Tag Archives: 9/11

A Man of Habit

My grandfather was a man of habit. He walked the same three miles every day. He always stopped at my aunt’s house to see his grandsons. He worked at the New York Shipping Association Pension Fund for 40 years. When he retired as Executive Director, he settled on a once-a-week transition. On Wednesdays, he took the train into Manhattan and rode the elevator up to his office in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. By all intents and purposes, he should’ve been at home that day. Maybe bouncing a baby on his lap or waving at the neighbors who knew him as Walking Joe. He shouldn’t have been in New York at all. But he switched his routine, and he went to work.

He walked home that day, soot-covered and forever shaken. It took him hours. He made it back, but he was never the same.

We started recounting the story with my brother-in-law recently, and I thought about how hard it must be to believe someone when they say, “You woulda loved him.” We inflate people we love when we eulogize them. The person you’re telling always thinks, “Yeah, yeah, sure they were great.” And you want to grab their shoulder, catch them right in the eye, and say, “No.” You want to say, “Sometimes, they aren’t. But this one? This one was great.”

It’s like wringing out a wet dish towel, trying to make it dry. You can twist and squeeze, twist and squeeze, but there will always be that little bit of water left, until you let it fall flat and dry on its own. Until you succumb to the reality that you might never be able to show them. Sometimes I think we try too hard to explain how much someone means, because we can’t bear but to try.

I think about his diehard love of the Mets. I try to imagine him at Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The way he never took off the shiny Mets varsity jacket. I think of the day he took me on the ferry to Shea. The weekends spent at the Poconos. The songs he sang us, made up and out of tune. How he could fall asleep standing up, leaning on the half-wall between the kitchen and family room. How he ate apples with a knife and brushed the salt off his sourdough pretzels. How he couldn’t swim so he’d stand in the shallow end of the pool with a baby in his arms.

I go back from time to time and read what I’ve written about my grandfather over the years. Because I can’t bear not to. Because the good parts, they deserve to be remembered. Because even though that day got the best of him, and he turned away from his family and lifelong friends until the day that he died, suddenly, we got the best of him first. For a time, we did.

I could run myself ragged thinking about the calendar. If September 11, 2001 had been a Monday or a Thursday or a Friday. Would he have met my husband? Would they have spent hours together, talking about everything and nothing? About the agony of postseason baseball. And the buzz of the stock exchange. And the comfort of a good book.

His story may never have a better ending. But the middle, the part I remember most, was just magic.

This Is Where I Come From

If you stand on the street in front of the Baltimore World Trade Center, the first thing you notice won’t be its height. It’ll be the slab of marble with two rusted pieces of metal sticking out of it.

They look like hands, presenting the contorted and twisted wrapping of steel framing atop them. As if, for the amount of time you keep staring, you will see only that—not the Inner Harbor behind the building or the building itself. Not the sea of teens and twenty-somethings in comic book regalia threading in front and around you, but that charred and melted and rusted metal framing that once kept somebody safe.

It is as if the metal tines holding it up are offering it to you, like, “Here, hold this weight with me. Here, have a piece of America’s history.”

It is a chunk of metal framing from one of the World Trade Center towers. I do not know how long it hung in place before collapsing, finally, under the weight of itself. I do not know which tower, which floor, which cubicle it used to shade from the Manhattan Skyline and the summer sunrises.

But it has found it’s way here. To me. To the city that promises to protect me if ever someone should want to crash into my life.

There is something about staring at museum exhibits that never felt quite real. Like it was easy to read the metal engraving listing the scene depicted behind glass and move on, flashing from one projector slide of the past to another.

But there is no glass standing between the marble slab and me. There is no blockade in front of the sundial sculpted from that same steel, which, on each September 11th, aligns the shadows of the sun with the minutes that tore that day to shreds.

And maybe there shouldn’t be. Maybe we were meant to be so deeply engrossed in the awareness that somebody else once took this piece of steel framing for granted. Somebody else once thought concrete was impenetrable.

Somebody else, somebody you knew, once told you all you needed was a house over your head. And you forgot that said house didn’t guarantee you your life. That cars crashed and boats sank and trees landed in your upstairs bathroom. You forgot to take three minutes each morning to say, “This is where I come from. Where do I want to go now?”

That’s how it feels to stare at that hunk of steel. Like we ought to get up tomorrow and pull ourselves from the rubble, turn for just a moment to bask in the reality of it, and then use our strength and our heart to forge forward into a future that looks equally as strong, but ultimately fragile, for the rest of our lives.

It will never teach you how to recreate a Before that's not haunted by some After.

The twelve-year-olds huddled over a clunky computer screen, discovering MSNBC for the first time.

via weheartit.com

Back then, I didn’t know what the World Trade Center was. I didn’t know my grandfather used to work there every day, five days a week. I didn’t know that, even though he retired, he still made his way into the lower east side of Manhattan once a week.

All I knew, really deep in my heart, was that it was a Tuesday morning and the sun was shining.

The weirdest part, for me, was the way I often obsessed over numbers. My sister made a game out of the time on our microwave clock, always adding and subtracting.

“7:43 p.m.,” she said. “Four plus three is seven.”

Patterns like that ran through her head constantly. She’d add and subtract, multiply and divide time like it would spin any which way she chose, as long as she always had the upper hand.

I didn’t think about September 11th as this perfect day. 9-1-1. Two towers stretching over the cloudless sky like a giant “11” in the air.

No, that came much later when I became obsessed with googling the reasons we should’ve known. The way the flight numbers added to passenger numbers and everything circled back to a single, haunting number.

Eleven.

The age I was when the country’s history was forever altered.

Eleven.

The number of class days of sixth grade I’d had.

It’s easier to say that one day is one day. That holding onto it like a piece of you will do nothing good.

But it will.

It’ll teach you how to take an old man in the southern heat, too busy to be bothered with his family’s life and imagine what he used to look like, sitting in that history classroom, telling your classmates the story of his life.

The walk home, covered in soot. The meeting on the 42nd floor that saved his life. The subways littered with lost souls and broken hearts and a smattering of hope that someone was still alive beneath that rubble.

It’ll teach you to hold your breath and pray someone might hang onto life like a small air pocket tucked under tons of steel built to remind the other guys we’re strong kings of business and infrastructure.

But it will never teach you how to explain to a child why they don’t have a father or how to envision two structures grazing the clear Manhattan skyline. It will never teach you how to recreate a Before that’s not haunted and altered by some After.