It Must Be Love by Madness, 1981

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This is my 9/11 song. Lots of people have songs they most associate with the events of September 11, 2001, such as “Hands” by Jewel, “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood, “Superman” by Five for Fighting. Let me tell you why this cover by the British ska band makes my list.

On 9/11, I was working in my office at the Agriculture Department in the Portals Building on Maryland Avenue in DC. My private office was a little on the small side, but it was worth it, because I had a magnificent view across the river into Virginia. I could see the entire 180 degree sweep from the Wilson Bridge, to Old Town Alexandria, Reagan Airport, Crystal City, the Pentagon, Arlington Cemetery, the Jefferson Memorial, Roslyn and, if I pressed my head up against the glass, the Washington Monument. I got very little work done in that office, spending most of my time watching the scene. (I certainly got a real appreciation for how many bad takeoffs, lousy landings and near misses happen at Reagan.)

And I certainly got my money’s worth out of that view on 9/11, because I saw Flight 77 slam into the Pentagon. Amid that beautiful, idyllic scene, on one of the four or five days of perfect, sunny, dry weather we get in DC, the sight of that giant orange fireball and the column of angry black smoke pouring into the sky was obscene, and chilling, and horrifying. I literally could not believe what I was looking at. It was as if someone had cued up some stupid Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich movie.

Our kids were little – 11, 10, 8 and 7. We decided that it was important that they see these sights. So a week after, we took them to the Pentagon to see the black, gaping hole in the northwest side of the building, and to visit an impromptu shrine that had been set up on a corner near the site. People had left flowers and balloons and photos and little knickknacks in a widening fan on the lawn. A lot of the items were personal in nature, left by people who knew the victims. One in particular has haunted me ever since – an orange t-shirt with the logo of some military unit on it, and written across it in black marker: “Rest in peace, Bob. We’ll look after Ann and the kids.” (After 14 years, I still can’t type that without tearing up.)

And then, a few weeks later, the six of us, along with my oldest’s best friend, drove up to New York to visit Ground Zero. It was a grey, rainy day when we arrived, and the city seemed quiet and subdued. To our amazement, we found that the Empire State Building, contrary to media reports, was open, and we rode alone in an elevator to the 86th floor observation deck. Looking south through the drizzle, we were amazed to find that thick columns of smoke were still pouring out of the hole where the WTC towers had stood. It had been 19 days since the attack. How bad was it down there that it was still on fire?

We decided to wait until the next morning, October 1, to visit Ground Zero, and made our way to the Gershwin Hotel at 27th and 5th. It was our favorite little funky Manhattan hotel, long gone now, full of good original modern art (a lot of Warhol and Lichtenstein and Johns and such) and with decent-size rooms.

We turned in about 11 and by 11:30 everyone was asleep but me. I couldn’t get the weird vibe of the city out of my head. The ever-present hum of the city was almost absent, and it felt like we were staying in a haunted house. I very quietly got out of bed, got dressed and snuck out the door.

I’d never noticed it before, but there was a bar off the lobby of the Gershwin. It was very small, about the size of a master bedroom, and lit like a cave. Soft music played from a stereo behind the bar. I was the only one there, and the bartender seems surprised to see anyone. I got a bottle of St. Pauli Girl and settled into a deep comfortable chair in the corner.

Here I am, I thought. I am in Manhattan in September, 2001. When I’m an old man, I can tell people, and it’ll be like saying I was in Honolulu in December 1941, or Dallas in November 1963. I started thinking about all the people, the 3,000 crushed and incinerated just a few miles from here, still there in the wreckage, and how little we as a nation could really do in response. Uncharacteristically for me, I became deeply depressed.

And then this song came on.

I never thought I’d miss you
Half as much as I do
And I never thought I’d feel this way
The way I feel about you

As soon as I wake up
Every night, every day
I know that it’s you I need
To take the blues away

It must be love, love, love
It must be love, love, love
Nothing more, nothing less
Love is the best

How can it be that we can
Say so much without words?
Bless you and bless me
Bless the bees and the birds

I’ve got to be near you
Every night, every day
I couldn’t be happy
Any other way

It must be love, love, love
It must be love, love, love
Nothing more, nothing less
Love is the best

It must be love, love, love
It must be love, love, love

And the clock ticked over to midnight, and it was now October 2001, and time marches on, and I wiped the tears off my face and went back to bed.

The next day we saw Ground Zero – the layers of ground cement dust covering everything, the soldiers in full combat gear patrolling everywhere, the jagged curtain walls leaning drunkenly, the thousands and thousands of homemade missing posters, all overlaid with the incredible stench of 9/11 – half burned-down house, half rotting meat, that you tried not to think about too much.

But there are always bright spots, like the Madness song I had discovered the night before. We took the Staten Island ferry to get a view of the whole south end of the island, and as we cut through the middle of the harbor, finally leaving the smell and the cloud cover behind, the hospital ship USNS Comfort was leaving, surrounded by FDNY fireboats saluting it with huge arcs of brightly-colored red, white and blue water, sparkling in the sunshine.

And on the way back to the Gershwin, two NYPD cops . . . gave us a box of donuts.

There is always hope.

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