by InfotainMe

For me as it did for many people I guess, 9/11 established a permanent barrier between all that was before and everything since, like two plateaus separated by an abyss.  On the far plateau I am going to a David Gray concert with my brother at Radio City, then coming home for some late night campaigning for Hoboken United.  Later we will rent a house down the shore.  My then-wife will hide all our valuables and important documents while we are away, and I will have to find them when I need to get copies of the boys’ birth certificates to sign up for soccer.  Turns out everything is hidden in an upstairs closet.  By the time I find it I am late for work.  At the end of River Street across from the Path a small crowd is gathered, all looking up at the southeast sky.  A fire on the top 10 floors of the Trade Center with a lot of black smoke pouring out of a jagged gash.  I watch for a few minutes, and decide to try the ferry instead of the Path.  I run into a business analyst I know who is just then giving up on the ferry, so I opt to work from home.  I check my watch, still in vacation mode and not sure of the date.  9/11.  Ironic, because I figure a lot of people will be calling 911.  Well, they don’t need my dumbass milling about down there, so I head home.  About the time I get to Newark Street, a cop says the other tower has been hit.  And that was that.  Every step from that point forward was on this plateau.  If I had looked behind me then I might have seen the abyss form.

When the north tower fell, something palpably rushed out of me.  My wife worked in building 7.  Are we alone now, the boys and I?  Almost an animal thought, mere survival, stupidly listing the things I didn’t know how to do for them in my head.  I couldn’t get anyone on the phone except people I didn’t want to speak with.  A state of emergency was announced, and I had to get the boys at Hoboken Charter.  I had my story ready.  “Mommy is ok, she had to go to a meeting uptown.”   I hadn’t heard from mommy but knew that there was no possibility that she was at a meeting uptown.

Some details are not mine to provide.  But she was on Church Street when people started jumping.  An attorney for the Port Authority recognized her symptoms and got her into a cab which took the two of them back to Jersey.  We went to mass that night, staring dazedly ahead, whispering the words.

A few days later the school had a dinner.  Everyone got a “Hate-Free Zone” button.  By then someone out west had incongruously murdered a Sikh for “revenge.”  The befuddled executioner turned out to be a prophet of sorts as the decade progressed.  I stayed in the school kitchen the whole night wearing my button and making an immense pot of rubbery pasta.  Busy work is my preferred outlet under duress.

We got home in time to hear Springsteen play an elegiac tune about Asbury Park called “My City In Ruin” in a benefit show.  But an emotional numbness prevailed in me.  It was an ecstatically beautiful September, but always with that one plume of smoke drifting over the house from the southeast bearing the burnt chemical smell of hatred and ruin.  Some months later I was chatting with a stranger while walking my dog.  We heard a plane overhead and stopped speaking and forgot what we were talking about, parted, each returning to his own private hell.

On the far plateau I didn’t know the difference between Sunni and Shia.  I couldn’t match the seven buildings of the Trade Center to their numbers.  I had never seen eyes as leering with death as those of Mohammed Atta.  I didn’t know the people who were killed, but have read their mini-biographies several times.  The one that always broke me up was the guy in his 40s who had finally found the girl.  Gavin.

On the far plateau on Thursday mornings you’d see a guy with an ethereal calm playing violin at the foot of the bank of 12 escalators that led from the Path up to the concourse level.  He was like a bird of good fortune telling you the week was almost over.  He raked it in pretty good.  On this plateau a friend told me that the most striking memory for him was the hundreds of shoes all over the floor where people got off the escalators and ran for their lives.  I don’t guess a violin wouldn’t have helped much.

I don’t have any deep thoughts about 9/11.  As often as I have been reminded that it was a shared experience that “brought us all together” I still believe it was more or less everyone’s private hell.  It defies summation.  When something horrible happens we want to believe some good will come of it, has come of it already.  And we all know that we will never experience anything so horrible again as that day.  If it hasn’t made us ‘better’ somehow, then maybe there are no plateaus, only a general abyss.  And most of us can’t live that way.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true from one person to the next.  A private hell can be stronger than every impulse toward human kindness.  It can.  It was for the terrorists.

A simple equation.  We are worse for each act of despair we can trace to 9/11, each life dismissed as unworthy of our regard, each time we have imagined xenophobia had something to do with patriotism, each time 9/11 was an excuse for evil or smallness.  We are better for each act of love.  I don’t have an answer for the absurd question of whether or how the terrorists win.  I am just grateful to wake up today and know that my heart can still be broken.


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