Sunday, September 4, 2011

10 YEARS AFTER SEPTEMBER 11: STILL WADING THROUGH THE DEBRIS

To this day, there are nightmares. Terrible ones, from which I always awake with a violent jolt. At least a few times a month, I close my eyes, and I'm walking down Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan, which is where I was when I saw the second tower of the World Trade Center fall. Every time I walk by a building, it crumbles into a mass of rubble. After blocks of destruction, I wake up, relieved that it's only just a dream.

If only that had been the case when I continuously pinched myself on the morning of September 11, 2001, certain that the events that were unfolding before me had to be a very bad dream. It felt too much like a Bruce Willis action film not to be. Unfortunately, it was all too real.

I guess you could say I'm haunted, and I probably will be for the rest of my life. At least I'm no longer sleeping on the couch. That was my bed for years after witnessing the devastation of 9/11 from an unfortunate orchestra seat, not quite in front of center stage but close enough to see some of the action unfold. I lived close enough to Ground Zero to see both towers burning from the corner of University Place and 14th Street, several meters from my building, and the stench of burning debris permeated the air in my Union Square neighborhood for weeks afterwards.

For months afterwards, I slept in the living room with the TV on, usually turned to CNN. If something happened in the middle of the night, I wanted to be prepared. The light and the voices coming from the TV were comforting. I was not only afraid of the dark, but silence terrified me, too. Who knew what I'd hear outside if I listened too closely? At least the television might drown out the nightmare that seemed to be set on repeat in my head.

Too bad it didn't. And along with the dreams came paranoia. For several years, I couldn't get on a subway without wondering if I was sitting next to a suicide bomber. A number of times I made hasty exits when someone got on who didn't look quite right, was wearing too many layers on a hot summer day, or was mumbling to no one in particular. This is New York, I'd tell myself. This is what people do. But after 9/11, we all learned to be more vigilant.

For all of my nightmares and fears, leaving New York was never an option. If I ever harbored any thoughts of leaving New York City between 9/11 and when I moved to Buenos Aires in 2006, it had more to do with the reaction to the tragedy than to the tragedy itself.

My friend Dave used to say that 9/11 showed us the best and the worst in people. He was right. I was touched by the camaraderie, the we're-all-in-this-together spirit. I got to see that sense of community in action one more time two years later during the Northeast Blackout of 2003 that once again left New York City in a state of panic. I wasn't the only one who, for a brief moment, thought, "Here we go again." But when the initial hysteria settled down, people were once again pulling together.

Then there's the flip side, those who treated September 11 like it was tourist attraction, the climactic scene of a big summer blockbuster, one of those Bruce Willis things. The images of school children in far-off countries cheering for what the United States was going through was disturbing, but not quite as much as all of the people I saw outside my front door peddling portraits of the World Trade Center on fire and the deadly aftermath of the fallen towers. I wasn't sure what disgusted me most: that anyone would want to make a buck off of something so horrific, or that anyone would want a memento of it.

Today, one week short of 10 years later, all of the strong, conflicting emotions I felt that day have long since settled and been replaced by a kind of resilience and fortitude. I think that's what's gotten me through the tough times during my last five years living outside of the United States. Had 9/11 never happened, I don't know that I would have realized that I had what it took to leave everything I knew behind and venture solo out into the unknown.

No, I didn't leave the United States out of fear or disillusioned with the American way. No matter where my road leads, I will always feel most connected to New York City. But I had to go out and experience the world. Although I'd traveled extensively before 9/11, it took the tragedy of that day to drive home the fact that the United States is not the center of the universe. There's a big world out there, and I wanted to not only see it. I wanted to live in it, too.

I hate the idea of trivializing a momentous occasion by saying that everything happens for a reason. I can't think of any good reason to justify something as painful as 9/11, especially for anyone who lost loved ones in New York City, in the Pentagon Building in Arlington, Virginia, or on any of the four planes that were hijacked that day. But if there is any kind of positive spin to be put on it, I'm grateful that I was able to grow from the experience and learn something  valuable about humanity and human spirit -- my own and other people's. It's an ongoing lesson that I hope will continue to drive me, fearless, into the unknown, for the rest of my life.
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