Five years on: The things I can’t forget

greenwich and chambers

That’s me, exactly five years ago — the morning of 11 September 2001. Until I dug this picture out today, I’d forgotten how long my sideburns were back then. My hair, too. I guess it was closer to the nineties than I realized at the time.

There’s a lot more about that morning that I haven’t forgotten, though, things I won’t shake as long as I live, even though like most New Yorkers I’ve had to learn to shove down the realities of what we saw and felt. Otherwise, how could we continue to live where we do?

How would you describe that look on my pale-as-death face? Disbelief? Horror? Total panic? I look afraid to move, afraid or unable to break my gaze. Here, of course, is what I was looking at, about three blocks to the south of me:

the view from greenwich and chambers

I haven’t seen the movie these stills came from. (They follow one another directly in the film. A friend across the country TiVoed it a couple years ago and emailed these photos to me.) I haven’t seen any of the 9/11 documentaries, in fact. Trying to take in someone else’s narrative reordering of the whole experience seems absurd. My own memories are all of disorder.

You can’t see them in the still, but I was watching the jumpers more intently than anything else, their skirts and dress shirts billowing like parachutes while I counted second after second until they disappeared from view.

If you had told me five years ago that in the fall of 2006 Oliver Stone would have a 9/11 movie showing at our neighborhood theater, where third- and fourth-floor lobby windows overlook the Memorial Hole in the Ground, I would have laughed. If you had told me that Nicolas Cage would star in it and that, in the trailer, office paper confetti would rain down on him in slow motion like so much ticker tape while schmaltzy music soared toward an emotionally manipulative climax, I would have punched you in the face.

There was no schmaltzy music the morning of 9/11. I remember this instead: The low scream of a jet liner sailing over my head at 500 miles per hour, and just enough time, before it disappeared into the north face of the North Tower, for the woman next to me in the elementary school yard to say: “I can’t believe how low they fly those planes sometime.” 

There was the moment of silence before the fireball erupted to the side of the jagged-toothed hole in the facade. There was the sound of gas tanks exploding, the sound of the woman next to me, fumbling with her cell phone, screaming, “Oh My God — my husband’s up there!” The sounds of parents running through school hallways, especially after the second plane hit twenty minutes later, shouting their childrens’ names. Or the blare of hundreds of car horns and sirens as people tried, at first, to drive as close as they could get.

There were taxi radios warning that four more planes were missing — maybe headed for LAX?

There was a homeless guy wandering through Tribeca yelling that THIS is what happen when Republicans take the White House by fiat and that we should all write in Bill Clinton for Mayor. (It was, after all, election day.)

There was the sound of the cop telling us we couldn’t proceed toward our apartment: “Turn THE FUCK around and move UP-TOWN! Your neighborhood has been evacuated!”

At the cluster of courthouses and municipal buildings that make up the civic center, just north of the Brooklyn Bridge’s entrance, we heard a noise louder than the loudest thunder you’ve ever heard, a sound like the earth splitting open to swallow you, infinitely louder than the most penetrating Dolby surround sound.

Stephanie crouched against the wall and covered her ears. “We’re being bombed!” she said, just before tens of thousands of people rounded the corner from City Hall Park and rushed at us like a herd of startled cattle. We turned and ran, too, to get away from them. One of us pushed Molly in a jogging stroller. One of us held hands with Anna and Ian, our friend Karen’s fourth-grader son. We’d taken Ian with us from the school because his mom hadn’t made it yet to claim him and we were actually afraid the tower might topple and crush the school before she got there.

It was blocks before the rush of people slowed to a steady walk and someone told us a tower had actually collapsed. At some point we were able to look south and see the other tower standing there alone. We imagined, briefly, what it would be like to live in a New York with only one Twin Tower.  

For the most part I don’t remember the kids making a sound. Molly, in fact, was asleep. I do remember Anna, who’d just started second grade, saying: “You’d have to hate America pretty bad if you’d kill yourself just to hurt it.”

I remember a soundtrack of people’s stories, the thousands of people in our sea of emigrants and refugees marching up Lafayette Street, stories about how they’d made it out of one or the other of the towers. I remember people complaining that their cellphones didn’t work and a deli owner calling us over to give us and others free bottles of water.

There was no slow motion the morning of 9/11. Everything happened in mindnumbing blurs or with a real-time slowness that didn’t require production tricks. How long did it take before our phone and email trees paid off and Karen found us at NYU, her face and hair streaked with ash and someone else’s blood, a surgical mask pulled up and sitting on top of her head? (Years later Karen and I would watch Edie Falco “play” Karen in a 9/11 memorial reading of various New Yorkers’ stories: “How am I going to find Bryan Waterman’s office at NYU?”)

How many packs of cigarettes were jointly consumed on the sidewalk in front of our friends Rachel and Missy’s apartment in Queens, where we stayed for the next few weeks, until NYU put us in a hotel in the East 30s? We’d watch the news when the kids were in the other room, talk to family members on the phone, break into tears in the shower when fighter jets flew overhead — the only airplanes you’d hear at that point, the skies quiet otherwise.

Other things I won’t forget, from the days and weeks that followed:

  • Molly’s fifth birthday party in exile in Queens, and all the friends who schlepped from other boroughs to be there for her and for us.
  • Standing on top of a parking garage in Queens a few days later and getting my first glimpse of the Island without the Trade Center. It looked like it should upend and sink into the ocean, midtown going down first.
  • Showing up to class the following Monday in a white Old Navy undershirt (still creased from the bag) and new Old Navy jeans, the same outfit half my students wore too.
  • The Planet of the Apes t-shirt I found on the sale rack at Old Navy, which seemed the most appropriate thing to wear. The end of irony must have lasted about five minutes.
  • Not having any money, since we’d only moved to New York five weeks earlier and neither of us had received a paycheck since April or May. My first check from NYU wasn’t scheduled until October 1. We’d maxed our credit cards between the move, the kids’ school clothes, and a family reunion in Arizona that summer. I certainly won’t forget the friends, family, colleagues, strangers, and foundations who gave us money for clothes and food over the next month.
  • Going to see Built to Spill at Irving Plaza with our friend John while we were still in exile and Union Square was still filled with candles. Doug Martsch came out to sing a cover of “Imagine” as a solo encore; the room burst into spontaneous whistles, shouts, and applause when asked to imagine a world without religion.
  • Taking the kids across town where they continued school, at first crammed into a shared space with another elementary school, 60 or 90 kids to a room.
  • Heading down into the subway carrying a jogging stroller, two kids leading the way. (We weren’t yet New Yorkers and didn’t realize that kids shouldn’t lead the way down subway stairs and that strollers + subway = pain in the ass.) Some woman looked at us with disdain and said: “Adults first, kids follow — and they’re too big for that stroller!” Only later did I think of the comeback I wish I had been fast enough to deliver: “It’s nice to see the assholes are up and running again!”
  • Quitting smoking on October 1, needing to have control over some aspect of my life, sick of hiding my grad school habits from my kids. (That means I’ll be five years smoke free in a couple weeks.)
  • How dark and quiet it was downtown when we finally returned at the very end of October. We had to talk our way through a police barricade on the FDR in order to get our cab full of crying kids and shopping bags into the no car zone.
  • Countless nightmares of airplanes crashing nose-first into the ground, collapsing on themselves and leaving no trace.
  • Thanksgiving at our apartment that November: renting tables and chairs to accommodate the nearly 30 adults and half dozen kids, many of whom had traveled to be there.
  • The smell of the fires that burned at Ground Zero through January.
  • How much I hated the term “Ground Zero.” And the sight of Old Navy American flag T-shirts on tourists.
  • How much I loved this cartoon in the Village Voice. How much I wanted to tape it to my office door but was afraid it would be inappropriate:

get your war on

  • Standing in Washington Square park looking south to where the Twin Towers should have been standing in the distance, and thinking about nothing so much as the scene in the original Star Wars where Obi Wan registers the damage done to the force when Darth Vader has just used the Death Star to destroy Princess Leia’s home planet: “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”
  • How the Towers of Light memorial sort of backfired when planes passed through the beams of light and seemed to reenact the tragedy.
  • How parents at the neighborhood parks for months would panic when a plane would fly overhead, and how none of us could resume conversations until someone had spotted it and reassured the others — often without anyone speaking a word — that it seemed to be on a regular schedule and flight pattern.
  • How tall the towers were. How many people they held, even when they were almost empty.

The other night a friend of mine talked about how tall they looked from a distance, but how they seemed to shrink as you approached. Then, when you finally got to their bases, you’d look up and they’d seemed to go up forever. “It was like God Himself should be sitting at the very top,” he said, “somewhere up in all that fog.”



25 responses to “Five years on: The things I can’t forget”

  1. andrea says:


    I am in Paris today, far enough from real time and NYC and America that I did not know what day it was. Then I read your blog. And I told my American friends here with me to hold on a minute because I was reading this blog about 9-11 (which is today…did you know?) and the one New Yorker said, last night, as we were walking home from dinner, I looked at my watch and it said 9-11-00 because it was 12 midnight…but I did not want to say anything to any of you.
    And we all started talking…
    And we still are, here on the Rive Gauche in Paris. We are all going back to America… tomorrow. Thanks for writing.

  2. ssw says:

    You have such a gift Bryan for writing. Thank you so much for sharing such a deeply personal set of feelings and reactions. I wish that those who are interested could read your original account too. Could you post it?
    When I think back about that day, I’m struck most about how clearly and quickly my priorities were ordered. Unlike so many families, we were physically safe and together. I had just quit my job the day before, and I felt so lucky we were able to be together. Even though we couldn’t go home, and there were so many scary, overwhelming and daunting pieces to put back together, at least we were alive and we had some options. I remember feeling that if I never went home again, who cares? My family was alive.
    I’m so glad that you mentioned the importance of friends and family during that time, because I simply couldn’t say enough how grateful I am for the relationships we have and for how much love and support we received.  I don’t say that often enough.
    You know, I was so grateful to the Mayor during that week or two after 9/11. I didn’t care a whit about politics at that time–he was everything we needed in a hero, a father, a watchdog for our city. I took great comfort in his words and it was incredible to see so many band together everywhere.
    I can’t believe how much I’ve supressed bringing up the feelings about that day.
    Something about now–I guess enough time has passed finally–to acknowledge the various feelings and emotions about that time.

    Sending much love around today.

    And, I’m so sad, and sorry that we can’t find a way to peacefully resolve these conflicts. It’s a terrible, crazy time.

  3. Scott Godfrey says:

    Five years ago, I called my mother and cried like a baby: “is Mark okay; is John okay?” They were.

    I remember the physical feeling that something, which was part of me, had been altered.
    As a Jersey boy, the city might not have been mine, but the skyline was; growing up, I could clearly see it form my bedroom window. As a child I would go to sleep thinking about it, and how all the way at the end, there were those two buildings that were (at the time) the biggest in the world. I felt so lucky to be so close to something so important. Like a lot of us, I took pride in America back then. I certainly knew that we did bad things, like importing slaves and killing Indians, but in the Seventies, it seemed like we were on the path to spiritual recovery (at least through my grammar school eyes). I also believed in God back then.

    Thank you, Brian, for your recount. I’ve been secretly dreading this day. The bullshit pontificating and justifying of bombing, invading, and killing was certainly going to kill me. I am so glad that your story is the first 9/11 tribute I’ve seen. (I plan on going into media isolation for the rest of the day.) You’ve brought home the fact that the Events belong to us, not to the government or the media, mass or otherwise.

    Thank you my brother, and peace.

  4. Scott Godfrey says:

    Speaking of irony.

  5. Scott Godfrey says:

    Okay, I’m sorry, I feel like the dork (which I am) that can’t leave a normal voice mail message, but I feel like my last comment needs an explanation: when the ssw comment originally came up it was credited to Bryan Waterman, and it read kinda funny that way. Geez, I feel dumb; three comments in a row.

  6. Rachel says:

    Thanks, Bryan, for this. Recounting memories of that day is difficult, and I have hesitated to do so out of–what? Respect? Cowardice? A reluctance to bear witness? Not sure. At least one feeling is unambiguous: the endless gratitude to the friends and family who got us through it.

    Two images stand out in my mind today:
    1. Standing in Washington Square Park, peering through the iron framework of the new NYU law building going up, watching the first tower fall, and in the foreground, seeing the construction workers falling to their knees on the girders and sobbing, fifty feet in the air.

    2. Trying to take the F train home to Queens, the cars packed so full that the air was literally squeezed out of my lungs. Men raised their hands and braced them on the roof of the train car to create more breathing room. The train stopped and held position in a tunnel under the East River for about two hours, and none of us knew if we would start moving again. People started to panic in the dark, and a big man (thank you, stranger) tried to shield me from being crushed. When the train finally started moving again, about half the car emptied out at the first station, and several people fell to the floor, unconscious. They had passed out, until then held up by the press of bodies. Those of us remaining spent the next few stops helping to revive them.

    The news networks’ narrative of the day will, over the years, probably supplant a lot of what we remember. But some memories are indelible, and will never be replaced by stock footage overlaid by CNN graphics.

  7. Dave says:

    Thanks for this, Bryan. It brought up a lot of memories and emotions. Now I’m sitting here at work trying not to let my eyes water.

    This is probably the best 9/11 remembrance I’ll see or read all day. Thanks for the honesty most of all.

  8. Jesse Kornbluth says:

    What makes this different — and better — than most of what we’re hearing and reading is that it’s both personal AND private. I’m so sick of people preening, displaying their sensitivity like a fashion statement. This ain’t that.

  9. Asad says:

    Boy, did this bring up memories. Here’s one: that October I remember saving up a bunch of money and spending it at Nobu, which wasn’t as empty as I thought it might be, in a weird kind of solidarity with businesses below Canal Street. How they got all of their fish past the checkpoints every day I do not know. It was strange, because the smoke that drifted into my apartment every evening made it so I wasn’t even that hungry at dinnertime in those days.

    It’s funny how we often feel ashamed, somehow, at giving our personal reflections of events we’ve lived through, as though their collective and historical importance trumps our self-centred need to narrate our experience. Why should it? As you said on my blog, Bryan, the symbolic value of places and events often complicates the living of daily life in and through them. Your having recounted this is a way to restore the importance of actual life. I’m glad for what you wrote, glad to read it.

  10. bryan says:

    Thanks, all, for comments. I hadn’t planned to be affected by the whole 5 year thing, especially because the gauzy mainstream media reaction is so hard to stomach, but it’s been an odd day. A student emailed me last night to say she couldn’t take the subway in from an outer borough because she lost a family member 5 years ago and she was simply not comfortable coming in during rush hour on 9/11. And then taking Molly to school this morning was tough — parents lingering in the yard, not really wanting to say goodbye to their kids, and all only a few blocks from the official commemoration ceremonies, so the school was surrounded by cameras, traffic barriers, family members wearing photos of loved ones, and dozens and dozens of cops and firemen in uniform. It was much harder than I expected it to be to say goodbye and head up to work.

    Asad: you beat me to the punch. I was planning to link to your essay from today’s 3 Quarks Daily. If the rest of you don’t check that blog regularly you should: we’ve linked to it from the beginning of TGW — it’s a heady bunch of folks over there. Some really thoughtul stuff today in particular.

  11. MarleyFan says:

    Bryan, thank you for sharing very sharing both personal and difficult memories.

  12. WW says:

    You are such a wonderful writer anyway, but when you go deep and get all personal — I think your writing becomes sublime. Thank you for such a great post.

  13. Lane says:

    Hey Bry,

    I know you’ll take this the right way, I couldn’t read your post. I’ve no doubt that it is great.

    I didn’t really think of all that today, at least not until I was listening to Shelly’s birthday mixes and Jesus etc. came on from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It reminded me that I haven’t listened to that record in a long long time.

    I thought of you and Steph and our night at Roseland. And so many many many things.

    From “Pot Kettle Black” – “Every song’s a comeback, every moment’s a little bit later.”

    Great to hang out yesterday – Downtown!

  14. cwb says:

    Congrats on the 5 years smoke free! And wonderful post.

  15. PB says:

    From Boston, watching on TV, I remember two simultaneous thoughts: this is impossible and oh my god the Watermans. I remember wandering though the store thinking of something to send, I have to send something, and realizing how stupid to think you needed housewares of all things. And yet it was about feeling so helpless to do anything. Thank you Bryan and Stephanie for giving us so much, even through this narrative, helping us to glimpse, with such honesty, what can never be understood by those who were not there. I have been thinking about you all day, hoping this post would be here tonight. Thank you.

  16. Stella says:

    One thing I remember about that day–in all the confusion of being in downtown dc, not understanding what was happening, the fear of the fourth plane, and getting home to drink scotch and watch cnn like a zombie with dave and lisa–was the moment of relief when we all heard that the waterman and slade clans were safe.

  17. Lisa Tremain says:

    Sometimes things are so sad and scary, there’s just not much you can write about them. Or there’s too much. Or it all becomes trite. Your post (and you): such a balance in so much imbalance, I cry a bit, followed by (I must allow it) some seriously uncensored hope for and love for…those who continue defy everything/anything that tells us (in subtle and not-so- messages) not to hope and love. Thank you, sincerely.

  18. Marion Bishop says:

    Thanks for this post, Brian. The recitation of your memories creates a chance for the rest of us to heal. My own memories are different. I hope you don’t mind my using this forum to share them.

    I was living in Salt Lake City on 9/11, and had just started my second year of medical school. But several years before, I had lived and worked and been a student in New York City. My memories of 9/11 are those of a westerner who had once lived in the east:

    Feeling “Oh my god” and wondering about friends and colleagues from NYU, including the Watermans, who were living and working in the city. Feeling an overwhelming sense, all day long, that “there but for the grace of god go I.” Feeling guilty that I had left New York and that I should still be there. Feeling that if I was there I could have done something: maybe in a puny way I could have made a difference. Feeling gratitude when I learned that each person I knew in the city was safe.

    Feeling like the Watermans and I had changed places. I had been a student in the same building where Brian and Stephanie waited for Karen after the attacks. Feeling like it should have been me. Being confounded by strange twists of life that brought me back to Utah after a long time away and took good friends to the city.

    Remembering walking past the World Trade towers every morning one summer when I had done temp work on Wall Street to pay for tuition at NYU.

    Remembering stopping on hot days to rest in their shadows and spinning, like a little child, looking up at them, turning round and round until I got dizzy.

    Realizing that were I still living in New York City, I would have had to leave my apartment, and wondering where I would have lived until I could return to my neighborhood.

    Living, in the days after 9/11, in a sea of well-intentioned westerners who kept talking about what had happened “back east”–a phrase that signified how distant and “other” New York City was to them.

    Attending a prayer vigil at some interdenominational church on State Street in Salt Lake City and watching as a woman knelt at the front of the church crying for a lost family member and for her loss of hope. Feeling like prayer wasn’t enough, but not knowing what else to do. Feeling angry that there weren’t more people in the church, that more people didn’t realize there was something to grieve. Feeling angry that my western, childhood church did not see a need to offer any kind of service to mark the event.

    Failing a test in Neuroanatomy four or five days after 9/11 and being told by a pinheaded instructor that I “needed to get my priorities in line” if I wanted to get through medical school.

    Being in the next room at my parents cabin at Bear Lake in northern Utah when the TV broadcast of LDS General Conference was interrupted for the announcement that President Bush was bombing Afghanistan. Feeling dumbfounded but not surprised that our country couldn’t come up a better solution for violence and wrong-headed agression than more violence and wrong-headed agression.

    Leaving the TV and retreating to another room to sit for a while–but then having to study for the next Neuroanatomy exam so that I wouldn’t outright fail the class.

    Being angry when westerners used the phrase “ground zero” (a term I also detested) like it was theirs, and like they knew what they were talking about.

    Getting even angrier when there came to be a certain kind-of status, in the west, about knowing someone who had survived the attacks. People would trade these stories at parties, as if they were there own.

    Making a measure of peace with what had happened by returning to the city a year and a half later, having lunch with my advisor at NYU, and walking to the World Trade Center site.

    Spending a long time, at the World Trade Center site, looking through the list of names of those who died, and finding someone who shared my last name–and then a woman who had my first name, and men with the same names as each of my brothers. Knowing that but for some strange twist of life or fate, it could have been me.

  19. marion — i’m always so happy to see a comment from you come across here. it happens far too rarely! i’m glad you took the forum.

    and just quickly — pandora, your care package, which we received in the hotel, was so delightful. we still have those little halloween coffee mugs and i think of you guys whenever we break them out in the fall.

    back to the salt mines …

  20. Slade says:

    Bryan —

    Thank you for articulating much of what I haven’t been able to articulate for so many years. And I think, actually, that i will wait for another few to actually put my thoughts, experiences and memories down.

    Though, I will say what I hated was the National Guiard who treated lower manhtatan like an enemy occupation. And I didn’t understand why the news didn’t cover that.

    (I also hated that I had zero idea that Edie Falco was going to play me or that James Gandolfini would be present and I just showed up with wet hair and a very non-Karen, non-precise outfit and felt unprepared to chit chat with Susan Sarandon and flirt with aforementioned drooled-for Soprano star.)

    This year, I was in London and all day long I kept calling Mark, who was with Ian, telling him that the car was full of gas and if anything should happen to grab Ian and the dog and drive up route 8 to the country house and that I would find them there. I had had a dream that there was a bomb at the bottom of the Hudson river and lower Manhattan was flooded and it was nuclear.

    Two weeks ago I watched the CNN Footsteps of Bin Laden special. Bin Laden says that Allah has given him permission to take 10 million American lives — and during that voice over they panned New York City. He is a man that has pretty much done what he has set out to do.

    Obviously I am still scared.

    In the Times today a restaurant in Iraq was featured on account of its loyal patronage. It has been rebuilt after 6+ car bombings. People still go. They’ve gotten used to the threat.

    Perhaps I’ve grown comfortable with being uncomfortable. Perhaps we all have under this administration.

  21. bryan says:

    karen slade is in the TGW house!

    ditto everything you said about being afraid. my ipod, for example, konks out everytime i cross the bridge on a run — right when i hit the brooklyn side. obviously some crazy radio interference shit happens right there, but all i can think is “dirty bomb.”

    then you said this:

    (I also hated that I had zero idea that Edie Falco was going to play me or that James Gandolfini would be present and I just showed up with wet hair and a very non-Karen, non-precise outfit and felt unprepared to chit chat with Susan Sarandon and flirt with aforementioned drooled-for Soprano star.)

    my deal was trying to maintain my composure while chatting with mary stuart masterson. she was so not that much older than i am — what, a couple years? she had “played” the woman with the specially-trained rescue worker dog who dug through the piles. it was utterly moving. and then, afterwards, chatting in the Public Theater as it emptied out, all i could think was “i was so in love with you when you played the drums in _some kind of wonderful_!” at least i didn’t say it out loud.

    ah, this freaking city. i suppose that’s why we stay.

  22. Slade says:

    in iraq, it is supposedly the chicken that keeps people coming back, even under assured threat. they say it’s worth their lives.

    in new york, its the individuality of this massive city that keeps me calling it home. truly democratic. worth staying in. worth even fighting for (but that’s another idea i will write towards someday)

    other thing i hated back then: sitting locked in my bathroom for hours and hours and hours. i had to move out of the apartment and away from ground zero to get myself off of the toilet, the tile floor, our of the black and white of the tiles.

    i suppose the response was healthy. when seeing dozens fall dead, shock is indeed in order. and thank you bryan and lane for moving me out.

    poverty on the scale many of us faced was such a slap in the face on top of it all. i too had just moved in to new york again on sept 6th, for ian’s first day of school, after a year in california. i expected to come back to my freelance economy. the city had grinded to a halt and there was no economy.

    i too want to express a very profound thank you to those who helped me — espeically the red cross. i had nothing for months and then certainly nothng for christmas gifts for ian — and i was given a check from the red cross so that my 4th grader could believe in santa for one more year. and enable me to by-pass a much-deserved nervous breakdown.

    at thanksgiving — at the waterman’s — i was still very much depressed and could not deal well with the corwd that was thee — many of whom i did not know. and someone said to me: oh you’re karen — you’re supposeed to be so fabulous, but you’re not really that fabulous at all….

    i went to the neighbor’s apartment and sat there for about 3 hours. no, not very many understood. not in salt lake at a prayer vigil or even those who were visiting from salt lake in attempted solidarity with new yorkers.

    it’s not the chicken that keeps us here.

  23. lefty says:

    here’s where i’m coming from —

    i was sitting in a very self-important city on the other side of the country, trying to imagine that we, too, were in the line of fire, and trying to absorb the idea that someone i was secretly in love with was living way too close to what we out here in earthquake country call “the epicenter.”

    so i kept my cool, got all political, and waited.

    a few days later, i heard from her. first came a brave, glib email sent to everyone on her list. she wore flats, all the better to run from the collapsing towers, she said. the guardsmen wore boots. then she called, later in the week. my phone rang as i sat at my cubicle and i ran to the elevator, then out to the street.

    it being september, naturally it was sunny, 65 degrees and gorgeous. we were trying — really, we were — to feel the pain, but save for the anxiety i felt each morning after dropping my 4-year-old at preschool in the basement of city hall, it was hard to get past abstract. bad arabs blew up buildings in new york. what if they came here?

    for better and worse, my secret love has not been the same since that day. more serious, more political, less seize the day than she had been. for much, much worse, it’s still an abstraction for me and probably everyone else living out here on the left coast.

    last week, i took a job covering high school sports for a local daily. i’d never watched a football game from the sidelines before, and as i watched, i realized that because of this, i actually had no idea what went on in a football game — the ferocity of the hitting, the intensity of the coaches, the players spitting and swearing. did you know, for example, that at the end of each play, the refs yell, “it’s over! it’s over!” to the players piling on?

    i got an inkling this summer, when we visited friends in new jersey, that i had no idea what actually went on 5 years and 4 days ago. my friends, who’d just moved from california, told me how strange it was, like 9/11 had happened only the week before, and how everyone talks about how the parking lot at the train station was full of cars for weeks after that day.

    reading these posts, i’m reminded again that i have no idea what went on. and no idea what it was like for anyone there — my secret love, her friends, strangers, rudy guiliani, the guy nicholas cage played in that oliver stone movie — no one.

    i’ll try harder.

  24. Slade says:

    for about a week before i flew back into new york that fall — i arrived september 6th — i had very very stromng premonitins that i shold wait two weeks or two motnhs — soemthing to do with two — before returning to new york. alas, i was not in a situation inwhich i could have extended my stay and ian’s school was starting in new york september 7th. my premonitions made no sense to me and i recall discussing with my sister that i had them but had no choice but to ignore them.

    when i relate this to my firneds here in new york that lived through this — that i almost didn’t come back when i did — they say they are glad i was here. as there would have been no way to have been able to remain close to them in the same way. i would have been an outsider to this fundamental experience they — we– all shared.

    as for me and my son, sure it would have been better to not have been here. i am changed. and so is my son. and that is what pains me most.

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