new york skyline.
(photo credit: Gary Hershorn / Reuters)
NEW YORK – Unlike the famously bright, blue day of September 11, 2001, when the world was shaken, detritus from the World Trade Center falling like snow in a snow globe as the buildings burned, this Sunday in New York City was dark, gloomy and cold.
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Memorials are everywhere, in print and on television. Ceremonies proliferate, enabling officials to make resonant speeches, stand in silent solemnity and lay wreaths. On September 11, particularly this year, Facebook profile photos are changed to American flags or pictures of the iconic towers, like roses or stones laid on a virtual grave. Status messages note that the world is such a different place now, that the writer will never forget what happened on this day 10 years ago.
Why is this day, the 10th anniversary, different from all other days? Pundits on every television channel, newspaper and website discuss this point in terms of foreign policy, terrorism, intercultural relations and civil liberties. But these things do not touch on the real differences in the lives of real people.
This anniversary is different because it is the tacit acknowledgment that we have moved 10 years away from those stunned days immediately after.
Those days were also beautiful and blue, when we wandered through the
the streets of New York passing homemade signs made by families of
missing people, hopeful smiles staring sightlessly from paper, imploring
us to somehow find them, to somehow undo what had happened.
An anniversary commands us to remember in a different, commemorative
fashion, and we have to do so because September 11 is no longer
omnipresent, for both good and ill. We no longer climb into yellow
taxicabs festooned with American flags to greet the frightened eyes of
an obviously Muslim driver in the rear-view mirror.
We have forgotten the panic and fear that made us carry flip-flops in
our briefcases just in case we had to walk down more than 20 floors to
evacuate a building. We have forgotten how smiling and laughing
afterward felt wrong. We have forgotten how we felt sad, crumpled and
We have also forgotten the feeling, as strong and sure as footsteps
toward the blood bank on September 12, of “I have to do something to
help my country.”
As a 2001-New Yorker, I know this personally. I have forgotten the
feeling that took me to the makeshift legal offices at the pier, where I
worked for two weeks. I have forgotten the sudden impulsive feeling
that made me take a stranger’s hand when I heard him take in a sharp
breath as I instructed him how to fill out a death certificate for his
wife. He seemed impossibly old.
The skin around his eyes was pockmarked with broken blood vessels.
When I took the pen from his shaking hand, he told me he was 43. His
wife had walked down to the 78th floor, and then decided to take the
I seldom think of the question I asked myself that day: “Why does it
take thousands of people dying within a mile of my home for me to
attempt to help other people?” Now in 2011, we see the lights downtown
but have forgotten the horrible smell of that smoke, burning metal and
flesh. The passionate fury of anger, conviction and mourning slide,
inscrutably, into forgetting. Of course, the softness of memory can be a
mercy. On September 11, the world cut far too deep.
I forget what is important, all the time. Every day, I forget. On this
day of the year, the calendar steps on my heart and tells me: Remember!
It stomps across my heart with shined shoes, blasting bagpipes, and
tear filled voices speaking into windblown microphones. Today, it’s on
And then slowly, the days and nights elide. With each hour, we inch away from brightly hopeful, clear blue September days.
And I remember that we will forget again.
But the thing that was truly lost on September 11, that no memorial will
ever commemorate and that nothing will ever bring back, is the rainy
New York day of September 10, 2001. On that prosaic day, we yelled at
our dry cleaners for losing our shirts, and went to work pissed off. We
ordered Chinese takeout and tipped the delivery guy extra for having
biked through the dark, wet night. We ran out of shampoo, and wrote it
down on a shopping list for the next day.
On September 10, 2001, our “problems” were amazingly, beautifully small
and mundane. Because on that day, there was nothing to remember, and we
had no idea how grateful we should have been.