In the aftermath of 9/11, a tasteless colleague asked me, “So how many victims did you know?”
Was this some ghoulish contest? If I knew ten people who perished, did I score more points than someone who knew only three? There were people who lost husbands, lovers, children, brothers and sisters. Did my experience approach theirs. I don’t think so.
I don’t have a body count as to how many people I knew who died there, but it was only a few. That guy pictured on the New York Post front page, falling headlong….I worked with him on a project or two at the bank that employed us both. What pain must that photo have inflicted on his family as they recalled the last cell phone call as he returned to his desk?
And there was a woman with whom I chatted at a conference. I saw her name on the list of victims and wondered how many mourned her. Were there others? Probably. Sadly. Yes.
But the legacy of 9/11 was not just the black waves of death that day. It cut deeper. For the thousands of us who worked in lower Manhattan, it changed light and landscape. It changed air flow and fundamentals of neighborhood. Just imagine how a neighborhood changes if someone puts up two buildings of a hundred six stories each. There are wind tunnels where there were none before, shadows, and changes in traffic patterns.
Now imagine that those buildings are gone.
They weren’t pretty buildings. The chases for wiring were clogged, and the elevators were slow, so they weren’t all that efficient or comfortable. But nobody expected them to be gone like that, in a matter of hours.
When it was over, there was a memorial concert, a good one. My blessed intuitive dogs huddled close to me, one on either side, while I listened to the music and cried. To this day, I will not attend a 9/11 memorial, not trusting my own response when misguided patriotism kicks in. That’s not what it was about for me. It was only sadness.
Personal stories that stand out for me from that day. Nigel, whose daughter was in daycare on the first floor of World Trade Center One and whose wife was working across the street. All three made it home after a long, long day. Carol, an economist who was evacuated to Jersey City and eventually made it home to Brooklyn. Lou Dobbs, who was the speaker at a conference where I was working….I still cannot see his evening business news without a flashback of memory to that day. And for myself, walking to the corner of Fifth and Fifty-Ninth and seeing two buildings in the distance, then only one, then a gap in the landscape, ghastly mundane.
The tales that came out afterward, even after correcting for sensationalism, were unspeakable. Literally unspeakable. The media could not tell many of them because they were unacceptable in polite discourse. Waves of white ash and death. Falling building parts and body parts. Unspeakable horror.
Bracing myself, tonight I watched the episode of ER with the plane crash, which takes me back to that bright September day when thousands died. I never thought of it until today, but I was blessed by never hearing the sounds of planes slamming into buildings or buildings collapsing into themselves. The stink was bad enough, a mixture of burning electrical equipment, cement and plaster dust, and burning flesh. We all lived with that for days, never sure what the proportions were.
Did I leave New York because of 9/11? No. Not even close. I would have stayed in solidarity with the city if I had not already set my sights elsewhere. But it did change my life. I have one of those personalities that snaps into action in a disaster, dividing emotion from the need for action, then falling apart later. I am still falling apart, still working to try to wrap my small brain and heart around such a horrific event. Sometimes I think it cannot be done, but my dogs are good at picking up the pieces.
Tonight, as I watched a fictional plane crash kill fictional people, I would wager that I cried more than most people who watched the fictional flames and heard the fictional sirens. And my very real puppy who is usually aloof and goofy unaccountably curled up in my lap and licked my face from time to time to comfort me. I think she will be a good dog. As for the big dogs, crying over a TV show doesn’t even move them, not after all that we have been through together. They know what a real disaster looks like, and they know what to do.