This morning I woke up and turned on the news, and seeing as though it was 5:54, I had no clue of today’s date. It took no time at all because the local news announced it within the first few seconds. I got up and got ready. On my way to work, I was driving through the Tenderloin, where I marvel daily at the brashness of the prostitutes that litter the side streets and alleys of Polk Street. On one of the most infamous, Post Street, I looked to my left while stopped at the light. I had never noticed a fire station there before, but today, 15-20 firefighters stood at full salute, staring at nothing and everything. The guy behind me honked because I was so caught off-guard, and I choked up. I actually did much more than that, but let’s just say I choked up.
Remembrances of 9/11 have caught me off-guard today, and twice before. I knew today was 9/11. Before I left work yesterday, I put a small red heart next to the date on the board in my classroom. It’s a day my 13 year old students cannot remember, but I do. I’ve mentioned it was my first week in a Connecticut boarding school, my first night on duty by myself, caring for the boys from New York City and Jersey City and Long Island. So I’m surprised how jarring the reminder on the news and the saluting firemen were to me this morning.
The other two times 9/11 caught me off-guard was in early October or late September of 2001, and again in the summer of 2003. At the end of September, I went to New York for the day from Connecticut. I didn’t know what I was looking for but it was something. I think I wanted to get lost in the Met and Tiffany’s and the Public Library. Normal places, shiny places that make me feel safe and collected. I took Metro North from New Haven, and headed into one of the most beautiful buildings New York still offers–the cathedraled Grand Central. But I didn’t get too far. Instead, I was surrounded by missing persons notices, handwritten signs asking about the whereabouts of Tom, last seen at Cantor Fitzgerald, or Robyn, an annuities trader. But it didn’t stop at Tom or Robyn. The entire length of the corridor, the walls, makeshift tables held the faces and names of thousands of those missing. Every scenario existed. Yet I wasn’t prepared. Instead of the Public Library, I spent over an hour here, reading, looking, crying, seeing pieces of people I love in the eyes of each person remembered, missed, hoped to be found okay and unscathed.
They were still there in November when I returned. And then they weren’t. I don’t remember when they disappeared, but just like a well-cared for gravestone, or a roadside memorial marker, they were tended to, loved. Some had big printing with exclamation marks saying “Found alive, thank God!” or “Remains Recovered, Rest in Peace”. Gut-wrenching. But I don’t remember when they no longer were there.
The second time I was unaware of 9/11’s presence was nearly two years later when I met a friend Downtown. When I worked in finance, I worked out of our Downtown and Midtown offices a few times. But I am very familiar with lower Manhattan. I got out of the subway and couldn’t for the life of me get my bearings. It was a Saturday morning, so Wall Street and Battery Park were pretty quiet. But something was strange. After circling the block a few times, distracted by heavy machinery and construction, I realized why I was so disoriented. I had never been down there without the Twin Towers.
There was more light than usual, there was so much space, and I didn’t have a marker for where I was because they were now vapor. I remember groping something like a light post or mailbox or wall, because I thought I was going to have a panic attack and needed to hold on to something concrete. I had purposefully chosen not to see Ground Zero. It was nothing I personally wanted to memorialize. I had seen the blue towers of light flying from JFK, and I had seen the media coverage of Ground Zero. But I just couldn’t do it. Until I was forced to, and I have to say, the size–the scope–was much more than I realized or perhaps could even bear.
So while 9/11 never sneaks up on me, I am still caught off-guard. I fortunately am not scarred to the extent of so many Americans, specifically New Yorkers, that day. I don’t know what it’s like to lose a loved one that Tuesday morning. I didn’t recognize any of the faces in Missing Persons posters, but recognized them as the face of all of us–all of us wandering around like zombies for a little while, lost and confused and unable to obtain their bearings. But after a few more years, and even a decade, and now a decade and change, we are able to “see the wind”.
“Oh, I see the trees. Everything is clear in my heart. I see the clouds. Oh, I see the sky. Everything is clear in our world”. John Lennon always wished for peace and love. 9/11 would have broken his spirit. It could have broken all of ours. But 11 years later, we remember, we see a clearer world, and even get caught of guard when we don’t see the wind.
Oh My Love (Piano Edition)–John Lennon
Smoke and Ashes–Tracy Chapman
I Knew You Were Waiting for Me–George Michael & Aretha Franklin
Loving Cup–The Rolling Stones