Reflections on 9/11
9/11 this year falls on a Tuesday for the first time since the day of infamy in 2001, 11 years ago. “7 come 11” the well-known dice roller’s prayer goes. My prayer is for no copycat to make 9/11/2012 infamous.
I reread my poem “That Tuesday Night,” which was published in the anthology AN EYE FOR AN EYE MAKES THE WHOLE WORLD BLIND: POETS ON 9/11, and thought about what has changed since 9/11/2001:
That Tuesday Night
That Tuesday night, after the towers
burned & fell down-
town, after watching them crumble—
unlike the one Paul Newman
saved in Towering Inferno—
from the plaza in front of Rosenthal
Library, after walking home
from the subway in the yellow
summer twilight, gagging
on the acrid air and looking
at the thick sooty column rising
downtown where the towers
had loomed Gargantuan on the skyline
for over three decades,
I went to wash my face,
as though cold water and soap
would wake me from this dream
of violence and violation,
and saw that man in the mirror,
red-rimmed eyes, yes, but
the same sagging sixty-five-
year-old skin, the same thinning,
graying hair above the same lined
forehead, and I knew that he
was lucky to have lived
to sixty-five—too young for WW II
, too old for Korea — Viet Nam
lucky to have lived his soft
American life without much fear
from abroad, except spotting airplanes
as a kid and catching a breath or two
as JFK stood down the Russians in ’62,
and in the glare of the bathroom light,
the sirens screaming just up the street
I knew nothing
could ever make me
For one thing, St. Vincent’s Hospital, which gave Edna Millay her middle name for having been born there, no longer exists. 16 stories high, the hospital gave up the ghost two years ago and is now being dismantled brick by brick to make way for a billionaire realtor’s 30 stories of luxury condos. There goes the neighborhood.
Worse, if a similar catastrophe occurred downtown, there’s no hospital nearby to treat victims as St. Vincent’s did. How will Villagers survive an infarct or a hemorrhage?
The view has changed. I can now look downtown from Greenwich Village and see the very high tower of a new building at the WTC site being clad in stainless steel. And I wonder who would feel comfortable working daily on the top 30 or 40 floors.
Periodically, police helicopters hover over the West Village. I wonder if they are up there because Code Red has been declared, or are they overhead just to remind us of the War on Terror and keep us scared, like the subway signs that warn us backpacks and shoulder bags might be searched at any time, like the soldiers in camouflage with German shepherds on leash who patrol Penn Station, like the announcements to say something if you see something . . . suspicious.
I end the poem wondering about ever feeling safe again. Actually, I didn’t feel safe before 9/11 and had warned Cheryl, now my wife, about the likelihood of a terrorist attack, most likely, I thought, in the subway. Though Cheryl and I never mentioned 9/11, it was likely factored into our motivation to marry on 5/15/2002, legalizing a long-committed relationship.
On the original 9/11, we were out of touch until that evening: I was at Queens College and she, I thought, was at her office in SoHo. Subway service was suspended and phones were down, so I remained on campus watching TV replay the scene some students and I had watched from the library plaza: the burning towers falling. When the trains began to run again in late afternoon, I returned to Manhattan and went to Cheryl’s apartment. My knock on the door woke her up. She had pulled an all-nighter at work and gone to bed at 8:45 AM, just before the first plane plowed into the towers. She still didn’t know what had happened. I told her to sit down and I turned on the TV so she could see for herself the live coverage of the devastation a mile away.
It’s been a few years since we rehearsed our plans for getting in touch if we happen to be at different places, and if we survive, during the next calamity. But I am probably no safer, just inured to our dangerous times.