Try to remember: 20 years of living in a post-September 11th World

This anniversary is not the big one for me. That was last year, the 19th anniversary of the attacks on September 11th. Given all the life-altering events of the COVID-19 pandemic, it did not receive much press, outside of the 45th American President’s ongoing attempts to race bait his way into a second term.  But I was 19 when the towers fell in 2001 — a world-shattering reversal of Stanley Kubrick’s no longer prescient imagery — making last year a personal watershed event: for every day following September 11, 2020, I have been alive for longer after the attacks than before.

I’ve written before about the effect of that day on my life, and for want of a better phrase, my “journey to adulthood.” But anniversaries are times for reflection, and the fact that today has arrived in my consciousness “not with a bang but a whimper” feels significant to me. 

Maybe it’s because I’ve done this nineteen times before, and I know the drill. Sleep in to at least 9:30 to avoid the “minutes of silence.” Stay off social media and news sites, as they will be drenched in pictures of explosions or falling bodies. Stay off my phone so I do not have to see today’s date. A therapist friend once suggested I face this day head on. I told him that I already face enough things head on; one day a year of carefully orchestrated avoidance will not break or heal me.

One pattern I have noticed is that the day before is always harder. Every year on September 10th, I see the next day as being an alternate universe’s anniversary of my father’s death. My dad had been invited to a breakfast at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the top floor of the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001. He didn’t go because we were moving from Connecticut into Brooklyn the next day. Every year on September 10th, my mind goes down what Terry Pratchett termed “the other trouser leg of time” to world where our moving date had been a few days earlier, and my subsequent life turned into a hellscape of personal loss that I cannot comprehend. Once I make it through the 10th and back to my own reality, the anniversary of what actually happened feels doable in comparison.

Today I find myself thinking less about the events of 20 years ago, and more about how the people, places, and symbols I most associate with that day have fared over time.

When I think of that day, I think of two named heroes. The first is Frank, my dad’s friend and then boss, who, after he saw the first plane hit from a top floor conference room in the Flatiron District, picked up the phone and told everyone who worked in the company data center at WTC that anyone who didn’t leave the building within five minutes was fired. He saved hundreds of lives, as the engine of the second plane ripped through now the empty building less than eight minutes later. Within a year he lost a power struggle with the new company CEO, and he himself was fired.

The second, of course, is Rudy Giuliani — whose calm presence on national news as he walked up Broadway from City Hall telling everyone around him to “Walk north. Walk north” temporarily overwrote his damaged and decaying legacy of racist policing and sexual harassment. Overnight he became America’s Mayor and Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. The less said about his actions since the better, but he obliterated his own image of calm leadership by screaming and sweating off his makeup in front of the Four Seasons Landscaping Company, while lying for a man who twenty-years ago today only saw dollar signs rising from the smoking ruins.

Back at the University of Chicago for my sophomore and subsequent years, I dealt with other forms of erasure. The ministry intern who took my hand and gently told me that “the national period of mourning is over.” The pastor who asked if my love of a song that celebrated strength through adversity meant that I wanted “more planes crashing into more buildings.” Even my mother’s New York-based publisher wanted to remove the Twin Towers from the cover of her Newbery Honor Award-winning book on honor in politics, Hope Was Here (first published in 2000), in time for the paperback release in 2002. Mom held her ground, and the towers stayed up for a few years more, at least in fiction. Then she changed publishers and the new branding guidelines switched the cover to an apple pie. 

For over a decade, gashes remained in ground eventually cleared of rubble, and forty-story buildings sat empty, wrapped in shrouds of black containment mesh. The World Trade Center became Ground Zero, first as a casualty of terrorism and then as collateral damage in the only true battle of New York: real estate development. The new building is at least pretty, and it’s tall enough that I can navigate the West Village again.

Of course the biggest erasure came from the Bush Administration, who politicized the tragedy from day zero and swept an angry and grieving nation into the “Graveyard of Empires,” and then, with barely a pause, used our fear to settle a personal score with Saddam Hussein. In the process we traumatized an entire generation of Afghans and Iraqis with drone strikes and shattered infrastructure, and then left them under regimes as intolerant and brutal as the ones we had deposed. Our withdrawal was inevitable, but abandoning to torture and death the people we relied on and the women and girls we empowered was not. Good job America. Have a Gold Star.

As a historian, I have to wonder: When do we stop remembering? Of course those of us who were alive and old enough will likely never forget “where we where” just as those older than I am remember JFK’s assassination or Pearl Harbor.  But that’s not what I mean, although I do wonder how many people who watched In the Heights this summer know that “there’s no 9 train now” because the MTA discontinued it while piecing the subway system back together after the falling weight of the towers obliterated the largest subway junction below 42nd Street. 

Journalism may be the first draft of history, but at some point the historians take over.  Twenty years edges up to the never fully delineated “moving wall” of acceptable topics for history dissertations, even as fewer and fewer documents are declassified each year. What will these new historians make of the event that shaped their lives almost before they were born? Will those of us who, through action or inaction, shaped our national response be able to withstand their scrutiny? Probably not. If history teaches you anything, it is that people never listen to historians. Although if you have managed to read this far, maybe you’ll try.

But for now, The Halal Guys has opened a brick and mortar restaurant in the New Jersey town over from where I live these days. So, I’m going to have some genuine New York Street Food, and “try to remember,” as the old Broadway song goes, “when life was so tender that dreams were kept beside your pillow.” May we all remember, and find new paths to follow.

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