How to be a New Yorker When You Weren’t in New York During 9/11

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I sat on a family friends’ couch in a small Pennsylvania town called Perkasie. My parents were in Colorado for a conference and left us with family friends for the week. Like millions of other Americans. The morning was more surreal than scaring. It was terrifically mesmerizing. It was like the world away had come to our front door. Except that I wasn’t there.

As a New Yorker, I’ve had trouble understanding 9/11s effect on me. I’ve questioned if there is an effect. My city was under attack. And I wasn’t there for it.

In the years following, I’ve had little to say when asked about my 9/11 experience. It wasn’t spent in a classroom. It wasn’t spent trying to connect with family or friends. By the time I got back, only a trail of smoke lingered above Ground Zero. Because my 9/11 experience was not a true New York 9/11 experience. Mine involved watching Dan Rather on CBS, eating a granola bar and drinking juice. Which is not to say 9/11 was a casual event. Of course it wasn’t. I was just disconnected from it.

There’s an instinct we have, in the moment of tragedy, to need to be affected by it personally. We brainstorm every link placing us. Does this connection give our grieving credibility? Do we freeload off the suffering as others to feel a part of something we all share and love?

Coincidentally, 9/11 isn’t the first city defining event I’ve missed. When New York lost power for a week, I sat on my grandmother’s couch in Milwaukee. Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy: from Virginia Beach. It’s amazing to wonder how I could be away. How there have been so many moments that’ll define our city and I wasn’t there for them.

Being a real New Yorker isn’t about living in New York. It’s about living in New York when Times Square was a haven for sex shops, not eager tourists. It’s about living in a New York where subways were covered in graffiti not City-approved artwork and poetry. It’s not about living in an world of organic, free trade. It’s about mothers hovering over their child as they slept in bathtubs to be protected from the riotess evenings that passed over trash-filled streets every evening.

Which makes sense. But I don’t like it. It’s easy to define ourselves based on the tragedies and hardships we share together. Success is hard to spot. Tragedy is easy. We don’t consider New York’s plummeting crime rate a success worth celebrating together, only a few men running the police department. We don’t consider New York’s renewed commitment to equality a success worth sharing. But we should. There are so many ways to connect to New York City. We don’t need the moments that scare us to bind us to this place.


One thought on “How to be a New Yorker When You Weren’t in New York During 9/11”

  1. Moving here post-9/11, I feel like I’m experiencing a totally different city than what existed before that. And on the anniversary every year I feel that bit of ownership of the day, of the tragedy, but then almost immediately feel like an impostor, “freeloading off of others’ suffering” as you said. It’s a weird feeling!

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