Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11/06

As each anniversary passes I feel like I should have some new insight, something to add, but the truth is I'm as dumbfounded as I ever was. Ben and I watched the CBS documentary last night (me for the second time) and watching the footage I've seen who knows how many times, I still had the same feelings of shock, we both still had tremendous feeling of sadness, and I still have the same questions - what was it like for those people in their last moments - and sixteen more related questions - nevermind any of the political/war related aspects of the story that make less and less sense to me as time goes by. Mostly what I think about is the loss of life, and how one day there were two really ginormous buildings that I had been in and out of many times and in a few moments there weren't. There's nothing about that that still seems plausible to me.

Anyway, seeing as how I have nothing new to add here, I thought I'd repost a piece I wrote for an online magazine shortly after the attacks. Reading it again, the only thing that strikes me about what's changed are the particulars of my life, and how it continues to get so much more full on kind of a daily basis. Otherwise, not so much.

In memory of Doug and Doug.





Five years ago, I left New York City feeling chewed up and spit out by the only place I'd ever called home. I wasn't quite sure where I was going, either: I jumped on a train with a single suitcase and a laptop and headed for refuge at my dad's house in rural Iowa. Ten days later I was on a bus to Chicago to take a $450 apartment sight unseen, offered to me by the one person I knew there, who also happened to own a building – already a good sign, as far as I was concerned. Over the years in New York, the stories about people getting apartment deals had become almost mythic. But there was no such luck for me in the series of apartments I had lived in, all with escalating rents I could no longer pretend to afford. (The eviction notice under the door of my last apartment was a clue.)
I've built a life here that I never had in New York, largely because I can afford to live comfortably and write on a preschool teacher's salary. I have two bedrooms and giant windows and a porch overgrown with flowers. In my last apartment in New York I faced a dark courtyard and couldn't tell if it was sunny or snowing. I have new friends. People drop by. I know my neighbors. I am absolutely, incontrovertibly, in love with Chicago. I watch the El pass by under a sunset and it seems like the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. I go to the lake and look up at the skyline and can't believe I'm at the beach two blocks from Michigan Avenue. Sometimes, people I don't know say “Hi” to me on the street and I say “Hi” back. I feel like I'm home in a way I never did in New York, where I used to stare up at the buildings from the time I was six and think, “What the hell am I doing here?”
And yet, as I have said from the beginning, I am a New Yorker. I went to P.S. 166 and Columbia Prep. I learned to ride a bike on 89th and Broadway. On my first date I went to Serendipity's and a Peter Weir movie at the Plaza. I write stories that by and large take place in New York. Or that are about a New Yorker who lives in Chicago. (Someday, it's my plan to get an imagination.) I still have my New York driver's license, obtained at the elderly age of 25, because, you know, we don't need them there. I subscribe to the New York Times seven days a week. My two best friends, Nina and Bob, still live in New York, along with many other friends and my stepfather, who now lives in New Jersey. I have been back to New York roughly four times a year for one occasion or another: holidays, weddings, illnesses, funerals. To be honest, I have to say this has been roughly three times a year too many. The claustrophobia I felt right before I left has multiplied as the years go by. I spend more money in a week there than I do in a month here. I feel horribly torn among the friends and relatives I just don't have time to see, and the memories- good and bad- seem present on every corner: first kisses, dates I'd really rather forget, seeing Baryshnikov on my 17th birthday with Nina, shouting matches with my parents in front of Loew's 84th (they were right) the Macy's day parade rain or shine, Bil Baird puppets, the Nutcracker, movies at Radio City, skating at Wollman Rink, with my mom, now gone. It's sensory overload, and I usually have some sort of mental breakdown every time I go back. I keep trying to limit my trips and it never seems to happen.
That said, I have been both grateful and sad to be here, and not there right now. I have, like everyone I know has on some level, been grieving this tremendous loss. I was watching the Today show the morning it happened – one moment they're interviewing some author and the next I hear this whispery tone from a host, Katie Couric, saying something about a commuter plane hitting the World Trade Center, and my first thought was, ‘That doesn't look so bad.” And she kept talking and the other host, Matt Lauer, kept talking and suddenly this other plane whizzed by and slammed into the second tower and not really being up on my terrorism my second thought was, “Did someone in air traffic at La Guardia fall asleep?” I got on the phone immediately and left messages for Nina, Bob and my stepdad, who I knew was probably already on his way into the city. Still, I didn't have any great concern that anyone close to me was hurt, because a great deal of my friends are artsy types and either work or live further uptown. But as the morning progressed and the towers came down, my concern grew, and I emailed half the people in my address book, most of who answered quickly. By early evening I felt heartbroken for our country but relieved not to have lost anyone personally.
And then Nina called again, to say that two guys we grew up with on Fire Island (a summer resort on the Southern part of Long Island) worked at the World Trade Center and were not yet unaccounted for. I had already been crying off and on watching the news reports all day. It seemed impossible to believe that these towers I had passed through many times, shopped in, went to parties at, had dates at and surveyed the city from, had crumbled into dust. I thought I was crying for all of humanity, for New York, for our country. I didn't know. I told Nina I loved her, which I had maybe said once since my mother's funeral – and at the time her response was something like, "Oh, stop it now." We've been friends since we were 12, but we're not too touchy-feely. We believe the hug is overrated. We believe it is our right as New Yorkers to decline any unwarranted hugging, which we believe there is too much of. This time she told me she loved me too.
By the following Monday Nina had already been to a memorial service for one of the two guys, both named Doug. She said there were a thousand people there. It would have been impossible for me to get a flight back even if I had known in advance. And because I hadn't seen either of these guys in years, it would probably have been somewhat dramatic on my part, and unnecessary. But they were my age, and they had families, and these guys, the two Dougs, were, whether they knew it or not, part of my young adult life in a significant way. They were part of a group of us who spent all day on the beach and all night in "town," (on Fire Island this means the next community a few blocks over) at bars or parties or clubs or often just sitting on a stoop, watching people go by. One of the Dougs was one of the first guys I ever kissed. I went dancing with the other Doug almost every night for several summers; he told me I was "legitimately gorgeous" at a time when I needed to hear it. It seems like nothing now, that my best memory of him is that he told me I was pretty, but it was something that always stuck with me over the years. The Fire Island communities are extremely tight-knit – I was a houseguest of Nina's parents for several entire summers, and though all the kids our age knew my own family didn't have a house there I always felt embraced as one of their own. I have always gotten word of how people are and what they're doing. Even when you lose touch with some, you always hear about them from someone else and you're always glad to know people are doing well. It hadn't come up yet that anyone wasn't.
Two days after the towers came down I went to a prayer service at Holy Name Cathedral here in Chicago. I thought maybe a few people would be there, so I didn't make any effort to get there early. When I arrived right on time to find it was almost standing room only, I burst into tears immediately. I had a pretty good idea everyone there wasn't also from New York. I sobbed through the whole thing, through the prayers given by ministers of several faiths and especially during a reading from the Koran which loosely translated into something like "If you take one life, you take the lives of all mankind; if you save one life, you save the lives of all." I had heard from Nina that one of the Dougs had talked to his sister right after the first crash and had to go because he was helping people evacuate. I don't know if anyone he helped made it out, but knowing that he tried, and that so many stories have surfaced of people helping in their last moments and people helping afterward just because, puts them all in the latter category as far as I can tell.
When the service ended, the Cardinal and all of these religious dignitaries, including Jesse Jackson, walked out in a solemn procession, followed immediately by a new friend of mine, also from New York. I couldn't imagine what he had to do with this whole service other than representing our people, and as much as we've bonded on the whole New York thing, he's not someone I ever really pictured in a church, much less holding up the rear behind Jesse Jackson. I suppressed my urge to yell "Hey!" but it took me a few more minutes to make my way outside; fortunately the miracle of cell phones brought us together at a coffee shop up the street a few minutes later.
"I bet you didn't know I was such an important religious figure," he said, explaining that he had been seated in the front and just happened to be the first to walk out. I asked if all his people were okay. He said yes, but told me that his stepdad worked at the WTC and happened to be out of town at the time. Still kind of in a weepy daze, I followed him around for a few blocks, not really sure where either of us were going. The next thing I knew he was holding the door open for me at Barney's. I smiled at him because I knew he had a shoe fetish.
"Well, they are telling us to put our money back into the economy."
"See," he said, "just doing my part."
But we didn't, not at Barney's anyway. We spent a little at a gourmet deli and talked about missing Zabar's and Dean & DeLuca and what's up with Chicago pizza anyway? We ended up going for sushi, and talked about the tragedy and our love lives and our friends and how things are actually pretty good, considering where we both came from, which – without the detail –was at one time less good for both of us. And we laughed. And for a couple of hours I didn't cry, like it was still September 10th.

When you take the bus into the city from New Jersey, there's a spectacular view of the city right before you go into the tunnel. At the end of last week when I finally thought to ask my stepdad what it was like to see now, he said, "Sweetheart, I was on the bus when they came down. We all saw it happen.” The only guy he knew at the World Trade Center was a young guy he played golf with a couple of times. "That guy could hit the ball," he said.
I brought up the subject of Thanksgiving, which has been difficult for the last few years mainly because it's also the anniversary of my mother's death – this year will be the third. My stepfather's remarriage has magnified this loss for me somewhat – how could he do this to me? But I think the time has come to admit that all he did was get on with his life. And of course, I have too, but it's a lot easier to do from here, where I'm not constantly reminded of the loss, where I have a wonderful life, where I have been building memories that are mostly pretty damn good.

"Are people even making travel plans right now?" I don't feel afraid to fly so much as I'm wondering what to do about anything right now. It seems like there are going to be new rules, but that no one knows them yet.
"Maybe we should wait a couple weeks to talk about that," he said. A few weeks earlier he had reminded me I'd need to get a ticket soon.
"But I want to see everyone. I want to come home."
"I know," he said. "Don't worry about it. It'll be fine."

I am, for the first time since I left, sincerely sorry not to be there now. I think it's time for me to get on with it too. In both my hometowns.

7 comments:

carolyn said...

lovely. thx for sharing as I definitely didn't know your writing way back then!

as to the first part, before the story that just made me cry at work (!!), i have the same feeling on every return to NYC: completely overwhelmed by all the feelings of why I left.

yet when I'm not there I miss it, and the people I've left behind there, desperately. It sucks when all your best friends live in a different place (and of course some are neither there nor chicago) and yet my life HERE is so much better and bigger and could be so much more...if only for the friends.

agh.

.25 life crisis kid said...

I've just been doing a lot of sighing today...

MaryAn Batchellor said...

It's weird. I still have survivor's remorse for people I didn't even know. It should have me, too. I lived under the same flag they did.

Anonymous said...

I was flying from Philadelphia to Boston this evening, passed over NYC and saw the twin beams of light they had pointing into the sky as a tribute--was quite moving. Then I got really paranoid, realizing that my flight number was 1876, the 100th anniversary of our independence, and here I am on a flight from Philadelphia, where our goverment was formed, flying to Boston, nexus of the revolution, and, of course, the jumping off point for the attacks. It's all still very weird and surreal.

Anyway, I'm a fan of your work--both here on the blog and the printed page.

Cheers,
Keith

Betsy said...

Thanks for everyone's comments. Keith, I'm glad to know they put those lights on again, even just for the anniversary. I saw them and thought they were incredibly moving, and that they should have just kept those forever.

carolyn said...

i agree. the lights were perfect and should have been the permanent installation rather than any of the ridiculous building proposals!

Lance said...

great piece.

brought tears.

every time I'm back in the city it takes me the better part of a day to figure out why I'm so disoriented finding my way from my traditional first morning mid-town shoeshine after a redeye... after wandering down the streets a bit it comes to me, I no longer have the anchored skyline as a compass point... Pre-911 all I ever had to do to get my bearings was to glance up and find the towers...