I am sitting here with a view of lower Manhattan, the place where the Twin Towers once stood and I try to imagine as I have many times since I moved across the Hudson what it must have been to stand in this spot on 9/11, that fateful day, twenty years ago.
The city feels so close from here, as though I can reach out and touch lower Manhattan. I try to imagine what it was like to see those planes hit and the towers fall from this vantage point. But I really can’t. I can put together a picture in my head from the many images I have seen, but I can’t fully feel it because this is not where I was.
I was sitting in my office at 11 West 19th Street having a conversation with a colleague about the client party we were having that night at Tavern on the Green when I caught my first glimpse of the footage as the first plane crashed into the North Tower. It was a video clip that Pat Kiernan was showing on NY1, the news station that I had just been promoted to Director of Sales. I don’t know what Pat said, because I had the sound off on the TV.
All I remember is wondering what crazy simulation he was showing. It couldn’t possibly be real. A plane hitting a building in Manhattan was the stuff of the kind of doomsday movies I have never liked watching.
But that is the kind of reaction we get when really bad things happen. There is that initial element of disbelief before you can absorb that this is real. This is not made up for the movies. There is shock and in the case of 9/11, a shock that stayed in the faces of every New Yorker I passed on the street for a long time.
This year, twenty years later I have been obsessed more than usual with watching every thing there is to see and read about the events of that day and the weeks and months that followed. At another time in my life I might have said that was unhealthy. It’s better to just move on, but I was reminded this last year when my mother passed, that grief never really ends, it just ebbs and flows. You learn to live with it. Occasionally a wave will crash over you and consume you,. And that’s okay. You can grieve and you can move on. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Every year when this day rolls around and I relive the moments of that day, of what happened to my beloved city and the people in it, those waves of grief roll in. I know enough now to know that is okay. In fact, it’s important. Forgetting does not make it go away. Forgetting lets it eat away.
Grief is personal. But during that time there was a collective grief that connected us all. Almost three thousand souls made their transition that day and that energy hung over the city just as those clouds of smoke and ash did.
This was the kind of thing that we thought happened in other places, in other countries. We were no longer as safe as we had deluded ourselves to believe. You would think we would have learned from that and been better prepared when a pandemic happened all these years later – but we hadn’t. We wanted to believe we could put up walls to keep all the bad stuff out.
Everyone who was in NY or in Washington or close to that field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed has different recollections of what stood out the most to them that day and in the days after. My former NY1 colleague Amanda Farinacci wrote a beautiful piece explaining that for her it was about the sounds.
For me it was the absence of sound.
New York is a city about noise. It’s part of what makes it magical, whether it’s a saxophone player on the sidewalk or a taxi honking his horn. But that day there was an eerie silence.
Walking home to the Upper West Side that afternoon I remember crowded streets, the solemn faces of strangers walking alongside each other, some covered with soot and ash – but no noise. There was no one talking, no taxis, no busses, no planes overhead. That silence was interrupted only by the sound of an occassional siren headed downtown towards what would be come to be known as the pile.
Later that day I walked through Central Park to my friend who lived on the Upper East Side. The thought was I lived too close to Lincoln Center and that could be another target. In those early hours we knew so little about what happened. We knew only fear. What I remember the most about that walk was the quiet and how strange it felt. This was the kind of quiet that I noticed on a vacation in the mountains, not in my hometown.
That quietness lasted past the day of the attack. The shock of what had happened for those of us lucky enough to have lived through it, had everyone reflective. I came to dread the sound of a helicopter overhead for fear of what it might mean. I still do. There have three helicopters circling since I started writing this morning. I have no doubt that there will be more, keeping an eye out in security preparation for the twentieth anniversary of that awful day. I never thought like that before 9/11.
This week I taught my first in-person classes at NYU in over a year and half. It was wonderful to be standing in front of a classroom again. I had forgotten how energizing it is for me to be in front of a room of graduate students, eager to learn and so happy to not be Zooming. Even with my mask on I felt hopeful – that despite the setbacks of the Delta variant, we were starting to move forward.
When I came home that night and I got off the PATH I turned and I saw those blue lights beaming up to the sky where the towers once stood in a downtown that has now been rebuilt, a reminder that we go on, but we don’t forget.
We go on. No matter what we’re confronted with – a horrific day in American history like 9/11 or a devastating pandemic. The grief never leaves but we go on, and we remember and like the loss of any person in our life that was special and loved, we never forget. Nor should we.