September 11, 2002: What a Difference a Year Makes

A bit to my surprise, September 11, 2002 turned out to be a rare and wonderful day for me. Here in New York we’re still surrounded by reminders of the attack: for example, various memorials as well as the locations where we witnessed the horrors of that day. I’d been a little phobic about facing some of these reminders, and this day allowed me to confront them in a ritual way and/or in the company of friends, and hopefully exorcise some of the ghosts.

After watching a bit of the coverage on the Today show [this brief look was almost the only September 11-related television I watched during the weeks around the anniversary; I had been studiously avoiding any unnecessary reminders of the attack], I made a point of getting off to an early start, retracing the same route as I did that fateful morning (as I do most days as a matter of course), taking the subway in from my Queens neighborhood to Union Square in Manhattan. Within the subway station there is a list, occupying several sections of wall, of all the victims of the WTC attack. I lit a candle there, as well as at the adjacent Transit Police station that has a memorial to its two fallen officers. A large number of policemen had gathered, obviously for some commemoration. I knew that one of the officers who died had been from my neighborhood; I asked about this, and was told it was Ray Suarez. I walked out of the subway station to the spot where I’d first seen the towers burning and looked to the south (which I’d seldom allowed myself to do)—today there was just empty blue sky. I walked down to the south end of Union Square. There were makeshift walls covered with sheets of colored paper on which I and numerous other people had written their thoughts over the previous few days, and people were beginning to gather. I lit a candle there and headed up to work. At the north end of the park, I saw a man looking at the sky just as I had a few minutes before, obviously picturing what he had seen a year ago. I again glanced to the south, then turned back and met his eyes.

At work, our large conference room was open for people who wanted to gather to commemorate 9-11. At 9:03 a.m. we had five minutes of silence. When that was over, five of us—including our personnel director and a grief counselor—were seated around the table and got to talking. The counselor asked us what we had done during the past year to take care of ourselves. This wasn’t hard for me, remembering all the efforts I had made to stay close to people in the weeks following the attack, by letter, e-mail, or personal contact, and all the journal writing I had done (and eventually the creation of a website that includes much of this writing, as well as astronomy writings and poetry). Then there was my attendance at the Listening to the City event, where 4000 New Yorkers looked at, and largely lambasted, the city’s six redevelopment plans for the WTC site. And the thing I’m most proud of, my discovery on February 10 of Comet SOHO C/2002 C4 on images from the SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) satellite that are posted to the Internet—perhaps the first comet ever discovered from New York City.

At 10:29 a.m. we gathered in the conference room on my floor for a moment of silence. We listened for the bells that were supposed to be tolling throughout the city, but didn’t hear anything. I looked through the conference room window, perhaps the same one through which I’d seen a single trade tower surrounded by a huge cloud of smoke. It turns out that some of my colleagues had seen one or both towers collapse from there. (A few who had come in early had heard Atta’s plane—which flew nearly over our building—and rushed into the conference room to see its collision with the North Tower or its immediate aftermath.)

During my lunch hour I took a walk, first through Union Square, where a crowd had gathered. A man handed me a flier about a march on Washington to oppose a war against Iraq. I took a look at him and realized he was a co-worker from about 15 years ago. After talking to him briefly I continued my walk through Washington Square Park, to the little garden outside the Jefferson Market Library. A strong wind had blown up, and blew dust in my eyes and mouth as I walked up Fifth Avenue after stopping in at the Forbes Gallery. I felt like I’d completed my exorcism of September 11; this was another day, a year later, but no planes were crashing into buildings today. When I got back to the office I sent out an e-mail to colleagues of mine around the world who had been thoughtful enough to reach out to me in the days after the attack. I mentioned how we were very slowly, but surely, on the mend, and there is a lot more optimism among New Yorkers now.

After work I went to a dream workshop I’ve been attending for a few months. First we had a meditation, ostensibly in commemoration of 9-11, though my mind hardly went there. Then a woman shared a dream, which she called the worst dream of her life. On Sept. 11, 2001, she had viewed the horror of the attack from below; the dream contained imagery that seemed to relate to this, but it turned out to be about something quite different. I had invited the people from the dream group to go with me afterward to Union Square, where I was sure there would be a candlelight vigil; only Liz, a woman whom I’d recently started to date, took up my offer. I showed her the spot where I’d seen the towers burning, then we visited the south end of the park. We lit a couple of candles to add to the large swath of candles already there; I was struck at what a difference a year makes, how last year everything was raw and the Union Square shrines seemed heartbreakingly beautiful (I could seldom walk through them without crying my eyes out), but this year the light seemed softer and much more peaceful—no doubt reflecting my own state of mind.

[I sent an e-mail containing much of what’s written above to various friends on September 12. It wasn’t until a few days later, when I reread the message, that it really hit me what an absolute fucking nightmare we’d been through for the past year here. A week later, though, it was wonderful to realize—now that the anticipation and dread of the anniversary had passed—that September 11 had pretty much dropped out of the news and life had returned to whatever passes for normalcy in this age. —written October 2, 2002)]

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