City Elegy

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It was still light enough outside to see a black plume of smoke cresting from the south when I finally came outdoors.

That Tuesday I’d spent the afternoon watching footage of Boeings slamming into the World Trade Center as girls drifted in and out of classrooms, crying, calling their families. Both of my brothers went to school blocks away from the site, joining the crowd that fled north as the Towers collapsed. Once my parents knew they were safe, the older one trudged six miles uptown to bring me home.

Our apartment was full of friends that had no way to get out of Manhattan till the next day, but we were safe and accounted for. Outside my bedroom window, the sun set through chinks in a wall of brown smoke and ash blanketing Lower Manhattan, incongruously peaceful as the sky had been that morning.

I don’t remember the fall semester of school after that.

But I do remember subway stations from one end of the island to the other carpeted with “missing persons” flyers. And the diabolical aura of storms that sizzled in blinding flashes and earth-shattering claps of thunder while I lay awake in the dark thinking of people buried alive as mountains of wreckage smoldered around them, not knowing how far they were from help or if it would come.

Spring came; I had lived through it with my classmates, as far as I saw it, our first grim bonding moment, and I could push it away for a year.

It was a frigid day in January that impulse told me I shouldn’t go home, coming up the subway steps — just keep walking south on Broadway until I was there, to finally see for myself. I hesitated; if I stopped, if I went to get a coat, I knew I would change my mind.

Gaping at the crater from Church Street — how many acres down, how many city blocks around? — I blinked up at the cross of steel erected on a pedestal; dumbstruck horror became anger. I know now that’s probably self-centered and that faith served a role comforting the dying and bereaving. But at the moment, all I felt was that any God seemed so indifferent as to be beside the point.

I’ve forgotten Johnny’s age, the badge number the man recited, his engine company, but not this:

“72 stories.”

I turned towards the voice. The old man had been standing beside me to look too; he shuffled ahead of me and continued.

“Carried me all the way down, all 72 floors. I lived, Johnny died. He died here.”

He took a hand out of his pockets to gesture over the canyon, rubbed his eyes under his glasses.

“I never got to thank him. All I can do is hope he knows when I come.”

Was it true? Was I actually standing next to someone who had escaped?

What could I say to someone that had almost died where we stood and had come to mourn the man that had saved him, when I couldn’t physically believe what I was staring into?

I went back the evening of the third anniversary. FDNY and NYPD battalions had brought smiling Golden Retrievers and Labradors decked out in their official canine search and rescue uniforms to greet families with children, shake hands with tourists, and bear reverence to lost brethren.

I stood at the edge of the circle of people that gathered around candles and piled roses, passing around a copy of “Portraits of Grief” to read aloud. The Tribute in Light blazed heavenwards without summit. People were singing and playing instruments.

It could have been a summer evening in the park.

Ground Zero was still visible from the plaza. Night and the darkness made it inescapable.

Even then, surrounded by those signs of life, it was both unbearable and impossible not to be reminded that the void where thousands of people had worked and lived was now an open mass grave, shadows of the buildings around us descending into a cave with no bottom.

Whoever was there before, others’ testimony and celebration of their lives was all that remained.


Lower Manhattan would be rebuilt. I would go back to my own petty existence. Life went on.

15 years later — just under 3,000 people, their survivors spread from continent to continent, and those in the latter left with the burden of separating their own memories from a legacy they did not choose — I know that it is a privilege to be able to say that for myself and my family.

When I recollect 9/11, I divide a New York story from the politically expedient narrative that evolved over the course of the decade. Maybe in the beginning, the two versions were indistinct in a rallying call to ideals of camaraderie and better natures, but quickly enough what comes to mind is a bloody flag waved by self-interested practitioners of the sort of chest-thumping, hollow patriotism I usually think of as a mask or a special evil in the world, like any other cause too pure and too imperative in the telling by its adherents to be accountable to moral or rational scrutiny. The aftermath was a comprehensive lesson that the only thing worse than a hypocrite is the pious kind.

As I get older I’ve also come to believe that often, the more intense the sentiment, the better it is I keep it private, and more, the greater the need to accept the bad that might just be, immovable to will — sorrow, humiliation, anger — currents in a tide, or symptoms to manage stealthily. I strive; I don’t necessarily succeed. It’s not a prescription for how to live, just personal experience.

I will go to painstaking efforts to avoid networks replaying hours of footage from that day with a mixture of guilt and the claustrophobic sense I am being forced to relive, not simply recall, like everyone else that grimaces at the exhortation to remember. My version of the story is not the only one, but I know that in the years immediately following 9/11 — selfish as it may be to use that day as a marker — whatever I felt then about my own life or will for the future, that was an occasion to grieve and own it fully; it was shared. Among mourners, among neighbors resisting annihilation visited on us indiscriminately. As New Yorkers.

Memories of my own life exist on a continuum with that day, and are summoned for the same reason one might hold on to the way a friend departed, or how they fell in love — out of instinct to preserve snapshots of what shaped you, when forgetting and being forgotten are inevitable.

I am guilty of waxing alternately nostalgic and bitter about this city, gawking sickened at deserted blocks — one shuttered store after the next, a gutted school, a community center or a shelter turned into more ultra-luxury housing — cursing new condo super towers leering for miles over the skyline, physical reminders of the principle that no matter what I might I feel, nor how deeply, no matter how potent my desire that what I grow attached to remain accessible, familiar, and impervious to change or loss, the world may well be indifferent.

But today I will reflect on a sight that usually stops me in my tracks: One World Trade Center, luminous over Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton is buried; a straight shoot to Federal Hall, where Washington was inaugurated the first American president. All around me is history as old as the country itself, on land that must have inspired the moment, as Fitzgerald tells it, that man held his breath, “face to face […] with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder”.

I do. I am.

This is what I feel for New York, radiant, ancient, unceasing…and hallowed.

Today of all days, I wholeheartedly remember — I love my city.

I love New York.

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