Recalling September 11th in New York, when my wife and I were only students.
My wife, Maria, and I were in New York City on September 11, 2001. We were both living in Columbia University housing, sharing a room the size of a suburban closet, a toilet the size of a Soviet car. While I was pursuing my MFA in writing, Maria was attending Mannes College of Music, studying violin performance.
We had only been married since 1999, and the period had been very difficult. Maria had suffered a sexual assault in the autumn of 2000, and it had shaken our marriage up horribly. What money we had saved from wedding gifts had long ago been spent on tuition and other expenses. I had several jobs: I tutored, taught ESL and transcribed all sorts of weird recordings for a Park Avenue shrink. That job kept me away from home between 10:00 PM and 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. The rest of the time I spent preparing for classes, and some nights I slept less than four hours.
I had lost about fifteen pounds since starting my graduate program. My wife, a tiny Ukrainian girl, had also lost a ridiculous amount of weight, so much that I feared she had developed an eating disorder.
But I didn’t talk about it—I didn’t know how. Besides, we never had very much food, so maybe it was natural. The best meals I ever got came when ESL students brought food to the school, demonstrations of their culture. The rest of the time, Maria and I subsisted on a diet of little more than bagels, sardines, cabbage and coffee. I stole noodles from my neighbors, with whom we shared a (roach-infested) kitchen. Maria stole food from the Westside Market. I occasionally went through the trash on each floor to collect 5-cent bottles, enough to buy bread or some fruit.
In short, we were hungry, exhausted, poor and delirious. Yes, we had both gotten into top schools and knew the opportunity was incredible. But we were under enormous stress.
On the fateful day, I had been sitting by our window and reading an assignment, drinking a cup of coffee. Soon enough, the sirens began. I had never imagined so many simultaneous sirens, so much honking and wailing, not even in New York. This was a rampart of sound drowning Broadway’s usual wall of noise. My first thought was, “That’s gotta be a fucking huge fire.”
My wife called and delivered the news. “Are you listening to the radio?” I told her to rush home; I would wait for her. At the time, I imagined more strikes were coming, and Maria and I decided it would be better for us in a place where calling for help would be easy (we did not have mobile phones), perhaps on the lowest level of a building. We went to Columbia’s student center to sit with several hundred people and watch the news, see the buildings collapse.
That night, Maria and I swore to never leave New York. We both felt like New Yorkers, the connection to the city stronger than to any place we had ever visited or lived in—indeed, it was impossible not to feel kinship with every leaf and lamppost, and since that time I have never felt so intensely connected, neither temporarily nor in nostalgia, to any place. The feeling only intensified in the days that followed, when not a single car drove on 7th Avenue, and when that smell started wafting up across Manhattan, all the way to my window in Morningside Heights. A vile reek: a billion wigs of human hair burnt in a fire of plastic, rubber and rust.
On Sept. 12th, Maria and I tried to get close to the scene, but most of the city had been blocked south of Canal. We were able to see the thick plumes rising above the Financial District; the two black clouds seemed poisonous and foreign. Even with them looming above, the mood was oddly calm—perhaps most of us were too stunned to get our heads around what had taken place. I certainly didn’t understand, not to the end, how large the wound was, and how many of them there were.
For many months after the attacks, the city continued to show open wounds, not only in the place where everything fell, but in every single subway station, along cyclone fences and on walls beneath scaffolding. Hundreds of wounds, messages to loved ones, letters pleading to strangers to contact Jennie or Simon if anyone knew or heard of Max or Shawna. They had been missing since the attacks, and the city was plastered with their faces, their names and telephone numbers.
I remember stumbling around Brooklyn with my friend, saxophone player Igor Lumpert, one cold afternoon in November. We found a dollar near the gutter, in a crack where it seemed the street cleaner’s brushes wouldn’t reach. The dollar had been burned in half, and Igor wondered, “Who would burn money?” We concluded that this dollar must have fallen from the Twin Towers, that it had burned partially in the terrible heat, but that this portion had survived to blow across the East River and land in a gutter.
Those were the kinds of stories we told.
Maria and I didn’t make it in New York. The trial wore us down, and we left the city after I took my degree. At the time, I was excited to go, and I believed we’d stand a better chance in Chicago. New York tested me in ways no place ever had, and I failed every test, unable to make any money, land any reasonable job or publish so much as an article. I knew I had failed and would live the rest of my life knowing it. Still, utterly exhausted, I couldn’t see any choice.
But these days, and especially today, I really long for New York. I am not nostalgic about it. I know how difficult life is in the city. But I also know, having worked in a community college now for a decade, how extraordinary it is to be able to walk into virtually any place in an entire city, from Washington Heights to Howard Beach, and find people reading, interested in current events and past histories.
During my travels, I’ve learned that people outside the United States are tired of hearing about September 11th. The world is sick of hearing most American rhetoric, as we’ve long ago become an empty barrel. Especially my friends from England complain that we Americans make a big deal of the event, that we need to learn to mourn sensibly. I agree very strongly that September 11th was an opportunity for America to lead, to unify the West, especially after the tremendous outpouring of support and love we received. We didn’t do well, and the whole world will be paying the price for generations.
But I want to take a moment today to remember all my friends from New York. Some of them are, like me, no longer living in the city. No matter where we are, we all shared a very important moment that day, and we continue to share it, as it shaped us for the rest of our lives. For some of us—and I mean people from all over the world, as New York is not just another American city—that day was the most traumatic we’ve experienced. For my wife and me, it seemed a culmination of traumas, an inexplicable hammer that came down on our heads. I was teaching immigrants at the time, some who’d come to New York exactly because they were trying to escape traumatic environments. Should they have been used to things? Full grown men, burly and tall, wept in my English lessons.
We cannot escape our nation’s politics, and it would be foolish, even irresponsible to ignore what we’re doing. At the same time, we have to remember each other. Yes, all Americans and everyone else shared that day, but those of us who remember that smell share particular affinity. New York is perhaps the only city in the world where one can become entirely of it, a New Yorker, completely welcome, your accent be damned, simply by moving in. To all of you, all of us—no matter if we’re in Astoria, Queens or Wellington, New Zealand—I extend a greeting of the most sincere remembrance, love and peace.
Photographs taken in New York on September 12th, 2001 by Gint Aras.