Quiet City

 Five miles from the ruins of the World Trade Center sits our office-HQ for BustedHalo.com. On the narrow island of Manhattan, five miles is a long way; in our neighborhood there was never any visible sign of what had happened. But there was an audible sign-quiet.

In terms of noise no American city can compare to New York. Car horns, sirens, subway trains, bulldozers, jet planes overhead, trucks, buses, shouts of greeting and offense, cell phone conversations, and lots and lots of people moving and talking. NYC is probably the city that never sleeps because it never shuts up! But in the days the followed the attack, all that changed. Air traffic was grounded. Fewer cars were on the streets as people stayed home from work. Public transportation was curtailed. Crime went down. Construction ceased. As I stood in a roof garden the night after the disaster, the only sound to startle me was the whoosh of a fighter plane on patrol.

Even more incredible than the near total cessation of mechanical noise in those days was the relative lack of a peep heard from human beings. That I found more stunning. Cell phone conversations were conducted in a hush. People said little to one another on the street, and those that did kept it to sotto voce. There was no shouting, no screaming, no sustained arguments between cab drivers and pedestrians. There was little laughter, and none of it booming. The city delivered itself to an unearthly quiet. We termed it eerie; it disturbed us even as we observed it.

On Friday the 14th, after a few hours of consoling families with missing relatives, another priest and I decided to walk off the tears and exhaustion. As dark fell upon us, we wandered. In a short time we were in the plaza of Union Square surrounded by huge crowds of people gathered in vigil. They were carrying lit candles (as I understand people were all over the country that night); a few were passing out stickers promoting peace. A distant singing of the national anthem wore out. And then: quiet. Probably a thousand people stood there and said nothing. I could think of no public precedent for it. We searched further, venturing down to Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Again we found crowds of people gathered in candlelight. No singing was heard this time, few conversations. Silence.

Maybe we were all in shock. Maybe in the face of the radical evil we had witnessed that week there was nothing left to say. Maybe we had already absorbed too many words from the media. Yet the silence did not feel passive. It felt like we were listening, searching the quiet city for something or someone, a confirmation that it wasn’t all just chaos, that in the hour of disaster we were not alone. I didn’t poll the crowd, but it seemed to me the Silence itself provided the divine answer.


Ordained in 1997 as a Paulist priest, Fr. Brett is clinical assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles where he teaches pastoral theology and on the intersection of faith and culture. He received his Ph.D. in 2010 and has taught at Loyola University Chicago and the Catholic seminaries at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Fr. Brett is the author of three books, including the recently published Comfort: An Atlas for the Body and Soul (New York: Riverhead, 2011). From 2001 to 2004, Fr. Brett co-founded and then served as editor of BustedHalo.com.