Monday, September 11, 2006


I thought for a long time about what I might write today.

It's been five years since our world changed, and I feel like I should write something. Not in the sense of an unpleasant chore, though some ideas of what I should write felt unpleasant, but in the sense that I don't want to forget, want to pay tribute to the lost, want to speak my mind in that uniquely American way.

But what to write on a day when words seem inadequate, when my own psyche feels inadequate? I watched a few minutes of the Reading of Names this morning, and I really didn't want to hear anymore. I didn't know anyone personally who died on 9/11, but I know enough about the world to know each name is a loved one who didn't come home that day.

Every death that's not of natural causes - and even some that are - is a tragedy. Whether it's the Crocodile Hunter or the teenager cheerleader gunned down in Newark the other day, every life lost is a pain in someone's heart that will never go away. And on 9/11, thousands of lives ended, for reasons most of us can't comprehend, in a way I'm sure some of us still can't believe. And each story is sorrow, is pain... and sometimes, even hope.

So what to write?

Write politically, about the war on terror and the war in Iraq and religion and freedom?

Write simply, a tribute to those gone who I didn't even know?

Write stories, of the man I know who quit Cantor Fitzgerald just days before that fateful Tuesday, and lived to lose so many friends?

Write of fortune, the friend who was supposed to work, tangentially, at the Twin Towers that morning, only to delay the job a few days?

Write of my own experience that day, so far from New York City and yet so near?

I don't know what's best. Today, in some ways, is a day like any other. I ran some errands this afternoon, checked some e-mail, and I'll watch the Raiders game tonight. Free to do what I want, when I want. I'm even off from work.

And yet, is it different?

Do I get nervous later on, when I venture into the city for that movie screening I'm covering for HorrorTalk? (I've been calling it a premiere, it's more accurately a screening. Either way, what's the horror of a horror film compared with 9/11? We'll see...)

That's not so different from how I usually feel when I go into the city - alert - after all, I'm a small-town boy. But I know I've been more wary in the past five years. I don't want to be. I want to be defiant, show "them," stand tall.

But common sense, and prudence, dictate that extra glance around, that extra look to the sky.

Or is it fear? I hope not.

I type the word "free" on a day like this and I often think of Bill Maher, mocking George Bush's "they hate us for our freedom" mantra.

I'm OK with hate. They hate us. I hate them. But it has to be hate well-placed, well-used. Not the hate of bigotry, the hate of generalization, but the hate of righteousness, of hating someone for what he did, not what someone who looks like him did. I don't hate Muslims. I hate Osama bin Laden. I don't hate white workaholic executives. I hate my ex-fiancee's father. Specifics are better. But perhaps I digress.

What about the stories?

On the morning of 9/11, I called my best friend's house, in a panic. He answered the phone, and I said "what are you doing home?" and he said, "I'm watching TV, aren't you?"

And I said, "No, I mean, what are you doing HOME?"

He was supposed to be at Windows on the World, building a display for his company, all that week.

There was silence at the other end of the line.

Then he said, "Oh my God."

I could hear his (pregnant) wife in the background, saying "what is it?" probably fearful something had happened to someone they knew.

He said, "We put it off 'til Wednesday."

For Windows on the World, Wednesday never came, and as my friend said a while later, his son born the next February would never see the World Trade Center. But Ben sees his father every day, and that's a blessing too many children would never have after that day.

I went to work that day, to put out the paper unlike any other I've seen before or since. I did the Business section, my boss getting commandeered to work on the paper's first Extra! in who knows how long. I even tried to joke, later, that me and the Sports editor put out the two sections of the paper nobody read on Sept. 12.

I remember four things about that day.

I remember where I was when I heard - I was asleep, when my parents called to wake me and tell me what had happened. I think I registered "plane," and "World Trade Center" and "collapse" before I went back to sleep. Then I registered the definition of the word "collapse" and I was up and in front of the TV, watching the replays over and over, hoping each time that it wasn't real.

I remember calling my friend.

And then, I went to work. I went a different way, a way that always gave me a view of the New York skyline. And as I came up the rise on the highway to where it was, everybody slowed. Everybody in busy Jersey traffic slowed. Because we could see the tower of smoke rising from where the Twin Towers had stood.

And then, at work, at some lull in the action, me and my (former) colleague, Andy, went up to a room we knew had a view of the skyline. And we watched the smoke rise. He's a good guy, Andy, and we didn't have to say a thing. He left a while later, and wrote a column at his new job on the first anniversary. He wrote about that moment, standing there, in disbelief.

The next time I stood in that room was the big blackout in 2003, when I looked to New York City for lights, in the hope that it was all some big mistake by the electric company - it was - and not something worse.

I remember in the weeks and months that followed, seeing obituary after obituary in our paper with the special logo we'd made for the victims of 9/11. I remember the articles we wrote on two families, very different but united in loss. I remember the start of the war in Afghanistan, sitting reading of families shattered and thinking we couldn't bomb those bastards - as one newspaper called them in 90-point type - enough.

I got a chance to go to the Concert for New York City, and even though I saw Bowie and Clapton and the Who, what I remember most is the people on the floor, police and firefighters and EMTs and families, holding up pictures whenever the cameras swooped by, signs with words like "have you seen...?" and names. It felt so good to cheer, and yet so bad.

I've watched over five years as a nation united in pain, with the sympathy of the world, has become a nation divided again by partisan politics, facing the enmity of so many nations.

I read about more tragedies. Young lives, cut short in Iraq, fighting a war that may be against the wrong enemy, or may not. Another, just the other day. Another son who won't come home.

These days, more tributes, a multiple-of-five anniversary, more stories about those who moved on, those who can't, and those no longer here.

And yet, in so many ways, life goes on. Just another Manic Monday, places to go, people to see, things to do.

I don't want to forget that terrible day. But sometimes, I don't want to remember it, either.

I don't know what else to say, but this:

Let us remember the victims, and their families. The bravest and finest of New York, who did their jobs and gave their lives. The ordinary, extraordinary people, who went to work, got on a plane, one day and didn't come home. And the soldiers who went to war to answer those terrible events. Those who lived, with wounds, with guilt, with memories they can't erase. The families left behind, missing their beloved husbands, wives, fathers, sons, mothers, daughters.

If anything I could say would ease their pain, I would say it. But this will have to do.

God bless you all. God bless America, land that I love.


Stewie said...

Wow. Excellent post, man.

jin said...

I second stewie's comment.
One of the best I've read!