The Shadow of Fallen Buildings

Two weeks ago, my phone buzzed and a New York Times alert told me about the explosion in Manhattan. As a New York native, I texted my parents and friends who still go to school in the city. None of them were nearby and thankfully, no victims of the bombing lost their lives.  

That night, I knew I wanted to write about it. Two weeks later, I'm still not exactly sure what I want to say. Many of the details of the bombing are still unclear. More bombs were found and one went off in New Jersey. A suspect was caught and charged. Presidential candidates have traded blows over the incident. I believe Times alerts are more equipped to handle these parts of the story than I am.

Part of my confusion about what to say about the bombing is that I've been waiting much longer than two weeks to say it. For 15 years, I've expected something like this. My childhood in New York City was punctuated by moments of silence in September, by the construction of the Freedom Tower, and by assault rifles in train stations. There were bag searches, ads that proclaim “see something, say something,” and reminders to never forget, as if forgetting were possible. The New York lexicon includes the label “post-9/11” now. It’s a phrase I’ve never been able to use. My memory does not hold much of pre-9/11.

I wouldn’t say my daily life in New York was “governed by fear.” I expected something tomorrow, not today. It would happen in Times Square, or on Wall Street, not my block. The feeling was, and remains, resignation, not panic. Terror, to me, is not daily distress; it’s a permanent atmosphere. And when it comes, it comes unannounced.

9/11 occurred on my second day of Kindergarten, a Tuesday. My mom dropped me off that morning. Four months before, she was working across the street from the Twin Towers in the World Financial Center. She was an editor for the Wall Street Journal and came in early on Tuesdays, often walking through the lobby of the North Tower. She switched to another editing position for Barron’s that let her work part-time, and not on September 11th.

When she picked me up that afternoon, she asked whether my teachers had told me the news. They had, I told her, but I was still confused. We were there only a few days before, in the lobby of the South Tower, on the way to the airport. I remember telling her that my day was good though; there were hot dogs for lunch after all. We got home and turned the TV on. I don’t remember the images on the news, but I do remember leaning out the south-facing window in my parents’ room, trying to see the smoke.

I was lucky that day. I don’t need to give a number to demonstrate how many were not. When I'm downtown and see a plane fly low over head, my stomach sinks. Perhaps this is what the terrorists that day wanted. I don’t think they deserve that much credit. This is my reality though, and the reality I know many others live in. I have a story like my mom. Two weeks ago, the bomb went off on 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue. I used to work one block away.

There is a bright side to all of this. The response to the bombing demonstrated it. Life went on. Even from my perspective across the country, the city seemed okay. People seemed to barely notice. In fact, I felt like I was more concerned than the people I texted. Their reaction spoke to the louder narrative of my childhood in the city, the one that filled the space between 9/11 and now. It was, is, and will continue to be a narrative of emphatic resilience.

New York has a culture that refuses to be intimidated. I don’t avoid Times Square. I don’t avoid crowds. I don’t know anyone who does. Fear is healthy and threats are real. Thousands of lives, in New York, Baghdad, Paris, Istanbul, Nairobi, and too many other cities have been lost. But there are millions working to make sure more do not become victims. To these people, I will always be grateful.

I don’t look back at my childhood with gloom. It felt normal. I rode the train, played baseball in the park, went to school, and saw movies with my friends. I may never have known New York without terror. Suspense hung in the air but, in my experience, slipped into the background like sirens at night and rats in the street. Twenty years in New York have shown me that expectations are only as real as you let them be. This is a column about the nature of those expectations. I have anticipated this for 15 years and I will continue to wait for the next. I expect, but I do not despair.

Lucas Carmel PO '19 is studying politics and history. He also does improv and works with the Rooftop Garden Project.

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