Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Later

I could not bring myself to watch the September 11th memorial services downtown, just three blocks from where I work. And I never want to reward the terrorists and re-live September 11th all over again each year. But this is the Tenth Anniversary, and it is impossible to remain passive today.

When we moved to our new office from West Chelsea at the end of October last year, I came across a file. In it was a copy of The New Yorker published on September 24, 2001, with a copy of an email I sent to a friend in California in response to his question how was I doing and what was New York like. I decided I would post it on this sad anniversary in a world that remains forever changed.

October 10, 2001, 3:33 a.m.

Hey, Friend,

Here we are, already four weeks later. I guess I have so much to say; it's hard to distill it all.

I had a lot of trouble sleeping the first two weeks, and I am still having bad dreams that wake me up. All of us here talk about it, talk about it, talk about it. Of course, the first day we were in the daze of horror. Then we were propelled by the adrenaline that gets you through the shock. We were all stopping each other in the street, "Are you okay?" which had a new and twisted meaning, being stunned all over again when you got the wrong answer, "I took my nephew's dental records to the family center because my sister just couldn't do it." "We're okay, but my girls lost five friends. You know, all these thirty year olds." Can you imagine, friend, all these young people your son's age? Then the good answers. "No, we're okay, and so are our friends. We all work in midtown." That was always good news - "We work in midtown. Our friends work in midtown. Our kids work in midtown." By the third week the total surprise was gone. Now the chilling realization has hit that "life as we know it is over" is not a sound byte. It's the real deal. The Holland Tunnel is still closed. Trucks and vans in and out of the City are stopped for inspection. And instead of its being a pain, it's a comfort. Yes, okay. We'll wait. Check it out. The National Guard is at the airport and on some street corners. Police are everywhere, and people stop at the firehouses, which are surrounded by bouquets of flowers and thank-you notes, to say hello and shake hands and drop off homemade cookies and have their little children meet real heroes. While we were eating lunch in our conference room yesterday, a plane flew over so loud and so low and so close, we all just stopped everything - talking, eating, chewing, swallowing - and looked at each other. When the noise faded, we said, "Oh, F16." Then the architect who designed our space stopped by and told us that the FBI has taken over a lot of space in a building right near our office to set up headquarters - he says now it's the safest neighborhood. People consider safety issues. Do I have comfortable shoes handy in case I need them? What will happen next? Is there anything I used to do that I shouldn't do now? But what I notice, again and again, is it's not fear that drives us. It's sadness. Sadness for those people lost, those families changed, our city brutalized, and the extreme sadness that a person in this century can inspire so much hatred that he can call for the annihilation of a group of people - the Americans, the United States - and summon a response.

As I sit at my computer at work, I look out the window at the Empire State Building. We left last night in the dark, and it's lit up Red/White/Blue. A girl who works with us was walking with us, and she said "Oh look how pretty the Empire State Building looks." She is right, and now it is amazing to see. There is a certain time of day, before sunset, when the sun somehow reflects a certain way, and our office all of a sudden has a golden glow. The light bounces off of windows outside and shines all over, and our space just shimmers. It is a beautiful time of day, somehow serene and peaceful, and it's a good time for me to stop, reflect, and in my own way say a little prayer and think how glad I am to be here.

I, like you, don't know how this will all play out and wonder and worry. So far, the response seems to be with clear thinking, planning, determination, and restraint. What I do know is that I have a different and revised appreciation for what my mother saw as an adolescent and young adult in wartime England. She spent most of her teenage nights sleeping in air-raid shelters. One of her classmates ran into a phone booth during an air raid and died when the booth crashed around her. Her mother, my grandmother who I never knew, went into the house to make everyone a cup of tea, leaving the protection of the back yard shelter, and died from implosion when a bomb fell on the house next door. My mother's next door neighbor's severed head, still in his air raid warden's helmut, was outside when she left the house one morning. One night, sheltered with a friend in the Underground in Liverpool, my mother's girlfriend had to pee, and there was no place to go; however, there was an empty Scotch bottle lying against the wall, which she used as a urinal. They left, and when they came back, discovered someone had stolen the bottle, leaving them helpless with laughter! I wonder, if she were alive, what my mother would think of all that's going on now.

You and I, we're from the "Hell, no, we won't go" generation and have never experienced these personal feelings of patriotism before. It's not like seeing the movie or reading the book The Right Stuff and feeling warm and fuzzy. To me, what everybody, especially those in the Arab world - to whom it probably came as quite a shock - learned on September 11th from those people whose plane crashed in Pennsylvania was that young, "indulgent" Americans also have some things they are willing to die for -- and do it with only minutes to think about it and plan it, not years and without the promise of 72 virgins waiting for them in Paradise.

A friend of mine told me that he has a friend whose son is in the Service on board a ship. His captain said they had received a request from the captain of a German ship in their area to arrange a rendezvous of both ships. So they pulled alongside the German ship, where everyone on board, in full military regalia, stood and sang The Star Spangled Banner. Stories like that make me cry.

Six paragraphs long,



  1. I linked to you from Orangette and happened on this article. It moved me to tears; it's a perfect distillation of that moment in time - revelatory, soulful, thoughtful. I wish it had a wider audience.


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