SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2011

by heatherwhaley

The past few months I’ve been running in the morning, getting up early before my husband and the kids. But with school starting this week, today I ran after dropping the kids off. Their school is near the West Side Highway in lower Manhattan. I always run along the Hudson River to avoid the awkward jogging in place that one must do when stopped at a traffic light. Today, a beautiful, crisp morning, I ran west to the river and turned left. This is what I was looking at:

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That building with the cranes on top is 1 World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, under construction. I have lived in New York for eighteen years. The view from my apartment used to be of the World Trade Center. After it was gone, the view, in spite of all the buildings I could still see, was nothing more than a huge, gaping void. Today, running along the river, I was staring at this new building and, I don’t know why, but I decided to run there. I ran down to the pedestrian bridge, against the swarming mass of commuters emptying out from the PATH train, and stopped just in front of the site.

1 World Trade is really quite eerie when you imagine what it is replacing – you can see them – really see where the twin towers once were. Craning your neck, looking up into the empty air, it is hard not to picture the people who were just sitting at their desks, turning on their computers, drinking coffee, and ten minutes later hanging out the window about to jump, or the busboys with their faces pressed hard against the floor of Windows on the World trying to breathe. This morning, in front of the site, I was stopped in my tracks. I stood, staring for a minute, and then I just cried and cried. I didn’t even know that I was still that sad. Mostly when I think about 9/11 I feel angry. Not only angry with the people who did this, but also angry at the tourists who go down there sightseeing, ticking “Ground Zero” off their list before catching the matinee of Mary Poppins. I hate the street vendors who sell American flags, souvenirs, pictures of the towers, pictures of the towers on fire, and the people who buy them. I’m angry at stupid right wing politicians like Sarah Palin who praise the virtues of small-town America and the people that live there, and lambaste the “liberal elite” that live on the east coast in lefty places like New York, all the while waving their flags and saying “Never Forget,” and cheering a war against people they know nothing about in the Middle East. The reason New Yorkers are so “lefty” is that it’s hard not to be tolerant and compassionate of your neighbors. It’s much easier to hate what you don’t know, the unfamiliar scares everyone, even my kids know that. And these small town virtues, what might they be? Helping your neighbor? Sticking together, being strong and proud of where you come from? Because that’s what we New Yorkers did in the days after 9/11. While it’s nice to say that the terrorists didn’t win, in many ways they did, because it’s just not the same here anymore.

It was religious fanatics who did this, not Muslims. The guys who run the deli down my block don’t mind if you’re short on money, and they’ll let you come back later when you’ve got it. They’re Muslim. They used to have a sign in their window, written in Arabic, saying their meat was Halal. It’s gone now. They took it down September 12th. The week following the attack I got into a taxi with my husband, the driver wore a turban. In front of us on the plastic partition he had pasted a sign reading, “I am not a Muslim. I am a Sikh from India. I love America.” That’s not something you ever would have seen in New York City prior to 9/11. In New York, a turban wasn’t out of the ordinary. My husband and I both cried, because while the attack was against America, it was also against our hometown, and it was also this cab driver’s hometown, and it was all so sad. Religious fanaticism that rejects any sort of reason is dangerous regardless of the religion from which it was born.

Every year, I hate September 11th. I hate the beams of light that blare up from “Ground Zero” as a memorial, and was really glad they didn’t have them this year. I hate the reading of the names. I hate the flags. It’s too sad. I don’t want to remember that. It was horrible. But of course, nobody has to tell me to “Never Forget.” How could I when the wail of a fire engine’s siren turns my blood cold, and the sight and sound of a fighter jet fills me with deep, gray sadness? I won’t forget checking in with everyone – the guy at the coffee place, my doctor, anyone I saw really, in the days that followed, to see who had lost friends and family. “Is everyone OK,” we’d ask each other, and hold our breath for the answer, knowing that nobody was OK. Not really. I will never forget the smell, like burning plastic mixed with an acrid sweetness which lingered in the air, for even as long as late October when my husband and I came out of a movie on 19th street, and it was as strong as it was in those first days. I don’t remember the movie, but I remember that smell. I remember every time I take the subway, drive through the Holland Tunnel, get on a bus. I was four months pregnant on that day, and when my baby was born I wouldn’t let him out of my sight, wouldn’t even let him sleep in a different room, and when the time came for him to go to nursery school, I sat in front of my window, staring in the direction of his school, waiting for a plume of smoke that would send me tearing down Eighth Avenue to get him.

This weekend, all the warnings, and the advice to be “vigilant,” whatever that means, has brought all those awful feelings back, and it is, this year, as if it happened yesterday. I’m crying more. I canceled the babysitter tonight because I just felt like being home with my kids, and I’ll probably stay home for most of this weekend. I hope that this anniversary brings some sort of closure, not to the pain, and horror, and sadness, because that will never go away. But to the media’s constant reminding us to “remember,” because that’s not necessary.

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