key chain anyway, but it meant something to me. It had a little ding in the side where it always clonked on the doorframe when I unlocked the deadbolt. It had a story. My mother went to a lot of trouble with that thing and got it exactly right, and then you took it, and for what? They don't make them anymore and it DIDN'T BELONG TO YOU SO WHY DID YOU DO THAT. I needed that thing that MY MOM GOT ME, you son of a bitch.

I know why. Thieves take things, it's what they do, that's the why. It's never good enough.

Looking at the light columns downtown, it's the same feeling, the same question. I love the lights, the way they look blocky and rectangular at the bottom, like buildings, and then as your eye goes up, they become fuzzier beams cutting through the clouds, but really, I want the buildings back — the actual buildings, with the people in them. I know that will never happen, and I know why, but the buildings and the people in them were stolen from all of us. That skyline belonged to us! Those people were ours. They weren't yours to take. Why did you do that? How could you steal them from us? WE NEEDED THEM.

I believe in ghosts; the idea of ghosts is necessary. Ghosts haunt the living for the living, because we need them to, but what we always really want is the person, the spirit in the body with the body, the spirit not disappearing into the clouds. If Don is a real man who is groaning at a terrible pun on a birthday card right now or staring out his office window, knowing that butter-cream frosting awaits him come dinnertime, that means that one day, maybe, I can get an answer. One answer.

Happy birthday, my friend.

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  • William says:

    I come here every year and I don't know why I don't come here every day. Excellent.

  • Kate says:

    Another year of remembering what I was doing *right now* back then; another look at the shoes I wore walking through the quiet (except for the City Hall park fountain, splashing on), still covered in dust that I know I won't clean from them; another year of waiting to see what Sarah will say, and knowing that, as always, my vision will blur.

    Thank you again, Sarah.

    Hope we find him this year.

  • Jaybird says:

    I started to re-read your original column about the events of seven years ago today, and I just couldn't. Not because it's badly written. It's beautifully written, in fact, and that's the problem. It's too much like being there must have been, and although I was thousands of miles away and getting information via, I can't imagine NOT being touched by that day.

    Still hoping you find Don, and that he's doing well.

  • Angie says:

    I'm still hoping Don turns up. My heart is in New York today!

  • Melissa says:

    I come here every day, but especially today. Sars, I hope you find him someday. And I'm really sorry about your keychain….don't you just HATE that???

  • Pegkitty says:

    My experience of 9/11 is colored by your experiences that day. I think of Don every year and wonder too.

  • Katie L. says:

    As I heard the NPR tape from seven years ago replayed this morning, I was thinking of Sars's story, and wondering where Don was. I'm glad you wrote about him today, Sars.

  • Kama Cath says:

    Every year I think of you, of Don… of everyone else. I work across the street from Ground Zero. The people walking around with a handful of flowers and the picture of their lost loved one hanging around their neck is the most sobering thing I have ever encountered.

    I do hope that you find Don, but more than that I am simply glad that you and he found each other that morning and that you looked after each other.

  • Alicia says:

    I keep hoping that someday, Don will reappear. I don't know why it means so much to me, but, well. This is the first time today I've actually cried.

  • Nik says:

    "Those people were ours."

    Every year I come here HOPING it is the year you are going to tell us you found Don. I won't stop hoping!

  • Judi says:

    Happy birthday to Don.

    Thank you Sars, for everything you did after September 11th. You were so selfless, answering so many tormented Vines, not understanding any more than anyone else, but trying so hard to stay strong for your readers and keep on keeping on. You singlehandedly got me to go back into the city when I was paralyzed in the weeks following. I can never thank you enough — your site was the one thing that made me feel human when the rest of me was in shock. I clung to Tomato Nation like a lifeline after September 11th. Thank you.

  • I stopped emailing you on this day because I wasn't sure if I would be crossing that line between honouring an event and being a pain. I still think of you on Sept 11 though, and remember how when I heard the news I thought 'Well, at least Sars is in Toronto' and when I discovered you weren't it gave me a horrible feeling, even though I don't know you.

    Thinking of you and hoping you find Don.

  • Dan C. says:

    Your entire Don experience remains as powerful today as it was the first time I read it. Thanks as always.

  • Josh says:

    Huh. I was just thinking about checking this site to see if you'd post anything (like you usually do) and it struck me as weird that you hadn't heard from Don in 7 years. I was thinking to myself that maybe he was an angel and then you go and put up the same thing. Interesting.

    Maybe he was like Great-Grandpa Sars and was all "Hey guys, my little cherry tomato needs me down there. Can you handle this without me for a bit?" to the other angels and they were all like "Sure, go ahead. There will be plenty to do when you get back."

    Even if not, it's comforting to think so.

  • Emily says:

    I thought of you and Don on my drive in to work this morning. Happy Birthday, Don, wherever you are!

  • Kim says:

    I woke up this morning thinking of Don, and you. I always do. Thank you again for sharing him with us.

  • Tara says:

    I needed, and need you, so I'm glad you're still here seven years later. Don, wherever you are, thanks for looking after my girl.

  • Sarah says:

    After reading Sars' lovely remembrance (and word on the feelings of helplessness against theives…a gorgeous leather wallet that my sister sent me from FLorence for my 21st birthday and is. irre-fucking-placeable was once pickpocketed from me, and I am still not over it 8 years later) and getting a slight lump in my throat, I admit to being somewhat delighted that William's blog name is "poop and boogies".

    Well done, Sars.

  • Kat says:

    Sars, thank you for remembering 9/11 as a New Yorker, for New Yorkers, and anyone else who cares enough to read it.

    As I was reading my Ipod switched songs and Dave Matthews "The Maker" came on – it seemed the perfect soundtrack given the topic.

    I hope this is the year someone, somewhere thinks "oh Don, yeah, I know Don" and lets us know that he got home safe too. But if not, I'm content to believe he was an angel afterall.

  • doriette says:

    Oh, Sars.

    "Those people were ours," indeed.

    You made me laugh (brown stranger? Gah) and then cry.

    As usual, your words have so aptly described my feelings. Thank you.

    I also have happy birthday wishes for Don.

  • missbanshee says:

    Sarah, because of you and your incredible story and writing, Don's birthday is the first thing I think about after I re-live my own story every year. Every year I wait for your post, and every year I say happy birthday to Don.

  • Michelle says:

    Sitting in a chem recitation crying quietly into my iPhone. I've spent 7 years hoping you'll find Don… someday you will and I imagine I'll cry then too.

  • Melanie says:

    I don't know about angels. Sometimes I think they're just fantasy, like fairies or elves. Other times… I wonder if angels aren't just mortals with a lot of heart. Or perhaps we're all angels, at the right place in the right time for someone. You look at Don and see the possibility of an angel… maybe Don thinks of you sometimes and feels the same way. It's interesting to think that Don is out there today, and thinking of the woman who he connected with on that fateful day, and how he's never found her again, and whether she's the angel. The world is full of mysteries.

  • Sharon says:

    I love your writing – it's so beautiful. I know not everyone believes in angels, but I've always had a hunch that your Don was one (I've been reading your site for many years now, and always make sure to come here on this day).

    I've seen a flesh-and-blood angel before, and she shared her life story with us during a stressful time. There is no explanation for it that I've ever found, other than that she was an angel, because she disappeared seconds after we had talked with her, and there's no way a real person could have disappeared from a large, nearly empty field that fast. Having them come in to your life when you most need another person is just the coolest thing ever.

    I know I'm not explaining myself very well, but I just wanted to share that I believe they exist, and know that they often appear in human form. It's not everyone's belief, which is cool, but yeah. I'm rambling here, so I'll stop.

    Thanks for sharing your stories with us. I appreciate it.

  • Andy in Chelsea says:

    Happy birthday, Don.

    Thanks, as always, Sars.

    Those people were ours. The buildings were ours.

    I never want to breathe air like that again. Air that contained those things of ours.

  • juliette says:

    Thank you, Sars. I read your original every year on this day, as I consider it to be the best thing written on the subject.

    Happy birthday and thanks, Don.

  • BeRightBack says:

    You are just an effortlessly (seemingly! It's not like I don't love your process posts and the care they demonstrate) clear and moving writer, and about the only one I can stand hear talk about his or her 9/11 experience. Thank you again.

  • La BellaDonna says:

    And maybe somewhere there's a man sitting with his buddies over a pint of beer, and when he's drunk enough, he tells them about That Day and the angel named Sarah that walked along with him up the West Side Highway. Her "date of birth" is September 11, and he's pretty sure that she was an angel, because he's never seen or heard from her since.

    I'm glad he was there for you, Sars, and I'm as sorry as I can be about all the rest of it.

  • tixie says:

    Happy Birthday Don…

    I always feel like my story of being an Upstate New Yorker so alone in Wisconsin paled in comparison to so many, especially Sars', so I never bother to post really. Your story is the first time I ever even came here, it was sent to me by a friend, and I've been a faithful reader ever since…

    Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward All…

    (And, I was just thinking about Angels in America the other day and how it seems to have fallen off my radar since i left the theatre department…)

  • Molly says:

    Happy birthday, Don.

    I've never liked the yearly all-channels takeover of the 9/11 memorial stuff. I don't need to be reminded. I remember every time I look at the skyline and play an unconscious game of "What's Wrong With This Picture?" You see stickers and t-shirts saying "never forget." No one who lives here will forget. We can't.

  • Nichole says:

    I knew I wouldn't get through today without crying if I came over here. Happy birthday, Don.

  • Maria says:

    It's weird how this day is never complete (? that's not the right word) until I read your words.

    I thought last night about all the reasons Don has to be an angel, and you listed them. Maybe he's not, for all the reasons you also listed; maybe he was *sent* by the angels, like Josh said up there. I'd like to think that everyone downtown and in DC and on those planes had a Don (or a Sars), whether human or celestial, to help them get through the worst of the day.

    But mostly, I just think "what Tara said."

    Happy Birthday, Don.

  • tulip says:

    I was really honored to meet you this year. Thanks for this. They always make me cry but I read them because they are important.

  • attica says:

    I avoid most of the 9/11 anniversary ceremonial stuff, because all it does is make me angry. But I always reread "For Thou Art With Us," because although it reminds me of what it was like to be in Manhattan that day, it somehow makes me feel better. I guess it's something about the Dons of the world that just comforts.

    Happy Birthday, Don.

    Thanks, Sars.

  • Gleemonex says:

    This was the first thing I thought of when I realized what day it was.

    I haven't been to church in 16 years, so I don't know about the whole god thing, but believe in Sasquatch, aliens, all kinds of stuff in a half-assed sorta-kidding, sorta-not type of way, and Don is the reason angels are on that list.

  • MrsHaley says:

    As always, thanks for remembering so well, Sars.

    We still miss you, Colleen and Eric.

    Happy birthday, Don.

  • Sandman says:

    That's all I can say, too. Thank you, Sarah.

  • Jo says:

    I always think of Don, too. I have to wonder if he's out there, asking people if they know a writer/editor named Sarah who might be the woman he met on Sept. 11. Whenever I see messages on Web sites or forums asking for people to tell their stories about that day, I keep hoping I'll see one from Don.

    I like to believe in angels, myself. Whether we're talking about real angels or about people who just appear in your life when God/the Universe need them to be there, they certainly exist. The story about Don would sure fit the bill.

  • Jenny 2 says:

    I make it a point to specifically stop in here every September 11th and re-read Sars' blog about that day. It is so haunting and so real and so much a reminder of everything we lost that day and it helps me to remember as the years go by and the horror fades from my memory little by little.

    So, thank you, Sars. And thank you, too, Don, wherever you are.

  • Rachel says:

    I had an argument with a friend today and she said that I can't feel what she feels on this day because I didn't lose anyone I knew, that it didn't happen to me.

    It did happen to me. It happened to ALL OF US.

    Happy Birthday, Don.

    Thanks, Sars.

  • Rene' says:

    I woke up that morning 7 years ago thinking it should have been my grandmother's birthday (she had passed away when I was in high school). Then I went to one of my many boring college classes and we heard the news. I remember telling my mom I would never remember my grandmother's birthday the same way. Now I can think of it as her birthday and Don't birthday. I've read this post several times and this is the first time I made the connection. Great writing, and great account of the day. Perhaps you will find Don before 10 years have passed.

  • Jennifer says:

    Sars, I'm a person who's always walking the fine line between belief and skepticism. I would be a flat-out agnostic/atheist if not for the fact that I am a weirdness magnet, and I've had enough inexplicable, unexplainable shit happen to me (sometimes with a witness, even, so I wasn't crazy alone) that I have to think that Something Else Is Out There. Science can't explain it, I don't seem to be batshit insane yet, so…what can?

    And I have always wondered why the heck in the age of the Internet and six degrees of separation, why you haven't found Don yet.

    I think this angel thing is as close at it might get to explaining why not. I am so not into angels as a concept, but…shoot, what else at this point can it be?

  • Lily says:

    I remember being very affected by the mystery of Don, and the feeling that he was still out there and we needed to find him.

    About four years ago I thought I saw him. The story was on my mind as I was walking around downtown near the site, and as I was crossing Church Street I heard a man talking to a friend in a pleasant sort of way. I glanced over and saw that he fit Sars's description perfectly. I knew there must be a thousand guys who fit that description but… it felt different with this guy. He just had this calm presence about him. And was carrying a soft-sided briefcase. And was headed straight for the PATH station to Jersey City.

    I caught up with him and asked if his name was Don. He smiled and said no, and walked away.

  • SorchaRei says:

    I come here on Sept 11 every year to honor those people and those buildings that were ours and were taken away. And to wish Don a happy birthday. I wish I knew who he was so I could find him for you.

    Thank you for providing, every single year, a way for me to remember what we lost and what came of it without having to succumb to the mass media spectacle I dislike so much.

    You are a gift.

  • Bev N says:

    "but assigning me an angel when it is an all-hands heavenly-creatures emergency five blocks away is straight-up bad management.'

    Sarah, you were able to tell us the truth in a better, clearer way than any other reporter, historian, commentator, or book. Somehow clearer than the awful photos. If Don was an angel, you got an angel because you were supposed to write about that day. Maybe you haven't found Don yet because it is important that you continue to write about 9/11.
    Maybe important for you, maybe for us. Maybe for the people who were lost.

  • jive turkey says:

    I was hoping you'd post today. Thanks, Sars.

  • Margaret in CO says:

    Thank you, Sars.

    Thank you for being the way you are, so down-to-earth & honest. Even when you're telling stories about axe-weilding women, or giant girls, they're *true* stories.
    Of all the accounts of 9/11, it's your story of that day that made it real, finally. I was in such denial (and I'm goooood at denial) that it all seemed like some horror movie. Once I read what you wrote, I felt it like a punch to the chest & bawled my eyes out. Weird thing to thank you for, but…thank you.

    Happy Birthday, Don. Hope your wish comes true when you blow out the candles on your cake!

  • Isis Uptown says:

    I am far from NYC, but someone I love also has a birthday today she's 17 (and she's the future "Presidiva" of the United States of America), so she was only ten on that day, she had to learn "every day is someone's birthday" in a very strange way.

    I love reading your September 11 posts every year.

  • mia says:

    I always appreciate your writing, and your 9/11 anniversary posts are even more touching. I live in California, but every time I think about your story, I start scheming to find Don… how many people can I get to canvas NY and NJ to find him? How many flyers can I drop from airplanes? But then I wonder what would happen. If I bring you a list of hundreds of Dons who potentially fit the bill… and what happens if none of them are 'him'? Or what if it is? Is it better or worse, actually?

    And maybe he's looking for you too. Just not knowing if you spelled it 'Sara' or 'Sarah' or maybe he heard it all wrong and thinks you're Tara?

    This would make a great documentary, BTW.

  • Marv in DC says:

    Thanks Sars I hope you guys meet again some time.

    Peace Everyone

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