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Goodbye to All That

September 13, 2011

An essay by Jenny Lower

Tuesday, September 11, 2001, 7:30AM PST

I didn’t see any of my friends. At my Southern California Catholic girls’ high school, the campus seemed emptier than usual, the mood subdued. The North tower fell during the drive to school, as I turned from Lynn Road onto Janss a bare minute from campus, and now girls in green plaid skirts stood on the grass speaking in low voices. And then I remembered: I was in Campus Ministry, assigned that week to read prayer during morning announcements over the loudspeaker to the entire school.

Yesterday I had used Dreams Alive, a slim volume of prayers written by teenagers, full of uplifting musings on hope and friendship and loyalty, and in this moment I knew only that this pathetic collection was utterly useless to me. I headed for the lunch patio, sat at one of the tables and tore a sheet of college-ruled paper from my pre-calc notebook. I held a pencil and tried to give shape to what had happened. To write.

That would be the year I started taking writing seriously, spending evenings curled on the couch scrawling essays and poems in a green binder after finishing AP French homework or Jane Eyre passages. A year later during a college scholarship interview when I expressed a desire to write for a living, a professor asked what would keep me from giving up after, say, a year in the real world. I searched for how to explain.

“It is me,” I said simply.  I won the scholarship.

After first period, I made my way as usual to the front office. Our principal was already standing at the microphone. I stood in the hallway outside as she introduced the teacher who would lead us in prayer for the families of the victims and the terrorists themselves.

It never occurred to me that official representatives of the school might not wish to leave the perspective on this day in the hands of a 16 year-old girl.

I listened, folded my paper away into my notebook, and went to class.

Sunday, May 1, 2011, 11:30PM EST

I had come on a weekend recon mission to New York, to a hostel in East Williamsburg, the less fashionable edge of the artsy, hipster-ridden Brooklyn neighborhood, to find a place for myself. I wanted to walk New York, neighborhood by neighborhood, seeking a sense of belonging that would allow me to leave family, friends, an editing career, a state where, apart from a four-month study abroad stint in India, I had spent my entire life.

The Village Voice, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair: maybe they would cease to flicker like mirages on a dreamy horizon if I found a home base.  Yet I wondered if I could ever truly be a part of this city.  I imagined a permanent chasm:  the natives who survived September 11th, and everyone who came after.

The thing about a hostel in New York City is that no one there is actually from New York. I was sitting in the TV loft overhanging the kitchen, where teens and 20-somethings were making a late dinner, checking their Facebook pages, or murmuring in accented English, when Fox News ran the ticker — “Osama Bin Laden Dead” — and the stirrings began. Soon a cluster of residents from countries across the globe had gathered behind me upstairs, anticipating Obama’s speech: Finland, Spain, Germany, Korea. We switched to CNN and leaned in close.

Obama’s careful use of the first person at the critical moment disappointed me: “I directed,” “I determined.” And though part of me felt undeniably relieved, the thought of the U.S. government carrying out an execution order troubled me. I cringed at the final invocation of the Pledge of Allegiance: a benediction.

For a few moments, no one spoke. Finally, with a half-measure of dread, I turned around.

“What did you think?”

“Well, that was embarrassing,” Germany said.

“They should have held a trial,” Finland insisted. “Innocent until proven guilty, right?”

My head felt thick. The night I arrived in New York, my fifth cold in as many months had hit me. The square of skin under my nose had permanently chapped. I was planning to head back to my dorm room when the news appeared, and by now it was nearly midnight.  A box of Tylenol PM beckoned from the metal locker next to my bed. I longed to take one, hunker down under my thin polyester blanket, and fall asleep.

My hostel-mates’ words stung, but they also struck me as wildly optimistic. Despite my misgivings, I played devil’s advocate, arguing about the logistics of capturing bin Laden alive, let alone bringing him to trial. Where on the face of the earth could you find an impartial jury? And anyway, no one doubted bin Laden was behind the attacks. Hadn’t he taken credit, boasted? But Finland was adamant.

“Things are going to get bad for the U.S. in the Middle East,” he promised.

CNN’s camera panned a mob cheering outside the White House and I spoke aloud. “I wonder if anyone is at Times Square?”

Spain grabbed his smartphone and searched Twitter. “Not much happening here,” someone had tweeted moments ago, “but people are gathering at Ground Zero.”

I hoarded tissues and bundled into everything warm in my suitcase, then we plotted the 45-minute route from Morgan Avenue into Manhattan. By the time we switched from the L line to the E, college students were singing, and the guys had grabbed beers. But I tried to steel them and myself for Ground Zero. People there didn’t want to hear political debates tonight, I warned them. They were coming to remember and grieve: to light candles, lay flowers, stand vigil.

The first thing I saw when we emerged from the subway stairs at the World Trade Center stop was two guys hanging off the Church Street light pole. One of them sprayed a bottle of champagne at a cheering crowd. The other shook an enormous American flag.

Hundreds of people crammed into the square outside Ground Zero. Mostly young, they waved flags and hastily-made signs and snapped pictures on their iPhones. The noise was deafening. Among them roved professional news crews, guiding massive cameras on their shoulders; I even saw a local TV news anchor whose face I recognized from a subway ad. I pulled out my work-assigned Blackberry.

May 1 at 1:19am via Facebook Mobile: Singing the national anthem at ground zero. Pretty emotional. 

We made our way closer to the Church Street light post, soon to be rechristened “Win Street” by some kid with blue painter’s tape. Pressed up against my neighbors, I heard a petite brunette woman introduce herself as a correspondent for a British newspaper. She was interviewing a pseudo-intellectual type in a green army jacket and glasses who a few minutes before had been grandstanding about hope from atop the light pole. Dark circles shadowed her eyes, and she rolled them at something the guy said. I wondered what she had been doing earlier — relaxing with a boyfriend or husband, maybe having a glass of wine? Not planning on spending her evening here.

Finland determined to get himself interviewed. He left with Germany and Spain to track down a news camera, leaving me alone with Korea. I took slow, deep breaths of the cool night air, trying to head off a coughing fit. More and more people crowded into the square.

1:32am via Facebook Mobile: Starting to get pushy now.

Everywhere I turned, reporters were arriving on the scene with notepads, recorders, video cameras. I had nothing. No notebook, no recorder — not even the back of an envelope to scribble notes on.  My camera’s memory card was bloated with pictures of a high school friend’s wedding.

I was a paid writer these days — sort of. Four years I had spent weekends freelancing for a pittance at a local alternative weekly. But I worked the arts and culture beat — theater reviews, art previews. I wasn’t a news junkie. And I wasn’t on assignment tonight. I coughed, fighting an asthmatic spasm in my lungs as the mob launched into chants of “USA!”

Maybe I couldn’t work the crowd. But what kind of a journalist would just stand there, feigning patriotism and repressing ambivalence? At least I could use the one tool available to me: my Blackberry Facebook app.

1:51am via Facebook Mobile: A lot of young people in the crowd who are celebrating an ass kicking. Sign: osama: 0, obama: 1.

As I scrolled through my camera with one hand, ruthlessly deleting pictures, I updated my Facebook status with the other, switching my personal phone back and forth to text my sister. Behind me, a 30-something man in a baseball cap spoke reasonably to a TV crew, and Korea and I edged closer to him. Excuse me, I said. But I was wondering what you think of all this?

1:53am via Facebook Mobile: Quotes from the field: I’m not here to celebrate the death of a terrorist. A lot of people died here.

I felt a surge of appreciation, but his solemnity paled amid the Mardi Gras atmosphere. Bored with cheering, the crowd had turned to taunting.

1:54am via Facebook Mobile: Crowd’s singing nah nah nah nah nah nah nah, hey hey, goodbye

1:56am via Facebook Mobile: Sign: ding dong osama dead

A herd of college boys stood next to me. They looked like freshmen or sophomores. What do you think of the news? I asked one of them.

2:17am via Facebook Mobile:  Quotes from the field: it’s a fucking relief. Pardon the french but damn.

The mood was shifting. More and more people pushed into the square, but for those who had been there since the news broke, the pressure was mounting to up the ante. People were getting reckless.

The Church Street light post and traffic signal had been the focal point all night: a soapbox, a maypole, a stage. Blonde girls and drunk frat boys, military and intellectual types — anyone who wanted to carouse, to whip up the crowd, to feel part of something big managed to pull themselves up. Most climbed no farther than the square pedestrian walk sign.

2:18am via Facebook Mobile: Now some idiot is inching out above the street on a lightpole.

A tendril of toilet paper was billowing gently in the breeze from the traffic signal hanging over the street, and the kid was shimmying toward it. It was difficult going and he soon gave up, but not for long. He backed up, and instead of climbing out, climbed up: past the pedestrian sign, past the Church Street sign, till he was clinging the curved base of the streetlight shining down on the crowd. You could hear the exact moment when the high cheers below deepened into alarm.

2:22am via Facebook Mobile: Some idiot climbed to the very top of the lightpole and was confused the crowd didn’t cheer. The chant? Get back down!

The crowd underneath was dense, but not so dense he wouldn’t still break his neck, or someone else’s, if he fell. It didn’t matter, though. As he picked his way down, nearly a dozen more took his place.

2:24am via Facebook Mobile: 9 people on the lightpole. One of them is pretending to fly like superman while hanging over the street. If he dies will people keep partying?

I couldn’t watch. I put away my Blackberry. I started talking with Lawrence, a jazz saxophonist from the Upper East Side in his 50s or 60s. I told him about wanting to move here. He had been in New York for 9/11, most of his life in fact. Everything was different after that, he said. The mood of the whole city was down. It took a long time for things to pick back up again.

I get that, I said. The New Yorkers here tonight seem muted, reflective. Not like the rest of this crowd. So young — most of them weren’t even in the city when it happened. They were kids.

Lawrence gestured to the crowd. “Yeah, but to these kids. . . Osama bin Laden was the bogeyman.”

By 3 a.m., the crowd was thinning out. Korea and I looked for the others, but they had long since disappeared into the knot under the traffic signal. We gambled against the $50 cab fare and opted instead for a long, eerie subway ride home with the drunks. I finally fell into bed after 4 a.m.

I made my way back to Ground Zero around noon the next day. I needed a chance to mourn after the cacophony of last night. The blue painter’s tape was still plastered over the Church street sign. Someone was selling American flags for $3, and entrepreneurs had already silkscreened the day’s headlines onto t-shirts. It felt like every news outlet in the country had a team on the street. Police were shuttling crowds of people through the crosswalks, but most of them seemed to be milling about, looking for something to photograph.

On one stretch of the fence shielding the Ground Zero construction, passers-by had pinned front pages from the daily papers with their screaming banner headlines. The Star Ledger: “‘Justice has been done.’” The Daily News: “Rot in Hell!” The Post: “Got Him! Vengeance at last! U.S. nails the bastard.” Below them, a photoshopped image of the Statue of Liberty brandishing bin Laden’s bloodied head.

In front of the headlines, framed by the outline of the new Freedom Tower rising amid the dust, stood a kid silently holding a homemade sign — Brian Beckley, I would later learn, a jazz musician from Seattle. His sign bore a John Donne quotation, one of many that would soon go viral online: “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.”

I wandered over to St. Paul’s Chapel, across the street from where the World Trade Center Towers once stood.  St. Paul’s serves as an unofficial 9/11 memorial, a place where rescue workers and firefighters received care and encouragement during the raw early days after the attacks. Letters and cards of gratitude, and photos and mementos of the lost are still on display at impromptu altars.

My previous visits here had featured shuffling schoolchildren and chattering tourists on pilgrimage.

I craved stillness. I wondered how I could possibly provide a perspective on this new day, the ending of a story begun almost ten years earlier. Today, it was quiet. I picked up my Blackberry to update my status, but then I slipped it away into my purse.

The time for words would come later.


Jenny Lower is a writer and editor living in Ventura, California.

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