After 9/11

What I chiefly remember about New York in the days just following 9/11 was how empty and silent it was.  No one felt much like talking.  They certainly didn't feel like shopping.  For days afterward, at least on the Upper West side, the sidewalks were sparsely filled, which created an awkward situation.  When you approached someone coming from the other direction--not someone you knew, just anyone--you felt a strong need to acknowledge the other person, their shared ownership in our joint tragedy.  But what was appropriate?  Not a smile, certainly.  A wave felt awkward, a shrug, too blase.  The other New Yorkers and I all seemed to settle on the nod.  For a couple of days I walked the dog as if through the streets of a small but formal 19th century town, nodding gravely to everyone I met.

Eventually, this first shock wore off.  People had to go shopping--on the afternoon of the 11th, a rumor had swept the uptown residential districts that firemen needed socks and sweatpants because it was wet and cold.  My mother, like many loyal New Yorkers desperate for a concrete contribution, had taken all the socks in the house and bundled them off to the fire department on West 83rd street.  (I later heard that the bewildered firemen had donated this strange bounty to some charity in Africa).  We made do for a couple of days washing the socks that we'd had on, but eventually, we had to go to the store and buy new ones.  Groceries needed to be laid in.  Life went on.

I was going to write a long piece on what it was like to work at Ground Zero in the days immediately after the attacks.  Perhaps someday I'll write that piece, but every time I started it this weekend, it felt false.   What I wanted to write about was emptiness and silence.  And what do you write about those things?  Better writers than I have struggled with the impossibility of directly expressing an absence.  The towers were there, hovering over every move you made downtown, and then they were not, but when they collapsed they left no impression behind them.  There was just the sky, looking like the sky.

The shock, for New Yorkers was not just that they were gone, but how quickly we acclimated to the fact that they were gone.  It wasn't like losing a tooth--there was no visual cue that something was missing.  Your brain might remember that something was supposed to be there, but your eyes quickly forgot.

At ground level, there was the tangible reminder--that multistory shard jutting out of the smoking rubble that became one of the iconic images of 9/11.  But somehow, that didn't make the absence any more real.  I worked down at Ground Zero for a year, from shortly after the attack, to just after the first annual memorial.  I stood right next to that monumental fragment when the ground was still smoking and firefighters were spraying it with hoses to keep the smoke and ash at bay.  I smelled the odor that pervaded Ground Zero for weeks, maybe months--burning office fittings and damp embers.  And yet in my deepest mind I didn't connect any of it with the buildings where I had worked on and off throughout the 1990s--even though I stood looking at it from the very familiar streets where I'd eaten lunch so many times.  It didn't look like a building, or even the ruins of a building.  It looked like a scene from a movie about the destruction of the World Trade Center.  No matter how long I looked, some part of my brain never stopped waiting for the credits to roll.

As the rubble was cleared away, and all that was left was two concrete-lined holes in the ground, I spent a lot of time walking around the site trying to come to grips with what happened.  I was waiting for that moment that always happens in the movies--the one where the music swells and the main character, silhouetted against a rolling sky, finally grasps everything that has been lost.

It never happened, maybe because I was not the main character.  I am one of, I think, a relative few--the perhaps tens of thousands of Americans who can plausibly claim that 9/11 utterly changed their life.  Without 9/11, I would not have worked at the World Trade Center's disaster recovery effort; I would not have started blogging; I would not now be a journalist.  I would not have had most of the relationships I had in the past ten years, be married to my current husband, or live in the city I now call home.  I would be in all visible ways a completely different person if those towers had not come down. But in the story of 9/11, I am not even a bit player.  I'm maybe an extra.

And yet, I'm not sure how much better I would understand the event if it had happened to me in some more important way. I don't think anyone can really grasp 9/11 in its entirety.  The best we usually do is to look at what we were like before, and what we did afterwards.  But this does not tell you what happened, or what it meant--any more than you can describe your 11th birthday by contrasting your 10th with your 12th.  It is both too much and not enough.

What I eventually realized was that outside of movie plots, tragedies on this scale can never really be comprehended.  The closest I came, I think, was a few weeks later, when I finished up teaching a Princeton Review class at Union Square, and headed to the train to go back downtown.  The area near the station was plastered with "Have You Seen . . . ?" flyers, mostly of young people who had worked at places like Cantor Fitzgerald.  The people who had made those posters had used whatever snapshots they had. The poses varied but they all had one thing in common--every one of the people in them looked happy.  They were cuddling kittens, holding beers, showing off engagement rings, or just sitting on the steps and smiling.  There were hundreds of them.  Maybe thousands.

Ten minutes later, I was sitting on the train--they'd just gotten it running again--and the conductor announced "Chamber's Street".  Automatically my brain filled in "Next stop, World Trade Center".  But it wasn't--and I suddenly realized, never would be again.  It wasn't much of an epiphany, but I hadn't been expecting it.  I started crying.  The people around me looked disgusted.

But the tears didn't change anything.  They didn't even empty out whatever place one uses to store one's perfect mental map of all the stores and restaurants in the WTC's underground mall, or the curiously clinical tone of a classmate's voice as he described the bodies hitting the glass atrium above the winter garden at the World Financial Center.  I cried, and then I got off the train and I got a cup of coffee from the relief tent near Trinity Church and went back to the trailer where I issued security badges to construction workers.

I didn't watch any of the memorials yesterday.   I was surprised to find out how much grief I still felt about the buildings, the city I was born in, and the bodies that the construction workers tried so hard to keep us ladies from seeing.  I couldn't bring myself to poke the wound.  I went for a long walk early in the morning.  I baked a cake.  I ate dinner with my family.

And so I'm afraid I don't have any thoughts about the greater significance of the event.  The stories that we tell ourselves about 9/11 are all in some way true, but they are also all limited--and they are almost always more about us than about the unimaginably complicated events of one perfect September day in 2001.

Sometime on that construction site, I lost my will to connect 9/11 to a larger narrative about anything.  I gave up on catharsis. What I know is that there will always be a place in the sky where the towers ought to be, and that we will never be able to see it.