[Originally posted to my old blog on September 11, 2009. Inspired, in part, by Colson Whitehead’s excellent essay, published in the New York Times Magazine on November 11, 2001.]
I built my New York in much the same way Colson Whitehead built his: On the elevated train in Queens; each morning, deciding whether to sit facing East, so I could look at the Midtown skyline as we rumbled along above 31st Street; or to sit facing West, so I could see the Twin Towers when we turned the corner toward Manhattan at Queens Plaza.
- The former, an extended, and at the time — before the construction boom in Astoria — unobstructed view of the classic New York skyline: The Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Citigroup Center. A view that reminded me every morning that I lived somewhere people dreamed about living, a place that people believed had the power to make dreams come true. A view that reminded me that I am fortunate and made me proud of my city.
- The latter, a view that took my breath away every time I saw it: A part of the city so different from the parts where I spent most of my time, full of jobs so different from the ones I’d done. Rich with history; masculine and fast-paced; energy palpable on every narrow, shadowy, and cool — always cool, no matter the temperature outside — street. A view that filled me with awe and a bit of adrenaline and made me proud of my country.
Downtown is where people get things done. Things that people across the world open their newspapers to read about each morning. My roommate also worked in one of those towers. She went to the office a lot earlier than I did, so I liked to picture her up there on the 60something floor, taking care of business. I don’t actually even know which tower she worked in, but I always imagined her in the second one, from my vantage point at least, set a little back from the first.
I haven’t been down there much since the towers got taken away from us. I dated a guy who lived in Battery Park City for a couple months in 2005. He had a window the size of a movie screen in his living room, and it overlooked Ground Zero. I stayed at his place the night after that year’s New York City Marathon, and he’d already left for work when I woke up from a long night’s post-marathon sleep. I remember standing at that window for probably a half hour, looking down and wondering how my boyfriend could stand it.
I don’t know what it’s like for the people who live there and work there. Do they, as I did that morning, see the ghosts of the towers and the people who lost their lives? Do they feel the sadness that hangs heavily over that part of the city? Or have they — necessarily — grown thick skins? I don’t think it’s right to say they’ve grown “numb.” We say we’ve become numb to violence because we see it so much in video games and movies. But this is more akin to a survival skill: We have to be there, so we find a way to cope.
I don’t know how most people feel, actually. I’m afraid to ask. I’m weirdly possessive of my experience of that day. My old roommate used to wonder about the Oklahoma City bombing — do the people in Oklahoma City still think about that day every day of their lives? I wonder the same thing now about the people who lived through Hurricane Katrina. Do they look at that day and say that it, more than any other day of their lives, is the day that changed things forever?
I imagine they do, and the thought makes me feel a strange mix of loneliness and kinship. Because I still think about September 11 every day. Everything reminds me of it: Beautifully bright and unusually clear days like that Tuesday morning and the days that immediately followed it. Weirdly windy and unexpectedly dark evenings in early September, like the first anniversary of the attacks. Planes flying atypical flight paths or irregularly low. Subways stopping strangely suddenly. Police cars’ sirens wailing and moving unusually quickly into the distance. If you live in this city long enough, you get a sense of its pace, and now I notice the aberrations.
It makes me lonely because it’s a horrible way to feel, and it’s not something I can share with people: If they weren’t here or they aren’t having this kind of response, they simply wouldn’t understand. And if they were here, and they have had this kind of response, they wouldn’t want to hear it: If we mentioned it every time we thought of it, it would be all we talked about. In the instances of sharing that I’ve had with friends whom I trust, it has been a relief to hear that I’m not the only one; I’m not the only one who can’t do something as simple as cross 6th Avenue without thinking that the middle of 6th Avenue used to offer one hell of a view of the Twin Towers.
And that’s where the kinship comes in. I feel a kinship so strong with everyone who was here that day, and it’s a powerful thing, feeling kinship with eight million people. I remember going back to work on September 13, and it was like the day I realized how much I care about everybody. I knew all my family and friends and coworkers were okay, but I didn’t know about the guy who gets me my coffee each morning at Dunkin Donuts, for example, and I was a little caught off guard by how relieved I was to see him.
And I guess that speaks to what I’ve always believed about this city: The best things in the world are here, but so are the worst, and it takes a lot of strength to survive it all. Living is not a passive activity in New York City. September 11 was the worst day of my life. It opened my eyes to realities I hadn’t yet understood about the world, and it brought tremendous sadness to my city. But, you know, it’s when it’s darkest that you see the most stars. The New York City Marathon in November 2001 was one of my favorite days of my entire life. It was the first big party the city threw after September 11, and for me, at least, it was the day that I started feeling like we were all going to be okay. And the New Year’s Eve leading into 2002 was the greatest New Year’s Eve I’ll ever have, running through Times Square in the bitter cold at 1a.m., throwing piles of confetti at one another and laughing till it hurt.
I’ve never been one to take things for granted, but I can only think of one day in my entire life leading up to September 11 when I actively stepped back from what was going on and thought to myself that I was happy to be alive. I’ve had lots of days like that since September 11, and I’m a better person for it.