Dear New Yorkers,
I have a potentially treasonous confession to make: I have never had a personal connection to 9/11. Never felt anything about it, and for a long time didn’t really care. I’m not trying to be irreverent, just frank, but I understand how those two adjectives aren’t mutually exclusive.
I feel terrible that I have never really felt terrible about 9/11, and it makes me curious about how common my dilemma is. Those who were young and in high school at the time, I assume, must have felt a sort of detachment from the events. Most had no clue what had actually happened or why, and don’t for a second entertain the thought that our schools properly educated us about the complexities of the issue. Most of us just did what we were told, which was to don numerous flags of various sizes, flag pins, flag patches, flag prints on our schools’ athletic shirts and other extracurricular paraphernalia. Most agreed that we should support the troops, or rather heard various parental or authority figures say so and fell in line. We never heard of Afghanistan. There was no room in our curriculum for the Middle East. When the United States invaded Iraq, my English teacher wanted us to talk about it for five minutes. I think we lasted only two, and then returned to 1984. We were still learning civics and had no idea what it meant to be responsible citizens of our suburbs, let alone faithful Americans trying to stay strong in the throes of terrorism.
Many in my generation feel ambivalent about 9/11 because we were never asked to get close to it. The U.S. entered one ill-conceived war after another, and no general sacrifices were asked of us. We were never made to feel the effects of war, so why should we care? We were too worried about getting into college, finding jobs, and getting ready for the winter formal or prom. We were not asked to participate, take interest, or stake a claim on what would be our future. “Support the Troops!” stickers were enough.
My lack of connection to 9/11 also stems from growing up in California. The experiences and perspectives of others who grew up in more Eastern Time zones are clearly different. Their memories are clearer. I have tried for many years to remember where I was on 9/11, and only recently did I pin it down. When the first plane hit I was still asleep. When the second plane hit I had already laced up my shoes and was running down a dirt road through Temecula Valley’s wine country. I was on my school’s varsity cross-country team and had to run twice a day twice a week. When I got home and began stretching in the entryway, I noticed my mom sitting on the couch in the living room gawking at the TV. My brother stood behind her, doing the same. I asked what had happened. Neither of them could form full sentences. I walked around to get a glimpse. A couple buildings on fire; I’d seen that before. I showered and got dressed quickly, since I had to drive my brother and myself to school 15 miles away and didn’t want to be late. On our way out, we heard Mom gasp, “Oh my god, oh my god, it’s falling apart!” I slammed the door behind me.
We followed the normal schedule at school. Some teachers did their lessons for that day, others just let us do what we wanted. A few asked if we had any questions, then let us watch TV, which was hardly illuminating in the aftermath. Between classes we heard rumors that both towers had fallen. I had no idea what the Twin Towers were, or where they were, or what exactly had even happened, and as the rumors about planes, terrorists, bombs, and people jumping and plummeting to their deaths spread about campus, I suspected that no one else really knew either. Now, whenever I meet Californians roughly my age, I ask if they even knew what the World Trade Center was. They all chuckle sheepishly and say, “No.”
When I moved to New York last year, I was a little surprised how families that have been here for generations still talk about that day. In their voices you can hear a lingering pain, a residual urgency, gravity. My mom came out to visit last year, and on the street a couple blocks from Ground Zero we happened upon a memorial: two charred and bent steel beams that emerged from the rubble in the form of a cross. I’m not a religious person, but when I saw that cross I imagined chunks of buildings tumbling through the air. Flashes of images I had never seen crowded my vision. Fires bursting, victims covered in ash and blood, confusion and crying. I felt so close. Something seized me inside. I almost cried, right there.
Earlier this summer I went to see a three-act circus performance at the plaza of the World Financial Center. The third act was a troupe of gymnasts who jumped and tumbled in various ways off three-story scaffolding down onto a foam crash pad. The piece was titled “The Human Fountain.” Classical music played and was interrupted by heavy explosions of bass every time a body crashed. Swan dives and smiles, twirls and flips, bodies crossing and nearly colliding. It was basically synchronized falling. And it was fun, for about two minutes. The show went on for ten.
After awhile I looked away at the sun lowering over the Hudson, then back past the Winter Garden of the WFC to the hole in the sky where you can see the replacement towers being built. It hit me. How dare they?! How dare these gymnasts perform an act of bodies falling, smiling as they plummet to the ground with explosions of bass right across the street from where victims of a terrorist attack jumped and fell a hundred stories to their deaths? How dare these clowns try to pass it off as some cool, hip, exciting art piece that everyone should love?
I looked around to see if anyone else was offended. I felt confused, and then sick, and then confused again, because I knew I had no real connection to 9/11. To be honest, I had never even seen the footage of the people falling from the towers. What right did I have to get upset? The director, dressed in all black with black sunglasses and a black faux-hawk, grabbed a microphone after the show, asked if there were any questions but did not wait for them. She proceeded to talk ad nauseam about the piece, how to move bodies and “form movements with flesh that creates content, not meaning, but content [sic].” I wanted to punch her in the face. She wasn’t responsible. She had no idea what she was doing. I felt even sicker.
Maybe it’s fine to have a bunch of people falling right across the street from the WTC and call it art. Maybe people affected by 9/11 have moved on and found a way to heal. I have not healed. I never had a chance to be injured let alone to heal from any pain. But I know what those gymnasts did was wrong and disrespectful. I didn’t lash out then, because I didn’t want to offend all those who responded differently to the performance—who have healed. I didn’t want people to yell at me for opening up old wounds that I had no business touching. I was just some ignorant Californian who had just moved to New York—not even New York, but Brooklyn. So, I just left.
Since then I’ve watched countless hours of 9/11 coverage on the Internet. I try to find the best, the clearest, the most horrifying videos. I have seen so many people fall from the towers. I have felt things, I think, but still have no answers. I don’t know if I should be upset, traumatized, or indifferent like I once was. I want to accost every New Yorker and ask him or her if it is OK to be pissed at a troupe of gymnasts for making me feel this sick and confused, to be irate at a bunch of clowns whose brashness still haunts me today. I want to find those still grieving and put my arm around them and say, “I’m with you. I’m with you. I’m with you.”