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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Today I like to remember New York City.

As I first came to know her, a Midwestern college grad who quickly learned the subways, where not to live and how you couldn't hope for a Friday night movie without buying a ticket in advance. Not as the man I became on September 11, 2001.

I say this not to heighten my personal drama with an event that touched untold millions in their own way. The only story I truly know of that day is mine. And to be frank, it really isn't worth telling. I have always felt blessed as one of the seemingly few New Yorkers that didn't lose a soul he even knew - not a friend, family member...not even an acquaintance that I knew of. And the story of my actual day - seeing the burning towers from the Manhattan Bridge, trekking with many scared and confused citizens to try to find a way off the island and back to Brooklyn...these are tales thousands can tell. Again, I didn't lose anyone, or anything. I didn't lose my father, my spouse, my boss, my friend, my way, my faith or my mind. I didn't even, like untold numbers of children, lose my innocence that day.

As such, I feel unfit to expound on the meaning of the day in ways that do not involve politics. Today isn't the day for that. (Tomorrow is.) I could wax poetic about the men I helped to feed when I volunteered near Ground Zero; the man who took me up into the American Express building on May 1, 2002 and showed me the depths of horror that was that smoldering hole; the men I downed beers with exactly 364 days later at a bar outside their station alongside my firefighter uncle, who'd already made several trips to help with the site cleanup, and with funerals. We tried to drown the next day's inevitable sorrows with beer and laughter, to no avail.

Today, though, I want to share a story of sorrow that I never knew, despite it coming from someone close to me.

Below are sections from the rather unique diary of a dear friend and great writer, Jordana Horn:
4:50 am, September 12, 2001

New York has been called "the city that never sleeps." Tonight, it is true.

I am lying on the sofa bed of our living room on the Upper West Side. My sister's boyfriend, who lives two blocks from the World Trade Center, has found his way uptown and will be living with us in our one bedroom apartment for the indeterminate future -- we have no idea what has happened to his dorm room, to all of his things. It seems like the least of concerns, simply because he is alive. But no one can sleep.

Through the night, I turn away from the television -- which I am unable to turn off, as I seem to be flipping channels trying to find some program which says all of this didn't actually happen -- and look out the window. All night, I have watched lights go on and off in bedrooms -- across the street, a few blocks over, through the city. No one can sleep. I watch other blue flickerings of other televisions, on and off.

I can't sleep. I think about the guy I met on the street, covered with dust, who, when I asked him about what had happened to Water Street (blocks from the World Trade Center) where my friend lived, looked at me and said, "There is no more Water Street." I think about how I had taken the bus to work, and how the bus couldn't move through Times Square because of all the people standing in the streets. It was like that famous Robert Doisneau photograph, but instead of lovers, it was just the crowd, looking at the big television screens in silence as though watching a televised battle between heaven and hell. I think of my sudden sense of panic when I realized that I was in a tremendous, unprotected space full of people, and got off the bus to run to find my husband in his tall, unguarded, unsafe office building. Everything was suddenly unguarded, suddenly unsafe.

I am full of other things I remember. Pregnant women walking for over 40 blocks because there were no subways. Everyone desperately dialing their cell phones over and over again, like people in prayer running their fingers over beads of rosaries. Calling certain numbers, and calling and calling and calling again, feeling an untoward sense of elation when your call would seem to go through with a ring, and then crushing disappointment because the "All circuits are busy" message kicked in. Trying to donate blood, being turned away. Going to three ATMs that all showed the message that they were out of cash. Getting calls at home in the evening from concerned co-workers because, like thousands of others yesterday, I never showed up at the office.

And now, waking up just before morning of the day after, after a half hour dozing, is like being slapped in the face. I wake up and then suddenly remember what happened. Then I remember that it was real.

Then, Jordana from today...a different life, yet still very similar:
7:30 am, September 11, 2008

Today is one of the only times when I will feel sad as I look at my children.

My children -- and your children, even if perhaps you don't yet have them, or haven't even yet met the person with whom you will -- will never know a world like the one we knew before seven years ago. I see a bright blue sky in early fall, and, God help me, I can't help but think of that lost world in September 11, 2001 hadn't happened yet -- that whole, lost world in which anything like what happened that day was, to us, utterly unimaginable.

These children will never, as some of us do, look at the skyline of New York and see the fingerprint, like a photograph's negative, of where those buildings were. And yes, I'll say it: where those buildings should be still standing today. These children will never know the feeling of vertiginous horror we had when we first learned, whether from a friend, a stranger or a television, that those planes didn't crash by accident. The words and the experience are now in our language; the concept of people flying planes into buildings in order to murder as many people as possible is established. The narrative of history is inelastic and is retold with a certain inevitability, as though it could not have been written any other way. That is truly what horrifies me: the simple knowledge that it would not be as shocking if something similar were to happen again.

This day on the calendar will always make me ask two simple questions.

Are we sleeping now?

Perhaps the real question, however, is the second: are we dreaming?

Where is the world of September 10, 2001? Perhaps forever beyond our reach. And it is, sadly, no dream. It is all too real, seven years later.



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