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September 11, 2010

It’s difficult to write about the subject of 9/11 without falling into all sorts of traps and pitfalls: over zealous patriotism, racist baiting of anyone of Middle Eastern origins, or just plain fear mongering. I also don’t want to ever overshadow the writing of people who were literally at or very near ground zero when the towers went down. I was not, although I was living in Brooklyn and working in New York City. I remember a lot of subway delays and rerouting that occurred as I made my usual morning commute. None of this was unusual – subways in NYC are always switching from one line to another for some reason or another. As I got off the train and walked the few extra blocks to work, fire trucks went blaring by and people seemed to be having trouble with their cell phones. Again, nothing unusual for a busy morning in Manhattan. I got to the corner of 19th and 6th, half a block away from the entrance to the building where I worked, and saw a clutch of people gathered on the corner staring toward the downtown area where smoke was billowing up from one of the Twin Towers. “One of the towers caught on fire,” a woman told me when I asked what was happening. I found it concerning but not alarming as I made my way into the offices; fires happen in Manhattan. By the time I got inside a co-worker was telling me “There was an accident, a plane crashed into one of the towers.” My concern raised to moderate alarm, wondering what the fallout of such a tragic accident would be and wondering how something so freakish could have happened. A group of us gathered in a spare office to watch the news reports on TV and then the second plane hit. And we knew that there was nothing accidental going on at all.

The next few minutes, hours and days felt as actually surreal as probably anything in my life ever will. Because what was happening was something many of us on the island of Manhattan had no reference point for: New York City was on “full terror alert”. I remember my coworkers Dave and Jonny and I talking about how we didn’t even know what that meant. Would there be armed men running through the streets shooting people? Bombs going off? Air strikes? Watching the towers fall on TV did not help to make any of it seem more real. It was like watching a scene from Independence Day or some other movie where a major city was being destroyed in cinematic fashion. When we all left the building to either go to our respective Manhattan homes or, like me, to go hang out at a friend’s place until we could get to one of the other boroughs by subway, it felt so bizarre to be walking with masses of people right down the middle of usually busy roads. I got to my bandmate Hillary’s house where Heather, another bandmate, and her girlfriend Jo met us and we watched the news for hours before taking a break to stand on the roof and watch the smoke curl up into the sky from afar. We walked down the middle of 2nd Avenue (down the middle!) to get pizza and at some point I remembered our band’s first CD officially came out that day. Albums always come out on Tuesdays and we had picked 9/11/2001 for our release date. There was, as you can imagine, little fanfare when we realized this. Later that evening, as I rode the C train back to Fort Greene, I looked around at all of the suddenly open, vulnerable, uncertain faces of my fellow New Yorkers. The subway seemed so quiet that you could have heard the flapping of a fly’s wings. No one knew what to do. Again, we had no reference point for this.

In the days following I remember three things the most: the smell, the dreams and the news. Fort Greene is close enough to Manhattan that, when the wind was right (and if often was, much to my dismay) we could smell the burning at ground zero; the smell of human flesh being the most obvious of all the smells. And the most horrifying. At one point my doctor had to raise the dosage of my daily asthma medicine because the air quality was fucking with my breathing so much. “I’ve had to do this with a lot of my patients,” he told me, as I tried to not think about how much of what we were breathing in was the remains of people. At night my dreams were even more bizarre than the daily realities immediately following September 11th. In one dream I was sleeping on the roof of my apartment building as huge, blimp-like airplanes flew in mass formation through reddish-pink colored skies. As much as they seemed like harmless balloons in stature, I was terrified and couldn’t move from my sleeping spot. In another dream I was inside of a massive spiraling, rickety, wooden tower that was collapsing around me. I had super powers and was trying to rescue two women, a mother and daughter, by using my powers to make us all intangible so the debris would fall harmlessly through us.

And then I woke up and the news was more unsettling still. It seemed like nothing but the footage of the towers coming down playing on an endless loop was happening on television. The news anchors went from the same open-faced uncertainty of the first day to having banners and slogans and crawls perfectly in place the next day. It was relentless. Because of the towers coming down, lots of folks without cable (like my roommate and I) could only access one or two channels, all of which were news. One day on my way to work I uncharacteristically decided to buy a copy of the New York Times because I felt I should be trying to keep up with as much news in the aftermath as I could. I started reading an article about possible anthrax attacks and suddenly felt the air rushing out of me. By the time I got to work I was in a full-blown panic and my friend and I decided that me reading newspapers was most likely an activity I should avoid.  When Sting came on one evening to sing a song to help heal the world, my roommate and I decided it was time to get cable so we had something to escape to. And I decided that Sting was the last person I ever wanted to try and heal anything for anyone. When we got cable we saw the first episode of the Daily Show that aired after September 11th and watched as Jon Stewart tried to both contain and express his emotions about all of it in one of the most truly affecting moments I’ve ever witnessed on a television screen. And then I had to stop watching the news for a long time. To tell you the truth, I am very light on my consumption of news since those days and weeks immediately following the towers coming down. The news is full of tiny tragedies all of the time. And after awhile, I just find myself not wanting my brain loaded up with fear and anger and violence any more than anyone’s mind is naturally occupied with those things.

So nine years later I find myself wondering if there’s a point in writing about this again. Yes, I was there. But then I wonder if it affected me as deeply as it did others. People report long-term trauma, recurring anxiety and nightmares without end. I haven’t had those experiences, not over the long term. But then I think of how often I look at a clock and the time reads 9:11 and how it’s absolutely impossible for me to see that and not think of the day, if only for a moment. It’s a little thing, but it’s huge at the same time, to think that a clock can be such a loaded device when all it’s doing is sitting there and doing it’s job, counting the seconds, minutes and hours of our days. If nothing else, it feels important to write something down about it every now and then, if only to push it out of me and into a larger world where reading it might have some resonance for someone; someone else who can’t believe how often the clock displays those horribly unforgettable numbers.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Christopher Becerra permalink
    September 11, 2010 9:40 pm

    That was lovely. Thanks.

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