Tribute, Part 5: Aftermath

No one’s 9/11 story ends on the 11th.

The streets of Manhattan always feel like something out of a movie. Because they are. Cue Gershwin. Fade to black, look for Woody Allen in the background. But when I first went back to the island after the attack, Manhattan streets felt like the set of a black and white post-apocalyptic art house film examining its own existential crisis.

Madison Avenue’s poshest shops were shuttered, displaying hastily handwritten signs that declared in Sharpie marker, “Tuesday, 9/11: Closed at 1PM due to World Trade Center accident.” Half of the city was shut off, citizens only allowed downtown with proof of address. I was too scared to head downtown, anyway. My only memories of the Union Square tribute come from TV.

My subway ride in on September 13 ended early. The train was put out of service due to “an investigation.” This happened nearly every day in the weeks that followed. Like cattle, we treaded out of the train, across the platform, up the stairs and down the avenue. We moved through the city in a state of mild posttraumatic shock, frightened eyes searching for compassionate support in the faces of the strangers we passed.

Starbucks played host to my most striking image of that day. Pre-caffeinated New Yorkers are not a pretty scene. Gothamites aren’t known for their kindness and charity to begin with, but before 9 a.m.? Please. But at the condiment bar at the Sony Plaza Starbucks that morning, I noticed a woman looking lost and fumbling for something. I was holding the whole milk and offered it to her. “Are you looking for this?” I smiled.

She reached across, taking the carafe in one hand and my arm in the other. “Thank you,” she said: emphatic. Touched. Broken. Desperate. She looked me straight in the eye as she did so, holding both my gaze and my wrist. And then we went our separate ways.

New Yorkers can be so alone; a city of eight million where you can see thousands of people before 9, but easily hide in a sea of anonymous humanity. I often thought about those people who were alone in those days following the attacks. I had my friends, fledgling new relationships I was establishing in New York, and the long-held connections back home. But what about that woman at Starbucks? Who did she talk to when her office was evacuated at noon because of a bomb scare? Who did she call before she walked home again? Did she have anyone with whom to drink cheap wine, watch the news, and cry?

By Saturday, my roommates and I were exhausted by the broadcast news, could read no more of the New York Times. We decided to unplug by renting a movie. We were so bruised by that stage that everything felt as if it would trigger a relapse of fear; all action movies rejected. Nothing with a deeper overall philosophical thesis permitted. We settled on the most banal thing we could find at Blockbuster: Meet the Parents with Ben Stiller. The film ends with Stiller’s character making a stupid joke about bombing an airplane and being interrogated by the FBI. Another night of bad dreams.

I had the unique experience of flying just 15 days after 9/11. I’d booked tickets in August for a friend’s wedding back in Iowa. There were maybe 15 of us on a 737. The flight attendants walked around and took our orders like cocktail waitresses.

I’d gotten into such a routine in the days following the attacks that I’d forgotten to feel: get up, evacuate the subway for a mysterious investigation, walk to work, drink with friends, watch news, try to sleep. Being out of town, seeing friends I missed and who didn’t understand, shook me up. On a three-hour drive from my college town to my parents’ house, I lost cell phone service long enough that my only option was silence. I was forced to connect with myself and with God, both of whom I’d been avoiding. I wept so intensely for the rest of the drive I nearly lost sight of the road.

A paradox of parallel processes happened that weekend in Iowa: part of my heart broke open and melted into a pained puddle, and another part solidified into something as tough as a diamond. At the wedding, I remember a classmate’s mother coming up to me and saying, “Oh, good, you’ve come to your senses and moved back home.” I peered above my sunglasses and said, “I fly back into LaGuardia tomorrow.” I’m sure I was wearing black. I made a point of always wearing black on those first few visits back.

There’s a big debate around these parts about when someone becomes a New Yorker. All of us are immigrants to the Big Apple, but how long does it take to become a “real New Yorker?” In my case, three months and nine days. I lived through hell in New York City; walked through it day after day. I decided that merits expedited membership into this club.

I had a really difficult weekend in Iowa: dealing with unresolved friendships, realizing the depths of emotion I’d left behind, deciding to fall in love with a man I found out 12 hours later was gay, all while I avoided processing the stories I was returning to in New York. My printer from Saks had lost his son, a firefighter. My roommate had a colleague assign him the grunt work of dubbing an answering machine microcassette to a CD. It turned out to be a voicemail from a friend who who went down with one of the Towers.

My personal drama was inconsequential, but it gave me something else to think about.

By the time I got to the airport to fly back to New York, I was ready to fall apart. I bought the Sunday Times and just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t read more speculation on the why, the who, or the what’s next. Recent serious journalism grad though I was, I flipped to the Sunday Styles section, hoping for some relief. The banner headline of the September 30 section? “Being Single in New York is a Little Lonelier Now.” A reminder I hadn’t needed.

Personally, I’m less interested in the geopolitical aftermath of something like 9/11. It’s important, I get that. But I just care a lot more about what it means for people. And what I felt in those days was a constant reexamination. The events of 9/11 served like a magnifying glass that was being held over each of our lives, asking us what we were doing. Did it really matter?

Listen, my life was barely touched by 9/11. I didn’t lose anyone I knew, I wasn’t physically harmed. I did lose a full-time job prospect, but it all worked out in due time. I was lucky, if you believe in luck, which I don’t. I am grateful.

But, dear God, it was still such a mess. I still felt so alone, so confused. Angry. Heartbroken. I stared out of the plane from my window seat vantage point, thankful for the dark empty plane to hide my tears as we flew up the Hudson, over the well-lit site.

And then we deplaned at LGA. Taxi to Astoria. N train to Midtown East. A routine resumed. Numbness serves in times like these. Sunglasses back in place. Black pashmina draped for dramatic effect.

Life, they say, goes on. And it did.

I’ll write more tomorrow about what I think that’s meant—how this one defining day has affected the last nine years.


2 Responses to “Tribute, Part 5: Aftermath”

  1. 2 Kati 13 September 2010 at 08:34


    Andrea and I watched American Pie. Crazy how you look for something, anything to cheer you up and make you laugh. We’re trained journalists, don’t you know, we’re expected to live and breath the news. Sept. 11 taught us that there was more to life than reporting the news!

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