Nineteen is When They Forgot
The slogan, for people who weren’t in Manhattan that day, is “Never Forget”. The people who were not here, who were never here, call it “9/11”. But the people I still check in with, the friends who trudged home covered in ash, never call it that. It’s always euphemism or elision or metonymy. “That Tuesday morning”, or “when I was downtown” or, maybe, “after the second plane”.
I want to remember the truth of those actually here, and those actually lost, because now we have proof that all those who claimed We Are All New Yorkers have definitively forgotten us, less than two decades after they promised exactly the opposite.
We’ve had a tragedy now that’s worse than that day, tenfold. Inflicted on us by a virus, yes, but by contemptuous and contemptible leaders at every level, too. By the fundamental unwillingness to show the same spirit of connection, camaraderie, neighborliness, and yes, love that defines New York City.
Instead of a show of support from afar, my neighbors, my community, pulled each other through it this time. There was no other choice. It was the same openhearted expression of compassion for strangers that I first learned existed 19 years ago. This spring, every night at seven o’clock when our neighborhood rang out in a clamor to celebrate those sacrificing to save our fellow New Yorkers, it felt like a crowd at one of our ballparks, celebrating the capability of people to love and help complete strangers. You couldn’t help but be inspired.
And as the unimaginable, searing grief added up day after day, as it continues to right now in a quieter form, all we asked during this tragedy was the exact same thing we asked during that last epochal tragedy. Listen to those who lost so much, listen quietly to our community’s grief, and honor this senseless, needless loss by taking care of each other, dammit. Show the love for each other that the bravest of New Yorkers have used to pull each other through.
But this time it was immediately obvious that much of this country, far too many of its people, have nothing but contempt for New York and the way the best of this city is resilient and loving and unfathomably self-sacrificing. They have already forgotten us this time, without even the pretense of briefly standing with us. To be fair, some of the reason for the lack of solidarity is that they’re suffering at the hands of a tragedy we desperately wanted to warn them to avoid.
It’s clear now that America doesn’t see New Yorkers’ deaths or pain as real. That realization is too deep a failure of humanity for me to reflect on for too long. But I find hope, and more than a little redemption of my belief in people, from what I have seen in this past few months in my beloved city.
Just as I despaired so deeply 19 years ago, but was able to rise back up due to the inspiration of my neighbors and my city, New York can show us something greater than we imagined. Where then, people stood by the mosque in my neighborhood to show support for those who might be victimized, today I see loving handwritten signs decrying the potential for racist ranting about the origins of this pandemic. The same eerie calm of a city where the skies were cleared of any jets overhead was echoed in the silence of our streets in a spring where there were no taxis screeching by. The “I Love New York” signs with a blemished red heart reflecting a city scarred hung in every storefront where now they have a streetscape marked by people reclaiming the block for food and drink and conversation and life. The workers who wore face masks then to fend off the risks of asbestos and anthrax are every bit as thoughtful to wear those masks and protect others today. Those who marched in the streets to fight the rush to war then, march in the streets to fight systematic injustice now.
For all that’s changed, this is still the city I love. I thought that my adulthood would only be marked by one devastating tragedy that bound me to this city, but unfathomably, I was naive to hope so. I’m not a Pollyanna about the resiliency of this city; our metaphorical immune system was already compromised before this latest egregious insult. It will take an act of extraordinary collective will for New York to recover as much as we are able.
But I do have the experience of having seen this city bounce back from unimaginable pain before. I have seen us respond to attacks on our public life by rebuilding and reimagining public space. I have seen us grieve our losses and rally behind those who cared for those injured, and preserve space in our cultural memory for their pain and sacrifice. By no means have we done enough for all those lost, but it is absolutely true that we can rebuild. We’ve done it before.
Each year I write a reminiscence or an observation of where I am on this day, and how I'm seeing a moment that's moved from visceral personal experience to faded cultural memory. Here's what I've written in years past.
Last year, Eighteen is History
There are ritualized remembrances, largely led by those who weren't there, those who mostly hate the values that New York City embodies. The sharpest memories are of the goals of those who masterminded the attacks. It's easy enough to remember what they wanted, since they accomplished all their objectives and we live in the world they sought to create. The empire has been permanently diminished. Never Forget.
Two years ago, Seventeen is (Almost) Just Another Day
I spent so many years thinking “I can’t go there” that it caught me completely off guard to realize that going there is now routine. Maybe the most charitable way to look at it is resiliency, or that I’m seeing things through the eyes of my child who’s never known any reality but the present one. I'd spent a lot of time wishing that we hadn't been so overwhelmed with response to that day, so much that I hadn''t considered what it would be like when the day passed for so many people with barely a notice at all.
Three years ago, Sixteen is Letting Go Again
So, like ten years ago, I’m letting go. Trying not to project my feelings onto this anniversary, just quietly remembering that morning and how it felt. My son asked me a couple of months ago, “I heard there was another World Trade Center before this one?” and I had to find a version of the story that I could share with him. In this telling, losing those towers was unimaginably sad and showed that there are incredibly hurtful people in the world, but there are still so many good people, and they can make wonderful things together.
Four years ago, Fifteen is the Past:
I don’t dismiss or deny that so much has gone so wrong in the response and the reaction that our culture has had since the attacks, but I will not forget or diminish the pure openheartedness I witnessed that day. And I will not let the cynicism or paranoia of others draw me in to join them.
What I’ve realized, simply, is that 9/11 is in the past now.
In 2015, Fourteen is Remembering:
For the first time, I clearly felt like I had put the attacks firmly in the past. They have loosened their grip on me. I don’t avoid going downtown, or take circuitous routes to avoid seeing where the towers once stood. I can even imagine deliberately visiting the area to see the new train station.
In 2014, Thirteen is Understanding:
There’s no part of that day that one should ever have to explain to a child, but I realized for the first time this year that, when the time comes, I’ll be ready. Enough time has passed that I could recite the facts, without simply dissolving into a puddle of my own unresolved questions. I look back at past years, at my own observances of this anniversary, and see how I veered from crushingly sad to fiercely angry to tentatively optimistic, and in each of those moments I was living in one part of what I felt. Maybe I’m ready to see this thing in a bigger picture, or at least from a perspective outside of just myself.
From 2013, Twelve is Trying:
I thought in 2001 that some beautiful things could come out of that worst of days, and sure enough, that optimism has often been rewarded. There are boundless examples of kindness and generosity in the worst of circumstances that justify the hope I had for people’s basic decency back then, even if initially my hope was based only on faith and not fact.
But there is also fatigue. The inevitable fading of outrage and emotional devastation into an overworked rhetorical reference point leaves me exhausted. The decay of a brief, profound moment of unity and reflection into a cheap device to be used to prop up arguments about the ordinary, the everyday and the mundane makes me weary. I’m tired from the effort to protect the fragile memory of something horrific and hopeful that taught me about people at their very best and at their very, very worst.
In 2012, Eleven is What We Make:
These are the gifts our children, or all children, give us every day in a million different ways. But they’re also the gifts we give ourselves when we make something meaningful and beautiful. The new World Trade Center buildings are beautiful, in a way that the old ones never were, and in a way that’ll make our fretting over their exorbitant cost seem short-sighted in the decades to come. More importantly, they exist. We made them, together. We raised them in the past eleven years just as surely as we’ve raised our children, with squabbles and mistakes and false starts and slow, inexorable progress toward something beautiful.
In 2011 for the 10th anniversary, Ten is Love and Everything After:
I don’t have any profound insights or political commentary to offer that others haven’t already articulated first and better. All that I have is my experience of knowing what it mean to be in New York City then. And from that experience, the biggest lesson I have taken is that I have the obligation to be a kinder man, a more thoughtful man, and someone who lives with as much passion and sincerity as possible. Those are the lessons that I’ll tell my son some day in the distant future, and they’re the ones I want to remember now.
In 2010, Nine is New New York:
[T]his is, in many ways, a golden era in the entire history of New York City. Over the four hundred years it’s taken for this city to evolve into its current form, there’s never been a better time to walk down the street. Crime is low, without us having sacrificed our personality or passion to get there. We’ve invested in making our sidewalks more walkable, our streets more accommodating of the bikes and buses and taxis that convey us around our town. There’s never been a more vibrant scene in the arts, music or fashion here. And in less than half a decade, the public park where I got married went from a place where I often felt uncomfortable at noontime to one that I wanted to bring together my closest friends and family on the best day of my life. We still struggle with radical inequality, but more people interact with people from broadly different social classes and cultures every day in New York than any other place in America, and possibly than in any other city in the world.
And all of this happened, by choice, in the years since the attacks.
In 2009, Eight Is Starting Over:
[T]his year, I am much more at peace. It may be that, finally, we’ve been called on by our leadership to mark this day by being of service to our communities, our country, and our fellow humans. I’ve been trying of late to do exactly that. And I’ve had a bit of a realization about how my own life was changed by that day.
Speaking to my mother last week, I offhandedly mentioned how almost all of my friends and acquaintances, my entire career and my accomplishments, my ambitions and hopes have all been born since September 11, 2001. If you’ll pardon the geeky reference, it’s as if my life was rebooted that day and in the short period afterwards. While I have a handful of lifelong friends with whom I’ve stayed in touch, most of the people I’m closest to are those who were with me on the day of the attacks or shortly thereafter, and the goals I have for myself are those which I formed in the next days and weeks. i don’t think it’s coincidence that I was introduced to my wife while the wreckage at the site of the towers was still smoldering, or that I resolved to have my life’s work amount to something meaningful while my beloved city was still papered with signs mourning the missing.
In 2008, Seven Is Angry:
Finally getting angry myself, I realize that nobody has more right to claim authority over the legacy of the attacks than the people of New York. And yet, I don’t see survivors of the attacks downtown claiming the exclusive right to represent the noble ambition of Never Forgetting. I’m not saying that people never mention the attacks here in New York, but there’s a genuine awareness that, if you use the attacks as justification for your position, the person you’re addressing may well have lost more than you that day. As I write this, I know that parked out front is the car of a woman who works in my neighborhood. Her car has a simple but striking memorial on it, listing her mother’s name, date of birth, and the date 9/11/2001.
In 2007, Six Is Letting Go:
On the afternoon of September 11th, 2001, and especially on September 12th, I wasn’t only sad. I was also hopeful. I wanted to believe that we wouldn’t just Never Forget that we would also Always Remember. People were already insisting that we’d put aside our differences and come together, and maybe the part that I’m most bittersweet and wistful about was that I really believed it. I’d turned 26 years old just a few days before the attacks, and I realize in retrospect that maybe that moment, as I eased from my mid-twenties to my late twenties, was the last time I’d be unabashedly optimistic about something, even amidst all the sorrow.
In 2006, After Five Years, Failure:
[O]ne of the strongest feelings I came away with on the day of the attacks was a feeling of some kind of hope. Being in New York that day really showed me the best that people can be. As much as it’s become cliché now, there’s simply no other way to describe a display that profound. It was truly a case of people showing their very best nature.
We seem to have let the hope of that day go, though.
In 2005, Four Years:
I saw people who hated New York City, or at least didn’t care very much about it, trying to act as if they were extremely invested in recovering from the attacks, or opining about the causes or effects of the attacks. And to me, my memory of the attacks and, especially, the days afterward had nothing to do with the geopolitics of the situation. They were about a real human tragedy, and about the people who were there and affected, and about everything but placing blame and pointing fingers. It felt thoughtless for everyone to offer their response in a framework that didn’t honor the people who were actually going through the event.
In 2004, Thinking Of You:
I don’t know if it’s distance, or just the passing of time, but I notice how muted the sorrow is. There’s a passivity, a lack of passion to the observances. I knew it would come, in the same way that a friend told me quite presciently that day back in 2001 that “this is all going to be political debates someday” and, well, someday’s already here.
In 2003, Two Years:
I spent a lot of time, too much time, resenting people who were visiting our city, and especially the site of the attacks, these past two years. I’ve been so protective, I didn’t want them to come and get their picture taken like it was Cinderella’s Castle or something. I’m trying really hard not to be so angry about that these days. I found that being angry kept me from doing the productive and important things that really mattered, and kept me from living a life that I know I’m lucky to have.
In 2002, I wrote On Being An American:
[I]n those first weeks, I thought a lot about what it is to be American. That a lot of people outside of New York City might not even recognize their own country if they came to visit. The America that was attacked a year ago was an America where people are as likely to have been born outside the borders of the U.S. as not. Where most of the residents speak another language in addition to English. Where the soundtrack is, yes, jazz and blues and rock and roll, but also hip hop and salsa and merengue. New York has always been where the first fine threads of new cultures work their way into the fabric of America, and the city the bore the brunt of those attacks last September reflected that ideal to its fullest.
In 2001, Thank You:
I am physically fine, as are all my family members and immediate friends. I’ve been watching the footage all morning, I can’t believe I watched the World Trade Center collapse…
I’ve been sitting here this whole morning, choking back tears… this is just too much, too big. I can see the smoke and ash from the street here. I have friends of friends who work there, I was just there myself the day before yesterday. I can’t process this all. I don’t want to.