Remembering.

This was the cover of the New Yorker, 9/24/01. I still have a copy somewhere. The original doesn't have this much contrast between the foreground and background.

I still feel vaguely ill when I see these pictures. I was one of the people who—at first—was a little peeved not to see the ending of “The Celebrity Apprentice” back on May 1. But, of course, once the news of Osama bin Laden’s death came through, I (and, fortunately, most of America) stopped caring about Donald Trump and his games.

I’m not one of the people who actively cheered bin Laden’s death. I didn’t get a sense of closure out of it. I didn’t feel as though the world had changed back to its pre-9/11 state. But I did feel as though maybe a page had turned.

A short while back, I was goofing around with the Internet Wayback Machine and came across a piece I’d written a couple of months after that day in September. A friend of mine was assembling a website she’d called “Sorrow in America” and solicited pieces from a lot of people. Mine was one of the pieces she’d published. I reproduce it here with her permission. I can’t remember if I wrote the title or if she did.

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Visiting Home

In 1992, during an interview discussing fortieth anniversary of her reign in England, Queen Elizabeth described that year as the Royal Family's annus horribilus.

2001 will be remembered as mine.

In February my second marriage collapsed and I moved in with a friend until I could get my act together. The daily commuting distance from Long Island to Brooklyn, however, put such a strain on my finances that I was just about paying my bills, even though I paid no rent. I began making plans to move out of the New York Metropolitan Area altogether and in mid-July I finally made the leap, landing in Baltimore, Maryland. It was the first time in my entire life that I'd lived more than 45 minutes' drive from the New York City line. I was now 200 miles from my ten-year-old daughter, I'd left my visually-impaired preschool students in the middle of their summer school program…I was running away. That's how some people put it, and there were times when I was forced to agree. But everywhere I turned there were reminders of failure and promises that weren't going to come true, and healing was impossible for me.

On Labor Day weekend I had my daughter with me and we were making plans for the next time she'd be down to visit with me. September 14 isn't so far away, I told her. She'll be busy with school starting and all that. It'll go by before you know it.

Of course, before we got to that day the world changed.

I remember being at work and we were in a training session when someone broke the news to us about what had happened. The trainers had little clue of what they were doing, so I was able to grab a computer terminal and see what was going on. This had to be a rumor. A bad one. Something in the realm of an urban legend, where it was just crazy enough to ring somehow true. CNN website? No access. MSNBC? Same thing. New York Times? Slow, but it worked. And Oh, My God it's for real. Opening multiple browsers and banging away at websites, trying to get in. Newsday was also slow but working.

The trainers droning on about a paperwork tracking software system that even they couldn't quite understand and chastising me every time they noticed that my terminal didn't look just like everyone else's. Word came in that one of the towers had collapsed. Apparently a training group in another room had given up on the training and was watching the television. We did the same, turning on the TV in our room.

Everyone in the room was startled and shocked. I was horrified, dumbstruck, numbed. It wasn't the same for them. For the rest of the people I watched with, it was a tourist attraction that had taken the hit. This was my home I was looking at, smoking and in ruins. When I was at work, those buildings were within sight. Whenever I'd driven back up to Long Island to visit my daughter, they were among the first sign of New York that greeted me as they peeked over the horizon before anything else. I was sickened, I was saddened, I was…was…there was something else gnawing at me beyond all this, but I couldn't figure out what.

The other building came down and I remember saying, over and over, "Ohmygodohmygodohmygod" as the top of it started to go, that huge broadcast antenna tilting slightly to the side before the floors below finally gave way and the building collapsed almost straight down, joining its mate. Shortly after that, we got word that Baltimore City was shutting down. That was enough for us. We left the training center and headed home before we found ourselves among thousands of others trying to do the same thing.

Arriving home and turning on the TV and the computer at the same time. Still struggling with that last undefined emotion. Watching the footage of the second plane crashing and the buildings falling, over and over, as though they hadn't already been seared into my memory the first time I saw them. Looking for more information on the Web, suddenly remembering that other parts of the world have news websites, too. The BBC and The Guardian, both British sites, had much less traffic and were faster-loading. But I wasn't learning much new anymore. A big chunk of my home had been blown up. What more was there to know?

Calling my daughter. I knew she wasn't in Manhattan, but who knows. Getting the answering machine and leaving a message. It wasn't until several hours later that her mother (Wife #1) got through to me, using a cell phone because the land lines were so bollixed up. Talking to my daughter and telling her that I probably wouldn't be able to visit. Shit. Who knew that there would come a time when I wouldn't be able to come running when she needed me?

GUILT. I felt GUILTY that I'd left and now this happened. This was my punishment for leaving. "You don't want to be here?" asks Fate. "Fine, then I'll take it away." It's stupid, it's irrational, but it's how I felt. Still do, from time to time.

Going to work and pretending to function. What do these people know about how I feel? They never lived there. Going home and parking in front of the TV again. My roommate tiptoeing around me and asking me from time to time if: A) I'm OK, and B) If I'm sure I'm OK.

Flash forward a few weeks and I'm going up to see my daughter for the first time since all this happened. Some people who live within sight of the skyline are telling me that it's still smoldering, over three weeks later. Some tell me it's not. I'm not sure I can stomach this.

My entry into New York takes place at the Outerbridge Crossing, onto the southwest corner of Staten Island. Staten Island is the home of Fresh Kills Landfill, which was recently closed in order to be capped and whatever else they do with such things to make it habitable again. Fresh Kills was re-opened to give crews a place to bring, and then sift, the wreckage. From the Staten Island Expressway you can't see much of Fresh Kills, since the 'landfill' is now a 40-foot mountain lightly covered with grass, but it's an uneasy feeling to see those helicopters circling overhead…

As I pass Fresh Kills, the next thing I forget to expect is that trucks are bringing stuff to the landfill. The first truck I encounter is a flatbed tow truck. It carries a police car with its roof caved in. The hood has easily an inch or more of soot and ash. The next truck I pass has some random twisted metal on it. The third, a van with its windshield and front portion of the roof crushed inward.

The fourth truck looks much like the second, until some detail catches my eye and I realize that this one is not carrying random twisted metal. The whole thing suddenly comes together and I realize that it's the remnants of an utterly destroyed fire engine.

Only a few minutes later, as I cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, I get my first look at Manhattan. The whole city looks…wrong, somehow. I know that the World Trade Center is missing, but Manhattan's skyline is several miles long. It shouldn't look wrong everywhere, and yet it does.

As I take the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway north, I'm treated to a front-row-center view of lower Manhattan. I don't see smoldering but I do see cranes. Their actual activity is, thankfully, obscured by some of the buildings that were spared. We hit a traffic jam and I'm left to stare at this image. I look to the right. The Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Citicorp, New York Life, McGraw-Hill…anything else I care to pick out is visible. I hold up one hand to block out the financial district. It's still looking wrong.

New York and I are miles and miles apart, yet still connected. The skyline that I grew up looking at is changed forever. I am changed forever. Annus horribilus.

2 thoughts on “Remembering.”

  1. We are always connected to where we grew up, where we lived, where we worked. I’m 3,000 miles away, and reading this still brought tears to my eyes. NYC will always be the gateway to home.
    That year was also my annus horribilus when going through it. But in hindsight, the other things that happened gave way to bigger and better things, though they took a while to build. I hope that NYC will allow that to happen at Ground Zero, too.

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