With the recent five-year anniversary for the 9/11 attacks, many people have been recounting their stories of where they were on 9/11. My story is similar to many in the New York area, watching at a safe distance from a rooftop. The story I want to tell here about 9/11, that I think is especially important as we move farther and farther away from accurate memory of the events, are of the days and weeks immediately following the attacks.
At the time of 9/11 I lived on 22nd and Lexington in Manhattan, approximately two miles from the World Trade Center. This address also put me within a few blocks of the family center, where people brought toothbrushes and hairbrushes for DNA collection, and within walking distance both of the volunteer staging area at Chelsea Piers and of the morgue on First Avenue. My 9/11 story is of the days after and the “new normal” before it became normal at all.
I was unable to get back into Manhattan until September 12, and when I did the first thing I noticed, that remained true for many days, is that all the newspapers in the boxes were from the morning of 9//11, printed while the city was still dark hours before the planes struck. I looked at those boring, ordinary headlines for days, and it was that, and that women just didn’t wear high heels anymore that I noticed constantly.
There were also, of course, the missing posters. Everyone remembers the missing posters of 9/11. But there were other public messages as well all surreal. Anti-Arab slurs written on bus shelters in my neighborhood were crossed out with red lipstick demanding peace; a woman dressed her chihuahua in patriotic garb, took its photo and made signs she put up absolutely everywhere letting us know the little guy was watching over us.
That first day after 9/11 I agreed to meet friends at the volunteer dispatch center. There wasn’t anything any of us could do really but bring supplies – bottled water and paper towels. Walking west on 23rd Street one restaurant was closed with a sign that was the understatement of the year: “Due to the Incident at the World Trade Center, We Will Not Be Open Today.” My city was falling down, but it was merely an incident. We laughed, because all a lot of us had at that point was giddy hysteria.
At the West Side Highway, people were lined up in scenes you probably remember from the news, holding sighs, cheering. The smell from the World Trade Center site was unbearable at that point though, although soon, we would become used to it; it lasted not for weeks, but for months. I found my friends and ran into other friends; one was walking her dog. The world was ending, we were at war, maybe, but dogs still had to be walked. That sort of surreal normalcy in New York City post 9/11 is hard to describe, but a thing I try to hold onto. That sense of life continuing, so alien to Americans as we’d only once experienced similar destruction from a foreign source on our soil
I stayed in that night, cleaning the inch of dust from the World Trade center collapse from my window ledges (yes, even two miles away, there was major contamination). The next night, I went downtown with a friend who lived beyond the first cordoned area (south of 14th Street). It was, in some ways, like a street fair after the carnival is gone – nor cars, trash everywhere, people strolling and eating ice cream. If you went west, things were very different, but far east and downtown, people had little to do but walk around in a daze and offer to get coffee for cops.
In many ways, the days immediately following 9/11 were the lull before it got really awful where I was living. We still had adrenaline from the disaster and we were all still banding together to do whatever we could, even though that largely wasn’t very much at all.
By later in that week following 9/11, much of my days seemed to feature the sound of wailing. I was right near the subway and people would often, somewhat lost, stop and as the doorman at my building for directions to the family center. Even from the sixth floor I could hear moments of anguish both sudden and constant.
IN any mourning process, there is anger, and as the weeks after 9/11 wore on, there was a lot of that on display in the city, not at the terrorists, but at each other. People lots their tempers irrationally even for this city. And on the way to work, I saw a couple get into a fight and head butt each other.
Eventually, as you all know, we pulled through. Life here returned to some sort of normal. The smoke and the smell went away, the city reopened for business. Tourists came to see Broadway shows (as opposed to wandering around vacantly and hugging strangers while wearing “Oregon Loves New York” t-shirts). But what I will never forget about 9/11 was life after 9/11, this feeling of living in an in between world, neither before nor after the disaster. But during. Often, it seems as if this is still during. New buildings haven’t risen up, a memorial hasn’t been built, wars and politics have solved nothing and confused many issues, both domestic and foreign more.
New York City is so strong, but it’s still always 9/11 here, just a little bit.