It would be hard to write something that hasn’t already been said or written about the tragedies on Sept. 11. Having lived in Manhattan for 18 years, I’ve always considered myself a New Yorker, but my affinity with the city goes back to a time before the World Trade Center was built. I was 4, living in an apartment on Boulevard East in Weehawken, N.J. Our living room windows overlooked the Hudson River and I thought the Empire State Building was our next-door neighbor.
Later, when we moved deeper into New Jersey during high school, I traveled by bus (on my own) into the city two nights a week for dance rehearsals. It is inconceivable to me now that at 15, my parents allowed me to go in and out of Port Authority on 42nd Street by myself and travel to Park Avenue midtown, returning home well after 10 o’clock at night. But times were different then. I loved going into the city–I felt so grown up. So when I was living in Boston my first year in college and unhappy, I grabbed an opportunity to attend a small women’s college smack in the midst of Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
I lived in the city from 1971 until 1989 and, for the most part, adored every minute of it. New York City was the only place I knew where at four in the morning you could go dancing, get a haircut, buy flowers, or eat anything your heart desired. Not only was there every kind of food from all over the world available, but it was being made by natives of that country and available in a variety of price ranges! For a single person, life there was a whirlwind experience of non-stop sensations. But years later, as new parents of young babies, those same exhilarating sensations became a constant bombardment of noise, smells, and an ever-present crush of humanity that flooded one’s life. The long-lasting honeymoon was over; it was time to move away.
Frequent trips back were possible since my husband was working for an airline and so many of our family and friends were still in New York. We wanted our kids to know the city the way we did. With places to stay and free airfare, each visit we explored all our favorite haunts: Papaya King uptown and Zookie’s downtown for the greatest hotdogs (unlike our first “Dog House” experience in the South, where the hotdogs were actually red when you bit into them); down to the World Trade towers to wait on that enormous line snaking its way atop the mezzanine for half-price tickets to Broadway; across Canal Street over to Chinatown to duck in and out of shops and eat dim sum and dumplings.
Of course, there were the usual visits to the Metropolitan, Natural History, and Modern Art museums, trips to Ellis Island and the top of the Statue of Liberty and Rockefeller Center, the Thanksgiving Day parade and 57th Street and Fifth Avenue at Christmas. Though we no longer lived there (my son said apartment living was just too crowded for his taste) we felt connected still and our children had a sense of the place where they were born.
For my entire adult life, the Twin Towers anchored the skyline in Manhattan. Larger than any structure one could imagine, they rose upward almost farther than one’s neck could crane. Whether flying in, driving over from New Jersey, or staring out from Broad Channel, Queens over Jamaica Bay, there they were, planted firmly for all to see.
It was unthinkable that they could be toppled. But on Sept. 11, with many, many watching, they sank before our eyes and with them our sense of forever. Reactions of disbelief, shock, sorrow, and depression eked their way into the mainstream of American life. The brother-in-law late to work, stuck in the subway; the cousin in a hotel across the street; the friend 10 blocks away–all safe and sound. All in our circle accounted for and alive but so, so, many others lost forever.
After the attacks, our neighborhood association decided to have a luminary tribute to the 250 victims on planes. Each white paper bag had the name of someone’s son, mother, daughter, father, friend. As we lit each votive candle in their fragile paper holders edging Duke Park, I tried to say every name aloud: Albert Dominguez, Patrick Quigley, Sonia Puopolo, Alfred Marchand, Garnet “Ace” Bailey, Betty Ong, Jesus Sanchez, Wolfgang Menzel. My neighbor and I were conscious that we were moving bags and not body parts; it was little to do, but our candles and tears honored each of them. When it came time to remove the bags, we couldn’t throw them away. I kept my eight. We went to the Farmers’ Market and handed them out to people who offered to light them on their porches and in their homes.
As Americans, we had a false sense that we were untouchable. We never expected that those committed to using violence to convey their message would visit their terror on our doorstep, any more than we could imagine those towers would fall.
During the national prayer service just after 9-11, I heard this phrase from Corinthians, “What cannot be seen is eternal.” It’s been 12 years since I’ve lived in Manhattan. For me, the silhouette of those buildings will always be present.