The Thing About 9/11

My sister Michele asked me this morning what the mood was in New York City on the anniversary of the terror attacks. I’m sure she wasn’t expecting the rant I texted her, stream-of-consciousness style. But I realized it was a pretty good summary of how I feel about 9/11 so many years on, and I figured it was time to update my original Sept. 11 post, so I decided to share (and amplify) my thoughts…

The city typically feels sad on this date, but it’s not an ominous thing. There’s a real sense of community on the surface that is usually only a subtext among the denizens of NYC. There is a sense of community loss. It’s usually much quieter on the streets — though nothing like the eerie silence that dominated on the afternoon of 9/11/01

The hustle of Grand Central Terminal is much more hushed, even among the throngs of tourists, who somehow seem to perceive the public mood. There’s a genuine pall over the entire island of Manhattan, and an almost palpable longing. It’s hard to articulate, but it’s a longing for what the world was like before the World Trade Center towers fell.

Those who, like me, were here in town that day are all thinking the same thing: Where was I and what was I doing at those exact moments some 14 years ago? Of course we don’t have to ponder it; it’s burned into our brains like laser scars.

For a lot of people, we were doing the exact same thing then that we were doing this morning: commuting to work. So it’s not hard to find reminders of 14 years ago. We’re taking similar routes. Back then I could walk to my job at Soap Opera Weekly a few blocks down Madison Avenue in midtown. Now I have to take the subway all the way to the end of Manhattan to reach the offices of The National ENQUIRER — ironically, I use the subway stop nearest Battery Park, just blocks from Ground Zero. The new Freedom Tower can be seen from the stop.

So, yeah, it’s sad — but it’s also not maudlin. Life goes on here; it’s just a little more sedate once a year. The hustle and bustle aren’t quite as hustle-y and bustle-y, in part because there is such an emphasis all around on remembering the victims, on re-enforcing our collective resolve, so it is a solemn day.

And while we’re remembering the victims and thanking the heavily armored police and Reservists who patrol our streets and public places, on this day we are also remembering something else, a loss that is somehow just as deep and personal as the human toll. It is always unspoken, but every once in a while I can spot it in the eyes of fellow commuter or someone on the street. We’re mourning the loss of the Old World; of the Way Things Used To Be. We’ve lost our anchor and miss our place in the wider world. We’re old enough to remember the 1990s, the last time we could truly feel at ease in the world. What does it mean to never truly feel safe again… anywhere?

I believe my nieces and nephews are lucky because they’ve never known a world in which America was secure, in which the United States felt like a (really) big brother watching our backs so nobody would ever mess with us. We could read about terrible civil unrest and political clashes and wars and feel like, Well, that would never happen here. And, to a certain degree, we were right.

And then it did happen here.

And our little snow globe existence here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave was shattered along with it, leaving a sense of loss, a hollowness deep inside.

I know where my memories of 9/11 reside, and they’re not in my heart. They’re curled up and hiding in an inaccessible little spot just below and behind my stomach. I feel it there, like a pebble in my shoe: a little pulsing hole; a burning nothingness that feels heavy and empty at the same time, almost like a hollow ball blocking my arteries. It’s a black hole for emotions, simultaneously utterly empty and packed to overflowing. Nothing can get out; but then again, there’s nothing in there. And that’s the thing about 9/11. It’s a black blot of nothing that won’t be ignored. Its substance is ectoplasm or demon dust or the stuff nightmares are made of. It’s the lamp of a jinn, and it’s just empty.

The lack if humanity and empathy that went into the attacks are counterbalanced by the service and sacrifice of first responders and soldiers who served then, serve now and have served every day since. There is Evil with a capital E in the world, and most times I lament we don’t have the Avengers or Batman or the Doctor to put things right. But just as those 19 hijackers were the distillation of the worst of the human race and everything that is wrong with mankind, the real-life heroes of that day and all the days that have followed embody the good people who work hard to balance the universe.

I also see the very ordinary, quotidian people of the city every day, doing their best to muddle on. Lots of people paste on a fake smile and push through the maddening crowds on the subway platforms and the tourists staring, slack-jawed and frozen in place, at the wonders of the city and try to put in a day’s work and just get through it.

Maybe that’s the actual mood here in the Big Apple on the anniversary of 9/11: Life goes on. And today is the day we slow our ever-quick “New Yawker” gait to be reminded that sometimes life takes an unexpected, stomach-churching sudden left turn, and it may take a while to recover, but we’ll get through it. Life will go on. Life always finds a way.

Oh, yeah? Sez you!

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