People say that memories of tragedy and loss are usually the most vivid in one’s mind. JFK’s assassination, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, FDR’s Declaration of War—these are memories that defined generations. But for me, the memory of watching the second plane hit the South Tower is blurry. I think Mrs. Chiselko, my old school geometry teacher, turned on the television because another teacher burst in, imploring us to watch. I think I was sitting in the back and only lifted my head when I heard the TV turn on. I think the room was silent in shock, but maybe it wasn’t—maybe it was a flurry of chatter and confusion. Maybe I was at the front.
I don’t know, really.
What I do remember clearly is the aftermath. How by lunch time, on some subliminal level I could already sense how the events of that morning were going to change the United States forever, particularly for those with similar complexions to whoever caused the planes to crash, but not knowing who the culprits were and secretly hoping they weren’t Asian, like me. I remember dealing with the tragedy with inappropriate comments, joking that the Japanese probably did it to get us back for World War II, and making the kids laugh uncomfortably at my lunch table. I remember leaving school early, coming home, my neighbor checking in on us, me telling her my theory about the Japanese kamikaze bombers, the grave look on her face, her scolding me for thinking so ignorantly. I remember feeling ashamed. I remember being confused, in shock, sitting on the floor in my kitchen with my sister. We were huddled together under a thin blanket. We watched the footage of the towers falling and dusty masses walking over the Brooklyn Bridge over and over again on CBS 2, the only New York City-based station my analog TV could pick up since it broadcasted out of Paramus, not the World Trade Center like all of the other stations. I remember talking to my mother through our land line.
I don’t remember the sound of my mother’s voice, whether she was worried or crying or stoically nonchalant like she usually is. I don’t remember who called who first. I don’t remember wondering how many of my classmates’ parents or relatives died that day, and I don’t remember thinking about the safety of my cousin, since I was not aware at the time that he worked in the World Trade Center.
Sitting on the kitchen floor, my sister and I watched, in real time, how our vernacular changed. Ground Zero. September 11th and 9/11. Nine One One for a brief period, until broadcasters realized it was too cliché. Al Quaeda. Bin Laden. Terrorism. United We Stand. In a day, these words and phrases were integrated into American culture.
Before that morning, the word “terrorist” was unfamiliar, even clumsy, on the tongue. It was a word people rarely had an occasion to use. When I thought of a terrorist, I thought of awkward-looking, crazy-eyed white guys like Timothy McVeigh and the UniBomber. Ground Zero had something to do with earthquakes. The Twin Towers were the two rather boring looking buildings I always saw when my family drove to the airport, the first beacon of familiarity I had with the approaching skyline, the definitive signal that New York was near.
These are the memories I relived last night as I watched the two memorial pools flow endlessly. The 9/11 memorial is beautiful in spite of the occasion that ushered in its existence. The pools are large gaping holes into the depths in which so many innocent people lost their lives, with water, a universal symbol for healing and restoration, flowing through it for as long as our society will stand. My fingers traced over the engraved names around the pools, a tactile reminder that every name once had goals and dreams and a future and still, today, has grieving family, friends, and communities.
I grew increasingly angry and frustrated– at what, I am not sure– and could not find the appropriate method to express how I felt. So, I prayed. I prayed for the first time in years to the God to whom the victims of 9/11 were supposedly sacrificed, not asking for anything in particular, but posing this question and hoping for an answer: What have we accomplished in our post-9/11 world? What have we learned?
On the Brooklyn-bound 4 train that night, the train came to a shuddering halt underneath the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn. I don’t remember it happening, as stopping and starting is a fairly common occurrence. I also don’t remember when the smoke started. I don’t remember who noticed it first. But when passengers started to cry out and called my attention to what was happening, my first thought was crystal clear. Oh God, Sarin gas. We’re all going to die. Then, I made a mental list of the people who I would miss, the people I wished I could talk to one last time. I thought about my mother and, if I suffocated, how pissed she would be at the entire situation. I looked helplessly toward the two families with children and small babies. I held the hand of my significant other and, for a moment, silently waited to die.
Nothing happened. The smoke was just smoke. After the rest of the car came to a collective realization that it was probably going to be okay, I allowed myself to inhale, cautiously at first. We coped with it in the best way we each knew how. The woman with the boxing gloves in the shopping bag leaned her head on the metal grail and read a magazine. The assertive blonde lady asked pointed questions to every MTA official that walked through the car. The woman with the curious scar on her cheek made macabre, inappropriate comments about injuries and compensation. We put cloth up to our face to filter out smoke in the most futile way possible. We groaned and complained when the intercom failed to give us information. Not a single person said anything about terrorism, but we were all listening for it.
Forty five minutes later, the MTA sent an empty train that positioned itself behind ours. People rushed to be the first to evacuate, but many of us waited, letting the elderly and those with small children go ahead, working as a team to hold open the sliding doors, push strollers, hold canes, carry kids. We nodded at the FDNY and MTA officials lining the first cars on the new train, and they nodded back. We tried to ignore the men with the gas masks and the axes and frantic radio calls. And then it was business as usual. I made awkward jokes about human centipede type evacuation protocols. A man repeatedly asked for change as people walked by and filtered into the cars ahead. People read their kindles. And then we waited, and waited, and waited, and finally the train lurched backward on its way to Manhattan.
On the circuitous cab ride home, it occurred to me that perhaps my obsession with understanding what it means to “be a New Yorker,” my exercise in humor writing that is a thinly veiled disguise for the disconnect I sometimes feel in relation to my surroundings– all this may be due in part to the fact that I have avoided truly thinking about tragedy, particularly the one that irrevocably shaped the mentality and character of New York City since 2001. Last night was a confluence of memories and hypotheticals that forced me to reflect on how I have lived my life for the past ten years, think about questions to which I still no answers, and wonder about how I might fit into those answers one day. What have we accomplished in our post-9/11 world? What have we learned?
What have I learned?