It’s strange to not be living in NYC on Sept. 11. I remember with vivid clarity standing on the corner of 5th Ave. and 35th St., watching the smoking remains of the towers and wondering what the hell had happened. At that point, no one was sure of anything yet except that a lot of people were dead.
One of the strangest things about the city that day was the quiet. NYC is never quiet. I’ve worked the graveyard shift there, and even then it was noisy. But that day the streets were empty of cars. People spoke softly, like they do in funeral homes and libraries. Pockets of people gathered around cars to listen to radios, trying to find out more news. One woman sat on the steps of a church and cried. The only occasional loud noise was a military plane flying overhead. That noise shouldn’t have been there and contributed to the surreal sense that it was all some terrible collective nightmare.
I didn’t lose anyone I knew well, and I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to have lost a mother, brother or child there. The few close loved ones I knew who were there made it out alive. But 11 years later, I find myself still angry that it happened. Still angry that one of my best friends has to mourn his uncle, a police officer who died at the towers, every year. I remember the little boy with the sign that said, “Have you seen my daddy?” I wonder if he ever found his daddy, or any part of him.
In the hours after the attacks, I did what a lot of people in New York did. Since the subways were down and I was temporarily stranded on the island, I tried to donate blood. But the blood centers were overwhelmed with people, and I gave up. It turned out there wasn’t much need for blood. The people who made it out were physically OK, more or less, and the people who didn’t died. So I hung around in Manhattan until I could leave.
In the weeks and months after the attacks, I felt protective of New York and pissed with a lot of the rest of the country. My entire life, I’d heard criticism that New York was some fringe element of America, somehow less real than the God-fearing, good-old-boy America immortalized in country songs and beer commercials. It seemed odd that it took 3,000 deaths for New York (and the DC metro area, which frequently gets shafted in Sept. 11 discussions) to become part of the rest of the country. When the Homeland Security dollars started rolling out, people in small towns on no one’s radar convinced themselves that someone was going to blow up their tiny libraries. Then I remembered the people from all over the country and world who donated time and money to help survivors, search for the dead and put NYC back together, and I told myself to stop being such a dick.
There’s a 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center now. It’s like a park, and a lot of young people treat it like a park. They play games and leave trash and piss off a lot of us who remember what happened. I don’t want to see any memorial treated with disrespect, but there’s something comforting about the fact that young people aren’t so weighted down by this one day in September. For them, it’s a day in history when some sad stuff happened, but it doesn’t have any weight for them unless they are one of the kids from families still mourning. That’s the way it should be. It’s a mistake to ask kids to carry the emotional burdens of another generation.
And to everyone still mourning the deaths of people they loved, I’m thinking of you in my own small, wholly inadequate way.
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