One weekend my wife and I walked into a gallery to find photographs of September 11: survivors were coated in dust; firemen stood in the forefront of rubble, their gold safety stripes gleamed incongruously against the ruins.
The photos hung like laundry from wire strung across the gallery. Others had been framed and placed on the walls. A crowd sifted through the bins or piles that had been put directly on the tables. I told my wife that I needed to walk out. The event still seemed too immediate to me to see its characters embalmed in these photos.
My family and friends wrote to me frantically on and after that day the planes hit the towers, knowing only that my wife and I lived in New York and that we both worked in finance. Their emails filled our in-boxes. Our close friends and relatives rang us once the switchboards became clear. A lot of people outside our industry mistakenly assume that nearly everyone in the New York financial world worked in those towers.
I was in Rockefeller Center that day, when my wife called to tell me that a plane had hit the towers. Like everyone else I thought she meant a small propeller plane. Little did I suspect that I would later see television images of two 747s striking the World Trade Center, images so horrific and unreal. As we evacuated our buildings, the streets were filled with people milling around, more confused than alarmed, while smoke could be seen billowing from the southern part of the city. Our cell phones were useless. I remember the fighter jets screaming overhead later that day, when I was in a line that snaked around the New York Blood Center so long that they had to turn nearly all of us a way, even those of us with O-type blood, as helpless New Yorkers tried to think of gestures, no matter how small, that they could make to help.
The scenes seemed eerily familiar. I had seen them before in Hollywood blockbusters like Independence Day and Towering Inferno, so I could only walk around in disbelief as those movie scenes came to life. I tried to chide myself for making such outrageous comparisons, but I kept thinking of walking through the subways underneath the now buried World Trade Center, or the decimated hulk of the World Financial Center, just South of the towers, where I used to often grab coffee with friends of mine. My wife once worked with a man who visited the New York offices of their company in the World Trade Center once a year: 9/11 was that day that year. What more do you need to know to understand the concept of fate? Or that evil can befall the most innocent among us?
Until then, my generation has never really had an event that irrevocably changed our lives, though there have been shocking incidents that have happened along the way: the assasination attempt on Ronald Reagan, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, the Iraq Gulf War. But never had there been an incident that changed our ideas about what it meant to be safe in our homes, to be safe in our hometowns, to be safe in the United States. War and terrorism had reached our shores.
I believe the attack is to our generation what Pearl Harbor was to the Great Generation: startling, naked shock and surprise that our distant shores could be attacked. Yet writers of that generation ultimately became caught up in the war. Many short stories and novels focused on the bloody battles fought and the service which a generation of Americans provided. Where that war affected most Americans directly because so many volunteered or were drafted, our war seems so different, one fought solely by professional soldiers, in skirmishes by highly trained professionals, distant from our everyday lives.
In the early days after September 11, I remember an evening when my wife and I walked down to Union Square. Most of Southern Manhattan had been closed off to people, so Union Square was the southernmost, still accessible public gathering place in the city. You could see the gleaming long-stemmed and votive candles gathered into small shrines that dotted the square, illuminating faces that were hovering over the many letters and poems that had been placed in tribute to the fallen and their families. We were blown away by what was heartfelt.