In September of 2001 I was living in the West Village of Manhattan, working from my home for a tech start-up. CNN, still for a time the number 1 cable news channel, was whispering to me from the cramped living room of my two-bedroom apartment that had window air-conditioning units and a dead but somehow still elusive and worse-smelling-by-the-day mouse.
Something on the TV signaled real breaking news rather than the usual fare. I turned up the volume. The North Tower was smoking from way up high. The anchors scrambled to find an eyewitness to the incident. What a spectacle, I thought.
I was barely a mile north of the World Trade Center, a straight shot down Varick. Screw it. Flip-flops, sunglasses and I was out the door for a closer look. Maybe I'd see a freakishly long FDNY ladder, a helicopter that sprayed water like a circus elephant. A few people might be a bit hurt. But no deaths. No way. I stopped in a market and bought a disposable camera. That was my unterrorized mind still thinking.
I re-emerged on the avenue heading south. It looked like the other tower was smoking too. The streets were filling up, most people moving south with me.
Pretty women leaned out of windows of third floor walk-ups, looking out to the high-rise fire as if it was the Allied army marching to free occupied Paris. It made me feel nostalgic, part of something fun. Maybe something historic. I snapped a few pictures of the women sitting in the window sills, heads at a quarter turn, looking up and away to the smoke. Beautiful pictures. It was a stunning, cloAudless September morning.
Now I could hear news coming from radios turned up loud in parked cars, men in the drivers' seats with doors open, one leg in, one leg out. Getting news from a car radio like we were living in the 1970's.
Something had happened in DC. The Pentagon. Another plane strike. This was all coordinated. It was an attack. Maybe more planes to come, missiles, an armed force, an invasion. Who knew what was next. Fascinating, I thought, processing almost nothing. I walked farther south. My unterrorized mind.
I took more pictures. Lots of blue sky streaked with smoke, tall buildings. Motionless birds gliding above us. Dozens of faces of different shapes and colors clustered together, all looking in the same direction like boats on moorings all pointed into the wind.
I made it to about Chambers Street when the South Tower dropped. It fell in slow motion, noiselessly in my memory. I stared in awe. I snapped three pictures. It all crumbled into the earth and exploded back up in an eruptive force that was incongruous with the apparent slowness of the fall.
Chaos erupted. Screaming, arms waving, fingers pointing, eyes wide and dilated with fear but minds still processing little until emergency officials yelled to people to get the hell out of there. White, grey and black debris moved toward us, already high above us and rolling forward, laying down ash like an avalanche.
I ran north, scared for the first time. I lost a flip-flop but didn't consider stopping. I kicked off the other because just the one was slowing me down. I made it back to Washington Square Park, barefoot and dazed, eventually found my roommate and his girlfriend who were buying gallons of water.
We went to the Knickerbocker, a restaurant I will always love because they felt it was a patriotic duty to stay open. From there we tried to reach friends from mobile flip phones. Some came to join us. One friend we couldn't reach. We never did reach him again.
I have never interpreted an event the same way. When there has been a disruption, terrorism used to be the last thing I considered but now it's always the first. Never again have I thought about buying a disposable camera. Never have I walked into a stadium sporting event without donating just a moment of thought to fear.
It has been the evolution of my unterrorized mind. I used to believe in Santa, then learned he wasn't real, then I became Santa for children of my own, trying to keep the fantasy going for as long as possible. Keep them warm, safe, loved. Alive. Just as I will try to keep their minds unterrorized for as long as possible.
I've been pretty damn happy since 2001. More apparent danger than real danger for me, and even the apparent danger hasn't kept me from feeling warm, safe and loved. I've found love and a partner to raise three children that I'm glad to have brought into this beautiful world.
I've thought about bringing my children to retrace my own steps of the morning of September 11, 2001, but they're too young for that. Maybe when they're twenty. Maybe by then, even though it's been only a short subway ride away for years now, I'll have the nerve to see the 9-11 memorial for the first time.
Somewhere in Paris and in San Bernadino are a new group of young people who, for the rest of their lives, will be able to retrace their steps of the day when they saw the inhumanity of our own race. That the evil can come right to our doorstep. People who learned that the youthful fantasy is over.
I've seen terrorism close up but I don't live in a state of terror at all. I'm comfortable going to the Manhattan Thanksgiving Day Parade, the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center, Times Square on New Years Eve. For perspective, the world today is a safer place than it was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Airlift, World War II. For people living in Europe and the United States, there has never been a more peaceful time or better quality of life. The terrorists haven't won. I just grew up.
I still have the developed pictures from the disposable camera. I'm ashamed of myself to look at them. But they mark my coming of age.