Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Life after 9/11

My favorite view of New York before 9/11 was from Brooklyn.
Still is. And always will be. (Photo: Jake Rajs)

It never gets old. You would think after 12 years, it might. Emotions could fade like a well-worn piece of paper. Typeface blurred.

But you will always remember that day. You'll remember what you were doing (running across Brooklyn on election day), who you were with (strangers in a senior center), where you saw it (standing in the middle of North 6th Street).

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was a grad student at Columbia's journalism school, interviewing retired Brooklynites about their thoughts on the mayoral primary. The first thing I remember about that morning was that it was gorgeous. Perfect blue skies like the ones I grew up with in California. 

I got to the community center in Williamsburg around 9. The north tower of the World Trade Center was already on fire but I didn't know it. A few minutes into my interview, a man burst through the doors of the rec room. "We're being attacked!" he screamed. "Oh my God, we're being attacked!"

The elderly man I was interviewing looked at me with that classic New Yorker "What the f*ck is this crazy guy talking about?"-look. We cleared the room and rushed outside. People poured out of barber shops, bodegas, schools and markets. We stood in the middle of the street and looked up. Black smoke dirtied the skyline. The South Tower was gone. 

Holy shit, I thought. God help us.      

At 10:28, we all watched in horror as the North Tower collapsed right before our eyes.

The rest of that day is a blur. Memories bleed together. A Latin woman next to me was screaming and crying, "Oh my God! It's the end of the world!" F-16s flew overhead. Buses unloaded Manhattanites covered in ash. I think I finally made it back to my Morningside Heights apartment in time for dinner. Though I could hardly eat.

I already loved New York, but 9/11 made the ties unbreakable, I wrote in a blogpost from last year. People bond deeply over the loss of a family member or loved one. Can the same thing be said about a city?

I dug up this email sent to friends five months after 9/11. At the start of 2002, the UN had unanimously voted to freeze the assets of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The world was reeling from the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The US wrapped up the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. And we would invade Afghanistan.

What stuck me the most about this letter is how much I adored the city. "I still love this city and all of her idiosyncrasies... Where else in the world are you going to get 8 million people packed together on a tiny, little island living, loving, mourning, laughing, dancing and celebrating with one another? No other place on earth."  

And each year, each anniversary -- I love her more. 

To: My friends and loved ones
Subject: Life after nine eleven
Date: February 19, 2002

Hello everyone-
It's been a while since I've said hello, and if I didn't get a chance to see you while I was in town over Christmas break-- you'll have to forgive me...

I spent most of my three weeks reporting down in San Diego. Actually, I
think the word "break" in Christmas break is a misnomer since I don't feel like I got much of one. :)

Just thought I'd email you to let you know that I miss you all and that I'm still alive and kicking here in big bad New York.

They've cleared up nearly all of the wreckage and debris at Ground Zero. I was down there in December and it's completely unbelievable. We've all seen the site on television and in the papers, but nothing takes your words away like seeing it with your own eyes. It looks like a meteor hit earth. There's just this huge hole in the middle of downtown. A gap, a crater. It's like a black hole.

But I still love this city and all of her idiosyncrasies. Yes, it gets
really cold here, yes sometimes the subways screech too loud and you're
tired of hearing sirens blaring at 2 in the morning. But you know, where
else in the world are you going to get 8 million people packed together on a tiny little island, living, loving, mourning, laughing, dancing and
celebrating with one another? No other place on earth.

School's even crazier this semester. I feel like one of those speed skaters in the Olympics. I'm going my last lap around before my time's up. It's insane and I try not to let the momentum of it all overwhelm me (it's tough sometimes)-- so I'm just truckin' along, keeping in mind that I really do enjoy all this running around and not getting enough sleep. I just can't wait to graduate and get PAID to run around and not get enough sleep. :)

Stories I've covered in the past few months: wrote a story about the
arrival of a new African cream liqueur called Amarula, a competitor to
Bailey's Irish cream; went to the closing of a family restaurant near Ground Zero that fed firefighters and rescue workers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week since Sept. 13; spoke with Arab and Muslim students about living in America after 9/11; wrote a profile about a woman who lost her fiancĂ© in the WTC; today I went to an international conference on publishing and technology...

The best thing about this job is meeting all kinds of interesting people and learning so many new things. One thing's for sure: you never get bored!

Well, thanks for all the emails and for keeping in touch. You are a
blessing to me. Until next time...