Monday, September 11, 2006

Thoughts on 9/11

The day before I was born, a man scaled the face of the World Trade Center, tower 2. That event was captured on the front page of the next day's New York Times, a version of which was framed and on the wall of my bedroom from as early as I can remember until I left for college.

The first time I remember going to the top of the World Trade Center, we went with my mother's cousin who was a Port Authority Police officer. We went up in the freight elevator, which was almost as exciting as what awaited at the top. I got two souvenirs from that trip. The first was a brochure with a picture of the towers on them and the legend "The Closest Some of Us Will Get to Heaven." The other, I still have:

Some kids had pennants of their favorite baseball team in their rooms, I had a pennant of the World Trade Center.

We went back years later, before I entered high school. This time we had to wait in line, as our cousin had since retired. On the observation deck, I stared out at Manhattan, straining to see if I could make out my grandmother's house in the Bronx.

The last time I was at the top of the World Trade Center was in 1999. I had started work in IT for an investment bank, and we had several of our orientation sessions at Windows on the World, at the top of the South tower. For some reason I remember the details clearly, the pattern on the carpet, the layout of the rooms. During breaks I would press my face up against the glass and stare North, out at the city, still that kid staring out at the tops of buildings and trying to find that house in the Bronx.

When orientation was over, I ended up in a much smaller building in lower Manhattan, but I had a cubicle next to the window, and I could stare up right at the tops of the two towers. When I worked late, you could see the flashbulbs go off from people taking pictures of the nighttime cityscape, or just of each other.

During the short time I lived in New York, I spent a lot of time in the shadow of those towers. I often ate lunch in the World Trade Center Plaza when the weather was nice; it was a great place to people watch. I used to stand against the buildings and stare straight up at the latticework until I got vertigo. There was a mall under the complex with a Borders, a Warner Bros. Store, a place that sold Swiss Army knives, and a newsstand that would short-change you because "pennies don't count." The first Krispy Kreme I ever saw was in 5 WTC. It's funny what sticks with you. I remember in particular, passing this sculpture between my office and the towers. Like the figure itself, I was always compelled to check the items in his briefcase, knowing full well that they would never change.

Five years ago today, we had just moved to Cambridge. The moving van had come only days earlier, so I was still living out of boxes. I was out of work -- a victim of the tech bust -- and had an interview with a placement agency downtown that morning. I turned on the TV sometime between when the first and second planes hit. I hardly turned it off for the next three weeks. The future Mrs. sco had gone out to get car insurance, and was out of cell range when I tried to call her. I called my father after the towers fell, hysterical, trying to find out if he had heard about my uncle who sometimes worked jobs in lower Manhattan (he ended up walking to the Bronx from Midtown, like so many others that day). A friend of mine called, knowing that I had worked down there recently, to check up on me. I talked gibberish into the phone at him, and he dropped everything and came over from work. I missed my interview, of course. I later found out that the building had been evacuated.

I've been wanting to write this for some time now, but how can you mourn a pair of buildings when so many living people died that day? Is five years long enough to wait? I sometimes think about the people in those buildings -- the office workers, conference goes, bathroom attendants -- just going about their business and suddenly the world ends.

I've been back to Manhattan dozens of times in the past five years, but I've never gone down to Ground Zero. I think it's because I want to preserve the place in my memory without seeing what it turned into. It's like remembering a friend for what he was like in life, and not what he was like on his deathbed. I suppose this post is my way of doing just that, an overdue requiem for the buildings I always felt a connection to.