There is no more beautiful, bittersweet month than September in New York City. The cities climate seems to change from equatorial swamp to preppy New England. The sky is artificially blue as if filtered by some particularly skilled cinematographer. There is raw brightness on the street, windows and steel on tall buildings dazzle and our lean Giacometti shadows follow us to work. There is an influx of new students, we envy their optimism as if it were our own, there is a sense of renewal; long time New Yorkers come back from their country houses tanned and more than a little grateful to be back and quickly get over the melancholy of locking up and winterizing. There are art openings, galas, fund raisers and opera’s. It must irritate Mary when I say with the same predictability as the change in weather, that I am amazed by how precise this transformation takes place on the second week of September, when the first scent of ice can be detected in the air. But the fall will always be September 1 2001 for those of us who were there at the time.
Mary and I had returned from London in April of 2001 after three turbulent, not always happy years. Mary came first and found an apartment in the eaves of a Federal Townhouse in Greenwich Village once used as a studio by Jackson Pollack. It occupied what was once a generous attic and it could be precarious to climb the steep stairs and there was a feeling that you were climbing into a tree house, compounded by an additional shaky climb to a sleeping loft area. However once up there you had the most remarkable view of the sky, there was a window cut into the roof directly over the bed and the star filled nights belonged to us as did the moons slow nightly journey; during the winter days we watched clouds forming and drifting and in sky, then the snowflakes slow progress down towards us eventually resting on the window above revealing their unique soft mathematical perfection before dissolving . We laid there in the warmth, protected by this thin sheet of glass; it was the most romantic place we ever lived in. The apartment was one of three above a retail unit. Once, a few hundred years ago, it had been a town house with wide maple floors now a rich honey color, narrow corridors and steep steps, a lovely small garden at the rear, it was a time capsule and enchanted everyone who visited us. It had been bought collectively by three lesbian friends in the 1970’s and we were renting from one who had moved temporarily to Florida, there was always drama between them now they were getting older and money was needed to fuel their free spirits.
In those days I was working across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey. I could take the PATH train from either Christopher Street or the World Trade Center and (depending on how quickly I could get out of bed) would choose either the longer route to the World Trade Center or the slightly shorter one to Christopher Street in a continuous effort to burn a few more calories. Once in the PATH it would take circuitous routes deep underground and under river to the small city of Newark. Down in these entombed spaces there would be an inevitable moment when a train in the opposite direction would pull to a stop beside us, a few meters away, and we would exchange glances in that eerie ghostly light with the other passengers, there was something cold and deathly serious about these exchanges, pale faced under the harsh neon. Then a short walk to my office which had a panoramic view over the city of Manhattan. This describes the first few hours of my day on September 11, 2001.
Around nine o’clock I noticed black smoke rising into the perfect azure sky at the same time as I heard the rise in volume of conversations in the rest of the office, someone told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and we immediately thought it was a small plane, perhaps carrying a few passengers and that someone in Air Traffic Control was going to be in big trouble. A television was turned on and we went back to work until the remarkable news that a second plane had crashed in the other tower and they were large commercial planes …the world changed at that moment.
I phoned my wife, uptown at a doctor’s appointment and then my mother who insisted on telling me about my bicycle being shipped from England, I demanded forcefully that she knew that I was OK, and she, perplexed, replied “I know you are!” When I mentioned the attack she said, “Oh just that?”…..The city was on lock down and I couldn’t return home that night, a hotel had been found in some rural part of New Jersey and I received a ride from a co-worker pulling me away but even at that distance the location of the city could be identified by the black clouds continuous progress.
I watched the news lying on a bed in the hotel and like the rest of the world observed the tragedy in physical comfort and mental turmoil, above all disbelief at its scale and audacity unfolding minute by minute. Later that night when I had ingested about as much news as I could I walked from the hotel down a small country lane where there was a police car parked and two cops rigid in the front seats, the night was still and silent, the dark silhouette of trees could still be seen in front of a blue black sky, they looked at me with suspicion as I walked by. My mind was everywhere, it was with the workers in the building on that day making the fatal choice of staying to be suffocated and buried in rubble or leaping out into that splendid sky, holding hands with a colleague with the knowledge that it would be your last moment and you would never see or speak to your wife, children, friends, parents again….I imagined myself in that agonizing position. It seemed unreal watching this on the TV, but it was real to me, not least because there was a pair of binoculars in the office and before the towers fell I had, to my horror, guilt and shame, witnessed these horrors earlier in the day.
The first reaction to an event like this is disbelief, the second hatred and the third revenge, I think this is true of individuals and societies. As person you need to stop during the hate phase and pause, because if you take it to revenge, you are no better that the awful perpetrators and continue an escalation of violence. I spent a lot of time reflecting over the next month about the nature of religion and the duty of the United States in all of this turmoil. There was a predictability about the US military response and the feeling that it was exactly what the mastermind behind the act itself wanted.
The next day I took a train back into the city, and even before arriving in Penn registered the smell of burning, even forty blocks north of the site. I had expected the streets were full of dazed civilians and angry cops but I was wrong, the city hadn’t changed, the people were walking to work with the same purpose, shops and restaurants were open at least in midtown. Our apartment was perhaps fifteen minutes’ walk from the WTC and after I had met up with Mary, who had the good fortune to have been surrounded by friends that night, and shared a hearty breakfast, we walked down to see how far we could get to the site to see the remains and what we could do, which of course was nothing.
Coming back into the Village we heard the raw harrowing sounds of an adult crying in an apartment above and a few days later a family broken apart walking along the river with a single parent. On the bodegas windows were the lamentable sights of photocopies with “Missing” and then a photograph and description. People were crowded around looking at these blurred photographs, a happy middle aged guy with his dog, a heart breakingly young woman on a date, I couldn’t look. In such moments something has to be done to release the massive, combustible energy of grief as the pathos and tenderness, combined with a sense of helplessness is overwhelming. In our case we went to the west side highway where crowds thronged the side of the roads cheering the firemen hurtling down in their trucks, I suffer from a cynicism and have little sense of civic pride, an English handover, and so added my own cheers and handclapping halfheartedly; if I knew then what I know now it wouldn’t have been the case. Walking back I noticed our normal fire station with the usual crowd of young firefighters gone, it was now almost empty except for one or two standing with remorse surrounded by flowers.
I remember vividly all the events of those weeks and months later, but there is one detail that troubles me still, and it seems extraordinary. On the morning of September 11 did I walk to Christopher Street or to the World Trade Center to take the train to Newark at my regular time of 7.45am? I am sure I did the latter, and have told people this when they have asked me if I was in New York that day, in which case I was hours away from a disaster, but I am also capable of self-aggrandizement and to be in the center of a good story, and I might have taken Christopher street that day. Now if I’m asked that question I say I can’t remember if I was at the WTC on the morning of 9/11 and agree it is odd.
There is also a collective memory loss or denial around this period. One evening a few days after 9/11 we sprang out of our bed due to an explosive sound over the city; What now? At the window there was nothing to see except one by one our neighbors’ lights going on and dark restless shadows. Putting on the radio, again nothing and so we faded back to sleep our heart beats slowing, foreheads touching, fingers tightly interlocked beneath the sheets. In the morning it was laughed away by the newsrooms, a USAF F-15 accidentally made a low pass over the city….but try now to find any news about this today on the internet. Another collective memory loss, and one that makes me sound like a right wing conspiracy theorists (but I sure it is true); stories of Muslims dancing in joy in New Jersey, of Italian American thugs attacking them with baseball bats being reported on the local news stations, poorly advised wind to kindle the flames of racism.
It was of course Giuliani’s finest hour, he was everywhere on the news, consoling victims making speeches and enormously popular for that. History will not be kind to him for his subsequent behavior but this moment cannot be taken away from him. Likewise George Bush, that eternal clown, will forever be known for his posturing, whether it is on the rubble of the site or on a deck of a battleship, his declarations of revenge and victory are as laughably hollow now as they were then.
My own anger took a perverse course. The attack was clearly not an act of religion, it was one of bravado, to illustrate weakness in the USA, and if that was the aim it did so spectacularly. But for me I focused on religion and it made my already rigid agnostic beliefs impenetrable, something I recognize as a deeply contradictory stance. Obnoxiously I blamed every faith for this act, placing equal contempt on Christians, Jews, and Hindu’s in the same place as Muslim’s for their certainty and angry passions for texts that are more than two thousand years old. That’s how angry I was with these hijackers; they made me lose all reason and sense.
What did they want to destroy, what did they want to tell us, these Saudi’s? Was it simply how easy power can be lost. If that was the case the mission failed, it created a time of patriotism like no other, a recognition that the countries beauty is in its fragility, an experiment that we must all believe in for it to succeed. I normally hate the hubris of patriotism but felt strangely sentimental towards the flags and the warm treatment of soldiers and service members seen on the street or departing an aircraft. Every man it seemed had acquired a small stars and stripes lapel pin, all houses were placing flags at their door steps and there was a powerful sense of community. Still, when I hear people say that they love God, Country and Family I reply that I have no belief in the first two and am on the fence towards the third. At the end of the day, those events of 9/11 confirmed these beliefs.
Another plane crash in Long Island on route to Puerto Rico, barely mentioned today and hard to remember now other than there were conspiracy theories for a while. Conversations were overheard in coffee shops about leaving the city. They probably didn’t in the end, New York rebounded bigger and shinier than before, it took only about six months, more wealth poured in, more spending… “consumer confidence” escalated, perhaps it was the knowledge it all can be taken away from us in a moment, our hedonistic lives are too short.
It made me think hard about the USA, its experiment in perfect free market capitalism, the promises of human rights and self-determination, of what that overused word “freedom” means both in theory and in reality. In the rest of the world there is a school of thought that thinks of the USA as a group of self-obsessed individuals who have inherited a glorious parcel of land and systematically destroying it. They laugh at clichéd imagery from these shores, its overweight fantasies, and its citizens who absorb the propaganda fed to them from a young age about its greatness. The events of 9/11 made me realize both how tenuous and how robust the American dream is, how quickly it could turn bad and yet how promptly it could reset itself. I got swept up a little in its propaganda.
Many years later I was forced into a conversation with a Trump supporter, a painful evening where we both of us attempted to find common ground for social decorum, so the evening wouldn’t be completely ruined. We started with the obvious, our appreciation for the natural world (easy) the parks, forests, deserts, mountains and coasts. We moved onto the free market and I shared how I had recently been on a train journey late one Sunday night through Germany and I could see from my window that each town was asleep, there were no stores open or cars on the road, and I compared that with the following week flying into Chicago around the same time and the place was alive. Not necessarily a fair comparison, but the feeling of capitalism and ambition exists thanks to the free market driven at least partially by the lack of financial safety net. We then talked about the constitution and the concept that we are not subjects of Kings or Queens nor Presidents or Politicians or Army…these work for us, we the people and no matter how imperfect this is in practice, as an idea it is an all-powerful one. Strangely the conversation turned out better than expected.
But there were the topics to avoid, immigration for example. Part of my right wing companions selective memory was that he took offence at my attempts to see which part of the world (which crisis and human tragedy) his family was saved from. At what point do you cease to be an immigrant in this country of made up almost entirely by them? Other perilous topics to be avoided; Health Care, Abortion, Climate Change, Gay Marriage, Military Spending, the rise of Islam, Israel, the Composition of the Supreme Court and term limits, the Electoral Collage, Gun Control, Media bias….America is still a young place when these conversations are needed and basic principles for society remain unresolved. Churchill’s famous phrase about counting on American’s to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else… comes to mind, and not in a sarcastic or cynical way, but in the need for process and democracy…. in so many ways it leads the world for its openness and acceptance of debate, of asking citizens fundamental questions, and yet in others lags far behind held back by is constitution and conservatism.
But September is still a wonderful month in New York City. Today children are on the streets protesting for climate justice led by a sixteen year old Swedish girl called Greta Thunberg who arrived here from Plymouth in a sail boat. The leaves in Central Park have begun turning, it is cold in the shadows and warm in the sun, so many reasons for optimism and contentment.