9/11

Take a few minutes to read this elegantly written and beautifully felt 9/11 remembrance by my daughter Laura Gutmann.

A few nights ago, I read the New York magazine 9/11 tenth anniversary issue. Not recommended before bedtime if you want to have sweet dreams. Nonetheless, as each piece of that day was dissected and reexamined, I couldn’t help but go back to my own ten years ago:

The Day of:

My roommate stuck a Post-It note on my laptop which told me to turn it on instead of rushing straight to class. My homepage was the same as always – set to the New York Times. As I read about the first plane, I called Harold to see if he’d heard. It was so difficult to conceptualize the news that I actually said, “Well, at least no one got hurt.” He kindly reminded me about all the people onboard and the workers in cubicles and conference rooms that were now on fire, smashed and broken. Oh.

Striding across campus, I called my father to make sure the ground was still standing in rural New Jersey. I knew that it would be, but it felt good to get confirmation. My morning professor told us that her approach to these sorts of things was to go on as normal, so we half-heartedly agreed and pushed forward. In my next class, the tone was quite the opposite. We spent the next few hours in collective shock as students swapped stories and updates – more planes, more losses. This professor openly sobbed and I appreciated that.

9 months later:

Harold and I moved to NYC, beginning our adventures in a city that we would only come to know post-9/11, post-tragedy. That first summer, we trekked down to the place where the towers once stood. Everything had sort of been cleared away, but there were still buildings covered in black shrouds and an incomprehensible hole and grey, dusty, empty streets and frozen, boarded-up storefronts.

At first I would indulge visitors who wanted to go see the site, too, but after a while I would send them down there alone, with subway directions and an apology for being too tired of seeing all the emptiness and the leftover flyers. The missing person flyers were especially the worst, still attached around the fence surrounding the church across the street from the WTC. You knew that they probably hadn’t done any good, and there were so many, filled with snapshots, filled with life. They were like the sum total of the Portraits of Grief being thrown at you in one fell swoop. The Portraits of Grief that ran in the Times after 9/11 were perfect and poignant, but they made me ache. Not to mention the vendors selling flags and trinkets and cashing in on graveyard souvenirs. Those folks were the second worst.

That fall:

Our apartment was just down the block from a firehouse that had lost several members that day. To mark the first anniversary of their sacrifice, a woman put up a huge, ornate display of flowers and candles below their photos, which hung outside the station. I passed her as she stood in panic, trying not to burst into tears as her carefully placed candles accidentally set all the flowers on fire. ”Oh, my God!” she cried. I half-joked that she was in the right place to be starting a blaze – that she could just go inside and the guys in there would help her out. She stared at me for a second and then pulled herself together. ”Right – I’ll go get the guys.” At least this mishap had an easy solution. I watched the flowers until someone came to the rescue.

By Halloween, Harold and I were confessing that we both purposely avoided walking on the firehouse side of the street, because passing the photos of those who had been lost was just too depressing to confront on a daily basis. In the next moment, we passed the station doors and caught sight of a baby dressed up as a firefighter, taking pictures next to the real thing. We smiled and said, “Well…I guess that was uplifting!” Life goes on.

Afterwards:

The flyers were eventually taken down from the church fence. People started to bustle around the gaping hole again. Yet, there were still emergency drills every few months with my kindergartners. There were bag checks at subway stations, and police cars lined along 42nd Street, and no liquids and shoes off at airports. There were the “See something, say something” posters, urging us to fear large backpacks during each step of our morning commutes. There were Arab (or Arab-looking) friends who faced discrimination. There was the knowing that there was no going back and President My Pet Goat was going to shepherd us through this new reality. New Yorkers will always remain confident, but now there was that lurking bit of uneasiness that kept creeping through, that couldn’t be stamped out.

Now:

It remains difficult to imagine that we’ll ever be able to shake those insecurities and fears. But, at least memories of the past ten years have also been coupled with hope and pride in Manhattan’s ability to rally and thrive. When we lived there, Harold covered a race held in memory of a firefighter who heard about the incident, put on his heavy gear and ran through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to get to the scene of the crime, three miles away. He left home on his off-day to help out – and it eventually cost him his life. Each fall, his friends and supporters race that same path in his honor, some wearing the same 60 pounds of gear.

Why did he feel compelled to rush to the scene? Was it his training, his sense of responsiveness? Was he drawn towards the action, feeling the pull of potential heroics? Perhaps. But I’d like to think that the greater part of him simply wanted to go help his firefighter comrades – and to help the people trapped in the towers. That undeniable sense of humanity is the most hopeful part of 9/11, by far.

Because of this, I remain grateful for the firefighters and police who did their best to respond and remember them along with the ordinary citizens who did nothing to deserve their terrible fate. All the same, I have to believe that looking forward is just as important as looking back. When my sister and I end phone conversations, our sign-off is always, “Peace, love & happiness!” It might be a bit much to ask, but I hope that the world ahead is full of just that, even when confronted by our darkest challenges and a city full of dust.

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