Boy, we love our anniversaries in this country. Americans just can’t get enough of commemorating events by putting on huge displays and making speeches and having white sales. And not just on the day of the anniversary, but for days, even weeks, beforehand, the media builds it up and , in the case of tomorrow’s happenings, the President himself preps the nation with a series of speeches. Yes, its been five years since the WTC attack and the American Remembrance Machine is operating at its full potential.
Let me just say, and this is strictly personal, It’s not for me.
On 9/11/01 I dropped off my wife at the PATH train station at Exchange Place in Jersey City, NJ, right across the bay from lower Manhattan. I kissed her goodbye and she went into the station, I started to drive home (we lived in Bayonne, NJ right next to Jersey City) listening to Howard Stern on the way. I learned of the first airplane hitting from him. By the time I got home and turned on the TV the second plane had hit.
My wife’s train ended in Manhatten at the WTC station. In all of the aftermath news shots of the big hole, the platform she arrived at could be seen half intact.
Let me say now that my wife passed through the Trade Center about 5 to 10 minutes before the first plane hit and she made it to her office in mid-town without any trouble.
Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. To make things really fun, all of the telephone cables connecting NY and NJ relayed through the Trade Center Communication Center, so I couldn’t call her. She had no cell phone. And she was four months pregnant with our daughter.
We were finally able to communicate after about 3 hours by calling my Mother-In-Law in Ohio and talking through her using her call-waiting.
I watched the towers fall from my porch. I watched the smoke and dust rise and cross the bay. I worried about friends that lived downtown. I wondered if my wife would make it off the island. I waited all day for something else to blow up.
My wife finally got to NJ, with hundreds of others, on packed water taxis and tour boats. I picked her up in Hoboken. It looked like what I imagine Ellis Island in its heyday must have been like. Hundreds of people getting off boats looking for familiar faces in the waiting crowd. The arriving people were separated into two groups: Those that were above and those that were below 14th street. The latter group had to be checked for asbestos and decontaminated. My wife was above the line so saved that part, but we worried about the health of the baby for months until everything proved OK.
In the days and weeks that followed the City tried to get back to normal and it slowly did, amid the anthrax scare and the false alarms. As the media and the country took up the call and the cause, I can remember a feeling among New Yorkers of needing a little time before everybody else joined us in this. I’m not saying that it wasn’t a national tragedy, that it didn’t affect everyone in America, but it hit us at home. Our real, everyday homes. The media slogans and graphics, the political rhetoric, it all came a little too soon. We were still sweeping up the stoops, calling friends to check-in and wondering if it was going to happen again tomorrow or the next day. The tough talk and revenge speak coming out of the mid-west, the south, the west, places that felt immeasurably far away in the aftermath didn’t seem to have anything to do with us. It was just words from people that weren’t there.
So five years out, a move to New England later and I still don’t feel ready to commemorate anything. I feel lucky that my family is here with me and healthy. I feel lucky that my friends made it through. I am happy that I get to visit NYC and see them and play in the city that I love. But my remembrance is quiet. I don’t want speeches, movies, shows of might. Certainly nothing the government has done since in the name of 9/11 has made me feel better. I mourn the city that was before. My city. The one I moved to when I was young and stupid and excited to see buildings so tall. The one where I reconnected with the woman that became my wife. The city I got married in. That city has changed. It has lost the innocence….well, I guess I lost my innocence about the city. And that makes me sad. But it is my grief, not the nation’s.
The tragedy of 9/11 belongs to everyone in America, everyone in the world. But it haunts New Yorkers and I think the media circus that happens downtown every year seems alien to them. It certainly does to this long-distance New Yorker. I suppose the rest of the country needs it, and the City lets its happen for them. New Yorkers remember everyday, very quietly, just going about the daily business of living.