in New York City do not talk about 9/11. What I mean is it doesn’t
pop up in casual conversation – like conversations I have had with
people who don’t live here.
example, last Thanksgiving in Connecticut, when a friend opened
the trunk of her car to remove something, she commented on the 12-pack
of water in her trunk, saying it was there in case of another 9/11.
No one I know in New York City has ever made or thought to make,
such a contingency based on that event.
Summer 2004, I was in the state of Ohio doing Presidential election
voter registration and canvassing. There were people there from
all over the country, Ohio being a battleground state. Invariably,
in the middle of a conversation with other out-of and in-state people,
the subject of 9/11 would arise until they learned that I was from
New York, and then nothing more would be said. I would not even
be asked about any associations I had with the event.
a while after 9/11 I, didn’t want to ride the subways, and took
the bus whenever I could. It was not that I was even concerned,
although I had heard it mentioned, that terrorists wanted to blow
up the system. I actually figured they wouldn’t do that becaue they
themselves might need to get around in New York, and it is the most
efficient and quickest way to travel. It was the sense of being
underground in a dark tunnel, unable to see anything. But I had
to take the subway to attend the funeral of a friend who died in
the second tower that was hit. The only way I could endure it was
that I knew I would be getting a ride back home.
my local fire station on the Upper East Side where I lived at the
time, nine men were killed at the World Trade Center. For months
there was a shrine outside the station house, with people adding
flowers and toys and candles on a daily basis.
the Union Square subway station on the East Side, there is also
a display of the men killed who were attached to the police precinct
at that station. It is the same at the Civil Court building in lower
New York City, “Ground Zero” is a major tourist site. On Wall Street,
near “Ground Zero”, where I am frequently, the New York Stock Exchange
erected a huge American flag on the side of its building which every
tourist seems to want to capture on film. Several times there are
two flak-jacketed police with automatic rifles standing outside
the Exchange, posing for pictures; I guess they are there to reassure
the tourists, because if anything ever went down, those two would
be of no use at all.
several subway stops, including my local stop far away from “Ground
Zero” in a very residential African descendant neighborhood in Brooklyn,
on some indeterminate schedule since 9/11, police will set up a
table, supposedly to inspect backpacks and large bags. I always
carry a large bag and/or back pack and would never submit to an
inspection. At my stop I have never seen anyone who has.
they first started doing it, right after the event, many people
would volunteer to be inspected. Of course this action was counter-intuitive
and counter-productive, but it seemed that people used this action
to prove themselves the “good guys”.
is not that 9/11 is not talked about in New York at all. There are
several organizations that have and are demanding wider and better
investigations into what happened. There is the 9/11 Truth Commission,
as well as others. But 9/11 is not a part of every day casual conversation
ever. It is not referenced casually.
year, eight years after the event, as every year since, the memorials
will go on, the naming of names; the display of the families who
lost members. But what the tourists inadvertently point out with
their souvenirs and picture-taking, is that 9/11 happened to all
of us: the fear, the assumption of security that was lost; the awareness
that since it happened it could happen again; that it did not just
happen to the families who lost someone
former friend of mine, no longer a friend at the time of the event,
becoming one again later, told me that she came to New York for
a month shortly after 9/11 in order to go to the site every single
day! She grew up in Massachusetts and has spent most of her life
some of her personal history, I began to understand what the attraction
was for her. She and I have a shared history as foster children.
She and I share therefore, a history of unarticulated and even inarticulate
trauma. But I understood that almost immediately after the event.
I went in search of answers as to how to deal with this trauma that
was literally excavated by the events of that day. They were difficult,
if not impossible, to come by.
solution proposed by the self-selected “America’s Mayor,” Giuliani,
to go shopping, would have been laughable if the situation was not
serious. In a city like New York, which probably has more therapists
than anywhere else on earth, there should have been some kind of
meaningful public healing.
foundation for which a friend of mine worked, offered a tape on
coping with disaster which was not useful. It talked about the symptoms,
never how to deal with it. In a similar vein, the University of
Virginia also put out an anthology, “Fear Itself”, which also did
not have coping solutions.
FEMA. That agency deserves all the opprobrium directed at it, although
maybe not for their handling of 9/11. On local TV, there was a
public service announcement for people wanting help coping with
the 9/11 event, understanding that it infected everyone, not only
those directly involved.
I called the number. I got three numbers to call, depending on my
zip code. One number never called back. One had no space, and another
didn’t know what I was talking about. I tried again, and this time
I wanted to know if Harlem Hospital had any services, figuring that
I wanted to be in an African American setting. So I went there.
They didn’t know what I was talking about in terms of FEMA services,
but they were willing, since I presented myself, to talk treatment.
It turned out that treatment was some pills. I was not suffering
from a deficiency of whatever the pills contained, but I took one,
got a terrific headache as a reward, and threw them away. On my
next appointment, the doctor was not in, I would have to see another,
and start all over again trying to explain why I was there. That
was it for me. I didn’t have the strength.
was talking to someone who worked as a counselor at a homeless shelter.
She was saying, and this was in 2005, that the women who came into
the shelter in recent years were different, edgier, more aggressive,
more difficult. I asked her was that since 9/11. She had never,
until asked, pinpointed when the change had happened.
11, 2001, was Primary Election Day in New York City, and I was working
in a campaign in East Harlem. The candidate, Felipe Luciano, who
has an activist history in New York as a former Young Lord and TV
personality, looked very good to be the winner that day against
an incumbent, except of course elections were rescheduled until
two weeks later. He lost. His loss, I think, was a direct result
of 9/11, voters unwilling to make any adjustments in their lives
they didn’t have to make.
of the workers in the campaign lived on the Lower East Side, near
Ground Zero. Getting home was tricky as his subway stop was closed
after a certain hour, so some of us would get in the campaign van
and take him home. None of us, no matter how many times we went
there, ever wanted to go to the “Ground Zero” site itself. We didn’t
want to see. We had seen enough. Up in Harlem that day, which is
on a rise, you could see the smoke which obscured the southern horizon.
need to go to the site; the need to see and be there, I contend
is a way of dealing with one’s personal traumas. I didn’t go because
I knew what had been unearthed. It didn’t help with the solution
– that would take a few years and some circuitous routes I never
New York Times in the months after 9/11, did a series of small vignettes
of those who lost their lives. The collection of vignettes has become
a coffee table book. In the library where I encountered the book
recently, I looked up the person I knew, (at least the one I knew
about immediately), who died in the second tower, after calling
her husband after the first plane hit, telling him she was all right.
I had just read the small story about her, without her name attached
to it, I would have never known who it was. It was so general; I
can’t even remember what it said. She was a good friend of a good
friend of mine; we knew each other well, years before we ever met.
Reading her profile and reading some of the others, I wondered what
other myths were being created.
the weeks and months after the event, there were many high alerts.
One afternoon, listening to the radio, I heard that new targets
were going to be supermarkets and banks. Later, I realized that
all it did was remind me that I had to go to the supermarket to
get something. Supermarkets being targets didn’t make any sense.
Banks as targets made a small symbolic sense.
the World Trade Center was a target (twice) made a political sense.
It was symbolic of what those who were angry were angry about. Terrorists’
gestures had mainly been large events with layered meanings. That
is why when the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed, the
stories that it might be Arab terrorists, didn’t compute. Oklahoma
City? Someone said to me that they might choose such a target because
it is in America’s heartland. I told her that “heartland” was internal
mythology without global meaning. No one would get it – and of course
it was inside terrorism.
story of 9/11 as played out in the media was a story of whites being
attacked by not whites; that not whites were “jealous of our freedoms”;
that they wanted to be like us. The fact that many of those killed
were all-over-the map ethnics was rarely shown.
World Trade Center, if you didn’t live downtown, (as most people
don’t) or work in one of the buildings or the area, did not have
an impact on your daily life. The year before I did have to go there
for an appointment and was told I had to bring ID with me. When
I got there I was surprised at the level of security in place. Not
only did you have to have ID; you had your picture taken and a badge
made and then the person with whom you had an appointment was called
to make sure you were expected. I think they even monitored the
elevators to make sure you got off on your intended floor. I surely
had not been up in the Towers in years.
1993 I had been there many times. I had a friend who worked at Windows
on the World, at the top of the building. That is how I learned
that the building purposely swayed on windy days. I had been to
meetings there. Externally, it was largely a tourist attraction
to the observation deck and the mall on the ground floor; otherwise,
the Twin Towers were just a part of the New York skyline.
2004 I also did some political canvassing on Staten Island, going
there on many Saturdays, taking the Ferry from the bottom tip of
Manhattan. On the Ferry the first time at least, one was acutely
aware of the missing buildings – the skyline had changed; but the
Ferry held another tragedy. The year before the Ferry had, I think,
its worse accident in its history, killing eleven people and injuring
many more, because of the inattention of a Ferry captain. So one
was aware of that as well; the refurbished accidental boat being
the one in service on many of those Saturdays.
shopping”; “Go back to normal”. There came a point shortly after
the event, when I could no longer hear that; could no longer stand
turning on the TV; could not hear another word about the event.
Most of it was not illuminating in ways that might help one cope.
shopping”. There are organizations (something like Shopoholics Anonymous),
for people who respond to the issues in their lives by shopping.
What was shopping for anything other than what was very necessary
going to do?
back to normal”. That was the worse response, the one that really
got me to turn off the TV. Going back to normal meant that one was
to act as if what happened never happened, the rationale being that
if you respond to a tragedy other than acting like it didn’t bother
you, you gave your enemy power. Huh?
then the Mayor, who was term-limited, wanted to be able to extend
his term in this election season. He wanted a mandate to do something
un-normal. He was given and gave himself points for doing his job
– a job I think could have been done so much better; and besides
the fact that he had placed the City’s Emergency Center in the World
Trade Center against the advice of those who would be responders.
on the streets were the pictures. They were called missing; everyone
said their loved one was missing. We said that about my friend as
well. A friend of mine who lived near Bellevue Hospital realized
that the medical centers would need help. He lived in midtown but
had a clear shot of the Towers from his balcony and got pictures
of the second hit. He described the people coming into the hospital
with pictures, going from hospital to hospital looking for their
people. It was he who first alerted me to the fact that although
the media was highlighting a certain kind of tragic figure and a
certain kind of first responder, that is not what he saw on the
over the City, especially in those places where tourists were likely
to be in large numbers, the police presence was increased. I guess
it was reassuring. The first major event that was not cancelled,
I think, was the Thanksgiving Day Parade sponsored by Macy’s. That
Thanksgiving holiday was my first trip out-of-town since the event
when I flew to Atlanta, graciously invited by friends who thought
I could use the break.
I had flown many times, and even liked flying, I had said I would
never fly again. A week before leaving there was a tragic plane
crash out of Kennedy Airport, which killed all on board. My hands
actually shook while listening to the news.
month after 9/11, on October 11th, was the funeral service for the
friend who died. That was the trip I had to take to Brooklyn. The
service in a synagogue was not only packed, they had to put speakers
outside for the overflow, and that was packed as well. Her oldest
son spoke eloquently about his mother. He was fourteen. One of the
things she talked about when I last saw her about two months before
the event, was the bar mitzvah of her oldest son which had taken
place a few months before and the bar mitzvah of the younger whose
would take place the following year. She was so proud that the bar
mitzvah for the younger son was all paid for; all arranged.
loved that she worked at the World Trade Center. We had met, a group
of us, celebrating the birthday of our mutual friend, in a park
near the Towers. I think the park was her idea. We played softball
and ate too much – drank some. At the end of the evening, after
dusk, when we could no longer see the ball, which indicated that
it was time to go home, we walked down to the World Trade Center
to get our various subways.
was so excited when we got to the building. I had taken the subways
from there many times, but I could not say for sure that I knew
my way around the place. She, 36 years old, actually skipped around
to show us where we had to go, this former social worker turned
year later while watching a memorial, looking for her name in the
list that scrolled on the TV, I found someone else I had known;
whose business card I had; who I had met the year before the event.
the memorials every year since, the local Pacifica community radio
station, WBAI, features a day of 9/11 programming. One year I heard
the recorded observations of a janitor that had been there that
day. That was interesting. He was good and articulate about his
observations, and I felt I knew him, because, in a past life I had
owned a janitorial business, and I understood how and the ways his
observations would make sense.
now I am wondering just how many years we will continue to invoke
this event as if it just happened, as if there is not grief timeline.
But I am looking at this as a citizen of the City. I am ignoring
for now, the political implications of its continued resurrection.
BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator Jessica Watson-Crosby is Chair
National Committee – Black Radical Congress and Co-Chair, Black
Radical Congress-New York. Click here
to contact Ms. Watson-Crosby.
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Bill Fletcher, Jr.
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