Saturday, September 11, 2010

Maybe we'll get it right next year.

This post first ran in my blog on 9/11/09. I thought that since 9/11 falls on a Saturday this year, maybe I'd get to skip blogging about it. But I'm seeing the same inanity and self-serving posturing and misuse of real tragedy and other people's pain... and so I'm going to repeat myself, too. Goddammit.

Here's last year's post.

I wasn't going to write about this. I had a bad and insecure day yesterday, and I was going to blog about how you pick yourself up when you feel like you've made an ass of yourself all day long... and this is a writing blog, not a political, or social, or personal one... but then I read a few posts this morning on the subject... and now I have to talk about it.

If you don't want to read about 9/11, stop here.

If you don't want to read profanity, stop here.

I am from NYC. On 2001, I was working at a law office in midtown Manhattan, but on September 11th in particular I was part of a group of attorneys doing document review in Newark, NJ. My train that morning went under the WTC pretty much moments before the first plane hit. I arrived at the NJ location to see people glued to a tiny t.v. that was black & white, and full of static. But we were just over the river and could see the towers out the floor-to-ceiling windows in the back of the NJ office. We kept on the radio, and the t.v., and we saw the towers collapse as we watched through the window.

I had a cell phone, and my then-boyfriend-now-husband relayed messages between myself and my parents as we confirmed everyone was safe. NY-to-NY calls wouldn't go through (too many local cell phone towers down, I guess), but my husband was out of state, and we could call him.

One of the attorneys on site that day had a boyfriend in NJ, so we stayed at his place overnight. I wanted so badly to get back to the city, but even just across the river, it couldn't be done. Our hosts drove me to the train station, but the trains weren't running. I just wanted to go home. Not to my boyfriend in Boston. Not to my parents, even, because I knew they were way uptown and safe, but to MY home. My home in Manhattan. My apartment on 63rd and First. To my little green parrot. I wanted to be alone with my small pet, in my city.

I came home the next morning. I've never seen the city so empty. Silent. Even when there were people on the street, there was no noise. No cell phones, no chatter, nothing.

And then there was the smell. The haze of the smoke that enveloped everything, even miles uptown. I remember the smell.

I went back to work right away, I think. Everything felt hollow. Our company donated office space to lawyers displaced from downtown, and asked us to spend the company money in the WTC area whenever possible. We did all our business lunches downtown, from the first moment that the area was open to us.

There was an earthquake in Manhattan not too long after 9/11, and that vibration was the most horrifying thing I'd ever felt. And a month or two later I saw a low-flying plane disappear behind the Prudential Center Tower in Boston, and I screamed.

There was a tribute concert on television shortly after the attack, and it ran on damn near every station, and it made me furious. Who did these people think they were? Who did they think we were? If a New Yorker had time or money or blood to give, they'd already given it. I didn't want to think about this shit anymore. I didn't want to watch Celine fucking Dion singing in front of a backdrop of how my city used to look. I didn't want to read on the internet about how traumatized people were, when they lived in totally different states where there was no chance of a similar attack ever happening, had never so much as known a single person in NYC. They saw it on television, and I'd seen it out my goddamn window, and I smelled it every day, and I saw how empty the subways were every day, and I saw the military presence on the streets, near the courthouses, in the 14th Street station on the platform for the 6, every day. And I didn't even think I had any particular right to be "traumatized," because I didn't have any damn bodies falling on me. I didn't lose anyone I loved.

My dad was already retired, but his company had an office on the 105th floor in the South Tower. Some of his friends got out. But he went to funerals for about 3 weeks straight. I went to dinner with one of his best friends, who had lost one of her best friends. The friend she'd lost had also been her weight-loss buddy, and now she knew exactly how little his remains had weighed after he'd jumped out the window. That is some fucking trauma. So who were these shitheads singing on my television? I switched to the SciFi channel, then a DVD.

People like to talk about how the crisis brought out the best in people in America. Hell, all over the world. (And, personally, I think we squandered some of that potential, but I'm going to try not to get political on top of being morbid.) But I saw it bring out the worst as well. One of my coworkers that day lived right in the shadow of the towers. Her kids went to school right next door. She couldn't get back to the city, so she called her ex-husband who was still in the city, and asked him to pick them up and take them somewhere safe. He agreed.

And then he kidnapped them. Custodial interference, technically. But he took those kids out of the state, and enrolled them in another school and moved to get new custody papers -- claiming his ex-wife abandoned the kids during the 9/11 crisis -- because the NYC courthouses were completely out of commission, and there was no paperwork available to contradict his new story. (Yes, she got them back, with a little assistance from some lawyer friends and a cop or two.)

There is no grand lesson to be learned from 9/11. People can be evil. Life can be short. We already knew that. If you were motivated to do something great after 9/11, or after Katrina... can you go do it again, now? Donate blood, donate time to a homeless shelter, visit kids in a hospital, something? Just do it. It's not about a motivating crisis. I think New Yorkers know this. It has a reputation as a harsh city, but it never really was. New York is certainly more welcoming to strangers and visitors and new residents than Boston is. (I love you Boston, but seriously, you're pretty clique-ish.) New Yorkers got on with life because we had to. We don't forget, we just don't fucking talk about it. If 9/11 made you want to be a better person, then just get off your ass and go be a better person.

I had a bad day yesterday, and I may well have made an ass of myself on multiple occasions. It doesn't fucking matter. I'm going to go do something worthwhile today. And maybe tomorrow. And hopefully the day after that. Not because of 9/11, but because it's the right thing to do.

I was born in Tokyo. I grew up in Manhattan. I live in Boston.
I am from New York City.

This is my city.

This is my city.

This is my city.

This is my city.

To read the comments to this post from last year, click here.


  1. Thanks for this. I purposely stay away from the TV and news on this day, but I saw this and trusted you and it was the best commentary I've read on those events in a long time.

  2. Thank you.

    I was in South Carolina when it happened, and what I remember most was the anger--the religious blame. But dwelling on it in some angry way, as it's being used today, is crap.

    I'm trying what you suggest--going out and being a better person. Not because of 9/11, but because I should.

  3. I definitely need to work harder at being a better person on a daily basis, not just in the wake of catastrophic events. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. I get your anger, I really do. However...

    I live in Arizona, far away from the sights, sounds, and smells of that day. Far away from the danger. I spent that day locked in a classroom (the principal's response to that day was not to send everyone home but to put us into lockdown) full of seventh grade kids who could not contact their parents (this was the days before everyone had a cell phone) and who were irrationally terrified (that's how 13-year-old kids are). I had to spend the day reassuring them that their parents were safe, that planes were not crashing into every city, and that nobody was going to bomb the school. I went home exhausted. The kids were traumatized. The experience affected me deeply and I remember it clearly.

    I've learned through many experiences and tragedies in life that people deal with events in different ways, and there is no such thing as the "pain Olympics." While I agree that much of the response to 9/11 is inappropriate, I am learning to be compassionate toward what I can't be sure of or don't understand.

  5. Sandy, I take your point. I am not trying to belittle the experiences of others (which I may not appreciate fully), nor do I ever want to discourage empathy, or else the world would be a truly horrible place to live in.

    But last week I heard one too many radio pundit say that, While they didn't support book-burning, exactly, they certainly understood the URGE to burn books on this day, since we haven't really been able to EXPRESS our collective anger over the last nine years.... Those people ARE trying to play in the Pain Olympics, and they are trying to co-opt the pain of others to do it, and it disgusts me. So, I reposted my unforgiving thoughts from last year, turned off the news, and tried to be a better person for the weekend.

    And I'll try again today...

  6. Thank you. This is so true. I've never understood why people had to have tragedy strike before they decide to actually do something important. Why does death motivate people? Why can't they just... do it? Never understood that.

  7. Carrie,

    OH YES!!! I get what you mean about the political appropriation of 9/11. Disgusting and unforgivable. I see the distinction you have made: that it's ok to feel sadness and empathy for the situation, just not to USE it for your benefit. I get it now.