11 September 2007

Semi-Obligatory 9/11 Post

Originally posted on the PPMB, reposted here by request:

I was living in London at the time, and my first awareness of it was my aunt calling downstairs saying, "You might want to turn on the telly, there seems to be some business about a plane and a skyscraper over in America." Then I spent about the next three days parked in front of the TV with a bottle of Jameson's feeling sorry for myself (why? nothing at all had happened to me personally) and angry that this had been allowed to happen, and confused and bewildered about what I was doing or should be doing with my life.

The thing was that at this time and for the year or two previous I'd been doing more and more drinking and more and more feeling sorry for myself, and the thought that kept coming into my head as I watched the New Yorkers risking their lives and pitching in to take care of one another was, "What if this happened here in London? Would I be able to help my neighbors the way those New Yorkers are doing? What possible use would my drunken ass be?"

It was actually those feelings that prompted me into finally giving up drinking and trying to become a more responsible human being. Remember, at that time there was a real sense that there were likely to be more attacks, and that they could come anywhere (London eventually was attacked, and very close to where I lived, in 2005), and I felt that if or when that happened, I wanted to be strong and clearheaded enough to be able to do whatever was needed of me.

A couple weeks later, I was in New York City. The planes had just started flying again, though they were almost empty, as were the airports, except for the machine-gun toting soldiers. It was the way flying looks in those airline commercials, where you never have to stand in line and everybody gets a good seat and has three stewardesses to wait on him. I got on the subway near JFK and that's when it first hit me in a way that it never could have on TV. The first thing I noticed was all the flags. Pretty much every house in Howard Beach had one flying. But the really amazing thing was the feel of camaraderie on the subway. It was like every time someone got on, everyone in the car would turn to him or her, check them out to make sure they didn't look like trouble, and then sort of silently say, "Ok, you're all right now, you're one of us, we're all looking out for each other here." I imagine it might have felt very different to a person who looked Middle Eastern - but to me it felt very safe and comforting.

I spent the next 10 days in Manhattan, and the smoke - and that horrible smell, which others have mentioned, and which I don't think anyone will ever be able to forget - was still hanging over the city. Some days the wind would blow it out to sea and the air would feel fresh and clean again, but then the wind would shift back and just like that the mood would change. People would be in the middle of a conversation and suddenly get a whiff of charred concrete and incinerated bodies and the looks on their faces would turn grim and desperate and the conversation trail off into non sequiturs.

I was running around with this girl at the time, and she was one of those people who saw the whole thing as America's fault. We were up in Central Park on an incredibly beautiful day in early October - even then you could still see a thin column of smoke rising downtown - and she got really mad at me for suggesting otherwise, capping it off with, "And I don't give a damn about those people who died in the World Trade Center," implying that it was their own fault for being there in the first place. That started a raging two-day argument in which we called each other every name under the sun, and guaranteed that our relationship, which had always been tempestuous at best, was never going to go much further.

By the time I went back to London, though, there was no longer any doubt in my mind that sooner or later I was going to live in this great city. Thinking of other places where I'd lived, especially London and San Francisco, where a large percentage of the people thought exactly like this girl did, made me especially keen to live in a place where people were grown up enough to take responsibility for themselves and others. Perhaps it was wrong of me, but I pictured Londoners or San Franciscans, if they'd faced a similar disaster, running around like headless chickens and looking for someone - probably the government or "capitalism" or "the corporations" - to blame.

And six years later, here I am, a proud New Yorker myself and feeling very honored and privileged to live in what I don't doubt is the greatest city on earth. The events of September 11, 2001 had a very large impact on me personally, in that they led pretty directly to two major changes in my life, stopping drinking and moving to New York City, but I suspect I'm just one of millions who had their lives permanently altered that day, and unfortunately - for those who lost loved ones or livelihoods, not always for the better. But I think the net effect for New Yorkers in particular and Americans in general has been a wake-up call, one that said essentially, "It's time to stop living in la-la land and to start thinking about what life and liberty and your place in the community of humankind are all about." A lot of stupid and excessive and overreactive crap has come down as a result of 9/11, but I'd say that overall we're a better and stronger people as a result of the lessons learned that day. Let's hope so, anyway, because I have a feeling that there are times yet to come when we'll need to be.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

I was, indeed, a 21 year-old kid---an increasingly sick one at that. 5 years of therapy, and I don't feel that way anymore; I probably didn't really then. I think I wanted the emotion that felt most familiar to me: anger at the establishment.

What I really wanted was for all those tourists in Union Square to stop shouting about how we should blow-up Afghanistan. Was there anything to be gained by forcing more people to experience more violence, more bloodshed, more despair?

It's interesting where we are today, to say the least.