I was living in New York when the World Trade Center was attacked. I was home, about a quarter of a mile up the street, in bed with the flu. My boyfriend at the time called me and told me to quickly turn on the TV and under no circumstances to leave the apartment. He had just seen the first plane fly over his head and into the north tower.
I moved to New York when I was seventeen, in 1988; you could say I've spent the bulk of my adult life there. New York's libraries, neighborhoods, cultural events, and huge immigrant population gave me an education not always found in a classroom. I had my heart broken in front of The Chelsea Hotel; I lost my dignity in the Meat Packing District; I accepted an award at Radio City Music Hall; I was kissed into a state of bliss on the roof of the Ansonia. I can say “I love New York” and it means something very specific to me, something deep. The city itself, its streets, trees, sidewalks, and yes, buildings have not acted simply as a backdrop to my life, but have become an extension of my family, a witness to my experience, a piece of me.
So, when the Twin Towers went down, it was a brutal knife to the gut, a wartime amputation without anesthesia. For ten years, all we were left with was a hole in the ground. A hole where once we road elevators up one hundred and ten stories to peek at God’s vantage point and dance. That hole became sacred — filled with bones, photos, memories, and dead flowers. It’s about f-ing time they built the proper replacement.
Seriously. It’s outrageous how long it has taken to get the memorial and the new building up. Can you imagine your father dying and having to wait ten years for the headstone? That’s how it felt when year after year the buildings were re-designed, the lawsuits over rights were re-filed, and the contractors re-paid. Year after year we waited, gathering every September 11th to read the names of the dead and ring bells to remember their lives.
I remember when I first noticed the new tower going up. I was crossing West 14th street at Sixth Avenue. As I gazed out and up at the glass-covered structure still only halfway completed I heard the first gasp of optimism come out of me since September 10, 2001.
“Finally,” I said to no one, “finally.” I looked around at the masses of people walking by me, each casting a ten second glance at the same structure. I watched each one of those people have their own moment, with a sneaking suspicion that theirs were a lot like mine.
I’ve now lived in New York for 25 years: half pre-9/11, half after. This year New York taught me another lesson, this one about the cycles of life. When you least expect it, when it seems that things have become so dark you can’t imagine wanting to live in this crazy world any more, there will be a sudden re-birth. New life brings us a perspective we would have never had unless we first had to suffer the loss. In that moment, our existence becomes more precious, much more tender than the life we had before.
Although this hope is a blessing, I will never forget that a hole sat for ten years where now that building stands. I know this hole from the past will never be filled within myself, or any other New Yorker who witnessed the event, knew someone who died, or even just watched it on TV. I don’t see this as a bad thing. Sometimes a broken heart makes for a better lover. As those who live and love New Orleans know, pain when properly channeled can become determination. Suffering builds character and that character is what makes us who we are proud to be. To me, this is what it means to be an American: when faced with tragedy and devastating loss, we grieve, we stare at the big hole in the ground until we just can’t take it anymore, and then we do the only thing we can do: we re-build.