When I was walking back to my apartment yesterday, I heard the clangor of a marching band, getting closer. I walked to the corner of 14th Street and Fifth Avenue — where on Tuesday people had stood and watched the towers burn — and suddenly there appeared a small marching band, all black kids, in purple shirts, playing, “When the Saints Come Marching In.” They crossed Fifth, and people stopped to watch, smile, and clap.
It turned out they were from Oakwood College in Hunstville, Alabama. Someone had had the inspired idea to drive 24 hours to come here and raise a joyful noise in the streets of New York City. What a sight! A kid held an American flag at the front of the group, and a couple of others held shovels over their shoulders. After all the sadness, the prayer vigils and the candles, here was something clamorous and happy and resolute (and even a little martial). This is what we needed, even if no one had realized it until this noisy apparition appeared among us, conducting the normal business of a New York Saturday — walking our dogs, carrying plastic grocery bags, strolling idly toward brunch — but with the pall of downtown muting everything.
The band headed to Union Square, where a makeshift memorial has been thrown up. Stragglers followed behind, and people parted to make way, clapping as the kids passed through, blowing on their trumpets, banging on their drums. When they got in the middle of the square, they played the “Star Spangled Banner.” One of those half-crazy blacks guys you sometimes see in New York, was waving a flag and practically jumping up and down: “You go kids! You go kids!”
A Hispanic woman hugged one of the girls with the group, and pressed $20 into her hand. “I really want to hear `Battle Hymn of the Republic’,” she said, when the band paused in between songs. Next, “Amazing Grace,” played softly, just on the horns. Then, everyone sang “God Bless America,” without the accompaniment of the band, which eventually turned around and headed out of the square, drums blazing, one black lady making a point of hugging every member of the group that she could. A black guy approached the one white member of the group — walking in back, not playing an instrument — and extended his hand, saying emphatically, “THANK YOU!”
The band headed down University Avenue, playing “America the Beautiful,” a wonderfully bizarre sight, marching the wrong way down the one-way street. Car alarms went off as the band passed. Each step of the way, people paused on the sidewalks and applauded. People peered out of the windows of stores and restaurants. More people followed along. “I don’t know where they’re going, but I’m with them,” someone said.
They turned out to be headed to Washington Square Park, a short walk away, where another spontaneous memorial had been erected. They marched into the middle of the park, past the candles and the missing posters up on a fence, and played the “Star Spangled Banner” again. A hispanic woman hugged the kid carrying the flag, and buried her face into his neck and began to sob and sob. She was inconsolable, bleary-eyed, her nose red with crying. She was carrying a couple of flowers and a color photocopy of a family — with one of its members presumably gone forever. The kid with the flag eventually stood back in his place. Other band members hugged the lady, who — may God comfort her — was giving off waves of heart-rending grief. The kid holding the flag began to cry, and as his eyes filled with tears, he hoisted the flag higher with both his arms.
Then, the band’s leader — an older, take-charge-type — consulted with one of the locals about how to find the next park, and off they marched. They were part of a group called National Association for the Prevention of Starvation. I know nothing about the group except that its website says that, “NAPS takes its marching band on all of its major projects to minister to the spirit of the recipients of its aid.” Yesterday, they ministered to the spirit of New York.