Over a dozen years ago I sat in our house in Staten Island on this day. Then my husband came home and wordlessly pulled me outside to show that Manhattan was on fire. He had been on the ferry when the planes came for the towers, leaving his seat to go outside and see the second plane hit. The boat attempted to dock and then ran back to our island. For the rest of the week we sat in our house on the borough, the last outlet of affordable suburbia within New York City, trapped there without our permission. Authorities had blocked off both bridges and pulled the ferry out of commission.
We spent that week staring, all of us on the island and on my block, awoken at every turn by the sound of cars racing and people reacting to any hint of sound. It was hard not to stare when the sky was filled with smoke. It was worse because you knew you were smelling dead bodies. A neighbor, a woman I barely knew, spent much of the week sitting outside her modest home and keening. Her firefighter husband had been killed when the towers fell and she did not know how to comfort herself or her children. We did not know how to comfort her either. We didn’t even know what to tell ourselves or where it would all lead us. The entire thing was almost beyond our imaginations. The two towers, the towers that every Staten Island slowly watched as the ferry docked, were no longer there. They would never be there for any islander ever again.
In the years since then, I have moved on. Like perhaps many, the incident made me defiant and angry. I remember the first time I went back into Manhattan two weeks after the day, emerging from a bus right into the sight of the ruined remains of one of the towers, the jarring cracks of metal a bizarre sight and an unexpected greeting. For weeks afterwards, we New Yorkers were all jumpy. Anthrax scares haunted the city. My husband’s office building was evacuated multiple times. I remember being near the Empire State building and imagining that it would be next. I taunted myself to go inside and then ran out again a minute later panting and frightened.
I have tried to think about the incident occasionally since then, the insane rumors that the Mossad and Israelis were behind it, the beams of light that would show up all evenings to mark the place where the towers had been over the skyline of New York City, the bizarre experience of watching Manhattan on television at every moment and then looking outside my window for the same view knowing the entire world was watching us. Every year it gets dimmer in people’s memory. I think this is a good thing. The incident was terrifying. It was twenty-five million in our region alone scared so deeply it left scars.
And yet today, that day and the lasting reaction to it in our city, was what New York City symbolizes and what it needs to symbolize. It was the ability to move on and still be the same. The memories will always haunt those of us who lived there that day, that week, that month. The listing of the dead in detail in the New York Times afterwards and the brief, pounding fear we all knew. And yet it does not define us or our city. They are building a new tower in place of the old ones. Like many New Yorkers, I may shudder when I see it, but I will still dare to walk in.