Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Love Letter to New York

This is why I love you, New York. You don't forget your past. You honor it. You take the time to stop even in a city that is not supposed to. I am at my computer, writing, windows open, when the sounds of bagpipes from the firehouse on my street playing Amazing Grace seep into my window at the times the plane struck the North Tower. I cannot believe it has been ten years and I cannot believe how much this city has suffered and survived. The day was a display of humanity at its worst and yet it inspired humanity at its best from the people of this city. That day sewed me forever to this crazy place. We had been through war together, witnessed the unimaginable, but came together in a way I had never experienced people coming together. Thank you, New York, for teaching me. For inspiring me. For loving me. For showing me how we heal.
With love,
A grateful baptized New Yorker
(Morgan at has asked all of her friends from that day to write about their experiences. We were all within a mile of the World Trade Center. She is posting my experience later today. But if you'd like to read it, read below.)

When I try to recall the my life on 9/11, what comes are moments, feelings, a handful of lines, but somewhere a loose story that is pieced together by bursts of panic, what I think are my own memories washed with the images playing non-stop on the news, and a narrative that gets further away from the truth each time I tell it. I guess that is why I stopped sharing it. Memory is tricky like that. The more you tell a story, the more susceptible it is to change, to influence, how this detail drew this reaction so you enhance it just a touch for effect. You may not even know you’re doing it, but you’re doing it. Eventually a memory is told enough that it becomes two steps away from a tale, a story we tell ourselves to suit a narrative we believe is the one we should put out into the world.  Our legacies are chosen half by merit, half by design. I don’t know how many people I told about my own experience of 9/11. I’m sure I told my anxious Southern California family and it came up a couple times in Ireland or in passing when someone learns I was in New York City that day. But at a certain point it felt dirty to talk about one’s experience if you had not lost someone or been in the rubble and ash. My fear and sadness did not compare to the collective cry of grief that stretched across the nation from Nassau County who lost 344 people, to the boroughs of New York who lost their firefighters and policeman, to the remaining employees of Cantor Fitzgerald who lost so many friends, the families of those lost at the Pentagon, to the loved ones of the eight children on United Flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 77, to the Boston and New Jersey and D.C. travelers who just missed that fateful flight, to the widowed husband in San Francisco, to the brothers and sisters who lost family members on the ground hit by debris and falling bodies, to the children of the heroes of United Flight 93, to the family members who fought for a sifting of remains in the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, my experience has never been worthy to share in the midst of so much unimaginable loss. I was a student at NYU living in Lower Manhattan. I share these moments with caution, knowing each time I tell it the landscape of this experience will shift a little; the beach right after high tide.

You always hear how bright and blue the sky was that morning and it’s true. It’s as if all of New York City was already looking up that day. Just before I left for my class at NYU, I heard my roommate, Alma, call me. “Lindsey, get in here.” Alma did not waste words often saying more with her tone. I walked back into our room and the television was showing smoke spewing from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I had only been in New York a year and three months prior to that beautiful morning I had been living in the financial district. Whenever I was lost in the city I walked towards the towers. I knew how to find my way home from there. I can’t remember if he called me or I called him, but I talked to my dad in California and told him this horrible accident had happened. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. “That’s no accident. That’s a terrorist attack.”  I don’t remember any more of our conversation or much more of anything said the rest of the day but a handful of lines. This was the first, a warning from my Dad. I tried to leave again and suddenly the second tower was hit. Alma and I stepped out onto our balcony where we had a view of the towers. Alma, never one to flinch, continued watching the news. But I had to go to class. It was the only thing I could think to do. There were adults there. Someone there would know what was really happening. As I walked down Third Avenue I can remember passing someone on a telephone talking about a brother on the 79th floor. I don’t remember if they were a man or woman. I can remember a woman’s voice, frantic, trying to reach someone in one of the towers. The streets were frozen and yet buzzing as we all looked south at an event that would change all of our lives. The closer I got to school, the more frantic the streets became. People ran down Broadway both towards and away from the towers. I joined fellow classmates as we sat with our teacher and tried to talk about what the fuck was going on when the head of our program came in and whispered to him, “The Pentagon’s been hit. We’re closing the school.” At that exact moment, the sound of low-flying planes rumbled down Broadway. They sounded so close my first thought was that there was another plane about to hit. From our window we could see the Empire State Building. My heart began to race: we were at war. A group of us ran down the stairwell not wanting to get stuck in an elevator, just wanting to be out. I had a panic attack and my friend, Ainsley, held my hand as we stumbled down the stairs while I tried to catch my breath. Somehow we ended up in a deserted dance studio. Suddenly there was this space and serenity. We floated inside and gathered by the windows. We propped one open as much as we could and watched the mayhem on Broadway. We took turns walking into the lobby of NYU where a television played the image of the second plane hitting over and over again. We eventually sat in a circle, me, Ainsley, my friend, Ted, a pretty blonde, and another guy whose name escapes me. We began to tell each other secrets like a last rites confessional and the guy whose name escapes me told us, for the first time, that he was gay. I can remember someone bursting in and telling us about how people were going to give blood. But I don’t remember any of us getting up. My excuse was a new tattoo. In truth, I think we were too scared to move. Eventually we decided the location of the building was unsafe. Ainsley invited us to her apartment in the West Village. As we walked down Waverly Place we all found ourselves stopped on a corner looking at plumes of smoke. The image I have in my head has been washed over, saturated so many times by the images that played on the news over and over, it is hard to recall what I actually saw. But the image that always makes my stomach drop is the one of the building half collapsed, smoke petals blooming, reaching, as Giuliani called it “like the grim reaper” crawling out into the city. I believe we caught the tower mid-collapse. The image we saw prompted us all to run. I don’t know which tower was falling but there was this fear that something might topple over and reach us all the way over on West 4th Street and 6th Avenue.  We all started running and each time we came to an avenue Ainsley yelled at us not to look, to keep moving. None of us could grasp what was happening but somehow Ainsley had the foresight to bark orders and lead us even though Ted and I kept looking down the avenues every time we came to a corner. The sky had literally opened up and we were now in a world that no longer looked familiar.  This New York would never be the same.

At Ainsley’s apartment, we tried to reach our parents but the phone lines rang busy. I eventually got through to my dad and sat down on the edge of Ainsley’s tub. I don’t remember the conversation, but I was talking fast and I wasn’t making complete sentences. My dad knew the severity of it better than I did (which prompted him to get on a plane two weeks later and come visit me.) Hours went by of the same images played over and over. At a certain point, we all got quiet and Ted decided to get food. He came back with a pizza pie and a six pack of beer, both were given to him for free. On the walk back home, New York was amazingly at its best with restaurants and delis giving out food and water and people coming together. We all stopped our normal race of passing by each other and seemed to check in, look at each other, offer sullen smiles, nods of empathy. We were all baptized as New Yorkers that day, connected by this horrific event which summoned great humanity.

It had been one week, maybe just a few days since I had broken up with my first love. My world in New York had been centered with that relationship. My friends were his friends. His cousin and best friend were who I called some of my best friends. I had just spent the summer working with all three of them in Vermont. I felt tighter than ever with them and I wanted to run to that home base but without my role as “the girlfriend” I wasn’t sure where I fit in and I was too na├»ve to understand that maybe I no longer did. New York City closed down, so those of us who lived at the dorms on Third Ave, below 14th Street, stayed in. We stuffed towels under our doors and in our air conditioner vents because the air was said to be toxic. And then there was the smell, the burning smell of carnage. My girlfriends, Morgan who was my closest, lived a block away but none of us strayed too far from our homes. The news ran constantly and we sucked it all in, waiting for some kernel of explanation. I moved between my room with Alma and the room of my ex-boyfriend and guy friends, trying my hardest not to be alone. Morgan made a decision to get out of the city and she retreated to Long Island to relatives and brought some of our friends with her. I decided to go with my ex-boyfriend and his best friend, Neal, to his home in Tenafly, New Jersey. Neal’s mother was set to pick us up on the Upper East Side. We hopped on a packed bus which chugged along down Third Avenue when suddenly just before 42nd street the streets filled with people emptying out of the subways and Grand Central Terminal. The street grew so thick with people the bus could barely move and people kept squeezing onto the bus. Word spread that both Grand Central and the Chrysler Building had bomb threats and had been evacuated. The next time the back door bus popped open, I was pushed out. You could hear the panic begin to rise and without saying much, the three of us started running up Third Avenue. We ran all the way to 91st street where Neal’s mother was waiting with a car and drove us back to New Jersey.

I don’t remember how many days we stayed at Neal’s, but without the distraction of the disaster of New York City, the pain from the recent break up began to settle in and the shared space in New Jersey became too much. My ex went home to Cherry Hill and I stayed another night at Neal’s in a den on a couch where I finally found myself alone. I was looking at my odd surroundings trying to piece together what the fuck had happened, trying to keep myself from falling apart or from feeling the incredible loneliness now setting in when suddenly something licked my toe. The family dog, a yappy little Yorkie looked up at me from the end of the couch and licked my toe again. I hated that dog until that moment. I probably read into it too much, but I felt like even the dog knew something horrible had happened and it was going to make sure I didn’t have to be alone that night.

My birthday was nine days later but none of us felt like celebrating. I think Morgan made me go out and we ate burritos and tried to order a margarita with fake IDs saying we were from Ocean City, New Jersey. My Dad, who had not been to New York in over 20 years, got on a plane and came to town. He wanted to meet Neal and thank him for hosting me. For years after, whenever I mentioned Neal he would say, “9/11 Neal?” As if I had a thousand friends named Neal and this was how I distinguished this one. Finally I just started called him 9/11 Neal whenever I mentioned him.

The next few months are foggy. I holed up in my dorm room with Alma and two other writing friends. We had sex-less slumber parties and all night philosophical debates that ranged from the rap lyrics of Ludacris to the works of Shakespeare to what method of death we would choose if given the choice. We really just didn’t want to be alone and none of us could sleep. We’d stay up all night sometimes and I can remember seeing three consecutive sunrises. On the third morning I began hallucinating from sleep deprivation. My friendship with my ex and all of my friends before the breakup, before the attacks, began to fade. On a whim I signed up to study abroad. I had two options: London or Ireland, neither of which I was particularly interested. I just wanted to go. After an eerily warm fall semester, I left New York for Dublin. When I returned everything was different. I was different and in a really dark place. I had new friends, a new boyfriend. Gone were the days of sex-less slumber parties where we wrote and talked all night. I just wanted to go to bars now, bars with no light and lots of brick and a thick film of cigarette ash coating everything, even the salt shakers.  My last year at NYU I worked part time and drank full time.  I did everything I could to avoid sitting still. I eventually lost touch with everybody, even myself. A month before I graduated college, we invaded Iraq and the New York I once love, once cried with, the New York I went through 9/11 with was now being exploited to fuel support for a war we had no business starting.

September 11, 2001 changed everything. It has instilled in me a deep love for New Yorkers and I take special pride in telling people New York is my home. But the effects of 9/11 have cast a long shadow over this city, one that no matter how far we get away from can feel fresh each time the media obsessively broadcasts a terrorist threat alert in the same ten minutes as I check the local commuter line traffic. I don’t feel scared to live in NYC and honestly the Park Slope rapist has me more on edge that any terrorist threat, but this weekend I will not go into Manhattan near the World Trade Center like I thought I would…just in case.

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