This essay was originally published by La Cuadra Magazine in the months following the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Earlier this spring news reached out from a mountain city in Pakistan to my small apartment in Guatemala, as it did all over the world, that Osama bin Laden was dead. I was alone as the message first appeared on the Facebook page I let idle in the background when I’m working.
I put aside an essay I was writing and sat quietly on the couch, staring at my laptop, watching the news spread virally through the pages of my former students from Brooklyn, many of whom I’d been with on September 11, 2001. From most of them, now in their late 20s and still living in New York City, the news was perfunctorily given: a link to the New York Times or the Daily News websites, a one sentence observation of good riddance, a profile picture changed out for an image of Lower Manhattan or one of a cousin who was with Ladder 12 and never took a step backwards once he hit the doors of the South Tower.
It was a half an hour before the first, “Fuck, Yeah!” startled me off the Facebook news feed. It was then that I finally set the computer on the couch and turned on the television to see what it had to offer. Not much, as it happened. The information was the standard 24-hour-news-cycle of inaccurate conjecture and pauses for commercials as we awaited more of the same.
With no substantive information beyond the headline, the channel moved to their secondary default: a hastily organized panel discussion that tossed back and forth precious little insight about “to what audience” the president most had to speak that night.
Then a report broke from the site of the World Trade Center that the streets were filling with thousands of people, mostly young, mostly students, who began chanting “USA!, USA!” and breaking into song and celebration.
I found myself whispering to the television, “Please, stop.” The on-scene reporter was beaming as he waded into the crowd. My head fell into my hands as I remembered collapsing into the driver’s seat of my car after work on September 11, 2001. The windshield was covered in ash and I absentmindedly turned on the wipers. Then, like I’d been shot, I realized I was mechanically brushing away human remains. For the thousandth time that day, I felt my soul fall out of my body.
I looked up from the couch and the kids on my television screen were still gathering, chanting. I picked up the phone to call my two best friends in Guatemala, both expatriated New Yorkers. As it happens, one was in Honduras on a holiday; the other was in Mexico on business. I left messages that said, “I thought I’d call you just in case you didn’t know . . .” It seemed somehow more right for one of us to share that news with the others.
Then I turned back to the television as the reporter inveighed his audience to “remember the rage we felt” on September 11, 2001. And to now look at these young people singing and dancing. With two memes he’d created his own circular narrative that neatly packaged both beginning and ending — a story he had the honor of sharing with the audience from Ground Zero. He tossed back to the newsroom where the panel picked up his thread and speculated that, politically, “this was a great day for Obama,” and then countered itself by offering the more generous observation that this was a “great day for America.”
But I cannot see it as such. It was an ending. Maybe a coda. But it wasn’t a great day. Nothing associated with that much cruelty, not even the death of its proximate architect, could be considered great in the way it was being presented on television. Not by me. The narrative being sold on televisions and computer monitors around the world was an artifice, and I see a danger in allowing that first draft of history to harden into canon.
My memory of September 11, 2001 does not begin with rage; it is not how we responded.
For the great majority of us, rage came later and in the company of a confused host of other emotions. On September 11, New York City was defined by a dark, subterranean sadness: a rolling basso profundo suffusing the city. Above that, in the schools and offices of the five boroughs an impassioned fugue of shock, horror and fear passed between pairs and small gatherings. All day long we spoke to one another, listened to one another and cared for one another. Around the city the names we used were specific to our clans, but we all participated in the same grand conversation — and in the same desperate cadence.
If you had listened in at the window of the FDR High School social studies office at some random moment during the day, you would have heard something very much like this:
“Fanny, how’s Victor? Did his unit get called in?”
“Calm down, baby. They’ll be fine. They’ll be fine.”
“Have you seen Brendan? How’s Mallory?”
“Where’s Richie? Are his people okay?”
“Sue, can I use your phone? My father’s office is in the Empire State Building.”
“No. I haven’t heard anything from him, yet.”
“Danny’s office was where?!! Tell me when you reach him. I’ll use the phone later.”
“Alisa, did Sue get word from Danny?”
“How are Herb’s kids? Are they home from school?”
“Any word from Danny?”
Change the names and you would have heard that same conversation at windowsills from Gun Hill to Gramercy to Gravesend.
That day was filled with many terrible things. But not rage. It should not be remembered as rage.
In fact, laced throughout September 11, 2001, there was great light. We were compelled to treat one another more gently than before. I felt it inside myself and I felt it in those around me. At our high school, where there were hundreds of students from the Greater Middle East, there was no anti-Muslim backlash. Rather, there was a vocalized understanding that we, individually and as a community, bore the responsibility for preventing anything from happening.
What did illuminate the day was a new and personal understanding of what explosions, metal and flame can do to human bodies — and with that came a profound compassion for anyone who had ever suffered such a thing.
On my television, the children were still chanting.
I got up to turn it off and wandered from the living room to my bedroom. I folded clothes until it felt universally pointless. I walked back to the couch and sat down. I got up again and went to the kitchen where I filled a glass of water, which I promptly forgot as I wandered out onto the patio. From there, I looked up at the darkening sky and remembered standing with Mari in front of her Brooklyn apartment almost ten years before. I wondered where she was at that moment. I thought about calling her, but didn’t. I walked back to the kitchen and filled another glass of water before seeing the first one on the counter. I laughed a bit at my absentmindedness and then came back around to the sofa and collapsed. My apartment was quiet. If I’d had any strength, I would have cried.
The opening stanza from W. H. Auden’s September 1, 1939 floated up from the dark.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
I’ve only spoken of September 11, 2001 a handful of times in the past five years. Occasionally, when someone finds that I lived in Manhattan at the time, they ask. But it’s far less frequent than when I first came to Antigua seven years ago. It, like all things, has receded from the conscious part of the mind with the passing of time. Talking about it is difficult on a number of levels, not the least of which is that I don’t want to speak out of turn. My losses were one circle removed. I did not lose close friends or family in the attacks, but I have many friends who did. As such, sometimes it just feels inappropriate to assume the right to share openly about that day. It is the nature of the sacred. But as others will seek to define the meaning of September 11 ten years on, I find it important to reassert control of that memory, if only for myself.
Over the intervening years, I’ve searched for meaning in the wreckage, as have we all. One place to which I’m repeatedly called is a late afternoon many years ago in St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Binghamton, NY. I was training to become an altar boy. Father Bassano, whom we all called Father Mike, wanted me to know something about the man our parish was named to honor. As I sat in my cassock and surplice in the front pew of an otherwise empty church, Father Mike retrieved the Eucharist from the tabernacle. He explained to me, in the terms of Aquinas, how a thin, white piece of pressed bread could be the Body of Christ.
Aquinas believed that all things have a true nature. That is their substance. To explain, Father Mike used the example of my shoes, indicating that I should lift my vestments and look at one of my black, polished wingtips. The exact conversation is lost to me, but it proceeded along these lines: My shoe was once brand new. It once didn’t have a scuff upon it. There was a time when its sole was unmarked and its laces unbroken. And someday, that shoe will be worn out. The leather will become old and the rubber heel will have cracks and might even come unstuck. But it will always be a shoe. Being a shoe is its nature, its substance. Aquinas called the cuts and scuffs and marks on the shoe: the accidents. Accidents can alter a thing in form, but its substance — the thing that is unchangeable and true about it — will always remain. Likewise, bread can be fresh. Bread can be stale. Bread can be sliced. Bread can be whole. The external attributes — the newness of a thing, the age of a thing, the color of a thing, the taste of a thing — can change or be perceived differently, but the substance will remain. A shoe will always be a shoe. Bread will always be bread. And, to Aquinas the miracle of transubstantiation was God imbuing something ordinary with the unchanging substance of Divinity. The Eucharist still looks and tastes like bread. But underneath, there is a deeper reality.
“So it can look like one thing, but be something else,” Father Mike assured me as he called me to communion.
At thirteen I didn’t understand. But that memory resonates when I think of September 11, 2001 and the weeks and months that followed.
Ten in the morning, FDR High School in Brooklyn: A colleague opens the door to my junior A.P. American History course and says, in shock, that the South Tower had just collapsed. From the back row, next to the lockers, Jason springs and is at the door without time passing. I grab him. His eyes are different: older, focused, terrified. His jaw is tight. He whispers in my ear, “My father’s in there.”
I let him go.
October 2001, F Train: There’s a young woman seated next to the center doors. She is Russian. Maybe from Ukraine. She is alone as we rattle from Carroll Street to Borough Hall. A memory takes her and she begins to weep. An older man from the other end of the train gets out of his seat and walks towards hers. Without a word between them, he sits down next to her. She rests her head on his shoulder and sobs as he holds her hand.
Flannery’s Irish Bar on 14th and 7th the weekend after the attacks: It is the first time that the central members of my tribe have reassembled. Jim, who works in Lower Manhattan, is telling a story. He was standing at the window of his office, calmly explaining to his father — who had managed to get through on the phone — that he was okay. But that people kept jumping out of windows of the World Trade Center and “exploding like water balloons” on the pavement below.
Midnight, same night: I’m sitting at the bar with Mari, Jim and Banger. A crew of firemen from the pit trudges in, still wearing their helmets and gear. We give them our seats. I rest my hand on one of their shoulders and try to say thank you, but my throat is constricted. He looks at me and nods his head in understanding. I look around the bar and the patrons are crowding forward to touch the firefighters. I find that I am crying.
Accident and Substance Interwoven:
It’s December now and cold: I’m walking south on 7th to do my shopping. And, as I have for weeks, I wonder what should be done with the remains of tens of thousands of “Have You Seen” posters that are taped to every flat surface from here to Ground Zero. Someone has stopped and is staring at one which is ready to blow away in the next strong wind. He looks to me and says, “Should we take it down?”
I say, vacantly, lost, “I don’t know.”
The Asian man in the picture is smiling. It is a close crop of a group photograph. His arms are around two friends, out of frame.
After a moment, we part. The other pedestrian heads north. I continue south. When I retrace my steps home an hour later, that eight-and-a-half-by-eleven photocopied poster is gone, though the ones surrounding it remain. I hope that the other man had returned to remove it. I hope he has taken it home into his apartment where he will hold a silent service and burn it near candles. In the coming days, I notice that many of my neighbors have begun the slow, sacred action of removal. No one says when to begin. It is just time.
In the spring of 2006 I was back in New York for a few weeks and I screwed up the nerve to finally make the pilgrimage to the site. This may sound unusual to others, but for New Yorkers it is not uncommon to have avoided Ground Zero for a very long time. It took me months to even look at the skyline as I rounded the southeastern rim of Brooklyn on my commute home from work. Then, once I did, I felt the shame and physical pain of not remembering exactly where The Towers stood. That’s an emotional trauma known privately to many New Yorkers, I imagine.
The site is only a mile and a half south of my old neighborhood, so I walked. And it was a pilgrimage: slow, deliberate, ruminative. In ways, everything had changed. Mari and I had split. Banger had moved home to Iowa. Jason had graduated and was in the military. Jim got married. I’d left teaching and was living in Guatemala. The “missing” posters were gone, but for those preserved on a memorial wall at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
I walked south on 7th, which turned into Varick, which merged into West Broadway where the road veers more truly south revealing a canyoned sliver of emptiness some ten blocks on. The bad memories began to crowd out nearly everything else. Mostly the falling. Ten years later, and even though I was miles away from the site on September 11, I still sometimes have nightmares of bodies falling and exploding like water balloons on the streets below.
At Chambers I decided to detour to St. Paul’s Chapel between Broadway and Church. The chapel, located just east of the site of the World Trade Center, remarkably suffered no damage and served as a staging ground for first responders and the rescue workers who stayed on for weeks. Inside I read the stories on the memorial wall and then sat quietly in the front pew, running my fingers over the gouges left in the wood by the equipment of emergency workers who collapsed upon them in exhaustion and slept fitfully half a decade before. It was one of the few times I’d been inside a church since I’d worn my vestments and wingtips half a lifetime before.
I said a prayer.
After an hour or so in the chapel, I walked through the old churchyard cemetery. I tried to make out some names on the early 19th century headstones, but they’d been lost to time. At the western terminus of the yard, I looked up . . . and there it was, a whole field of improperly empty sky, just across the lane from Manhattan’s oldest graveyard.
I exited the south side of the cemetery and walked the half block west to the pit. I crossed Church Street and began slowly marking the perimeter, touching the fencing with my left hand like a child. I thought about my city and that day. I tried to imagine the noise. I tried to imagine the running crowds and orient myself to the images I’d seen over and over again on the television.
It was easy to spot the pilgrims. We were generally alone and mostly silent, lost in our own part of the whole. And there were the other New Yorkers, commuters who passed through this patch of land to get to the office or to find their way home. They seemed to quiet their footfalls and comport themselves with decency, as well. This stood in marked contrast to the tourists who bought trinkets and asked food cart vendors to snap a quick photo of them and their kids, smiling, in front of the site.
When a woman with a camera in hand started to approach, I decided it was time to leave, troubled that some people just don’t understand.
Now it’s ten years on and I find that I am still struggling to understand. I’m still chasing thoughts and wondering exactly what happened to New York and to the world and to my own soul on a sunny morning. Long ago, I became numb to hearing “everything changed on 9/11” and that’s probably for the best. Those who repeat that trope generally have other agendas.
But something did happen. Something did change and it is this: in New York, millions of us all at once looked inwardly and saw our substance. Above all other things we found concern for one another. We wanted nothing more than for every father in the world to be able to return home that night and hold his daughter until he squeezed all of his love into her. We wanted nothing more than for brothers, everywhere, to be afforded one more chance to see their best friends in the bar and say, from the bottom of their hearts, “Man, it’s good to see you,” and really mean it. We wanted nothing more than for every lover in the world to be able to look into her partner’s eyes and give that unspoken promise which turns today into tomorrow. Everywhere.
In as much, we discovered the victim’s gift: one can be wounded so gravely that the response is compassion.
Not rage. Compassion.
Remembering that, after all the horrors that have been perpetrated in our name, is an act of courage that should be shared when innocent, ignorant, beautiful children gather to chant and sing and celebrate death in our temple. Even his death.
At least that’s where my thoughts have taken me so far.
Auden and Aquinas have been with me along the path. Maybe if I write about September 11, 2001 again in ten years the sources will be Shakespeare and Cervantes. Tragedy is a fine and giving canvas. But for now, having found no final answers other than remembering, I’ll allow my masters to epilogue.
St. Thomas, scribing in a churchyard nearly a thousand years ago, deduced a precious truth:
“The things that we love tell us what we are.”
I like the way that feels, as in my city when it mattered most we loved one another.
Auden, for his part, sat in “one of the dives on Fifty-second Street, uncertain and afraid,” on the evening of September 1, 1939. News had just reached out to New York, as it would all over the world, that Germany had invaded Poland. Hearing that, the poet knew hell was coming to Earth for the second time in his life and he felt the most profound sadness. Yet, he looked around the bar, and into himself, and saw what we rediscovered sixty two years and ten days later. He saw his substance, and he saw the substance of his city, concluding with these words:
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Or Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Amen, brother. I’m trying.
Michael Tallon is an independent writer from Upstate New York who lives in Antigua, Guatemala. He is currently working on a nonfiction book detailing his experiences with a rare genetic disorder than nearly cost him his life in 2015. Follow him at Twitter.com/MichaelXTallon.