The strength and severity of memories vary for all of us who’d lived through it, and for obvious reasons. Traumatic events are like grenades. The closer you are to them, the more shrapnel tears into you, and scars you.
The memories that still resonate within me from the aftermath of 9/11 feel more sensory and less emotional as time passes.
I remember the scent and light given off from hundreds of candles. Scattered papers swirling through the streets; wilted flowers; mass-produced posters with pictures of the missing, stuck to every surface imaginable. The immersive feeling of the dark and silent nights I could never have thought imaginable in the New York City I knew.
What was most astonishing to me were the views I’d 1st encountered when looking south; down the avenues on the West Side, or from parks (Washington Square Park in particular). Those ugly, familiar monoliths, the one’s we’d always joked about blocking out the Sun, had vanished from the downtown skyline. It was inconceivable. My mind was playing tricks on me.
They’d been replaced by a giant, amorphous blob of soot and ash. A deep red glow pulsated from its depths. It became even larger and more menacing when rays of sunlight fed the beast in the late afternoon.
I’d finally gotten away from work in Mamaroneck, NY (at a travel agency of all places) two days after the attack, and made my way down to NYC. The news radio stations had dropped their customary formats in order to concentrate exclusively on information dealing with the attack. People wanted to help so badly. Manhattan was inundated with volunteers. There just wasn’t enough room, or organization, to handle the multitudes. People wanted to give. The news stations began listing important items that the workers at Ground Zero needed from day to day. I brought two sleeping bags, bed sheets, and a few can openers that could open food for the rescue dogs. There was a receiving station at Union Square Park where I’d dropped them off.
I met up with an EMT friend of mine out in front of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village. She agreed with what had been said to hospital personnel in the hours immediately following the attacks. They were told to prepare for an onslaught of injured. And if they didn’t, they should fear the worst…
The later happened… All of the faces of the missing looking out from fliers plastered to walls and lamp posts, or from photos surrounded by flowers and candles staring up from the ground; the overwhelming majority of them would never return to the loved ones who were pleading for us to find them. Those faces, and their fates, stick with me more than anything else.
A few bars and restaurants began to open. Even without power, they became respites from the sheer enormity of the crisis. A place down on Sullivan Street (Googies?), had beer on tap, and some tables out on the sidewalk with candles on them. There were candles everywhere. Many people still remembered the Blackout of ’77, when the lights went out, and the riots and fires ensued. It was all broken glass and violence back then. There wasn’t even a notion of those types of events occurring after 9/11. When darkness fell, candles floated down the streets, carried by illuminated faces that were grief stricken, or dumb founded, or thoughtful, or just moving their lips. It was so damn quiet.
My friends and I followed the floating candles to seas of other candles. The vigils covered street corners or entire parks. They were everywhere. People were greeting each other with hugs. There was a constant flow of conversation about the latest news. Founded or unfounded, it changed by the minute… The streets are still blocked off from the Holland Tunnel or Canal Street… The death toll is reportedly now at 10,000… There’s a huge crowd amassing on the West Side Highway (cheering the responders as they drove trucks and ambulances back and forth to Ground Zero).
The days and nights weren’t loud, but they were exhausting. The Flag was draped over everything. There wasn’t much jingoistic flag waving, or USA chants, or any chest beating or fist pumping either. You would hear people yelling occasionally, furious at the scumbags who did this and what they’d like to do to them. The one thing the terrorists didn’t see when concocting their plans? They attacked, and pissed off, the wrong city. There was no way in hell that New York City was ever going lay down and die for anybody.
It’s now 15 years past. 9/11 has changed the day-to-day reality for all of us old enough remember it. However, we’re getting to the point when we’ll be asking others, “do you remember 9/11?” before proceeding on with “where were you, and what were you doing when it happened?” New generations are being born into existence. We will slowly die off.
“Do you remember when JFK was assassinated?”
“Where were you, and what we’re you doing when it happened?”
“Do you remember when Pearl Harbor was attacked?
“Where were you, and what were you doing when it happened?”
We’ve digested many bitter lessons, and in our own way, have been able to process them to help our society in the best ways we can. Yet, collectively, as a nation, we haven’t changed much or progressed at all. We’ve been on a trajectory of social divisiveness and separation, before, since, and after the 9/11 attacks, and it continues with unbridled intensity to this day. Our country, as well as the rest of the Human Race that inhabits this planet, has become even more angry and violent toward each other. I’m certainly not the type to blow sunshine up anyone’s ass, nor do I dream of rainbows or unicorn’s, and I don’t even know how to spell Kumbaya, let alone sing it. But are we really so hard wired, as a species, to let the same troubles that have plagued us for centuries destroy us because we’re too lazy to do the work that could eventually save ourselves? Many of us are good and decent people. Many people were as good, and as decent, during the post Civil War, Reconstruction Era.
“Do you remember the Surrender at Appomattox?”
“Where were you, and what were you doing when you found out about it?”
“Do you remember when Lincoln was assassinated?”
“Where were you, and what were you doing when it happened?”
Lets not kid ourselves. We have a lot more work to do. I see the work happening every day. Yet, I still see laziness in our pursuit of a more perfect union. If we continue pointing fingers, and don’t put our differences aside in order to work together, we will follow that same old trajectory until it reaches an abyss we’ll be unable to yank ourselves out of. We might be looking into it already.
This is as political as I’ll get on this site (or maybe not). I’ll finish the post with the last words from Abraham Lincoln’s 1st inaugural address. If Abe was able to visit us today, I’m sure he’d be overwhelmed and giddily curious, as well as disappointed.
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”*
*Abraham Lincoln: “Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1861. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=25818