The Season of 9/11



21 Montague St, Brooklyn, NY

Neighborhood: World Trade Center

Another September as bright as a dime. Another morning of clear air, another day of hearing shrieking jets and watching strangers acting strange in the streets. Another day of firefighters in their FDNY T-shirts and brotherhoods of policemen in their dress blues, this time like old war veterans dressed up for the parade, assuming a public identity that seemed to call for a kind look from people who met them on the street.

Would September become the season of 9/11 the way October feels like Halloween, and December is preparation for Christmas? The prospect scared me.

I was just someone who had worked across the street from the World Trade Center—a neighbor, I guess, and a witness, though hardly more than anyone who watched it on TV. Still, I was frightened of it all: the pity and the horror, the tension between painful re-enactment and letting go, the muting structures of ritual commemoration.

I turned on the TV at 10:22, planning to be efficient about my memorialization. I didn’t want to cry on my couch until it was time to go to work. I would get in and get out fast. I would watch until 10:29, the moment the second tower fell.

By 10:24, I was ready to turn off the TV because I was already choked up. The readers were doing the Murphys, and there seemed to be so many of them, so many families in the crowd weeping at the march of names. A young reader was wearing a picture of the man she’d lost—brother, husband?—pinned to her black dress like a corsage. As she read, the wind tugged at it, and she put her hand to her chest and pressed her fingers over the face to keep it there.

At 10:29, the logos on CNN said something like “Church bells ring all over New York,” and I went to the window and put my head out, yearning. I heard nothing. The only church bells were coming from TV, confirming that this day was turning into a national holiday, having moved out of New York and into TV-land.

All the networks had graphics: “A New Day Dawning,” an 11 made of the towers, joined by a ribbon, 11 made of the two ghostly beams of light. Yes, this antiholiday would always be with us; the number was too perfect.

Though I hadn’t planned to take the time, I felt compelled to go outside and see what was really happening. I went to the Brooklyn Promenade, where two-year-olds gingerly tiptoed among candles on the ground, and then I took the subway to Tribeca and went toward Ground Zero and just walked until I felt grounded in the city again.

What a wind there was. I had half-noticed it on TV but I felt it now, in my hair, saw it in the trees. It heartened me somehow to know something was different; we weren’t doomed to keep reliving last year. Now, we had wind, a crosstown wind: blowing static across the TV mikes, fuzzing up the cameras’ long shots, flipping the pages with the names of the dead, whipping whitecaps in the harbor to a helicopter fury, sending the big, stately clouds rolling eastward like tanks, pressing the heavy glass office-building doors shut so that workers emerged with a shove (there were heavy damn doors, I recall, at the World Trade Center).

Wind was giving the flags a hard time, shredding them, standing them out straight like boards and then snapping them loudly, ripping the giant banner flag on the black-shrouded building above the pit across the middle, knocking over police barriers, sprinkling grit in the grimacing faces of tourists, snuffing candles and uprooting incense sticks in the little shrines here and there. Wind was stirring up yellow plumes from the pit, as if it were still burning, sending a last exhalation into the air, and everyone knew as they had for a year that the dead were in that dust blowing through the city.

It was an irreverent wind, a mischievous wind, like the kind uncle who comes to a wake and gets everyone smiling: wind the immensity, wind the wild card, wind the merciful gesture, making us feel like children sighting snow, wind that inaugurates another autumn and seems to promise that things will be different and there will always be a gift, something new, which means we can commemorate the past but the past will not hold us there.

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