Thursday, September 11, 2008

Thoughts on September 11

It's been seven years today, but this is the first time I've really written about 9/11. It never seemed appropriate before.

What's changed now is just the passage of time. There comes a point when things are no longer so immediate, and when you start to think of events as part of the past. I'm at that point now.

I grew up with the twin towers; I've known them all my life. I worked across the street from them for several years. I used to buy batteries at the Duane Reade inside the mall at the towers' base. I used to buy books at the Borders there. I took this photo from the roof of my old office, and I've always liked it:

I was in the city on 9/11, in my apartment in Woodside, Queens, with my then-girlfriend (who I married two years later). We had an unblocked view of the twin towers a couple miles away. I was getting ready to go to work, watching our local cable news channel New York 1 as always. My girlfriend was getting ready for school. We had just come back from Japan about a week earlier.

I clearly remember Pat Kiernan breaking into the taped NY1 feed to tell us about "some sort of explosion" at the World Trade Center. They then cut to the live video and it didn't look real. It was one of those things that your mind just isn't prepared to see, so it doesn't believe it. I had to look out the window to confirm to myself that this wasn't some kind of CGI effect. But I could see the size of the hole plain as day even from that distance. Somehow, I had not heard the explosion.

Excuse the quality of some of these pics - they were taken with a 1.2 megapixel late-90's digital camera.

I remember looking outside and seeing it was a beautiful, clear day and thinking that this couldn't possibly be an accident. One of my little quirks is an obsession with plane crashes, and I could think of no situation in which an airliner could crash dead center into a large building without a pilot's input. See, planes don't just fall out of the sky intact and upright. They crash sometimes, but it would be a trillion to one stroke of bad luck for a plane to spiral completely out of control dead center into Tower 2 of the World Trade Center.

I thought it might have been a suicidal pilot, like EgyptAir flight 990.

I watched the second plane come in, first out my window, then on TV. I was not completely surprised when it hit, like everybody else was. I saw it coming, and I immediately put it all together. Partly survival instinct, I guess. I watched the explosion first on TV, then out my window. I remember not really wanting to see it in person, so I watched the plane actually hit on TV.

I remember standing in the middle of our living room - not sitting, standing - for about ten minutes, alternating between watching TV and looking out the balcony window. At a certain point, I decided we had to get out of there. Not because we were all that close to the towers, but because I couldn't bare to see any more. My girlfriend wanted to stay and see the news, but I just couldn't. I felt like I was about to go into shock, and I needed to just block it out. And I had a feeling those buildings were not going to stand up.

There was also the fact that we were on a LaGuardia Airport landing pattern, and I knew they'd be getting the area's remaining planes down quick. And a thought crossed my mind that if another one of these guys was out there, who's to say he wouldn't crash his plane at the last possible minute into whatever happened to be in his path? At that point, every airplane seemed like a potential weapon to me. And for all I knew, this could be just the beginning. (To an extent, it was.)

As soon as we left, the first tower fell. I heard it on somebody's car stereo outside. Everybody was out, though they were all just standing around and listening to radios or watching portable TV's. We kept walking, away from the main roads, and as we did I could see a massive cloud of dust forming. It was a strange sight, because off the main roads all was quiet, and it was a beautiful day, and we were surrounded by plain, normal houses. You could look left and think it was any other day. Look right, and it was bedlam happening. It was unbelievable, the size of the dust cloud. It looked like somebody had set off an atomic bomb.

We ended up on Northern Blvd., where dust-covered people were already streaming over the bridge and into Queens from Manhattan. We also passed a fire company that was suiting up to get ready to go in. One of the firemen was out on the sidewalk, half-dressed, just looking at the dust cloud as he prepared himself to go into it.

We walked as far away from Manhattan as we realistically could, then settled into a diner to wait until everything calmed down. That was another bit of weirdness, the fact that they were still serving food, and that we actually ordered some. I think I got pancakes. I was craving normalcy at that point. We did try to call some people to tell them we were okay, but our cell phones were out - the main transmitter was on top of the twin towers. I was able to use the internet and follow the news that way, though. I saw in the diner that both towers had fallen by then, and heard about the Pentagon and Pennsylvania.

Eventually, the pay phone was free and we made some calls. My girlfriend called her family in Japan and they told her there were rumors there of 11 more hijacked planes in the air. There were all sorts of rumors that day; there was so much confusion. We didn't know what to believe.

We stayed there for about three hours. By the time we got home, we had no view of the towers anymore. There was just a column of smoke. We turned on the news and saw the replay of the collapses, and we were shocked by the images. As we watched, planes were still flying over us as they landed at LaGuardia. I saw F-15's circling above.

The thing that's going to be hardest to convey to future generations is the way the city felt for a long time afterwards. The city was so quiet, and had so few people in it... and it smelled really bad. It was a metallic smell, and it was all over. The only sound from above was the distinctive roar of fighter jets - they don't sound like airliners. At first it was scary - this is a major city in America, being protected by fighter jets. But eventually it became comforting, and we were sorry when they left.

The fire lasted for months, and every night I came home to that same column of smoke dominating the sky. It was strange learning to live with that.

Sometimes the smoke would blow right at us, sometimes it went more west. It just depended on the wind.

Everybody was afraid. And not in the way people are afraid now, the kind of a dull fear that's almost become part of our daily programming, I mean jumping-at-shadows afraid. You could see it on people's faces. Whenever the subway would lurch to a halt in the middle of the tunnel under the river, we would all stop whatever we were doing and look at each other, as if we were taking stock of who was in the car with us in case the tunnel suddenly blew and we all drowned. I hated that ride under the water, whereas I never gave it a thought before. Everything we did, we thought of ways somebody could blow it up.

When the airliners finally came back and one would fly overhead, people would turn up and look. Planes always fly in view of Manhattan - it's not new. But suddenly everybody noticed. I myself couldn't stand living under the landing path to LaGuardia anymore. Airplanes felt evil to me. They still do. Of course, in November - only 2 months after 9/11 - an American Airlines A300 crashed after takeoff from JFK. I still remember my girlfriend waking me up to tell me about that too, her voice shaking a little bit.

I found out several years after 9/11 that one of my oldest friends lost her mother in the attacks.

I went through a period of intense fear followed by a period of intense sadness and then intense anger. I remember crying like a baby during that telethon that was on a few weeks after the attacks. But then I remember being out with my girlfriend and one of her Japanese friends one day shortly afterwards, and her asking me if I thought there was going to be a war. I remember telling her pretty matter-of-factly that yes I did. She was shocked by this. This is an American way of thinking, I guess, that just doesn't translate everywhere. But even I thought this was just too much, that we needed to make these people pay.

A lot of people expressed themselves in different ways shortly after the attacks. I took these photos right around the WTC site in the days afterwards:

In the next photo, you can actually see some of the dust and papers from the towers that have gotten inside the glass of this jewelry store:

The photo below is really one of the only pictures of the actual destruction that I still have. I had more, and better ones, but I can't find them now. When we first went down there, the debris pile was still there and it was about ten stories high.

You see that black building down there with the pieces hanging off of it? That building was this:

I took that photo about 2 years previous.

When we first approached the site, this building actually filled our view. (We were a block or two over from the photo above.) It's a total cliche to say this, but it really was like a movie, the amount of destruction, and seeing this massive building looming ahead, still intact but completely gutted and broken. It was like being in a city that was dead.

Since 2001, I've seen 9/11 corrupted, abused and exploited in ways both small and large that, frankly, piss me off.

First, I get annoyed when people say "ground zero". I don't think many New Yorkers use that term. I first heard that from one of the local news anchors, and it kind of stuck in the media. But I don't hear it very often in real life. "Ground zero" is generic, it could be anywhere. And worse, it defines the place by what happened there, not what it is or what it stood for.

I reject that. I still call it the World Trade Center. Most New Yorkers do. When the MTA said they would not rename the World Trade Center subway station, people celebrated. They did the same when the Port Authority designed a new, temporary PATH station and announced that it would also be called "World Trade Center". The media actually questioned this, as if they thought it was in bad taste. What did they think, it should be called "Ground Zero Station"?

Second, it infuriates me when somebody tries to tell me that 9/11 was any sort of conspiracy. The only conspiracy was between 19 middle eastern men and one asshole leader who wanted to kill as many Americans as possible. I don't even really feel like dignifying these conspiracy theorists with any further rebuttal than that. But suffice it to say that if you do believe one of these theories, there are thankfully plenty of web sites out there that will conclusively debunk every single one of your crackpot ideas, from the theory that the 9/11 planes were actually military tankers and not passenger airliners to the theory that the Pentagon was bombed, not hit by a plane. Every one of these theories is complete bullshit, and you are a moron if you believe any of it.

It's most annoying to me when I hear these things spread by people who don't even live here, whether they're Americans living outside of New York or DC or foreigners. Sorry guys, but you just have no basis for arguing anything. You're in way over your head. You don't know what you're talking about.

Third, and maybe most importantly, it pisses me off to no end when 9/11 is used as a justification for wars that are wholly unrelated in any way, for trampling on the Constitution of the United States, for political points, or occasionally for all three at the same time. But that's a whole post unto itself.

And as with my second point, I find it irritating when people from, say, Alaska claim to know anything whatsoever about protecting us from 9/11-style attacks. You were out shooting wolves from a helicopter in the woods 4,000 miles away from anywhere that day, what the fuck do you know about living through a terrorist attack? Why the fuck do you claim to speak for me? And if you're not speaking for me, who are you speaking for? All those Alaskans in Al Qaeda's crosshairs? (Of course, it pisses me off just as much when New Yorkers exploit the attacks for political purposes.)

And you know what? I don't live in fear anymore. Most New Yorkers don't. And if we don't, then I really don't know what the hell most of the rest of the country is so afraid of these days that they need to keep electing these wackos.

I've been back down to the World Trade Center several times over the years. I'm not religious, but I understand why some people adopted this as a symbol:

The following photo was the last time I was there. It was actually a couple years ago now, and I imagine it looks a little different - but unfortunately, probably not much.

I actually took part in the process from which we ended up getting the design of the Freedom Tower that someday is going to loom over this site as part of the new World Trade Center. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation had a series of both online and in-person forums and polls, and I was actually quoted in their final report. (I still have it - I think the quote they pulled from me was, "Manhattan needs housing, just not here." It was in response to the question of whether the city should consider building affordable housing at the site.)

People still post up remembrances and tributes in the area. Sometimes it's spontaneous. I'm not sure what this was, but one day while I was near the site, I came across a plain chain link fence that had been decorated with hand-painted tiles. I couldn't tell what they were at first.

As I got closer, it became more obvious.

Just a couple more photos and then I'm calling it a night. Sorry, I don't really have the brain space for a profound ending to this post. The attacks themselves were so random that I probably won't ever really make any sense of it, and I've given up trying. So tying everything up in a little literary bow seems almost cynical. In fact, this is the big problem with the two 9/11 movies that have been released so far. There was no real narrative to that day, in that there were no main characters, there was no theme, there was no motive. Just a bunch of crazy fucks hellbent on doing as much damage as they could.

This was a couple months after the attacks:

This was the first "tribute in light":

This is now repeated every year. See the photo at the top, which was taken in 2005.

I do think 9/11 changed me as a person. It obviously affected everybody differently, some more immediately than others. (I was kind of on the periphery of it.) It made me realize how trivial most of our daily lives are. We worry so much about getting to work on time, about money, about what our cars look like, about making sure we've got the latest gadgets. If you work in marketing, you worry about whether your client's logo is positioned a few pixels too far to the left, or whether the models in your stock photos are the right ethnic mix for the target demographic.

All of this seemed ridiculous on 9/11, because it is ridiculous. It's a waste of time. And that feeling has never left me. These days I try to focus on things that really matter, and not the minutiae that we fill our lives with in order to block out the empty spaces that set our minds wandering. I don't mind the empty spaces anymore.

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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