For a while there I figured 9/11/02 would just be a date, a marker. I was wrong. The memory and the sorrow of it have fallen back upon me.
I hear it’s more or less impossible to turn on your TV without running into yet another program about the day. I am coping with this by ignoring TV. I don’t care what they’re doing. I haven’t been watching. Let the news media cope with their traumas their own way: loudly, in questionable taste, and at excessive length. I don’t care. They’re not my problem. This is me, my neighbors and my friends and my city. A year ago tomorrow I stood on the roof of my building and watched the towers burning. All that day the wind blew straight from Ground Zero to my street, tiny particles of dust and ash mixed with holocaust smoke that smelled like burned plastic. At evening, the cooling column of smoke rained down scraps of scorched paper.
(We wrote about this at the time: how I went up the street to get more snacks and beer—friends were turning up at my place, nobody wanted to be alone—and on the corner at the head of my block I found a single page from a paperback book. It was scorched around all four sides, and the running head said A Season in Hell.)
I noticed an odd thing in the days and weeks that followed. You’d see little knots of people standing out on the sidewalks, talking, and as they talked they’d all gradually turn so they could look in the direction of Ground Zero—most of them unconsciously, I think. Even when it was out of sight, even in the outer boroughs, you knew exactly where it was, which direction; it was like you could feel it there, this locus of terrible sorrow and anger.
I don’t care what the news media are doing right now. This isn’t about them.
Yeah, those al-Queda SOBs blew up an international symbol, but they also blew up part of my living-and-working city and a bunch of my fellow New Yorkers. I’ll never again get out at Cortlandt Street station and walk past the Warner Store and The Gap and the Discovery Store and the good coffee place with the stuffed bears in the window, cut through the big white marble WTC lobby and up their escalator (saying hello to the security guards), then cross the street via gerbil tube to the Winter Garden and make a left turn through the WFC to get to Ellie Lang’s place. Everything between Cortlandt Street station and the Winter Garden is gone. I’ll never again walk out the front door of Ellie’s building at night and look up to see the towers looming just beyond the roofline of her building’s courtyard, normal domestic apartment windows set against that astounding mega-artifact, the whole thing together looking like a Jim Burns cover painting. I always meant to get a photograph of that view.
Looking up at it was one of the first things I did in AD 2000.
Just getting Cortlandt Street station back has been a struggle. The first time I felt like normal life was starting to come back again was when they got the N and R running on their old route, but it’s meant we’ve been commuting through (past? under?) a mass gravesite twice a day. (That was another marker: The first time I didn’t smell that burnt-plastic reek as soon as the doors opened at Canal Street.)
At first and for a long time thereafter, the station was full of heavy upright timber supports, spaced closely together, connected to each other by 4x4 cross-ties and heavy hardware fastenings. They looked like the bottom half of a singularly unfortunate grove. On the platforms on both sides of the station, big hand-lettered signs said DON’T STOP HERE, to keep subway conductors who’d driven that route for decades from automatically making the stop.
After they’d gotten the roof shored up level again—that downward bulge was profoundly disturbing—the spookiest thing was the farecard machines. They stayed on the whole time. As the months went by, their internal computers crashed, one by one, changing their previous displays to the blue screen of [word left out]. A few times when I passed through the overhead lights were dimmed, and the station was lit by the bluish glow of those screens.
It was worse the day our train passed through and there was sunlight shining down into the station entrance. I’d known what was beyond that point, but my imagination didn’t encompass it, and so the old concourse was somehow still there for me. I hadn’t realized it until that moment.
I saw Ground Zero and 7 WTC several times right after it happened, and the memory still grabs me by the throat. You’ve seen pictures. That’s enough.
I talk about the architecture and infrastructure because it’s easier than talking about the people.
I have three friends who could have been in range. Two were late to work, and the third couldn’t get an exterior door unlocked in time to walk outside and get hit by the debris from the second explosion. Nobody I know was killed, and only one person I know had to be put back together again. One step past that, the friends of friends, the hecatombs start.
That was another set of markers. We all have people we know in one context and another. For a while, every time you made contact with one—your doctor’s office staff, the neighborhood garden club, the regular fans who come to all your gigs—there was this anxiety: Is anyone missing? Have they been heard from? Is everybody okay? Over and over again.
Here’s another marker: the first time I saw a flyer with somebody’s face on it that didn’t say “Have you seen85?” It was a normal business flyer advertising cheap head shots for models and actors. Those used to be fairly common. For a while they disappeared entirely. They’re only now starting to come back.
Normal has been hard to get to. I remember seeing someone ranting about how offensive it was to refer to the event as 9/11 rather than—I forget, I think they favored “The Attack on America”. They thought this represented a craven attempt to cover over and forget the events of the day, Which Should Always Be Remembered. The minute I saw that, I knew the writer didn’t live in the city. When you’re chatting with a friend about recent reconfigurations of the subway system, or where’s a good place to buy your t-shirts now, or when you’re downtown and you’re trying to remember where you can buy Ibuprofen or find a public bathroom, you don’t want to have to bring it all to mind again, that whole terrible mess of blood and tangled steel and documents mixed with pulverized concrete, TV newscasts showing it again/BOOM/and again/BOOM/and again/BOOM like they’re shaking some kind of horrible snowglobe over and over.
It’s not like we’re going to forget it. That is not the problem.
Normal was hard, but I thought we had a partial hold on it. After the day, after a while—weeks, months—we gradually managed to move on to other subjects, the kind we used to talk about before it happened. But increasingly over the past few weeks we’ve gone back to compulsively remembering, compulsively talking about it, the stories and memories battening onto us like a bunch of ghosts marking their first birthday.
Some of the stories getting told now are the ones people couldn’t bear to tell or to hear told last fall. They lodge in the mind. I’ll never be able to stop knowing what fell on the WTC plaza and the roof of St. Nicholas’ church that day, when the towers were burning but not yet down. I’m grateful I climbed down from my roof before I had to see the towers collapse. I’m infinitely grateful I didn’t see it any closer. Some of the people who saw that happening up close were little kids. Who cares what the media’s doing? This isn’t about them.
You can read the details of that stuff somewhere else.
I need to say this one thing: I am more grateful than I can possibly say that on the day, I had the opportunity to do a few small things that helped other people. It was a great blessing, and did more to get me through 9/11 than anything else.
Here’s something I know a lot of people are doing tomorrow: They’re going to go to places and get together with people they couldn’t get to on the day. Ellie Lang says she’s getting together with a bunch of people from her gym. I’m probably going in to Tor, where I desperately wanted to be last year, when my people there walked out on foot, miles and miles in some cases, to get to their distant apartments, find their children at their schools, find a working phone, find a subway connection to another connection to another connection in the hope of somehow getting home to Brooklyn or Queens or New Jersey.
Here’s the public stuff: Tomorrow the fife & drum corps of the departments that lost people will march in from the outer boroughs, a long march starting very early for some of them, and there’ll be a service at the site. Nobody’s giving any new speeches, just reading a couple of old ones we’re all fond of. There’ll be uncountably many other memorial services in the city, with a whole second wave of them towards nightfall. About a zillion candles will be lit. I’ll be out there with my neighbors, not because the media is making a big fuss about it, but because we need to do it, and want to be there.
Hint: All that candle-lighting memorial stuff last fall? Nobody organized that. It happened because we needed to do it. And believe me, when you’re walking through the West Village and come across a circle of West Villagers holding candles and singing patriotic songs, you know it’s something they need to do.
I have not the slightest doubt that some of tomorrow’s observances will be overdone, by some people’s tastes. We do that here. I also have not the slightest doubt that the news media will say some stupid things about it. Repeat after me: What the news media does is not my problem. This is not about them.
Have your own memorial observances, however you like to observe them. It wasn’t just us here in New York, or the United States. This one hit everybody. There are a lot of you out there grieving. You should get together with your neighbors.