I was in New York City on 11 September 2001. My wife and I had stopped in to visit family on our way moving to Prague from Los Angeles. From the balcony of my family’s flat, you could see the World Trade Center in the distance. It literally towered over all of New York.
I woke up before the attacks. The most I could think of was the Yankee game from the night before, rained out after we had waited in the stands for several hours. That left the sky an almost unreal blue, the kind that only exists in the upper reaches of the stratosphere, but which rain seems to wash down to Earth to soak into your cornea for a few hours before the sun finally burns it all away.
It was, in every way, in shattering contrast to the unreality of the events that followed. Newscasters watched the first building burn and could only speculate on some incalculable navigation error. Even after the second building burst into flame and one of the towers actually fell, I could still only process: “My God. The NYC skyline will never look the same, with only one tower left.”
As a kid in New York, watching them built, you didn’t think of them as the “World Trade Center”; that would be boring. They were the “Twin Towers”, and you never considered that one could exist, even for a half hour, without the other. And then, like conjoined twins codependent on some vital organ in the national consciousness, they did not.
But yet, even then, looking through the scar of the skyline into the empty space where the buildings had anchored the island, the event still remained unthinkable. It wasn’t until small aspects began to aggregate that the scope of it all came into focus; like a photograph sharpened by the details that your eyes can see but a lens cannot.
When I lived in Europe for five years, I realized it was these details that underlined your sense of cultural dislocation—the shapes of keyholes and doorknobs, for instance—rather than the broad strokes of language and history. The broad strokes merely bent the direction of the tracks; but it was a small stone that could actually derail the train.
The days that followed became filled with these unanticipated moments, the kind you can’t prepare for, like turning a corner on the street to find a spontaneous candlelight vigil, random strangers who came together just so they could spend a few moments in each other’s company.
Both the city’s Red Cross and a local firehouse stood right below my family’s flat. We watched through the day as the line to donate blood at the Red Cross snaked around the block. But when we finally went down to join the line, officials turned us away–no room for any more stock, and nobody had survived anyway.
We passed the firehouse a few days later, and saw the entire cross-street shut down by a dune of flowers that cascaded out the station doors and into the roadway. We saw that officials had posted two letters in the glass case outside: The first, from the city fire commissioner, requested the names of the station’s firefighters who’d died. The second, from the firehouse captain, refused to designate his men as dead; he would record them only as “missing, still on duty at the scene.” Following that: a list of more than half the men who had been under his command.
A few days later, my wife and I took a walk in Central Park to escape the relentless coverage on TV. We were relieved to smell the barbecues that you’d normally see on a late summer day, as if people had finally returned to the normality of their lives.
Except, after a few minutes, we realized that there weren’t any barbecues; it was the smell of the wreckage at Ground Zero, still burning, drifting up to blanket the entire island. You couldn’t even breathe without a constant reminder of the attacks.
One memory stands out. In the weeks after the towers fell, every square foot of fence in New York was conscripted by flyers from family members searching helplessly for loved ones. Each carried the same message: Have you seen this person? Worked on the 99th floor. Worked on the 101st floor. Worked on the 97th floor. Over and over again—all pictures of smiling, photocopied faces; all ghosts, all gone.
Along these fences, people would sometimes leave artwork, mementos, origami cranes, or stuffed animals pinned with sealed, secret envelopes. One man walked by with his young daughter, showing her the keepsakes that others left behind. She asked the kind of question that people overwhelmed by massive tragedy never consider: What will happen to all these things?
The man didn’t really expect the question, and didn’t really have an answer. He told his daughter that someone would eventually come by and put it all in a box.
And then the girl asked, with that kind of innocence reserved only for children: “What do they do with the box?”
What do we do with the box.
I’ve asked myself that question every year on the anniversary of the attacks. I had a friend once burst into tears from a simple question like “how’s work”, because she held a job at an investment firm and knew dozens of people who died that day. Whenever I see an electric blue sky, the kind that really only exists in your memory, I still think of airplanes exploding.
All that only serves to remind me of just how utterly stupid I was to worry about a Yankees game from the night before; or how, as a thousand people were crushed into grey concrete dust, I could still only think about the New York City skyline. Even now, thinking back on it, I still feel ashamed, really.