18 years ago I was living with two best friends on 21st Street and 8th Ave. when the towers were struck. I’d graduated college two weeks before and had my whole life in front of me, while many others were forced to suddenly put theirs behind them.
We spent the day on the block, listening to the news reports on our boom box (what would people do today?), which was probably more news than I’d listened to in my life cumulatively to that point. The smell of dust and the fires from two miles south grew eerier with every hour that it lingered over us. All day we watched as New Yorkers filed past our corner in what looked like some parade of defeated zombies, some disheveled and distraught, others stoically focused on their destination - anywhere north, anywhere but there – a migration of urbanites, their metropolitan shells pierced by an alleged attack on capitalism, our way of life.
But my friends were fine. Assholes, even - I’d say they were assholes. They were 23 and relatively unshaken by the incident. When my then girlfriend’s mother showed up at our apartment, upset and unable to get home, my friends took the opportunity to flex their alpha personas, mocking the news reports and sarcastically responding to her concerns. I think being able to eventually find humor in life’s past tragedies is a virtue, but exploiting them in their present immediacy is pathological. I spent the day in a perpetual state of low-grade anxiety, not because of “the attacks,” but instead the personal attack I felt my ego was under via my friends’ insensitivity.
In response to the dismal job hunt climate to come I began doing stand-up comedy, and another year later I would fall in love again. I revisited familiar feelings of vulnerability and self-consciousness in the presence of my girlfriend and friends. My yielding energy re-engendered my roommates’ pugnacious bravado and our dynamic was back to where it had been when the towers fell.
Word around the crew was that I was “whipped” - morphing out of who I was and into a variation of self fabricated by a romantic partner, and surely part of the reason it made me so angry was my insecurity around its accuracy.
Meanwhile New York was “falling off” as well, though not in the way Al-Qaeda had intended. Imminent danger of being a target meant real estate value actually dropped for the first time in my life. It also meant an even greater police presence, which made the streets that much safer, and inadvertently made the city an even more desirable location for outsiders. Suddenly the city’s only perceived flaws of potential street violence and shady characters was a non-factor in the eyes of more sheltered Europeans and Midwesterners who were previously too scared to move here. As rents escalated I knew I would soon have to migrate north to a more affordable “hood,” my metropolitan shell pierced by the expansion of capitalism.
Still furious about the gossip I knew was going on behind my back, still harboring resentment for my friends’ contribution to my anxiety I chose to strike. I wrote them a 20-page letter explaining why I was too good to be their friend anymore, and basically why they sucked, as friends and just as people. With the intention of embarrassing them it was the most cowardly, shameful thing I’ve ever done in my life, and possibly my only true regret from which I’ve never seen a silver lining.
Two weeks after I moved out of the apartment my girlfriend and I broke up. My roommates remained friends with our friends in common and I was the one left alone, humiliated by a self-destructed reputation. Health and money problems shortly followed while New York landlords continued to thrive, and eventually I had to downsize again into an even shittier, more drug-laden neighborhood even further away from ground zero and my old friends.
New York has always been in constant flux, just as the world and life. Though we can usually look back to particular events that served as the impetus to the more dramatic jumps in said flux. Sure, New York became safer throughout Giuliani’s tenure in the 90’s, but what began in the wake of 9/11 was an exaggerated domino effect that may have harmed only the part of New York the terrorists were unconcerned with, and conversely empowered their target.
Before 9/11 Harlem was mostly black and affordable, and iconic landmarks like the Lenox Lounge stood proudly. Before 9/11 Puerto Ricans made up most of Williamsburg and Long Island City boasted tons of Arab-Americans who would soon be displaced by wealthy hipsters and finance yuppies. Before 9/11 there wasn’t a CVS and Chase bank on every corner in the city and there was never any such thing as 7/11 stores.
I’ll say that again for the cheap seats: Yes, we did not grow up with 7/11 in New York! Such voids were always as much a part of what defined and distinguished NYC as did the presence of its cultural diversity.
Hateful acts cannot succeed in their intention. As if it were possible, since 9/11 New York City has become an even greater capitalistic epicenter, and inadvertently displaced much of the impoverished part of its population that offered more wealth in culture. Material wealth now reigns supreme more than ever and neighborhoods once defined by ethnicity and affordability have become more white washed, cookie-cutter copies of every other wealthy neighborhood, which is quickly just becoming every neighborhood, which arguably reduces the appeal of a city to most educated metropolitans.
I can’t tell you how happy I am to report that now, 18 years since the fall of the towers, one of the two best friends and I have finally rebuilt our friendship. I was at his 40th birthday party last year and he’ll be coming to my wedding next month. Just like my burning of our bridge was my biggest regret in life, its rekindling is one of my most valued accomplishments. As much as succeeding in my private business or anything I’ve accomplished creatively, I am very proud of our mutual forgiveness and reconnection. If only global governments could earn to exercise such loving communication, hopefully another 9/11 will never recur.