I am one of the lucky ones, I know. I am alive, and so are my mother and father and sisters. I lost no husband, brother, son, daughter, grandmother, aunt, uncle, cousin. Nor did I lose any old high school friend, co-worker, second cousin, roommate’s ex-boyfriend or even passing acquaintance, as far as I know.
I have only suffered those two or three degree of separation losses that no one who ever lived in New York can be without: a married couple who worked in my sister’s company were on the American Airlines flight from Boston. My younger sister’s friend’s neighbor, who called his wife on a cell phone from the upper floors a few minutes before his tower fell. A boy who had taken a summer art class with my boyfriend’s younger sister; she did not say how he died, only that he painted beautifully.
There is no one I ever spoke to, at least not yet. No one I can mourn except in an abstracted and completely inadequate way.
So what am I in mourning for? My ability to take airplanes and look out of tall buildings without fear? I’d like to think that I’m a little less shallow than that. Our nation’s lost innocence? No, not really. (Anyway, the crotchety copy editor in me is only lightly stunned and would revive instantly if I tried to write that sentence, whether it is true or not.)
I am not sure what this says about me, but I think that as much as anything I am mourning for the towers themselves. The fact that I have walked to the river three or four times to check on Boston’s lesser skyline, and teared up a little each time, probably confirms this suspicion.
They were, as we always say at times like this, so very young—finished in 1970, only eight years older than me. I only learned that yesterday, though; I always assumed they were several decades older. Maybe this is because I had thought no good architecture came out of the late 1960s and 1970s; more likely it is that, to a girl born on 28th Street and 9th Avenue, they just looked like they’d been there forever. (I also knew for a fact that before I was born my oldest sister gave my mother fits trying to do somersaults on the railings of the glassed-in observation deck on the 107th floor.)
I only went up to the top once; I think it was on my ninth or tenth birthday. I do not actually remember the famous views of the harbor or the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. I do remember the dizzy view down to the street, the people who looked like ants and the yellow cabs like matchbox cars.
I remember that my mother stopped me from whining on the long lines for the elevators by having me count the number of languages I heard spoken. I don’t know the total, but it was more than I had ever heard in such a small space and short time. I remember the stupid marbleized keychain with my name on it from the souvenir shop, which is probably still collecting dust in our house somewhere. I remember the wind whipping my hair on the roof. I used my mother’s compact to put it into a ponytail, and realized that in getting dolled up for the big day in the city I had gotten silver eye shadow on my nose.
That was the only time I was up there, except maybe when I was too young to remember. But of course like everyone else in New York I have looked at those towers more times than I could count. Faintly through haze and smog from the Throg’s Neck bridge, marking the end of those epic twelve hour car rides from Bangor. In rosy late afternoon light from the Staten Island Ferry, which cost a tenth as much as the Circle Line and had almost as good a view. (I don’t know how many times I rode that boat without setting foot on Staten Island.) Every sunny day at lunchtime from the Promenade, the summer I interned in Brooklyn Heights. On slides in my architecture history class, while Professor Scully, gesturing wildly, exclaimed about how brutal and ugly the towers were, how they mocked the great old art deco skyscrapers to the north. On I don’t know how many cab rides back to Park Slope, from Laguardia at rush hour or Manhattan at 3 am.
And now, well, what is there to say? Everyone has seen the pictures and the videos.
Albert Camus, writing to a former friend in Nazi Germany during a time far worse than this, said,
“I relive those pilgrimages I once made with all the men of the West: the roses in the cloisters of Florence; the gilded bulbous domes of Krakow; the Hradschin and its dead palaces; the contorted statues of the Charles Bridge over the Oltava; the delicate gardens of Salzburg. My memory has fused together such superimposed images to make a single face, which is the face of my true native land. And then I feel a pang when I think that, for years now, your shadow has been cast over that vital, tortured face. Yet some of those places are ones that you and I saw together. It never occurred to me that someday we should have to liberate them from you. And even now, at certain moments of rage and despair, I am occasionally sorry that the roses continue to grow in the cloister of San Marco and the pigeons drop in clusters from the Cathedral of Salzburg and the geraniums grow tirelessly in the little cemeteries of Silesia.
But at other moments, and they are the only ones that count, I delight in this. For all those landscapes, those flowers and those plowed fields, the oldest of lands, show you every spring that there are things you cannot choke in blood.”
I have had the irrational impulse to get into my car and drive to New York this weekend. It is mainly to see my family and friends of course. But it is also to be with the city herself in her saddest days, and to assure myself that the organ still plays in Saint Patrick’s and the unicorn tapestries hang in the Cloisters. That the giant blue whale I used to be afraid of, and the hall of minerals I loved far more than was normal for a six year old, are still on display at the Museum of Natural History, and the pushcarts outside still sell pretzels that harden ten minutes after you buy them and hotdogs of unknown origin. That people are still playing catch and touch football on the Long Meadow of Prospect Park. That they are still honking on Flatbush Avenue, and stepping on each others feet on the subways.
That the twins’ dignified older sisters are still standing, and hopefully are open and perhaps even have a few brave souls on their observation desks. It is almost certainly too soon for that; it is probably too soon for many of these things. But in a few weeks I will drive to New York, and prove to myself that there, in the oldest and newest and bravest and scariest and greatest of America’s cities, there are things you cannot choke in blood.