I went through a period around 2001 where I watched The Today Show every morning. So I was sitting on my bed in my studio apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York City, when Katie Couric said something like 'a small plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.' I immediately called my friend Chris, who was on his roof deck in Carroll Gardens looking at the smoke coming from the sideof the tower, only a mile or so away and both of us saying "what a mess" this was going to be. We talked about the time ages ago when a plane hit the Empire State Building, and about the plane that crashed, in the 1970s, a few blocks away from my apartment. We talked about the small plane flying underneath the Arch in my hometown of St. Louis, and about planes trying to fly under the Verizano Bridge and the Golden Gate. I gave the periodic updates from Katie Couric and Chris gave the eyewitness account, and eventually he decided to hang up and go to work. Naturally. We're New Yorkers.
My memory gets kind of gets fuzzy from here on. I know there were a lot of phone conversations and I know that I pretty much stayed glued to the television screen 24/7 as events unfolded. I wonder now why the television seemed so comforting, why I didn't just walk down to the corner to see for myself. Oddly, for the next few years or so NBC reran my entire experience "As It Happened" on MSNBC on the anniversary of 9/11, I don't know whether they're planning on doing it again, but I doubt if I'll watch. So much has happened since.
Christmas 2001 I went home to find everyone at my sister's annual party discussing the degree to which various St. Louis landmarks were in danger of terrorist attack. They seemed particularly worried about Metrolink -- the city's Thomas the Tank Engine scale "commuter rail" system which is basically a couple of tracks running downtown and out to the airport and as far into the suburbs that the suburbs would allow (not far.) Nobody asked me very much about my experience, such as it was. I didn't have a very dramatic tale to tell, but I remember thinking "you guys have no idea."
It's not a contest, but I think New Yorkers have a very different and perhaps more nuanced sense of 9/11 -- really no matter where you were or who you are. I think we all remember very clearly what a strikingly beautiful day it was. A year later, on the first anniversary (I think, I can't be sure, maybe it was another year) my friends and I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to go to the memorial and listen to the names being read and we all looked around and said "today is just like it was on September 11, so clear, so beautiful." And then looked up at the skyline to see what wasn't there.
People who aren't New Yorkers also don't realize that the World Trade Center was the primary way you'd orient yourself in the city. You'd come out of the subway and not know which way you were pointing and immediately look for the WTC...oh, yeah, south, north, east, west, I know where I am -- even in The Village, anywhere below 14th Street where the streets aren't laid out in a convenient grid bisected by Fifth Avenue. Now, every time you come out of the subway, you feel a little lost.
On another beautiful day, in October 2001, I think -- again, I can't be sure, but it was the first day I managed to venture into Manhattan, for a job interview. I noticed the armed soldiers at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. And once I got uptown, I couldn't help but notice the signs everywhere -- even on Park Avenue. "Have you seen my husband...wife...son...daughter...friend" posted on shiny granite walls of office buildings and streetlamps and mailboxes and traffic lights. You'd stand on a corner, waiting to cross and see the faces of people's loved ones at birthday parties or on vacations, in their theatrical head shots or in posed family portraits. Strangers who in this context like any other, almost as if they'd been standing there, permeated the air with the familiar mixture of hope and hopelessness that New Yorkers already owned, but now understood to be much more important and deeply ingrained in all of us than we ever knew.
I also remember something else about the air, something dark and almost unmentionable...the haze and the smoke rising and the smell that I only want to describe as the smell of burning plastic that also permeated everything. You'd walk out the door and for a minute you'd think "whoa, what is that..." and then remember. And then you'd walk in the door later, and there it was, inside too.
Then weeks and then months passed and, particularly if you were a news junkie, you began to see, and hear and read all of the things that grew up like briars around a drugged and sleeping princess in another tower...the "war on terror," the flag-waving and exaggerated patriotism that had more to do with fear and bigotry than pride, our President's admonition to, basically, "go shopping," the world's outpouring of support and genuine sorrow changing slowly to surprise, and a different kind of sorrow...and more and more fear. We've had ten years of that constant fear now, almost without a break, and all sorts of new technology over that time to keep it percolating.
Tomorrow I'm avoiding Manhattan...most of my friends are too. Sure, I've got work to do at home in Brooklyn, and sure there's going to be a lot of traffic and a lot of extra security -- after all, it's an election year and former President Bush is coming, and certainly former Mayor Giuliani, and former Governor Pataki and all of the other former leaders who seem to take a curious pride of ownership in what 9/11 has become. There's even a terror alert, remember those? So tomorrow won't and can't be the quiet, personal stroll over The Bridge to the hole in the ground, surrounded by flowers woven into chain link fence and families and friends reading the names of their loved ones.
It's hard not to wish that the politicians would stay away and leave New Yorkers to our private, public grief. Because in many ways 9/11/2001 was New York's most challenging and yet most characteristic hour...the great, great human City all New Yorkers know and others don't...as represented by all of its resident humans at their very very best. Even the politicians managed, for a few days at least, to do what needed to be done, the big and the small, the symbolic and the very real, to face up to and honor a big, small, symbolic and extremely real, extremely human tragedy.
But the world has intervened in the past ten years...after all, who doesn't want their own little piece of New York City? We've had every sort of wrangle about the memorial itself...as if the two shafts of light extending up into the night sky weren't really a more than sufficient memorial that says just about everything that needs to be said about life and loss. In the past ten years we -- all of us, not just the United States - have multiplied the 9/11 death toll hundreds of times over around the world, spending what they call "lives and treasure" as if they were somehow equivalent, on "the best defense is a good offense," and "Bring it On!" and "Mission Accomplished" and "enhanced interrogation methods" and "Deficits don't matter" and all the rest of it until we don't know what to believe anymore -- and therefore now it seems will believe just about anything, at least for a time.
And we did "go shopping," some of us more than others, until those of us who "shopped" the most (and are still "shopping") now seem to want to close up shop on the rest of us who can't seem to join in the "fun"anymore. In the opinion of our leaders, we've transformed from a nation of heroes armed with credit cards into a nation of bad sports who need to suck it up about credit card interest hitting 30 percent in an oddly brief period of time. If anyone hasn't seen the end of "The Wizard of Oz, " go and take a look at it..."pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" and its aftermath has a very familiar ring to it -- and maybe, at the very end, a little necessary magical thinking, at least for tomorrow.
In losing those 2819 people on 9/11 we also lost big pieces of ourselves, or who we thought we were. If today means anything to me, ten years later and with that same sense of hope and hopelessness that New Yorkers have always lived with and managed, collectively at least, to overcome, it's that tomorrow somehow can remind us of some of the more important lesssons of that beautiful, terrible morning in 2001 . I hope we can stop pretending we don't care about what we've lost -- that this is what we planned all along -- and begin to get some of those missing pieces of our national character back. I hope we can rebuild within ourselves what the new memorial is supposed to represent and what those two brilliant shafts of light -- travelling out into the universe forever -- already inspire and express.