A Creeping Horror

Today Alex and I spent a good hour reading NYT coverage from 2001 and just kind of gaping at it 

I don’t much like contemporary 9/11 coverage because (with the exception of the 9/11 glossary NYMag did last year, which was sheer perfection) it’s mostly the same themes over and over again — tragic day, changed the very fabric of our nation, defined a whole generation in good and not-so-good ways

But I think what most of that stuff fails to get at is how absolutely horrifying 9/11 really was — I think it barely scratches the surface on what must have been apocalyptic levels of terror in lower Manhattan that day. 

The New York Times put a kicker on their front-page article on Sept. 12, 2001: “A Creeping Horror.” I read that story for the first time a few years afterward — it’s basically an on-the-ground account of what was going on in the streets and in the towers before they collapsed — and it was like a punch to the gut. It’s got this visceral quality about it that’s very specific to that day — not the kind of thing you even try to replicate. It’s not what we talk about when we talk about 9/11 because, frankly, we don’t like to think about it. It’s too much.

I was trying to make some sort of big sweeping statement here tying all these loose thoughts together, but the fact of the matter is that loose thoughts are all I really have about 9/11. It’s too big and too complicated and too important for anything else, I guess. Long story short: Go read this story. It’s worth it. I promise.

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On grief.

I’ve always put a lot of stock in anniversaries. I like the myriad ways we mark the passing of time. I think it’s funny that five and 10 and 25 and 50 and 100 are somehow, inexplicably, arbitrarily the big ones, and that the rest of the time we shrug and say, oh, that was today? I totally forgot, and go about the business of living again.

So today’s one of the big ones. Maybe the biggest one — far enough removed that we can analyze it instead of grieving, close enough that we can still remember it clearly.

Not that I can really lay claim to that. I was 12 and in history class in a Catholic school outside Philadelphia, writing an essay on What I Did On Summer Vacation. One year I dug that notebook out of my desk and read that stupid essay and laughed, because, really, how mudane can you get? On Sept. 11, 2001, I wrote an essay about taking a family vacation to Colonial Williamsburg, and then my history teacher came in and said a plane had hit the World Trade Center, and then I took the bus home (it was gorgeous outside, really unnaturally beautiful) and then we watched the news for an hour until I started to cry, and my parents turned off the TV set and I did my homework.

But I wasn’t there, so most of the time I don’t feel like I have a claim to the immense, all-encompassing grief that people talk about when they talk about Sept. 11. I didn’t lose anyone. I can’t imagine what it was like in lower Manhattan that day. I feel crass even trying to imagine it.

For me the anniversary has always been like attending the funeral of a friend of a friend. You didn’t know the deceased very well, but you met them a few times and they were really great and it’s nice to be there, for solidarity. And so you put on something nice and you hug everyone and say God, how awful, I’m so sorry, and then you go home and cry anyway, because there are some things you can’t fix and some things you can’t understand and some things that just never get easier.

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