One of Two Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety-Six

The number of people who died in just two hours’ time on September 11, 2001 was almost unimaginable for me, as were their final minutes of fear, frenzy, entrapment, hope, and death. After I stood on 22nd Street and 6th Avenue watching the buildings burn, I went home to behold, on television, their collapse, one after the other, each one filled with human beings. Two thousand nine hundred and ninety-six people were killed that day.

In the days that followed, photocopied photos of the missing appeared everywhere in New York City, have-you-seen posters taped to streetlights and walls, each one a plaintive hope against hope that someone might had escaped the inferno. Soon the photos became memorials. Manhattan was a graveyard with faces. Confronted with so many souls staring at me, I found myself focusing on one man who, to me, would speak for all the men and women lost.

His name was Daniel Crisman, and I chose him because he was cute, because he was (I learned) a poet, and because he lived with his girlfriend just a few blocks south of me, on West 15th Street. His eyes, wide and dark, kept meeting mine on every street corner, and his big smile suggested all the promise of the people, past and present, who have come to New York City to make art and new lives for themselves while working in tall office buildings. Dan was the one I kept hoping for, even as the seared smell of electricity and death insinuated into our windows. In my act of emotional triage, in my attempt to turn a massive statistic into an apprehensible tragedy, he became the one for whom I specifically grieved. I knew I was turning him into a convenient symbol. As a straight young white guy, Dan was by no means representative of all the people who died that day. He was just one among three thousand. Nor could he precisely stand for the hundreds of thousands of people who would die in Afghanistan and Iraq and London and Paris and San Bernardino and Orlando and Nice and Aleppo — in all the hundreds of places where fear makes rage. Yet Dan became my guide into grief.

Dan Crisman would be forty-two this year. I wonder what poems he might have written, where work and love would have led him, if he had not died at 25, seventeen years ago today — if the world’s fury had not murdered him, as it murders so many. Maybe this morning I would have nodded hello to him on Sixth Avenue, or met his eyes on the subway. I bet he would like to be alive.