September 10th, 2001. 6:30 PM.
The corner of 11th Street and Fifth Avenue.
The weather is glorious. The air is crisp. The sky, tranquil. I am walking downtown en route to a trendy West Village bistro. As I approach the corner of East 10th Street I come to an abrupt stop …
“I never realized how clearly you can see the towers from here,” I say to my partner, Hugh, who is standing beside me. “Just look at them, lit up. They’re stunning.”
In the past, I have made conscious efforts to avoid most things iconic in New York City. I’m not sure why. I mean, really, it’s not as though I lack an appreciation for the city’s history or its exceptional architecture. Quite the contrary. But, for some unknown reason, I experience great resistance when confronted by Manhattan’s compelling complex skyline.
Maybe it stems from a fear of reprisal. A certain unease that washes over me whenever I attempt to express genuine gratitude for things like the Chrysler Building, or say the Statue of Liberty. For this New Yorker, an unexpected anxiety always arises every time I try to acknowledge these structures in a meaningful way. As if the mere act of admiration alone could cast me back into that contemptible category of being an out-of-towner. An unsophisticated tourist. A wannabe.
On the eve of September 11th I find myself dining among a diverse group of quintessential Manhattanites: visual artists, photographers, graphic designers … A few of them sip fancy cocktails. Others don expensive eyewear. All partake in witty conversations about foreign film, current MoMA exhibitions, and the opera. Contrite, I sit at the end of the table waiting for my grand opportunity to chime in about something, anything, that can be considered remotely Manhattan-ish. Alas, I am at a loss for words. The situation is vexing and echoes one of those The New Yorker magazine contests where the reader considers a cartoon and is then challenged to come up with a clever caption for it. Again, I have nothing to contribute.
Truth be told, I feel like a fraud. Even though I have been a New York City resident for nearly thirteen years, it has literally been months since I have actually “lived” in the borough of Manhattan (at this time, my Union Square Park apartment is rented out and there are still four months remaining on the lease).
At the end of the meal, I leave the bistro and drive back with Hugh to Connecticut. Though I feel blessed for having a lovely home to go to, I can’t help but feel lonesome for my beloved 650 square foot walk-up apartment on East 16th Street. I miss it terribly.
September 11th, 2001. 9:15 AM.
New Milford, Connecticut.
The weather is glorious. The air is crisp. The sky, tranquil. I am outside and the telephone rings. Hugh answers. The world stops. From this point on nothing will ever be the same again. (I will not repeat the things overheard on the phone. Revealing these details would seem superfluous, perhaps even insensitive.) From this remote distance, my 9/11 experience as a New Yorker oddly becomes an intangible one. Out of reach. I do not see the first plane hit 1WTC in real time, nor do I come out of a subway station to discover total pandemonium accompanied by foreboding plumes of black smoke. I am not among the massive herds of terrified citizens running frantically uptown as the North Tower implodes and collapses to the ground. Rather I am safe, out of harm’s way, in Litchfield County Connecticut no less, watching all the horror unfold on TV.
I become increasingly removed during the ensuing weeks. While thousands of New Yorkers deal with real tragedy, loss, and the unthinkable, my conflict centers on being absent from my city–being away from my home. I feel like someone who has just jumped ship. A shameful deserter.
September 1st, 2011. 8:46 AM.
The corner of 16th Street and Fifth Avenue.
The weather is glorious. The air is crisp. The sky, tranquil. I look down Fifth Avenue and take in the new construction of One World Trade Center. At the moment steel has risen to the 78th floor. Installation of a glass curtain wall has reached the 49th floor. An elephantine crane looms ominously in the background. To gain a better vantage point, I step into a bike lane …
“I didn’t realize that the new tower was so far along” I say to myself as I am clipped by clusters of frenetic text-messaging pedestrians. “It took so long to break ground and now it feels like it’s all going up overnight.”
Again, there is a disconnect.
No matter how hard I try, I cannot seem to wrap my arms around this new almighty tower. While I do admire its preeminence, and its structural engineering, I question its significance. What exactly will this new high-rise mean to New York City?
What will it mean to me?
I do my best to drum up some enthusiasm for One World Trade Center but I find it difficult to embrace this New York icon in the making. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, it seems to pale by comparison. Perhaps, with time, I’ll begin to feel differently about it …
E.B. White once wrote: “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” Looking down Fifth Avenue on this beautiful September day, I consider these words and then contemplate the upcoming anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I reflect upon the 2,753 victims who pointlessly died that day. I think about their loving families and how they are coping, ten years later, and it is in this New York minute that I am humbled and realize just how lucky I really am.