Thursday, September 11, 2008

Thoughts On 9/11

For once, this post has nothing to do with being transgender, LGBT rights, or anything related to those topics, or at least it didn't used to.

In 1980, I was 18 years old and living in Manhattan. That summer, I worked as a messenger for an insurance brokerage on Madison Avenue. My job was to collect insurance binders from the main office, run them downtown to the offices of major corporate insurance companies and obtain signatures, and then return the signed documents to the brokerage at the end of my daily runs.

My first stop of the day was always the World Trade Center. I'd arrive at the major hub subway station directly underneath the Twin Towers and head upstairs to where some of the offices I needed to visit were. I knew those buildings well, and I knew the folks who worked in them. I remember the first time I visited one of those offices on the 86th floor. As I was admitted past the receptionist and into the main area where the insurance writers worked to get my signatures, I was transfixed by the panorama of Manhattan revealed by the floor-to-ceiling windows which gave one the sense of being on a platform floating high above the city. I was hardly the only one who got that sensation, apparently, when one of the insurance writers walking by who noticed me staring out the windows that first day told me "Don't worry, you get used to it after a while.".

He was right. I did get used to it. Those offices and those amazing views of the city became commonplace for me after a while, as I learned all the shortcuts and people to talk to get me quickly to the places I needed to go to accomplish my daily tasks there. There were the receptionists who recognized me and would just wave me in rather than make me wait like others to be invited inside. There were the security guards and police officers who'd allow me the use of restricted stairwells and side doors to easily move from office to office and floor to floor. There were the ticket-takers at the observation deck who'd let me slip in without paying so I could eat my lunch comfortably looking out across the massive vista spread out before me. So many people who I knew by only a smile and a wave as we all went about our daily duties. I never thought, even for a moment, that the World Trade Center was anything more than a really cool place to spend part of my working day, or that all of those people I saw for just moments each day were transitory, that someday it and they could all be gone, just like that.

I know many people reading this have never lived in and around New York City and probably never even saw the World Trade Center in person while it existed. While not suggesting for a moment that one had to be a physical witness to this place in order to appreciate its loss, I nonetheless also believe that for those who did, for those who lived and worked in the area and especially for those of us who knew that place intimately, even for just a while, the tragedy of 9/11 carries an even greater sense of loss.

I remember when the Towers were completed and opened in the early 70's when I was just a child. It was always the very first feature of the Manhattan skyline that would come into view as you approached New York City by car from the south. As I grew into adulthood, it became a defining symbol of what New York was, surpassing the Empire State Building as the single most easily identified feature of the Manhattan skyline. When I moved back to New Jersey, it was still always there, even if I barely noticed it after a while, whenever I went into the city or passed by on my way elsewhere. It wasn't something I thought about or gave any more real consideration to more than any other landmark one might see. It just wasn't something you really paid attention to as a local, until one day those tall, shining towers just weren't there anymore.

I remember the day it happened like it was yesterday. I was sleeping when the phone rang. It was my mother, calling from work, telling me to get up and turn on the television. I did, saw the smoke streaming from the first tower, and just seconds later, I watched the second plane hit as it happened on live TV. It's an image that will be burned into my mind forever. Like the rest of America, I spent that afternoon glued to my television but even after all those hours of witnessing that horror on the small screen, it didn't seem quite real. At the time it happened, it felt like I was watching a spectacular Hollywood action movie. The reality of what had happened, the lives lost, the damage, all of it, didn't seem to be reality despite all the evidence to the contrary.

It wasn't until a week later, when my mother and went to visit my grandmother in Brooklyn and we drove down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway with a full view of downtown Manhattan, that it really sunk in. When I looked across the East River, where those towers had always completely dominated the landscape because of their close proximity, about as close as you can come to the site from the Brooklyn side without actually entering Manhattan, their absence was jarring. Buildings that had always been blocked from view from that angle were now clearly in view, parts of the sky which had always been blocked by the towers rising into the sky were visible. At first it seemed almost surreal, and then it seemed more real than I could have imagined.

A part of New York City, the place I was born and came of age in, the city I fell in love with and was not only my home but the place where I felt most at home and welcome as someone who was different than most as a punk rocker in black leather and bad attitude, was gone. More than simply part of the skyline, more than simply a place I had worked when I was younger, it felt like a significant part of my youth and my memory of that time had been stolen from me.

It's still as true for me to today as it was then. Even now as I approach Manhattan I can't help but notice that skyline and what's missing from it. And when I notice, I remember. I remember everything, not only about what the magnitude of the loss of those buildings and those people represent to me personally and to all of us as a nation, but also how fleeting life can be, and how something that I once thought simply a part of what my reality was, a symbol that defined a place I love, can so quickly and completely be taken away from me, and from all of us.

And when I remember, it still hurts.

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