Spring and autumn hold a particular magic in New York City that is hard to fully appreciate in temperate North Carolina.
While the frigid and wet winters are harsher due to the more northerly longitude of the place, summers are also more brutal thanks to the preponderance and steel and concrete and the immense exhaust that is the byproduct of powering a city of 8.2 million people.
So when I think about Sept. 11, 2001, what strikes me with the most immediacy is how perfect everything felt when the day began, the morning air crisp, the sky clear and practically cloudless, and not a trace of oppressive heat as the sun rose.
I was working at the student bookstore at Hunter College that day. I’d landed the job after a fruitless search for employment over the summer, and although I’d already arranged a consultancy at the Institute for Southern Studies in North Carolina to begin in October, I enjoyed the work and the company of my coworkers, one of whom contended to my amusement that only Southerners could make soulful music and another with whom I shared a preoccupation with the overextension of American military power.
Since that day I’ve grappled with feelings of guilt at having been so close to the cataclysm, and yet so little impacted. I didn’t rub shoulders with anyone in the financial industries, didn’t grow up in any of those Long Island or New Jersey towns that seem to have heaved half of their young up to the world-striding positions of power and wealth in the World Trade Center.
I remember the first inkling of the attack when an elderly man standing in line at the bookstore shook his fist and said, “The terrorist bastards hit us.”
I laughed at the absurdity of the statement, but then I hesitated when I heard someone else in line mutter something to the effect of “they hit the tower.” I went back in the office and told my manager that I didn’t know if it was true, but that people were saying something about the World Trade Center being attacked. She turned on a portable radio, and we gasped as the report confirmed the worst. She sent the employees home. The trains had stopped running because nobody knew exactly what was going on and whether there would be another attack. I made my way down Park Avenue, observing an armored personnel carrier outside the armory as I trekked towards my apartment across the East River in Red Hook, Brooklyn. At Union Square, I picked up Broadway and watched men in suits dazedly staggering in the opposite direction with ashes on their shoulders. By the time I reached the Williamsburg Bridge, I was part of a stream of refugees filling in the traffic lanes to get back to Brooklyn. The trains had resumed service by that time, and I rode to my stop at 9th and Smith streets. By the time I crossed the pedestrian bridge over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the sun was setting, almost like the end of any workday. Every time I’d crossed that bridge, I had treasured the view of the Twin Towers jutting improbably into the sky three miles to the north. Now they were gone, and I began to process the weight of what had transpired when I observed a couple stray bits of charred office paper gently settle from the sky.
It’s true that everything changed that day: Sept. 11, 2001 neatly divides a before and after. Before, the United States was a placid and somewhat prosperous place. As unsettling as they were, the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building and the 1998 Columbine High School massacre were more aberrations than signifiers of their time. After that day, tranquility and complacency will be shattered forever, with a sense of insecurity and instability steadily creeping outward: the invasion of Iraq, occupation and civil war; Hurricane Katrina; the housing and finance collapse; the tea party backlash to the election of President Obama; the government shutdown and Republican obstruction; the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS and the destruction of Syria; the refugee crisis in Europe; Brexit and white nationalism; Donald Trump.
Yet in another sense Sept. 11, 2001 only marked an interruption in a slide toward political polarization and partisan gridlock.
It’s hard to remember what it felt like 15 years ago to be a citizen of a country that was united by grief. Would-be donors overwhelmed blood banks. People hung signs on the barricades, trying to locate the missing, and made memorials to the dead. They rode the subway quietly, wearing expressions of tender concern.
Sadly, that’s not us anymore.
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