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A Chilling Afternoon
by Beth Boswell Jacks

Iím with hubby G-Man on a business trip. Heís gone all day to do whatever it is people do on business trips, and Iím left to my own whims and delights. Shall I sleep late? Shall I read? Shop? Eat big fat slabs of cheesecake while heís not around to scold me?

I do all of the above, then set out on my mission. Itís too cold to go, but Iím going anyway. I hail a taxi.

"Want to go highway or local?" the driver asks me.

I tell him "local" because I want to see all the city I can. Weíve got plenty of highways back home in Mississippi, I tell him, then pose the standard Southern question: "Where you from?"

"Bangladesh," he says, "and, guess what, Iíve been to Mississippi."

I show my surprise, and he says, "I worked for World Com before everything crashed to hell. Went to Mississippi to our headquarters several times. Iím driving this taxi right now till I can find another job."

I tell him Bernie Ebbers is the only person in the state of Mississippi I'm not kin to. Most likely.

He zips us through the city at a clip any NASCAR driver would envy. We head south on Lexington Avenue, dodging cabs, vans, trucks, and bundled pedestrians. The temperature is hovering in the low 20s, and even these yankee folks are cold, heading to wherever theyíre going with their heads bent against the icy wind.

We reach Gramercy Park. Itís deserted because of the freezing tempĖ-no mothers with babies in strollers, no lounging office workers, no homeless. Everybodyís racing to wherever theyíre going or theyíre staying put inside.

We turn on East 21st Street, then Park Avenue. Norah Jones is singing on the radio. What a voice!

We come to Union Square and I spot one shivering soul, an artist sitting on the concrete steps, sketching something. Drawing the skyline, maybe; I donít see anything else of interest. Everywhere there are the ubiquitous delis and pizzeriasĖ-nothing worth braving the frigid air to draw.

Weíre stalled in traffic beside another cab. While my driver, Romie, and I chat, I observe our neighboring taxi driver clipping his fingernails during the wait. I wonder what his passenger is thinking. I donít believe taxi drivers in the South do such a thing. We start up again and pass Canal Street, Duane Street, Warren Street, several more, then turn right on Fulton. Romie stops at the next corner.

"Here you are," he says. I pay, offering a nice tip and thanks. I tell him to be sure to visit Mississippi again. I add, "Soon, y'hear?"

I get out of the cab. The cold causes me to catch my breath . . . or maybe it's not the freezing temp at all. Tears fill my eyes. Is it the bitter cold . . . or is it the fence filled with flowers and banners and poems and pictures that looms in front of me like a badly designed stage set?

I look across the street. A 12 foot iron lattice fence is there, surrounding a deep, gargantuan pit. I cross the street, my heart pounding, and, once again, I have to catch my breath.

In the pit are cranes and backhoes and workers in thick jackets, mufflers and hard hats. A smell of smoke hangs in the air. Several buildings are covered in plastic. A dozen American flags wave in the wind, and a big sign says, "Never forget!"

People in heavy coats, caps and gloves, are milling, reading signs on the fence, absorbing the raw emotion of the place. I wonder how many of these folks lost loved ones here.

My heart is full as I walk around the fence enclosed pit. Iím numb with cold and with horror as I think of the devastation and loss of life. I wonder how this could have happened.

After 30 minutes of walking Iím almost frozen, so I slip into a Starbucks to get some coffee and reflect on what Iíve seen. While I jot notes and sip the hot brew, I realize Iím hearing Ray Charles singing "Unchain My Heart" over the speakers in the cafť.

"Unchain my heart," he sings, "and set me free . . ."

Thatís it, I think. The hearts of all of us in this whole world need unchaining, the only way we can ever be free from distorted ideas about each other. We need unshackling from preconceived notions. From hate and distrust.

I finish the coffee and brave the cold once again to catch a taxi back to my hotel. I jab a gloved thumb in the air and a merciful driver pulls up immediately. I jump in, edgy and bewildered.

"Please, Lord, unchain our hearts, every single one of us," I mutter, taking one last look back as we pull away . . . from Ground Zero.


Read more of Bethís newspaper columns at : SNIPPETS

Beth Boswell Jacks is the editor of USADEEPSOUTH.COM.
Author of three books, Jacks has published widely in childrenís magazines
and also writes a weekly column for a number of Deep South newspapers.
Write her at: bethjacks@hotmail.com

Have you read Beth's SNIPPETS books? Check them out:

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