Every year I set out to write something about my experience of watching the Twin Towers fall on 9/11/01, and every year I find that whatever I’ve written falls short.1 I have thought in years past that it was a matter of skill: were I a better writer, I’d come closer to the mark. I’ve come to understand, however, that the issue is not so much one of skill as it is a matter of memory. Each year it is harder to recall the immediate effect of hearing the planes’ impact explosions,2 the fact of confronting an unbelievable chain of events, the awful placidity of my office’s view uptown.
9/11 was, of course, traumatic for many people who were not here that day as well, but it is difficult to disallow the distinction between those of us who watched it firsthand and those of us who watched the ghastly footage looped on television. We remain different, thousands and thousands of us, because we were here, an area which extends roughly 2.5 miles north to 14th Street and the width of Manhattan. The people I’ve spoken to who were at or near the Pentagon have reported a similar distinction.
The people I know or have met who escaped before the Towers collapsed are, to a person, hounded by a sense of uniqueness, separated from the rest of us by the stairwells, fire exits, and street-level escape routes through which they singly yet en masse brought themselves safely into the 21st Century.
I cannot adequately address the victims of the attack or their surviving loved ones. I cannot imagine the isolation and violation they have felt, to say nothing of the shock and despair, the irretrievable loss.
I remember the absences of persons unknown to me except for our daily, simultaneous commute downtown from Queens. They were suddenly gone, and noticeably so because we were all getting on with our lives by accounting for everything and everyone that was suddenly missing. It was, and remains, an impossible calculation.
I am, at times, reluctant to talk about that day for fear of subjecting my memory to the permanent distortions of retelling. I forget that reviewing it silently and alone still counts as telling the story, the only difference being that in the internal telling, there is no shared experience, no common theme, nothing offered or received in the way of relation, no healing, no understanding, but rather a futile and isolating effort to secure the memory for its own sake.
Other times, I can’t shut up about it, can’t forgive the perceived intrusion of even sympathetic, conversational queries. In these outbursts, adrenaline drives my voice higher and louder as I try to shout the experience down, or else shout the towers back up, shout the City back to the way it was when I loved it more than any single place on Earth, back to 9/10/01 when the simple act of living here was enough to make me as close to invincible as I ever imagined necessary, and being close to invincible was, at its best, a collective, civic, cultural, aesthetic, political, spiritual, and sexual state of conscience and consciousness. It was everything. And then it was gone forever.
There is, as far as I can tell, no aspect of our culture that has been untouched by 9/11. I cannot help but think that the continued widespread retreat into thoughtless comfort and convenience3 is a direct result of the attacks and, in the long run, perhaps more important than the immediate problems we have faced and will continue to face. Those of us who have suffered directly as a result of the attack will eventually all be gone and the suffering with us. The economic fallout, the wars, and the constant, nagging state of alert, on the other hand, will continue for years to come. It occurs to me on this anniversary that these latter phenomena, as opposed to simple assault, death and ruin, are what the attackers had in mind.
Did I hear both planes hit their respective targets? I think I did but the timeline has loosened in the last 15 years and I am no longer sure. Further, does it matter?↩
The inflated sense of entitlement to profitable home ownership is one example of this rush to comfort; the popularity of retread art and entertainment is another; the mainstreaming, co-opting, and normalizing of formerly radical culture is another; the elevation of television (private) over moviegoing (public) still another; the widespread support of increasingly aggressive and incoherent candidates for increasingly prominent positions is yet another. These shifts were already in motion but have accelerated, intensified.↩
Sometimes I think it’s a known fact that we are not paid enough money because certain forces know that we’re gonna play this music whether we get money for it or not, you understand? And to some extent, we’re taken complete advantage of, you dig? And to another extent, it’s our gift to the world, so it don’t matter.
Tim Berne, “Terre Haute,” Sanctified Dreams, 1988.
Some of you have heard this number before but for those that have not, Kimberley commissioned a birthday song from Eef Barzelay for me several years back. In case you ever come across this sort of offer from an artist you like, be advised that it makes a truly wonderful gift. Enjoy.