The chant became louder in my head, whispering in and out of my mind like one of those pop tunes you hear in the grocery store and can’t quite shake, as I walked, the day crisp and clear exactly like that day. We call it September 11th weather now. Pristine blue with few clouds, a crisp breeze, and a warm sun. That hint, just a hint mind you, of fall scenting the air – enough to make the nostrils twitch and tingle. A-choo. I’ve always loved this time of year. As a small child, I sat in anticipation of it. The beginning of new things whether it be the start of school, new tv shows, the renewal of old shows, films, arts, or just the change in seasons. The Broadway season starts this week. The new tv season starts this week. As do the fall films, the serious ones. We’ve finally made it past the August doldrums. People are back at work. Kids are in school. There’s a vibrant energy and excitement in the air as the last gust of summer slowly fades into autumn. I felt it even today, wandering amongst the streets and sidewalks and avenues in my neighborhood of brownstone Brooklyn, the buildings colored a rust stained red and brown, with fading green trees and pink flowers sitting at the front of each stoop in small square patches. These little gardens, no bigger than half a sidewalk, are why they call my neighborhood Carroll “Gardens”.
I sniff the air. And in my mind I hear once again, whispering in chorus to the breeze and chatter like a half-remembered pop single, “remember, remember the 11th of September..” much like that statement in the political satire “V for Vendetta” or the song in the Fantastiks that is being revived yet again on Broadway this season, the longest playing show in New York History. “I remember the kind of September when hearts were gay and oh so mellow…”
It’s silly I think. And attempt to push it aside, yet again. But unbidden, perhaps, I remember odd things.
Shrines with flowers and melted candles, stuck haphazardly along the promenade, which I call the Esplanade, that provided, no provides perhaps the best view of the Manhattan skyline. From the Esplanade in Brooklyn you can see the Statue of Liberty to the Brooklyn Bridge, and on the sidewalk are plaques, the last one installed on September 11, 2001 – commemorating each view of the skyline and showing how it has changed. I remember how people put up photos, teddy bears, plastic and real flowers against the wrought iron fence that protected people from falling into the highway below the walkway, or against the fences that separated the promenade from the residential gardens. Candles at different heights, their melted wax combining into a mix-match of colored wax. And for a while below the walkway, way below, close to the East River, there was a patch of land planted with daffodils donated from Holland to commemorate and honor the lives lost that day.
The candles’ colors merge in my memory with the bright colors of my work colleague’s, Borinquen’s, family home. The bright oranges, reds, and blues of her still-life paintings, reminding me Gauguin or a young Bonneville, the colors bright, the perspective deliberately skewed, that hang on the terra cotta walls, which in turn are an umber, the type of burnt yellow that makes one think of Italian villas or a Spanish terrace. Her family speaks in a mix of Italian and Puerto Rican, words slicing back and forth, a hint of English thrown in here and there. I get the gist through body language and that haphazard English words. Boringuen’s first name is a joke of sorts, being the literal one that native Puerto Ricans call their homeland. I remember sitting in her house that day, I barely knew her. We’d met just a few months before. Sat with one another at lunch. Talked about art. I never saw her outside of work, at least not until that day. (She’d driven two of us from our workplace to her home in the Bronx, far from the noise. Since the subways were not running. And it was physically impossible for me to walk home.)
I remember how she made lunch that day for me and her brother, who’d just walked home from 125 street and Harlem, over ten miles. He’d started at 10 am and it was now 1 pm. He was cheerful. Laughing and gave his sister a hug. Told me about how a cabbie gave him and three other people a free ride half-way, hence the early arrival. We had pasta. Salad. Wine. Wine for lunch. A rare treat. Cheese and fruit for desert and a few Italian cookies that I no longer remember the name of. I barely understood some of what they said. But I remember feeling warm like you do when you sit out in the sun with a gentle breeze playing with your hair and tickling your arms.
Remember, remember the 11th of September… That year was much like this one – a watershed year for me. And for that reason, the two years almost blur together, this one and that one. For some reason watershed years come in fives, I think. Reminded once again that things can change with out a moments notice. I remember the plans I made back then…to go to Thailand with the sailing group I’d met in Turkey, to build my career at the company, to..oh so many things, now half-forgotten, and how within two or three weeks each had been crushed by the wave of current events, my life altered without my permission. That’s how quickly it can happen. Worrying over what lies ahead, I remind myself, is, while understandable, somewhat foolish and a waste of time, when everything can change due to unforeseen factors beyond my control. I’d thought I’d be stuck in the company I was in – but I got laid-off and today, walking, I felt an odd sense of relief regarding that, especially today. And an odd sense of glee in being alive and no longer attached to a place I was not, if I’m honest with myself, really happy in.
Remember… What I remember when I think about that day, not deeply think about it, but in a drifting casual way, is love. The love of my co-worker who took me to her home and offered to let me stay the night if I wished. If not, she would attempt to drive me home if need be. I barely knew her or so I thought. After that day, for a year, we kept each other sane, taking off at lunch to McDonalds or assorted Pizza places. Driving together to another work colleague’s wedding. Supporting each other in our decision to leave the company that made us miserable. I’ve lost contact with her now, but I remember her. Like you might remember a warm ocean breeze or bathing in the sun.
I remember the phone calls from friends and family checking to see if I was okay. Out of nowhere.
I remember coming home and my downstairs neighbor greeting me with a smile.
And I remember that time never stands still, nothing stays the same, things like it or not change. Shift. People grow. Adapt. Evolve. And…somehow, if foggily, people remember.
On my walk back, I did not make it all the way to the promenade today – it was too windy and my calves ached, I stop and buy a few groceries, some chocolate macaroons (one of the many changes is I can no longer eat anything with wheat flour in it), buy a book (Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose that I previously flirted with) and drift homewards, where, in between daytime tv shows, there are blurbs about September 11. Almost as if the media is afraid we’ll forget if they don’t keep reminding us every few seconds – or perhaps it’s themselves they fear require reminding.
I think about how much or how little I’ve changed in the last five years. What has and has not happened. It feels at times that more has happened in the lives surrounding my own. And I wonder if I’ve lived the life “well lived” that was laid out so eloquently by Mayor Guiliani while the names were read. Unlike most of my friends and family : I’ve not fallen in love and I’ve not had children. It is more than possible I may never do so. Such things I have relatively little control over. But I’ve left a job, gotten and lost another one. Now applying for, hopefully, a better one. Taken courses. Read a great deal. Met new people. Heard new stories. I’ve finished one novel, set it aside, and am now over half way through another one. I wrote what amounts to a book of media essays on the internet, which I have mixed feelings about. I’ve made new friends, lost old ones – watching them drift around a revolving door onto paths that lie parallel but do not always intersect with my own.
I’m not sure life, anyone’s, can be evaluated or summed up neatly. Or for that matter planned. I don’t entirely trust memory, for it embellishes and lies, embroideries on what may or may not have happened. I think sometimes, we revise our own histories, to remember what is worth keeping and letting go of what is not. Trying not to dwell too much or too often on our mistakes and past hurts.
I remember the 11th of September for the lessons I learned that day. That people can surprise if you let them. The ones you expect to give you comfort, often can’t. The one’s you don’t notice or think will, often do. You can surprise yourself as well, doing and handling things that seem incredible in retrospect. And that no matter how horrendous things seem, it will get better. It will not last. Everything is temporary. Everything changes. People do want to help one another. They just don’t always know how, but when given the opportunity, are capable of simple yet wonderful kindness. And I draw a great deal of comfort from that.
Sometimes I think it’s not the event itself that is important, but what comes after, how we choose to remember it. What we take, if anything from it.
If I were to wish anyone anything at this point in time it would be this: Love. A simple word. Often over-used and misunderstood. But quite powerful I think in its simplicity. More things can be accomplished with it than, I think, anything else.