Then how should I begin and how should I presume

I decided to write about the upcoming anniversary of 9/11 a few days early. As we approach Sunday, the stories are coming so fast I wanted to get this out before the wave crashed on me. Last year I posted a bit I’d written at the time, but this year I felt it was time to reflect on it somehow. I’m not going to even re-read what I’ve written before I post it. I let it go as a stream-of-consciousness and, still, I don’t know if anything will be able to capture what happened that day.

I feel compelled to write about this. I don’t want to, but I have to. As a writer, I have to. As a former New Yorker, I have to.

But after ten years, I  don’t know what to say.

I’ve considered writing about that morning. I would say how I was running late for work, watching something on the Today Show for too long. I would talk about the murmurs of something having happened by the time we got to the Prospect Park stop. I would talk about emerging from the tunnel, starting over the Manhattan Bridge, and seeing the flames of the just-hit tower. I would talk about the way everyone crowded to the windows, panic already setting in. I would talk about the discussion of where the fire was, where people had friends working, whether they’ll be ok. They’ll be ok. Crazy they’re both on fire, but it’ll be ok.

I would talk about getting off the train at Union Square and walking to work, trying to get a cell signal, look at it look at it look at it, walking backwards half the way, just to keep watching it. Walking past the fire station, empty already. Getting to work, only a few of us there. People walking in and out of the office, listening to the radio, watching the 13-inch portable. Watching the collapse, not registering that it was actually really happening. Feeling like it must be some old footage, but no it can’t be it hadn’t fallen before it’s only been there 30 some years this is actually happening now right now right now it’s gone.

Phone calls emails are we ok yeah we’re ok. Please don’t go out stay home there are more.

And then… and then… and then…

I would talk about the bodies falling, about the dust on everything, about trying to get home. About walking up half-deserted streets and saying Eliot to myself as I searched for an open station. Heading south then north and asking everyone and everyone asking me. If I could get across the bridge it would be a long walk but not as long it would be ok. But what was at home anyway?

I would talk about getting on a train and the conductor saying it was the last train going over the bridge everyone was still afraid. Of sitting next to the woman in a white suit she was scared we talked the whole way into Brooklyn. The train was being diverted she had to get off but I got to stay on and she said good luck.

About getting home and watching the one channel you could get, all the other broadcast antennae had gone down they were in that pile that pile of everything that was once there. About the feeling that everything had changed but nothing had changed but it just wasn’t there.

I would write about going back to work and the smoke still rising the smoke still reminding everyone. About the woman who started crying on the train and the woman she didn’t know hugging her and the man giving her a tissue. About the emptiness. About expecting to see thing back to normal.

I would write about the silence after it all, the signs the walls of signs the signs on every surface that could hold a sign. The names the faces the smiling photos. The people lining up with brushes and toothbrushes and anything that might have a trace of DNA hoping for anything. And the politics that didn’t really matter anymore.

But why write it? There were millions of people in New York that day. My experience of it was nothing. Walking to the edge of the blockades, walking along the riverside with all the volunteers, nuns making sandwiches for out of town rescue teams. The lists of things to donate. I was there, but so were a lot of people. I have no claim to that day. I have no right to remember that smell of smoke and plaster and metal and the tinges of everything else. It was not my day. It didn’t belong to any of us. Certainly not me.

So now, ten years later, it’s not my place to tell the world about that day. We all know that day. Millions of us were there. Millions of us only lost the skyline. Millions of us have gone on, watching people who weren’t in New York that day wring their hands and talk about how very terrible it all was, wasn’t it?

The other day, I opened a book and came across a photo. The date on the back was September 18, 2001. The speed we were developing photos then meant it was probably taken the evening of the 17th. It was one of the nights where protest and memorials and please let them find him please let them find her please let them find them all met. The candle light and calls for peace and the tears of everything having changed.

Sunday will be marked with pomp and circumstance, with moments of silence and replays of what happened. It will be a day of curiosity, of picking away at a well-healed scab. It will be, no doubt, a day for those who weren’t there. For me, it will be the tenth year of remembering that day. For me, it will be the tenth year of trying to explain the unexplainable. For me, it will be the tenth year of knowing that any news coverage, any documentary, any analysis of that day will never allow people to have that experience. It will always be an outsider’s tale. It will always be a scar.

Quite frankly, I don’t care where you were when you heard the news. Tell me where you were when you saw it in front of you, where you were when you smelled it, where you were when you heard the sirens and the rumbling of the collapse. For the millions of us who were there, we will always be there. We will always have those memories, regardless of the date. Ten years, twenty years, thirty years, it’ll be the same. The rest of the world will produce its television and we will still be there. We’ll still be in the empty theaters the days following, watching Apocalypse Now Redux with quiet sobbing from each corner. We’ll still be in the museums that opened for free, quietly escaping into the rooms of Marie Antoinette. We’ll still be — we’ll always be — in that changed world.

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About jeninher30s

A writer and procrastinator.

2 responses to “Then how should I begin and how should I presume”

  1. stumblingupwards says :

    As always, I’m awestruck and lost for words.
    I intend to share this with whomever will read it.

    • jeninher30s says :


      One thing I had momentarily thought about writing was about doing a cross-country drive in October 2001. We stopped at a motel in Missouri and the teenager who was working the overnight shift on reception saw the home address and very tentatively asked me about it.

      ‘New York. Wow. What’s it like there?’

      By that time, we had been getting on with the new reality of New York. The subway didn’t stop at certain stations, and things were still different, but we were moving on. It was there, but you didn’t think of it all in the same way.

      ‘It’s cool, y’know, it’s…’ and then I realized what it was this guy was actually asking. He wasn’t asking about New York as a place, he was asking about New York, that place where it happened. He wasn’t asking about my city, he was asking about the city that suddenly everyone felt they had a stake in.

      ‘It’s getting back to normal. It’s getting on with things,’ I said.

      As time went on, people still kind of asked about it in those polite terms like ‘Ground Zero’ and ‘nine-eleven’. They asked if you were there when it happened, if you knew anyone. They wanted to tease out the gore, but really wanted to be a part of it. They wanted to have met somebody who knew somebody who was dead.

      What they didn’t expect, and didn’t want, was somebody saying that they’d been there, yes, that they used to work down there, that things were different, but things were moving on, that they were sick of it all being an excuse for a war, that they were sick of it being a tourist attraction, that they will never, ever be able to forget the sights and sounds and smells of that day and the days after it. They didn’t want to hear that. Nobody wanted to hear that.

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