September 11th Remembered

[Retrospective essay by Adrian Brijbassi published in the Sept. 10, 2002 issue of “The Record”]

I had to get to Manhattan, for my own good. On the second Saturday with the sky heavy with haze and smelling acrid, I found the nerve to do it, despite the rumors and warnings and the paranoia that had attached itself to me like a straitjacket. To get there I had to take a train. No unnecessary cars were being allowed over the bridges or through the tunnels. The Long Island Rail Road it was then, and I boarded unable to shake the thought that a commuter train was an obvious target and that this particular line was already notorious because a gunman had opened fire on one of its cars seven years earlier.

Nervousness was a carry-on for everyone. People with tired eyes came aboard clutching hands of companions. Young men sauntered through the doors as if it was nothing, but before long their eyes would skitter, betraying their cool facades. Conductors with swivelling heads walked the aisles, punching tickets and peering at faces. The anxiety was understandable and expected. This was Sept. 22 and this train ride to Penn Station, which had been routine 12 days earlier, was no easy trek.

For me, it took some willpower and some convincing from my wife. We had to see it, she said. We had to get out of the house and away from the TV. Before I knew it, I had found myself holding my breath as the train passed under the East River tunnel and pulled into midtown Manhattan. Yes, I was scared of another attack, but the trepidation I had about entering the heart of New York City for the first time since Sept. 11 was also due to my feelings of trespass and misconduct that were twofold. First, I’m not from New York and I felt I didn’t belong there then, mourning the loss of life and stepping into the poignant moments of a community not my own. Second, and most importantly, I thought it was too soon for this journey. People who are traumatized, I understand now, have a need to stay in the moment that caused their trauma. It’s the mind’s way of buying time to cope with the severe, to reason out an explanation for it. In the first few days after the attacks, I could hardly eat. Sleep was also a problem, because of the need to stay informed and because of the patrolling fighter jets overhead. And I couldn’t write. I was too numb.

Riding into New York, when I clearly needed to get my mind off of it, wasn’t the best course of action, I said in frustration, and I reiterated that once we departed the train to the sight of rifle-bearing military officers and little else. Penn Station, where walking a straight line is usually impossible because of the obstacles of travellers and their belongings, was as desolate as could be.

Outside, the surrounding streets were also quiet. Our intended destination wasn’t the site of the destroyed World Trade Center, but that’s where we ended up after unexpectedly running into a friend who convinced us to join him on the long walk down. Grey soot sat on the face of buildings blocks away, deep, haphazard crevices slashed into the streets as if a runaway train had made them, firefighters sloughed, looking troubled by the task and bothered by all the onlookers. I wanted to leave, but I stayed to watch, for no other reason than I felt it was good to see this. I’m not sure if it was or not. Someday, I might understand it better.

After several tearful, uncomfortable moments, we began a sombre walk back uptown, to Union Square Park, a meeting place just north of Greenwich Village that had turned into a memorial and rally for peace. This was where my wife and I had been headed in the first place. To get there, we went through SoHo in mid-afternoon. Restaurants weren’t crowded, but they were open and people were eating and relaxing. At the bars, TVs were on and I caught glimpses of the news when I could. Smiling pedestrians shopped and made easy conversation outside of music and clothing stores. Jealous, I wondered how they could be so frivolous as to laugh.

Those who congregated at Union Square had it right, at least for my liking. All of us were dour, sighing heavily, stepping gingerly around candles and makeshift memorials filled with messages of hope and condolence from around the world, showing our teeth only when we squinted and grimaced to read the sunlit posters above that urged unity. Television crews stood idly beside their vans, possibly waiting for a celebrity appearance (Bill Clinton had walked into the square unannounced earlier in the week). At some point, a man showed up and began shouting that the attacks had been a conspiracy plot. A crowd gathered around him, some listening as if he made sense. A detractor emerged prompting a vehement argument, and we decided it was time to leave.

A few blocks to the north, an armory was covered with photographs of the missing, placed by loved ones who carried hope that the words “rescue search” could indelibly apply. Most of these pictures were taped on 8.5-by-11.5-inch white paper with the names in bold lettering. Critical data about the missing (where they worked, what they were wearing, different monickers they might respond to) and pleas for information leading to their return were underneath the names. The faces started from the base of the brick wall and rose to about seven feet, wending around the corners of the block-long building, along with candles and roses and poems. Every now and then, a gust of wind would cause the papers to ripple as if they were being shuffled and candles would blow out.

None of the people were found, of course, and the pictures are gone. The latest death toll from the World Trade Center stands at 2,807, including 24 Canadians. Another 189 died at the Pentagon and 44 more perished in the field in Pennsylvania. Just the thought of that amount of life being expunged in a span of minutes is numbing.

On returning to Penn Station, I spotted a Canadian flag placed beside an American one on a memorial billboard outside the waiting area. A thoughtful message from Winnipeg was scrawled in proximity to the flags. Oddly, I felt no patriotic pride. The Maple Leaf did nothing for me. This was no time for jingoism and maybe that’s why I hadn’t missed home or had many thoughts about what might be happening in Toronto or Ottawa or Kitchener, where I grew up. I realized, though, that I was also identifying with a different place at the moment. For the first time, I felt I was a New Yorker. I had just spent an entire day immersed in grieving with the city. Nevermind that I’ve always had ambivalent feelings for the Big Apple and that I actually live 35 miles away from its centre. The place obviously had my heart. It must have grown on me in the five years I had lived near it and a catastrophe had made me aware of just how much. There are worse places to call home, I figured.

Turns out that those feelings were shortlived. I’m Canadian and even if I didn’t want to be, I understand we can’t change where we’re from. However, what matters about my feelings for New York on that day are not that they were ephemereal, but that they existed and they were original ones at a time when I needed to feel something new and progressive. In this moment, I saw the true worth of making the journey, of breaking out of what had been an enervating existence since Sept. 11. Despite the sorrow all around, the horror of seeing the Twin Towers in rubble and the binding insecurities I was carrying, I was glad I had come.

We boarded the train back to our Long Island home. On the slow ride away from New York, I thought of what I had seen and felt, knowing then that I would always remember a number of details of the day. After all, it’s because of this trip that I could shake off malaise and anxiety, and begin living again.

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