So today is 9/11.
Or 11/09 as my British computer is telling me.
And it’s eleven years now. To the day. Today, for the record, is also a Tuesday. In Birmingham it is bright and warm and sunny the same way it was in NYC that day, the same way it was in North Carolina, where I was eleven years ago.
I’m not a person who dwells on that day. The world watched in horror, but I was afraid. I was afraid I had lost my mother, that one of my best friends had lost her father. So many people I know lived in fear that day, and I was halfway down the East Coast, in a state where I didn’t belong and wasn’t particularly wanted by the boyfriend I had come there to be with. All the phone lines were jammed and no one had internet–certainly not high speed internet. I have been a lot of places, even set myself adrift in countries where I barely spoke the language, but I never felt so far from home as I did that day.
The fear subsided–my friend was sitting in the lobby of an NYU building in shock while a kind stranger waited in line for her to use the pay phone, when her father passed by the window she was sitting near and rapped on the glass. My mother was engulfed in the dust of the Towers, but she walked from the World Trade Center all the way up to the 59th Street bridge and into Queens. Miraculously, a van was going to Flushing. She said that when she got into Flushing, the heart of Northern Queens and closer to Long Island than Manhattan, everything was normal. Businesses were open, buses were running, people moving about. She, covered in white dust, was a ghost, haunting everyone with what had just happened. Because things were never going to be the same again.
For my mother, it meant sarcoidosis, the disease everyone is thought to have on House. For New York, it meant a stinking hole, gaping in the bedrock of downtown, where two mighty buildings stood. I couldn’t conceive of them being gone. I had left New York for North Carolina but a couple of weeks before, and right before I left, and errand brought me downtown. I stood beneath the towers craning my neck and marveling at their sheer size. A month later, I could not conceive that they had been reduced to dust.
In the weeks that followed, I immersed myself in the news. I started a scrapbook. I wept when I read the headline in Le Monde: “Nous sommes tous Americains.” I could not tear myself away.
When it was over, though, I dusted myself off and didn’t want to look back. There is a part of me that was almost angry when the nation grieved as if it had happened to them. “You don’t know,” I wanted to say. “This wasn’t in your backyard.” I felt protective and defensive of my city. The first time I went to England to visit my friend, I was at her wedding. In 2006, when I said I was from New York, the question which immediately followed was what I had seen that day. But when people espoused the conspiracy view that seemed to have some weight in those days, that George Bush had plotted 9/11 himself, I flared in anger. He was stupid, he was hardheaded, and he was bad for America, but he wouldn’t do *this.* A monster couldn’t do it.
So today people remember. The documentaries come on tv, even here. They change their facebook profile pictures to the American flag and rainbows, or vows of not forgetting. There’s nothing wrong in this at all, in fact, it is very moving, but I bristle at it. I bristle because I don’t want to be there anymore. I want to move forward. I don’t want my city defined by this. All the things it has done and been and seen, all the 8 million souls that pulse through it day after day–they deserve more than to be defined by tragedy. We New Yorkers are tough. We are survivors. We’ll always go on and we defy anyone to stop us. Which means not living forever in the worst day, but building better ones.
Where I lived in Briarwood, I would take the Grand Central Parkway to get to Metropolitan Avenue where I would grocery shop. The trip along the Grand Central offered an impressive view of the Manhattan skyline, something I never fail to appreciate. One day last winter, though, I noticed something different. Instead of the hole in the downtown skyline I was accustomed to, the Freedom Tower was rising at last above the buildings. Everyone I knew commented on how one day, it was there, shining. And it kept growing, stubbornly rising, and I liked that best of all because it showed resurrection, strength, resilience.
In the days after 9/11, my mother said what helped her get to work was the idea of the English after the Blitz. Bombs would rain down on London, Coventry, Canterbury, but the next morning the people would dust themselves off and go to work and get on with their lives. Now there are memories and reminders–there are but a few scant remains of the quaint medieval Coventry–much of it is modernistic now. But life goes on, just the same. And that, more than anything, is what I want for NYC.