Stranger in a crowd
Treading fire after dark
Lost in a city
Pulsing to the sound
Of the spirit and soul
How do you survive after the worst that has happened?
When studying literature and post-modern works in college, we were often asked that question. This was typically in response to some of the more traumatic events of the 20th century. The Great War. Pearl Harbor. World War II. The horrors that only humans can inflict upon other humans.
How individuals respond to trauma can set forth a lifetime of either depression or understanding, and it can be the driver for how collectively populations react.
The grief doesn’t leave you. At least, I don’t think it does. It becomes a ghost, something that you carry around with you. But it also shows resilience and fortitude. Whether one survives isn’t a factor in what makes one strong. You were likely already strong; tragedy reveals who you were.
A city that is breathing
Living through the cables
Alive across the wires
Faces without names
I didn’t cry that day.
Sure, I grieved. I mourned. I was very sad. I didn’t know anyone who was directly affected that day. I knew of people who knew someone who KNEW “someone,” so I felt spared.
I didn’t cry.
It felt odd. Like an out of body experience, it’s the only way I can describe it. For months leading up to September 11, 2001, I had walked around Lower Manhattan every day to go to work. I had started a job in that area just under a year prior to the attacks.
As contrived as it sounds now, there was a very ominous feeling hovering over New York City. I don’t know if anyone else felt it. I remember walking down Broadway in the financial district with just an overwhelmingly negative feeling. I don’t like to think back to that time, not just because of everything that happened, but also of how disconnected I felt from everything at that time. It was very personal. I was in a relationship, but there was a lot of uncertainty. I worked at a job where I was not happy. I had an odd schedule, which ironically spared me the worst of that day.
It was a weird feeling that I could not put my finger on. It’s easy to chalk it up to being a lot of negative people in Manhattan. When the planes hit and the towers fell, I wasn’t surprised nor shocked. I was just numb. The negative energy I had felt all those months was gone, and it was replaced by fear, anxiety and grief.
But still, I did not cry.
It’s a beautiful dream
It’s a beautiful life
It’s just a reflection
A world I must survive
We’re children of the past
Who look beyond today
At the time, I buried myself in my work. My relationship suffered. Unlike me, he had been in the city that day. We were never quite the same after that. Perhaps the negativity I felt prior to the attacks was an extension of knowing that my relationship had a clay bottom. But we were truly never the same after that day.
Lots of things I enjoyed, I simply did not anymore. Baseball, hockey, sports in general became secondary. Joy took a lot out of me. I stopped writing. I didn’t even watch the Mets game on September 21st. See, the ex wasn’t a big baseball fan. Plus, I’m not sure I had the capacity to watch it. I did see the news stories and papers the next day about Piazza’s dramatic home run.
In the years after, I compartmentalized. A lot. It was survival. I didn’t cry, noooo, I didn’t do that. But I distinctly remember walking around the area close to “Ground Zero,” that seemed like a hollowed-out abandoned post-war village. I remember, vividly, thinking to myself, “Why are all these shops closed and windows boarded up?” To think that I had forgotten momentarily about the horrific morning just two years before, thick black and grey smoke, contrasted with beautiful blue sky. I walked past the abandoned market I had first bought lunch when I started working downtown. I couldn’t imagine the horrors outside while they served breakfast unknowingly for the last time.
Before that day, I used to walk the downtown area, resentful and angry that I had to work evenings for a job that I didn’t agree to do. Everyone else got to go home and enjoy their nights…but at least I had the Financial District to myself after hours. Once the Towers fell, I didn’t even have that. It was no longer MY city; it had lost a big part of its identity let alone the overall feeling of loss that permeated the atmosphere.
We live in a dream
Keeping visions alive
It’s just a reflection
A world that never dies
I don’t think I had a “Survivor’s Guilt” per se, as I was not in the city that day. I didn’t know anyone in the Towers. I didn’t know anyone, personally, who was lost. When I worked mornings, I used to grab coffee at a cart across the street from the buildings; she called me the next day and recounted how she had to run for her life.
My guilt was surrounded by how I had never cared for the buildings. I was there every day simply for necessity; I had to walk through the transit center to get to work. I had basic reasons for not liking them: I am afraid of heights.
About five years ago, the 9/11 Memorial Instagram page had a post with signage for the World Trade Center PATH train that had been damaged in the collapse, but it was preserved for the museum. It brought back a lot of feelings I didn’t even know I had. I had walked past those signs many times in those preceding months. Had I not noticed them? Or did I and had I just blocked them out?
Three years ago, the MTA train station that ran underneath the towers reopened (the PATH train I had taken from New Jersey had been reopened for several years at that point). It was also that day that I had gone to see the exhibit of Sports and September 11th. I know the power that a shared moment of sports can have. I had attended the Rangers home opener a few weeks afterwards, where Mark Messier had worn a firefighter’s helmet. I had never known the back story to it.
I had some slight panic attacks going back to the area. Never when I worked there, post-tragedy. Only when I returned after I had left.
The ghost of grief was rearing its ugly head then, I surmised.
But still, I did not cry.
The image we create
Now image we designed
It’s a beautiful life
So when is the future?
– When Is The Future, VNV Nation
It’s been 20 years since that fateful day. My life has changed in many ways, not worse or better, just different. I’ve been paying attention to the past, how it impacts the future, but live in the now. Because if 9/11 taught us anything, it’s that we are all here one day and gone the next.
I’ve been watching some documentaries, which has made me go down sort of a 9/11 rabbit hole. Spike Lee has pointed out parallels between the attacks that day and the pandemic. In terms of people lost and unnecessarily so. Both tragedies that leveled this fair city.
Do you know what made me cry?
A few months after the attacks, People magazine ran a cover story on widowed mothers who gave birth shortly after that day. People went back every few years and did features on them. They are now about to turn 20, they’re in college, and of course have no memories of the dads who were lost that day, but are a symbol of hope when they are just being themselves.
Art wasn’t able to address 9/11 on its own terms. It was either “too soon” or “too close to home” or inappropriately profiting off the death of others. But how else to grieve without a collective creativeness to help us move forward from such unspeakable tragedy?
What made me cry?
I read an article about how 9/11 families had started to work and volunteer at the site to help themselves grieve. Several generations. Sisters. Brothers. Children.
“Trust me, it will get better.” One of the bereaved said this in the article. I think for a long time, I didn’t believe that. I certainly didn’t THINK that. My attitude had nothing to do with 9/11, but just how the world is just tough to comprehend sometimes, humans are shit, and the pandemic did its best to drive us apart, only because we simply cannot be together. Unless outdoors, spaced apart and wearing masks. Don’t forget to wash your fucking hands either.
One of the stories stood out for me though. The daughter of one of the victims said her father would sign off correspondence with Peace.
She asked her tour groups to think of conducting an act of peace in her father’s memory and in making their communities better.
And THAT, my friends, is what made me cry. Even recounting it now as I write, I’m a blubbering hot mess. I made the mistake of reading this on the bus, and I got all welled up. In short, I sobbed.
I realized that in the past 20 years, and especially in the last goddamn how long has it been? Well basically since March 2020, I have not felt that. Peace.
I had a huge disconnect after the attacks on September 11th that had a ripple effect of negativity that probably impacted me in ways I didn’t know. I hadn’t found peace. Even when I went to the reflecting pools that stand in the footprints of those towers that frightened me. Even when I went to the museum and saw the beautiful shade of blue that represented the sky that day. I still cannot believe what perfect weather we had that day, that served merely as a backdrop for the worst that could happen.
We were together for a short period. Now we value the individual over the collective. “Fuck you, I got mine.” And shit, it has been so fucking long since I have felt any peace, and I know that many of you have too.
Yet look at us. We have survived after the worst that’s happened. We are still handling shit that the universe throws at us, and we still make plans for future.
When is the future? It was 20 years ago, but it’s also right now.
Peace be with all of you.