I guess you had to be there.
(Before you read this, please read my friend Joseph’s powerful recollection of that day and all that has happened around it since. It’s really just amazing.)
New York City, November 16, 2001. I was walking from the Astor Place stop on the 6 train, on my way to dinner with one of my oldest friends from Florida and her serious boyfriend – whom, she’d confided, she was positive was THE One. The gift bag I held swung enthusiastically from the crook of my elbow as I walked. In it, one of my most prized possessions: an exquisite mask, purchased three years earlier at the Artisan’s Market in Dakar, Senegal. I loved the mask, but it made a wonderful gift, and it was small sacrifice for a friend I hadn’t seen in years.
The freezing air that stung my bare face and hands carried the surprising but unmistakable bite of winter. I shivered and pulled my stylishly useless military coat’s flaps closer to my chest, thankful that I’d at least had the sense to wear a turtleneck. The sound of my own heels hitting the pavement bounced off the walls eerily, unmuffled by traffic and street noise. On a Friday night in a neighborhood packed with bars, clubs, restaurants and shops, the streets were deserted. I looked behind me towards Union Square, where I could see the lights of the theater where I’d had my very first New York kiss. And further south on Lafayette, the body art and piercing shop where I’d gotten my tattoo, and the coffee shop where my friends had toasted my courage with a cup of chai right after. I knew this place, had walked its streets in every season, at every hour, and in every degree and brand of inebriation. I even knew the restaurant she’d chosen, a popular Texican with forgettable food, weak drinks and insulting price tags. The giant neon sombrero lured them in, I thought.
I knew this quarter. Before It Happened, this chunk of Manhattan had been my weekend stomping ground. Before It Happened, on a weekend night I couldn’t hear myself think over the background noise: blaring car horns, buses ambling clumsily past, women like myself in groups clad all in black and laughing, angry and joyous shouting, the inevitable crying baby. The silence hanging around me was funerary in its weight, not merely the absence of sound, but its erasure, like a muted scream. Like the dust that rained down when It Happened, that awful September snow, the silence covered everything, cloaking all it touched in sorrow. The stunned hush that followed that sudden obliteration. I could feel my city grieving as she held Herself, and struggled to hold Herself together. No, I decided, sighing deeply as I passed a third lone individual at the restaurant entrance. No, it was too much. I would not ask Her to smile for me.
My friend and her guy were waiting for me at the bar when I arrived. In a flurry of high-pitched hellos, tight hugs, and exchanged gifts, we reconnected while her boyfriend found someone to seat us all. At the table, we sipped flyweight margaritas and caught superficially up. Why yes, I did like my new job and apartment, living and working in the Bronx was kinda cool. Well, they’d been together for eleven months and weren’t sick of each other yet. No, it didn’t work out with that guy from work. No, they were going to spend Christmas with his family this year. Yes, I missed Florida sometimes. Yes, they were having a wonderful time here. The cadence of our banter fell into its familiar, girlhood rhythms. A comfortable glow had shaken my months of melancholy loose.
“So,” I asked them, smiling at their entwined hands on the table’s top, “what did you guys do today?”
“Well,” she replied, her smile mirroring my own, “we went to see the towers.” I blinked, nonplussed. I didn’t know what to say. Surely, this wasn’t my friend, who had lived through the devastation wrought by hurricanes her whole life and hated tourists who came to gawk at the horror and return to the safety of their own lives. Surely this wasn’t the compassionate woman who in high school had argued brilliantly and relentlessly with more than one misguided teenaged conservative about social justice. This woman, easily one of the finest people I know, whose mother is like my own, who my mother loves like her own, and who has known me since before I had breasts, had not done that. The icy beginnings of dread and outrage materializing in my guts confirmed grimly that I had, indeed, heard her right.
“You…I…you guys went…what? Why?…” I stammered. She nodded, still smiling. Her boyfriend piped up: “Yeah, and you wouldn’t believe the lines!”
“No, I don’t guess that I would,” I murmured, lifting my glass to my lips and draining it. The dread turned to disgust and mingled with the outrage. I made a study of studying the menu. On the other side of the table, in an exceptional display of coupled oblivion, the two of them chattered merrily away, giving me details I never needed.
“It was a good thing we bundled up, it was freezing down there. You know, it’s right near the water, so there’s all that wind. It’s just so odd because it’s never this cold here in November!” my friend said.
“Yes, it has been an extraordinary year,” I replied, dazed.
Her boyfriend nodded, and held out his hands for my inspection. I peered down at his chapped, red knuckles. ”I don’t like gloves, and we were in line for like, three hours, so I was dying!” You were dying? I thought nastily. Please. You earned those knuckles. My eyes shifted to the festive bag with the mask sitting in an empty chair. I very much wanted it back.
My friend leaned in, whispering, “It’s still burning, you know. The rubble? Some of it’s still on fire. Did you know that?” Yes, I knew that. One of my roommate’s siblings, a paramedic who’d assisted with rescue eff0rts, had sadly verified this. Another friend who worked within walking distance of the site directed tourists looking for it thusly: “The Trade Center? Oh, you mean ‘the smoking hole of death’? Follow your nose. Yeah.” Our server came. I placed my order woodenly, praying that the server hadn’t overheard this discussion and was planning to spit in our food. Sipping my second margarita, I desperately tried to think of polite ways out of this excruciating conversation.
“Have you been down there?” the boyfriend asked me. Sweet, merciful God. I took a long, slow swallow of my drink before I answered.
“No,” I replied flatly. “I have not been down there. This is as far downtown as I’ve been since It Happened. I have absolutely no desire to go down there. But I guess you had to be here to get that” And you weren’t, I thought, but didn’t say. The sentiment hung in the air just the same. Suddenly, they were the ones with more information than they’d ever needed. It made them uncomfortable, I noted, smiling darkly to myself.
But they needed to be. Why shouldn’t they be? Their touristy lack of sensitivity was salt in a deep and constantly worried wound. Fear and stress, already a part of an urban dweller’s life, had increased a hundredfold when It Happened. After It Happened, I avoided the trains, tensing up whenever I had to ride south into Manhattan, unsettled at seeing my anxiety mirrored in the faces of fellow riders. After It Happened, I stopped bringing my Discman on the train with me, lest I miss important announcements or instructions. After It Happened, I didn’t see the laughing face of the Syrian coffee vendor I visited every morning again until that December. After It Happened, I’d watched with mute helplessness as a woman sitting across from me on the D train panicked when we stopped in the tunnel, weeping because she said she felt like It was Happening again every single day.
The boyfriend shifted in his chair, splotchy color staining his face and neck. At some point it had sunken in that he wasn’t making the best impression on someone’s whose opinion mattered. “I’m sorry,” he said earnestly. “It can’t be easy, living here now.” My friend smiled at him reassuringly, then looked at me. I sighed inwardly, and took the proffered olive branch.
“Well, a hard city just got harder. But feel free to inject some money into the local economy!” I said, stretching my lips back and showing my teeth and hoping it passed as a smile. It did: the two of them laughed and visibly relaxed in that way that people who didn’t live in New York in November 2001 could. With the conversation ball in my court, I asked if they’d caught any shows this time around, and the awkwardness was waved away.
On the way home that evening, I thought deep and long about spectator’s grief. The September 11th attacks were acts of terror. They had worked. I was terrified. Everyone I knew and loved was terrified. My whole city was fucking terrified. My friend, her boyfriend, and the rest of the world, on the other hand, were entertained. My own September 11th story, blessedly uneventful and comparatively drama-free, has drawn looks of disappointment from people outside of the city. I’m just glad that I’m here to tell it.
For many, the horror of that day was never quite three-dimensional, so the reluctance on the part of some of us to relive it in even the smallest of ways is baffling. Five years after It Happened, I got a job on Wall Street, where I was stopped at least once a month by someone asking for directions to Ground Zero. (I’d put on a big friendly smile and point them in the direction of South Street Seaport.) The morning before It Happened, I’d sat down with my roommate for our morning coffee, singing out, “Who doesn’t want to go to work todaaaaay?” We’d both raised our hands, classroom-style, giggling. I never uttered that sentence aloud again. The outfit I was going to wear that day was removed, washed, folded, put away in a bag for charity. I knew I’d never wear it again. The saddest part about all of this is that it only sounds neurotic and superstitious if you weren’t there, in that nightmare of a day that we couldn’t wake up from, when It Happened.
The orgy of politicized grieving around September 11th is something that I naively never thought would come to pass. I am too disgusted at this point to really comment about it, but it seems to me that the people who have the most to say about it all didn’t lose a GOTdambed thing when It Happened. I see a lot of people coming in to protest the “Ground Zero Mosque,” on buses and motorcoaches reeking of Tea Party politicking. I see skyrocketing rates of violence aimed at South Asians, Arabs, Muslims or people who look like they might be any of those things. I see my country becoming hopelessly racist, xenophobic and reactionary, commandeered by fearmongerers who claim that “taking America back” means taking America backwards.
And once again, I don’t know what to say.Explore posts in the same categories: SAH Stuff, that's that BULLLLSHIT! comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.