Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Past Ten Years: A Life Lived, A Life Just Begun (Part I)

In the past three weeks I have had the unique reflective opportunity to look back on two events that truly shaped who I am today and forced me to shed the shackles of childhood forever.  Though the nature of these events or times in my life are as disparate, perhaps, as one can get, they are two experiences that are indelibly linked.  I debated about exploring this connection for it would dredge up painful memories unnecessarily...but many times pain is life--it helps us to live, to appreciate the life that we've been given, and it provides us with clarity that is often lost in the face of complacency.

During the last week of August in 2001, I began to leave my childhood behind.  I got on an express bus and rode into Manhattan from Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn for my first day of classes as a freshman at Baruch College.  It was also my first official day as a student in the then CUNY Honors College (now and at every point hereafter in this entry the Macaulay Honors College or MHC); I had so little idea of how much my life would change in the coming weeks and months--how much I would grow up and how my life's path would begin to reveal itself to me.  It was the beginning of one of the best times in my life but it would also include one of the most painful experiences of my life.

Everyone who was in New York City on the morning of September 11th, 2001 has a story of what happened to them that day.  I'd go so far as to say that perhaps every American does but certainly anyone who was directly affected by the terrible tragedy that befell my city and my country that morning does.  When pressed, people will often recall in vivid, lengthy detail, the entire ordeal that they endured that day; I am no different.  Though the purpose of this entry is not to enjoy a cathartic release of my own personal memories from that day, I intend to share them for they help to shape all that has come since then.  So here's my story.

What I remember most from the morning of September 11th was the weather.  The sky never seemed bluer, the temperature was perfect, even the breeze itself seemed lighter than air.  I remember looking forward to coming home from school so that I could go outside and do something--play basketball, take a bike ride, something to make the most of the gorgeous clime.  I got on the Command Bus that I had just started taking barely a week and a half earlier to head into the city to attend my Psychology 1001H course.  The bus ran its route as usual and nothing seemed out of the ordinary until we had neared the last stop in Brooklyn.  I think people could see smoke coming from Manhattan and there was talk of a plane crashing into a building.  When we reached the final stop, we were held up for a moment and I remember looking out through the front windshield of the bus and seeing more police, fire, and emergency vehicles than I could count go flying by on Ocean Parkway towards Manhattan.  I knew that it had to be bad not simply because they had shut down the roadway but because of the sheer speed with which the vehicles moved; I had never seen anything like it and I hope I never do again.

Fortunately, we were held up as wave after wave of vehicles flew by.  Our driver was given instruction to turn the bus around and to take us back home along the same route.  I remember feeling a brief moment of panic as we drove next to Ocean Parkway.  I wasn't too familiar with the route so I was concerned that we were going to be heading into the city but we turned around near the first exit.  The driver was calm and expressed genuine concern for each of us.  As new information became available, he relayed it to us.  I remember texting my friend James and asking him if he wanted me to come to try to sign him and his girlfriend out of school (they were seniors in high school at the time) and him saying that they were fine and were heading home.  After that, cell service was pretty much shot because of the bombardment of the lines.

I remember walking into my house stunned, thrilled, afraid, unsure of what to feel.  I'll never forget my parents' reaction to me coming up the stairs--seeing the way that they clutched at me as I walked through the doorway.  It's taken me ten years to understand what that reaction meant; it was only after becoming a father myself that I recognized it as the fear of losing one's child.  My parents brought me up to speed as we watched the news and settled in for one of the most numbing days of my life.  I remember going up to the avenue (Gerritsen Avenue) several times throughout the day, walking over towards the fields, and standing atop a guardrail to look out at Manhattan.  I could see the smoke emanating from Downtown and I knew then that the world had changed, at least for me and for the United States.  Later in the day (and the next), soot-laden papers began to rain down like giant snowflakes; a few are stored in a memory box somewhere.  They were papers from the various businesses that were housed in the World Trade Center.  In a way, each fluttering sheet was like a ghost returning to earth, asking if it all really happened--if their time had truly come.  It gives me chills to think of what that scene was like--fallout from the worst attack our country has ever suffered on its home soil.

Ever the conscientious student, one of my primary concerns was whether or not classes would be cancelled the next day; they were.  And the next.  In fact, I didn't return to school until the following Monday.  Before I get to that, though, there are some thoughts and feelings that I feel compelled to vent--things that might offend some people reading this, so I apologize in advance and beg your pardon.  You see, there were things that I witnessed in the weeks and months following that horrible event that have stayed with me.  Now, ten years later, I've been able to look back on them with hindsight and with the lens of my current worldview of personal situation.  A recent conversation that I had with a buddy of mine has spurred me to vent what I am about to unload.

I remember attending two candlelight vigils very shortly after the 11th back in 2001.  I'm not sure of the exact dates but I'm pretty confident that they were later that same week, possibly Friday and Saturday.  One was held at Marine Park and the other--almost as much of a political rally as a vigil--was held at the Point (the end of Gerritsen Avenue).  I remember the sense of bonding that I felt--that we all felt--at those vigils; it was the first time that I felt like I was a part of a community larger than that of my family or my neighborhood.  I remember bursting with patriotic pride in the weeks that followed--absorbing that indomitable New York spirit that said that we would never back down--that we would rebuild, bigger, better.  I remember seeing so many American flags; they were legion.  They were emblazoned in windows, flew from porches, from flagpoles, and, most importantly, from cars.  That's what stuck out the most: the number of cars that had flags waving from their antennae or affixed to their windows.

Then October came; there were fewer flags.  November followed and by then we were ensconced in military maneuvers overseas, so some of the flags returned...but by December?  They had all but disappeared.

Now don't get me wrong--I understand completely not only why it happened but why it had to happen that way; people have to move on.  There's no sense in slicing open a healing wound on a daily basis and, in a way, that's what those flags were beginning to represent: buildings destroyed, lives lost, friends and family deployed to faraway lands.  And so I get that and I hold no ill memory towards any of those people; you can't blame them for doing what needed to happen for them to return to their lives.

The first thing that pissed me off was Bloomberg telling us all to go shopping.  I understood his point but it was the first time (perhaps an indication or an omen) that his condescension--his "I know what's best for you so don't question me just do it" attitude came through.  It appeared again during the strike, during a few winter storms when people complained about alternate side parking, and a few other occasions.  It definitely didn't endear "Mayor Mike" to a whole bunch of us.  The second thing--and indeed the most powerful impetus for the scathing condemnation to come--was the call to arms for us to "Never Forget."

"Never Forget."  How many times have you heard that over the last ten years?  I know that I sure as hell can't put a number on it.  On paper, it's a great mantra imploring us to be careful, to look out for each other, to recall the departed with due reverence...but in practice?  Not so much.  I can't tell you how many different "Never Forget" statuses I saw on Sunday but there were plenty.  Unsurprisingly, most people seemed to have statuses about September 11th.  I understand why too: it was a significant anniversary--a full decade since that day.  But, in a way, Facebook is part of my problem--part of the issue that I take with the society that we now live in.  2001 was a year of great change in this country but so was 2004.

My issue is this: we have become a society that lives almost exclusively in the moment and for only the moment.  We have no patience; we expect everything to happen instantaneously because it does.  The things that served as distractions during those first few post-9/11 years have become the things that are the forefront of our attention--at the core of our respective lives.

I don't mean to disparage anyone who had a status up on 9/11 about their memories or feelings about the event, it's just that, to me, it was something I have seen scores of times over the past few years.  See, back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s--when Americans remembered an event of significance (Pearl Harbor is an apt example), they did so genuinely.  They gathered in stolid solidarity; they showed instead of said, and I think that's part of what my problem is.  It's not so much that I doubt people's sincerity when they share the aforementioned thoughts and feelings, it's more that those expressions strike me as empty--as simply words with nothing behind them. 

People say "Never Forget" but I think it's more "remember when you're told it's time to remember"; it's been reduced to a slogan that will stick around for the moment until it's gone, replaced with the next pop culture phenomenon.  Our collective attention span has been reduced severely since social networking and reality television have risen in prevalence; one need only look at Twitter updates and Facebook statuses to see the validity of my argument.  You can tell what's been going on in New York and in America as a whole simply by looking back through people's statuses.  You'd know that it was the tenth anniversary of 9/11, that there was a wicked hurricane that came through the Northeast, that there was an earthquake, that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, and that New York had been HAMMERED with blizzards.  But in between all of those?  You'd have the requisite pop culture and reality television nonsense that will invariably supplant all of those moments and events of notes.

THAT's what the problem is: moments of local or national historical significance are relegated to the same plane as nonsense like the Royal Wedding or how much Kim Kardashian earned last year.  "Never Forget" has become tantamount to "WINNING!" or a joke about LeBron giving only three quarters.  And when things do happen, the first thing people seem to do is run to Facebook and Twitter so that they can throw their two cents (which is really the same as everyone else's two cents when it comes down to it) into the mix.  It's the sociological equivalent of saying "FIRST!" on a messageboard where someone feels compelled to post the same inane nonsense that everyone else is posting so as not to be left out.  My beef is that I feel like so many people posted the things that they did on 9/11 not out of genuine remembrance but out of the unconscious need to raise their virtual Facebook/Twitter hands to be counted for attendance or roll call.


Remember thought: actions speak louder than 160 characters or less.