A singular anniversary

THE 10th ANNIVERSARY of Sept. 11, 2001 is almost here. That’s obvious. What’s also obvious: the city will have a ton of events commemorating the day. Politicians will seize the day for speech-making, which we hope will not be too opportunistic. Even though it doesn’t open to the public until Sept. 12, people will make a mass pilgrimage to the World Trade Center site, just to be near the heartbeat. The terrorism alerts have already kicked as has the speculation of when/if/how anything will happen. New Yorkers will worry—or not. Sept. 12 will arrive.
It’s hard to add much to the canon of writings or emotions about that day. Like most, I remember it was a clear fall day. I was standing at the bus stop enroute to work at a downtown book publisher. I forgot something and went back home to retrieve it. It was lucky timing because in those few moments I was inside my apartment, the first tower was struck. I’m grateful I don’t have that sight in my memory bank. By the time I left my apartment for the second time, the doormen were huddled around the TV in the lobby: I had no idea of the outside. I did know, however, I didn’t want to witness whatever was happening with a group of people with whom I had only a passing acquaintance. Whatever it was, it already felt  too intimate for that.  And I was too scared to go out on the street.

Back in my apartment, I watched the frantic coverage on TV. And when I heard that the Pentagon had been hit, the full force of the event—whatever it was—registered. We really were attacked. Up until that moment, most of me still believed it was pilot error, an air-traffic control gone wrong. Like most New Yorkers, I couldn’t believe there could be an attack on our invincible city. At that moment, I knew I didn’t want to be alone. I went to work in the West Village, where in the basement office of my employer, I watched the horrors of the day multiply with my three co-workers.

Our office was about 10 blocks from the WTC. If we wanted to, we could have gone out. We did intermittently, but the debris and the smell and the exposure to something so raw and immediate kept us inside and glued to the TV. We ordered food in—a miracle that anyone was working that day (and testament to New Yorkers’ practicality). Someone knocked on the door and wanted to use the phone: she was on her way to her gym at the WTC and, like me, had forgotten something at home. That made all the difference in her life. But she had to find her husband and let him know she was OK. Her cell phone wasn’t working. She broke down in our office. She was so not OK. None of us were.

We had another knock—a young woman and college friend of my employer’s daughter. Her office was across the street from the towers and she watched the hit in shock, then stood paralyzed as  conflicting instructions fired around her office: “Stay where you are. Leave the building. Don’t use the elevators. The firemen are coming.” She ran out and then walked in a trance state away from the hot smoke until she was on Leroy Street and realized she knew someone there. She knocked on the door. My boss opened it and recognized her daughter’s friend through her ash cover. She had no idea she was covered in gray silt. She came in, sat on the couch and stared at the TV. We didn’t know if it should stay on or not: our visitor just stared at the screen as the jumble of words came out. Suddenly she looked straight at us and asked for a beer. She drank it in two swigs and left.

My memory of the rest of that day was the collective “are you OK?” all over the city. I heard from former employers and schoolmates and every ex-boyfriend I’d had since college—speaking more to the hugeness of this to the outside than to my propensity for keeping old relationships. Inside that envelope of smoke and ash, we couldn’t know its larger context. It was not only just down the street, it was already a part of us.

The phone checks weren’t enough: I wanted to be with people on that day and for the next few. I remember for a week after that bars doing a remarkable business … everyone literally drinking down their sorrows. I joined them because no one wanted to feel alone and we all had a need to participate in some kind of conversation about it. Some time before, the publisher for whom I worked had reissued “Here is New York,” E.B. White’s love letter to the city that had an eerily prescient message. We sold out of it—people looking for a way to understand what had happened or a reason to keep loving New York.

If you’re looking for a conversation on this singular anniversary, many cultural organizations will offer ways to engage—and on your own terms. My story in the Wall Street Journal [download PDF here] selects just a few of the many commemorations throughout the city—events that will allow you to be alone in your thoughts, yet share the forever-bonding intimacy of that day with others.

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