September 11th creeps in under my radar and punches me in the solar plexus every year. Fifteen years ago, on a crystal clear morning in Austin, TX, I was dressing for work when the phone rang: “Turn on your TV,” said my friend. Within seconds, my jaw froze, my chest tightened, and my eyes burned. Then I joined the millions who wept loudly, feeling that wind and smoke scrape our veins.
I lived in in NYC from 1985-1996, and I managed to hang my hat in four of the five boroughs in those 11 years.
So on 9/11, I had dozens of friends still living in the. While I knew that none were likely to be near the World Trade Center, but these were the days before social media. There was no immediate way to learn of their safety, read their accounts, or watch their hastily shot videos. Phone lines were jammed; there was nothing to do but watch and wait.
If you ever knew NYC before 9/11, either as a resident or visitor, maybe you went to the WTC. It really was something else. Maybe your ears popped on the elevator up to the observation deck and its rarified air. Maybe you took snapshots and were really quite disappointed in them because they just couldn’t capture the breadth of what you saw up there. Maybe you tried to patch them together into some kind of panorama in the days before iPhones would do that for you.
I did those things.
And back on solid ground (or so it felt in those days), I lay on the concrete plaza in between the two towers and stared up at these pillars so tall that I couldn’t quite make out where they ended and the sky began. A trick of perspective, they seemed to stretch into infinity. I remember feeling a bit of vertigo when I stood up. I felt really small, too.
It’s easy to feel small and overwhelmed in NYC, and that’s pretty much how I felt at the end of my 11 years. It takes a lot of energy just to walk through the world there. I was tired, and I had other things to do, other places to live that wouldn’t tax the soul quite so much.
But I also remember what it was like to feel enormous and invincible in NYC. I remember feeling that no place on earth was more replete with potential, like there was always a chance you could grab a little lightning in a bottle around any corner. You just needed to be in the right place at the right time, and every day was a happy search for that intersection.
I feel that same current of electricity today; I’m packing for NYC right now. It will be a too-short trip for some purposeful research for… a first novel (yes, I said it). I’ll see a few friends, but not nearly enough of them. I’ll be back in Austin too quickly.
Years ago, in a fit of pique, I threw away hundreds of photographs from my life in New York City. This is the only photo I have left that includes the WTC. I suspect it was shot from the Staten Island Ferry. I used to take the round-trip from lower Manhattan when I needed some perspective. It always worked, even on cloudy days, even on choppy water.