Perspective on 9/11

In 2001, I was living on Pacific Street in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, and often wrote for a Tribune company newspaper in Fort Lauderdale called City Link. After 9/11, they asked me to write an essay about the event, which I wrote in the days following the tragedy. Then, they asked for a follow-up essay for the one-year anniversary. On this, the 10th anniversary, I just looked back at both, and found that reading one after the other chronologically offered an interesting perspective on that day. Here they are, in chronological order.

 

An Unbelievable View (published September 19, 2001)

On the morning of the attack, our writer in New York looked out on a city that would never be the same

by Larry Getlen

 

From the roof of my five-story walkup in Brooklyn, less than a mile from the East River, I saw the dense black smoke creeping like a sheet of moss up the walls of the twin towers. Ignited jet fuel billowed from the majestic glass and steel structures, creating a harrowing inkblot on the New York City skyline – a skyline that, moments later, would be horrendously altered.

People the world over share our grief right now, as so many have lost friends and loved ones in this unbearable atrocity. But for those of us in or near Manhattan, an area so compact that almost everyone here viewed some portion of the tragedy live, the memory burns a little deeper.

After the first tower fell, the crystal clear vision of towers teeming with smoke had been replaced by a dense sheet of ashen gray. I was running from roof to apartment and back, absorbing news and sights, trying to make sense of it all. Returning to the roof at one point, a neighbor got breaking news on the phone.

“The second tower just went down!” he yelled.

In my haze, I either didn’t hear, or couldn’t comprehend, the word “second.”

“Yeah,” I said. “The tower went down about 20 minutes ago.”

“No. The second tower.”

Now I got it. Standing what seemed like mere feet from two of the tallest buildings in the world, separated by an impenetrable wall of smoke, I needed my neighbor to tell me that one of them was not, as I thought, directly in front of me.

Anxious to be around people, I walked along Court Street, just blocks from Brooklyn Borough Hall. People wore paper masks or covered their faces with small towels. Debris resembling large snowflakes fell all around us. A man carried a piece of paper, possibly a magazine page, its border charred throughout. An oddly generic burning smell engulfed us as if coming from down the block. For its texture, it could have been a tire fire.

A suited man in his 20s, carrying a briefcase, strode down the street blanketed in soot and ash, his eyes intense and unblinking. His hair was dark gray around the edges from debris – a gray distinctively darker than the gray of age, a gray built of particles, soot, dirt and remains.

At my friend Kenny’s apartment, I called my mother, who lives in Weston (FL). She told me that our cousin Lenore worked at one of the Towers, and they hadn’t heard from her.

Kenny and I walked along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which borders the East River and has a glorious view of New York’s skyline. Hordes of people stared, almost half of them with cameras, all taking the same exact photo of a dense cloud of smoke.

We stopped at a grocery store, and a twenty-something with an expensive camera consoled a friend who was bitching about the price of film. “Dude! You’re gonna make $10,000 with these pictures.”

He was, of course, an idiot. The real moneymaking shots – two planes merging into buildings like keys into locks; people who minutes earlier were making coffee and checking e-mail despondently leaping to their deaths; fireballs and rubble that would decimate a symbol and destroy the security of a nation – had already been taken and filed.

Moments later, this vile, loud-mouthed douche latched his hooks into a cute blond woman. “You can’t let this get you down,” he said loudly. “It’s OK to mourn, but you have to move on. Enjoy your life. Do something beautiful today.”

Kenny and I cringed. Move on? Do something beautiful today? It just happened! Survivors and fatalities alike, my cousin possibly among them, were trapped in rubble, praying for life. And he’s ready to move on?

Minutes later, he directed his wisdom toward me. “We can’t be upset…Do something beautiful today.” Can’t be upset? Right. I’m not usually a confrontational guy, but this was not your average day.

“Hey shithead, I have a cousin who works in that building who may be dead, so shut the fuck up. Go make money with your camera. Asshole.” I then told him in no uncertain terms to go inside, and he took my advice. Kenny and I shared our only laugh of the day.

Back at Kenny’s apartment, I spoke to my aunt, who told me that Lenore hadn’t gone to work, a coincidence I would hear repeated throughout the day. We discussed the odor and debris that permeated the city, and my aunt, a typical Brooklynite, blurted out, “People here are skeeved out, thinking the ashes are people’s bodies.”

Later on, near my apartment, I noticed a woman with a piece of paper similar to the one I’d seen earlier – charred around the edges, solid in the middle. She said it was debris from the explosion that had floated into our neighborhood.

I returned to my apartment around 5:00, drained and weary. A charred odor filled my living room. I breathed it in, wondering if the remains of victims now permeated my lungs.

Back on the roof, I looked at the spot where the towers had been. The dark gray smoke had proven fertile and blossomed, enveloping half the sky, but remarkable in its stillness. I saw a piece of paper, about 4” x 6”, charred around the edges and slightly browned in the center, in the corner of the roof. It looked 20 years old.

It seemed to be some sort of guideline for fabrics.

“Of wool or fine animal hair (459)”

“Of synthetic fibers (659)”

“Of artificial fibers (659)”

Questions raced through my mind. Who’s was this? What did he or she do for a living? Might I one day find myself in conversation with them about the nature of natural vs. synthetic fibers? Or was that knowledge buried under a pile of rubble, crushed under tons of steel and glass, or incinerated by the flame ignited by a jet deliberately full with fuel?

I have inserted the piece of paper into protective plastic. I will either put it on my wall, or in a book. I’m not sure why – I don’t think I’ll need a reminder of this day. Of all my memories, this one surely will not fade.

Maybe it’s my way of paying homage to the victims. Maybe it’s my way of saying that no matter what abominations are committed upon this country, no matter how heinous our experiences at the hands of people dedicated to our destruction, I will not let them stop me from living my life.

And maybe, just maybe, memorializing one of the victims of this tragedy is my way of doing something beautiful today.

 

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My City of Ruins (Published September 11, 2002)

New York’s resistance to change may be the key to its survival. It certainly is to mine.

By Larry Getlen

 

When City Link asked me, the magazine’s resident New Yorker, to write about the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks from a New Yorker’s perspective, I knew it would be my most emotionally challenging assignment since the piece I wrote last year about the attacks themselves.

There are countless reasons for this – most of them obvious – but perhaps the most prominent reason is that ultimately, I don’t feel qualified. And I mean that not as a writer, but as a person.

How can I possibly hope to encapsulate and represent the thoughts, feelings, fears, resentments, and even hopes of eight million New Yorkers in response to the most horrific event of our time?

Because as any New Yorker knows, asking one person to represent New York is as ridiculous as assuming that the concept of “a New Yorker” represents a solitary breed. What makes this city magical is that it is not one city, but many. Williamsburg hipsters wouldn’t be caught dead on the Upper East Side. The Puerto Rican stores of my neighborhood have no symmetry with the French bistros popping up right across the street from them. And Coney Island remains a rare vision of New York’s past, an area less connected to modern-day New York than to black and white movies, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Bowery Boys.

Plus, while everyone in New York suffered on September 11, no matter how unifying the experience was, anyone who lost someone in the towers suffered on a level that those of us who didn’t – including those of us who were here, seemingly inches away, watching the buildings burn and crumble – cannot possibly comprehend. For us, the events of September 11 represent losses on a far more abstract plane – a loss of innocence and invulnerability, a loss of what little faith in the goodness of mankind and freedom from existential fear we might have had left, a loss of the world’s greatest skyline. But those losses are as grand as notions of heaven, and ultimately, as difficult to grasp and define.

What one sees on the outside, at brunch with friends and at holidays with loved ones, on the faces of passing strangers and in snippets of cell phone conversations gleaned while buying the morning coffee, is a city that has gotten on with its life. On any given day this summer, Times Square was a creeping cattle car of tourists. Subway platforms radiated unbearable heat, and sweat was the great equalizer, drenching rich and poor, lawyer and poet alike. Thousands of people packed every inch of the Bryant Park lawn every Monday night, leaving nary a visible blade of grass as movies like “Young Frankenstein” and “The Grapes of Wrath” unspooled free of charge to the delight of all, planes soaring virtually unnoticed overhead.

And just as enjoyment and leisure maintain, so too do discourtesy and greed. At Ground Zero, tourists and residents congregate at the viewing stands daily, straining to see the infamous footprint, the ghost and shadow of architectural awe and dashed dreams. Meanwhile, directly across the street, exploitive merchants sell what seems to be the same book published under two different titles – “Day of Tragedy” and “Day of Terror.” The books feature the same pictures of the towers burning, which, by now, are as familiar as the image of Armstrong’s moon landing or the photo of the Hindenburg crashing. I recently saw a young woman even smile for a photo with the wreckage in the background, as if she were on Waikiki Beach, or standing before the Eiffel Tower.

But these observations belie insight, for they are not truth, but projection and façade, images of functionality that may be fiction or docudrama but, either way, broadcast the illusion of perseverance. Actual strength or failure of will and character in the face of challenge and adversity is internal. Therefore, the only experience I can truly relate, on behalf of my fellow New Yorkers, is my own. And when I think of September 11 and what I wish – no, need – to reveal, one emotion stands out: guilt.

Like the rest of the world, I first watched the towers burn on CNN. I soon realized, however, how that was the equivalent of watching a boxing match on TV while sitting ringside, and ran to my roof to watch the horror in visceral 3-D, without the aid of satellites and electricity.

Later on, I deduced that since the towers could be prominently viewed from my rooftop, they must have been visible from my street, had I ever glanced skyward.

“Must have been,” I write, because I never noticed.

That’s because the Twin Towers, in the eight months between my return to New York after an eight-year absence and their tragic collapse, were a peripheral ornament to me, meshing with the trees and utility poles and clouds that followed me in my travels. I had made my way through New York life every day for almost a year on that street with the towers prominent for all who chose to enjoy the view, and yet as hard as I try or wish, I will never remember looking up on my way to the subway, or to buy groceries, or to workout, and using the towers as my marker, their sheer voluminousness practically daring you to notice anything else. The towers were one of New York’s greatest pleasures, and while we’re all deprived of them now, I’ve been stripped of their memory thanks to my own obliviousness and complacency, my own absorption in life’s minutia, my own failure to stop, just once, and smell the proverbial roses.

Which is exactly the sort of myopic malaise that supposedly evaporated in the wake of September 11, right? Our uncanny ability to take life for granted and our failure to appreciate the wonders of life and how lucky we are to be alive in the United States of America crumbled with the towers, with the event representing a new awakening, an era of outward concerns. Isn’t that’s what everyone said – that none of us would ever be the same?

Well, here’s how September 11 ultimately changed me.

In the article I wrote for this magazine the day after the attack, I told of a piece of debris, most likely a page from an instructional manual of some sort, that floated for two miles or so along the airborne wreckage from the World Trade Center to the roof of my apartment building. I wrote of how I preserved the charred page in plastic and intended to frame it, place it in an album, or in some other way use it to pay tribute to those who were taken from us.

Well, want to know what I eventually did with that piece of debris, preserved in plastic with such care and reverence?

Nothing.

It sat atop my desk for months, often in the midst of other papers, tapes, CDs and Post-it notes. Initially, I always made sure that it remained on top, never covered or buried. Eventually, though, it got mixed in with the rest of my papers, with articles I pulled off the Internet or correspondence from clients. When I would notice this, guilt would set in, so I would place the page back on the top of the pile.

The charred page floated from disheveled spot to disheveled spot around my office and finally settled in a closet, reclining comfortably on a rarely-used camera bag. It never saw a frame or an album – and it couldn’t possibly have happened any other way.

You see, I’m a pack rat. The kindest description ever applied to my apartment – in fact, to any apartment I’ve ever lived in – is that it looks like a writer’s apartment. Throughout my life, I’ve always had way more papers, books, CDs, and general crap than any apartment should ever contain, and my organizational systems are always wholly inadequate for the task. So invariably, piles of notes, receipts, and magazines create worlds of their own, rendering every place I’ve ever lived seemingly one file cabinet short or one storage room too small. That’s how it has been since I was a teen, and now that I’m far beyond those years, I have long since accepted that like it or not, that’s how I’ll always be.

My pledge to put the World Trade Center debris in a frame or album was made with good intentions – you know, that thing the road to hell is paved with – but truth be told, I’ve never framed or albumed anything in my life. My high school diploma? Not sure where it is. Probably in a file somewhere. Pictures of my young nieces, whom I love dearly? Loose in a drawer. The original copy of my first article for Esquire Magazine? Sitting in a gym bag, at the moment, except for the rare days when I actually make it to the gym, at which time the article (and many other important documents) get placed on my bed, and then returned to the bag upon my return.

So what ultimately happened with that charred page from the World Trade Center is that, much like the tragedy itself, it was slowly integrated into the fabric of my life.

George Carlin does a great routine where he says that non-biodegradable plastic won’t destroy the environment as some fear, but that the Earth will eventually adapt into a new organism called “Earth plus plastic.” And so it is with my World Trade Center debris, and so it is, I believe – if we’re being truly honest with ourselves when not providing the media with solemn sound bites – with New Yorkers and September 11. We have adapted, and we have integrated.

A New York-based comic named Jonathan Corbett makes the case for why September 11 should not become a national holiday. His reasoning is that it will eventually become just like other American holidays – treated with solemnity for a few years before becoming an excuse for lazy days off work and barbecues, with MTV promoting their “What’s the 9-1-1 weekend,” and T.G.I. Friday’s imploring customers to “come on down to Ground Beero!”

The routine is funny because of the truth it speaks in asserting how solemnity often fails to endure, even in a case this extreme, and in the process states a truth that few of us want to admit. But what’s unsaid here is that that failure of reverence may not be a bad thing.

For what it really says about our city, and our country, is that we adapt, and in integrating the horrendous, can remove some of its power to dictate terms. And yes, oftentimes we trivialize in the process – we’re certainly not perfect, and who’s to say where balance lies – but still, that may be a better alternative than being ruled and driven by constant enmity and fear.

September 11 has not, as the media would have us believe, changed us all. In fact – excluding those who suffered direct and personal losses in the tragedy – I’d say that as individuals, September 11 didn’t really change any of us. Those who were thoughtless cretins before the tragedy remain so, and those who were kind of heart retained that wonderful quality. We are still, and will always remain, the same people we have always been. Only now, September 11 is, and will forever be, a part of us.

 

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