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9/11 remembered

The day as seen from a window in Brooklyn.

I was shaving at 8:45am on September 11, 2001 when the first attack on the World Trade Center took place. The details of what happened in the moments before an ordinary date became 9/11 are necessarily hazy, but I can recall looking in the mirror and noticing that the face looking back didn't register the usual anxieties about money or work or some other bullshit. It seemed happy, ecstatic even. That morning was supposed to be my daughter's first day of kindergarten at a school located in an old church in Brooklyn Heights, and I was excited about this next chapter in her life. I'd visited the place that spring for orientation, filing with other moms and dads across a small courtyard as a nearby linden tree showered the cobblestones with tiny white petals.

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If that all sounds a bit too much like "Life was wonderful when tragedy struck," well, that's the way it was for me, for a second at least. I can't speak to the mental state of other New Yorkers at 8:44am that day, but it's fair to say that after 9/11, everyone's complacency about living in the greatest city on earth was permanently shattered. We all awakened to the truth that when history takes one of its periodic swerves into oncoming traffic, even mighty Gotham is vulnerable.

My family and I live in Cobble Hill, and we could easily see the Twin Towers from our kid's bedroom window at the back of our house. They were close enough so that the shock wave from the initial explosion reached my bathroom.

I heard a loud thud, and then the sink and tile floor shook. My wife's voice came through the door, "Did you hear that?" Then, moments later, from down the hall, "Oh God! Come look at this!"

What transpired over the next several hours was something like a nauseating bumper-car ride of conflicting emotions: stunned incomprehension, horrified realization, impotent rage, numb resignation.

At first, I tried to rationally process what I was seeing as I watched the first tower burn: Could a wastebasket or electrical fire cause such a conflagration? But what about that gaping hole in the side of the building—several stories tall, by my reckoning—venting smoke and flame? My wife mentioned that the radio had reported a plane accidentally hitting the building, at which point I went into the next room to switch on the television. The voice of an eyewitness described a small aircraft—a business jet or something—going off course and slamming into the tower.

I started relaying news from the TV to my wife, as a gale of sirens filled the air outside of our house. She was on the phone with her mother when I heard her say, "Oh, here comes another plane...." Somehow, I must have stepped outside of myself at that instant, because I remember observing a blithering idiot in my body, running around screaming bloody murder about terrorists.

Looking back, I'm not sure why I had any doubts as to what was going on until that moment. During much of the 1990s, the area in and around my neighborhood had been something of a jihadist hotbed. Nestled within a Middle Eastern community dating back a hundred years, this other Brooklyn invisibly coexisted with the one I knew—the gentrified blocks of tidy brownstones with Realtor-bestowed sobriquets like Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Park Slope—but occasionally, it came into view.

The 1993 World Trade Center bombing, for instance, had been plotted in a mosque about a five-minute bus ride from my house; I often passed it by. The following year, a van full of Hasidic students returning to Brooklyn was shot up by an Arab man in another car on the Brooklyn Bridge, fatally wounding a 16-year-old Jew named Ari Halberstam. Three years later, on July 31, 1997, police raided a bomb-belt factory just a few blocks from Prospect Park. As it happens, I was nearby, trying to take my then ten-month-old to a doctor's appointment. We were stuck in traffic as the cops barricaded the surrounding streets. Apparently, they had stopped a planned series of suicide attacks on the subway.

None of these events felt personally threatening. I regarded each as happenstance, peculiar only for their proximity to some banal routine. They added up as premonitions only in hindsight, as did another incident involving a colleague—a former coworker and neighbor—just a couple of months before the WTC attacks. Having cabbed in to work one morning, she told me that the driver, who was from the Middle East, mentioned he had plans to leave New York soon, and advised her to do the same. "Why?," she said she asked him. Because, he replied, bin Laden had something "big" planned.

Shortly after 9/11, my colleague reported the conversation to the FBI. She subsequently learned that the authorities had picked up the cabbie for questioning, but released him because they determined he'd simply been repeating "scuttlebutt." Similar information, after all, had landed on President Bush's desk in August of 2001, in the form of a memo titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." He dismissed it by telling his aides, "Okay, you've covered your asses."

That exchange, as related in the official report by the government commission investigating 9/11, became fodder for all manner of theories spun by conspiracy nuts. But you didn't have to be paranoid to recognize that in the ensuing decade, the concerns of average folks were shoved aside for the blind interests of the powerful, as the shocks of the day were followed by shock and awe and shock economics. No one could have predicted that sour future as the Twin Towers telescoped into a roiling ball of dust and smoke, or know that acts of bad faith would be committed in memory of the thousands who perished.

Those events, of course, were still well over the horizon when school was canceled and the bridges and subways into lower Manhattan were temporarily closed; the city south of 14th Street was put on lockdown. By the end of the week, though, people were back to work, and my kid attended her first day of kindergarten. We soon learned that a parent of one of her new schoolmates had been killed in the attacks: maybe someone who had been with me that spring day under the linden tree, I can't exactly recall.

In any case, the presence of the dead lingered heavily in New York over the next several weeks and months. A vast column of smoke replaced the Twin Towers along the skyline, and the IRT station near Ground Zero, as it was now known, was filled with a sickly-sweet stench of burning flesh. Myriad missing person flyers blossomed, along with impromptu memorials of flowers, cards and candles. One popped up on the stoop of a house at the end of my street. The building belonged to a neighbor who lived there alone. She had no family, as far as we knew, no attachments to speak of, except perhaps to the job that took her every day to the World Trade Center. In time, these acute reminders faded away, as life in New York returned to normal.

Bin Laden is now at the bottom of the Arabian Sea, but there is no sense of closure, since the historical train wreck he helped set into motion continues. In retrospect, there are really only two things to say for sure about September 11 and its impact: that the day now belongs to the victims, and that its memories will live on as long as we keep them.

My most vivid one comes from shortly before the towers collapsed. Looking out the window, I noticed a glittering cloud in the sky, moving in my direction as incongruously as New Year's confetti on the world's last day. As it got closer, it became apparent that this silvery specter consisted of paper—tens of thousands of sheets of paper, glittering in the sun. They rained down on our backyard and on the houses nearby. I later picked a few up off the street. Charred along their top edges, they were forms of some kind—maybe from my neighbor's office, who can say? I only know that fluttering in the breeze, they had reminded me of souls set free, like petals falling to earth.