Brisbane. I was back. I had enjoyed three eventful years in downtown Manhattan before deciding to spend the last months of 2001 on hiatus with my parents in Brisbane, Australia. Since moving to New York in 1998, I’d joked with friends at home that it was the Island of Dog Years — every four weeks seemed stuffed to capacity with the volume of activity you might expect during seven calendar months in any other city. At the start of my fourth year in the U.S., it seemed that the time was ripe for me to step off the merry-go-round and reassess.
After suffering a 36-hour journey, 14-hour time difference and a bracing trans-hemisphere change of season, I’d only just begun to feel like myself again. Then came the deepest sleep I’d had since my return.
My father woke me at midnight. He is an animated Glaswegian architect in his mid-50s who, despite his affability, has never been given to excessive outpourings of emotion. He shook me for some time before I woke up. He seemed to be silently weeping. I thought it was a dream. I roused to the words “World Trade” and “accident” and a face filled with enough anguish to startle me into lucidity. By the time I’d padded through to my parents’ living room, I managed to gather that during his habitual late-night channel-surfing he’d seen an air crash. The wreckage, as I understood it, had hit the twin towers. My first thought was that the accident must have involved one of the numerous tourist helicopters that looped downtown each day.
But the sight lighting the room from the television was not that. At that point, CNN played crash footage almost continuously. My father sat down silently and placed his hands in mine. The news reported that a third plane had hit the Pentagon. I ran to another room and began futiley dialing the numbers of my boyfriend, flatmates, friends and colleagues. Half an hour later, my father’s wail brought me back to the television. As we watched the north tower fall, he reached for me and held me in a way that he hadn’t done since I was a toddler.
My New York adventure began just after I turned 24. A school friend wrote to say that she had settled in New York for a year and found herself a job. The lure of strolls through Central Park, of jazz in Greenwich Village, and the infinite promise of the Manhattan skyline suddenly beckoned. I had only planned to visit for two weeks, but an hour after arriving I decided I was going to stay. Within those two weeks, I had found myself a job and sponsorship. It was more than I could ever have hoped for.
Still, I suffered the usual trials of any 20-something in New York. A broken heart, several disastrous roommates found through the Village Voice (one was an artist who hadn’t paid rent for a year and disappeared to Europe just after the electricity was cut off; another slit his wrists in our bathtub on the first day of the new millennium). This was underscored by an insane job that, for around 90-hours a week, managed to keep me more or less on the positive side of the bread line. The rent-dodging artist was dating Oliver Stone, who was given to leaving rambling messages on our answering machine. The wrist-slasher was a recently uncloseted Texan who greeted me at the end of my work day (around midnight), garnished me in a silver feather boa and took me on tours of East Village gay bars where my accent prompted rapturous praise and nicknames like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and the Sydney Mardi Gras.
All of this came before September 11th.
In my last 18 months in Manhattan I lived at the corner of Prince and West Broadway — just south of Houston Street. West Broadway ended at the World Trade Center, less than a mile south of my apartment, and the view from my fire escape was life sustaining. It wasn’t a “speck on the horizon” view. It was a commanding vista of twin towers that seemed to reach to heaven from my own doorstep and, even at that distance, demanded that you crane your neck to take in their full height. Sometimes, after particularly horrible days at the office, I crawled onto the fire escape with a bottle of red wine and looked south, marveling at those buildings. When my parents came to visit last year, I told them I was close to the financial district. We went out to the fire escape and they both held my hand — as though by simply looking upwards they could finally understand why I needed to be so far away from them both.
By now, I’m well-versed in letting the media illustrate devastation for me at arms’ length. Ethiopia, Somalia, Bosnia, Chechnya. Senseless wars and acts of violence in places that I could only point to on a map, all reduced to two or three minutes in the international section of the news. I wasn’t prepared to feel the impact of a tragedy that felt so personal and yet was so very far away. For almost two years, I jogged down the West Side Highway Bike Path to the World Trade Centre Plaza, saluted the Statue of Liberty, then went home for breakfast and got ready for my work day. My office was at 14 Wall Street, in the shadow of One World Trade Center, and I ended my share of days in Trinity Church, enjoying the change of atmosphere the moment the enormous, swinging oak entrance door closed behind me. I breathed in the thick, musty air and let my day at the office evaporate as the noise of Broadway fell quiet.
Australians often joke that if it’s 9am in Sydney, it’s 6am in Perth — and 1938 in Brisbane. People from across the country relocate their young families to this city specifically because the sun always shines, the living is easy and it seems impossible that anything dark could ever mar the idyll. In the weeks after the 11th people commented time and time again that I must have been relieved not to have been in New York when “it” happened. I should be relieved, certainly my family is, but the truth is that I am absolutely not.
Relocating from Manhattan to Brisbane, albeit temporarily, would have been a difficult adjustment at the best of times. For the first weeks, I brushed off my friends with the airy explanation that I was suffering “the bends” and would be back to my old self soon enough. Three months later, I’m still floundering. And I think that I will be until I return to my downtown apartment and see for myself the empty space in the Manhattan skyline. By virtue of three years and 14,000 miles, the morning of the 11th felt both extremely personal and extremely impersonal, and I envy my friends in New York the sense of community that has helped bridge the gap between before and after.
At the moment I’m wedged between feeling both safely removed and all too familiar with the site of an event that I’m yet to get my head around. I feel like I’ve been seeing downtown Manhattan through binoculars for the last two months and I know that I’ll have to walk down West Broadway to Ground Zero before the dust really settles and I can begin to move on.