On the 11th Anniversary of 9-11, an excerpt from my book, Elf Girl. (Also, would like to add that my neighbors who died were immigrants. When I still see so much racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and ignorance in the news today, my only prayer is that the children of those who died live to see a more tolerant era, one that is ruled by love instead of fear.)
p.s. Lorne, I’m sorry I thought we all were gonna die and I didn’t just let you sleep through it.
One of the great things about New York is that it’s possible to become a New Yorker. One cannot go to LA and become an LA-er. New York will adopt pretty much anyone who is willing to live here.
There is even a 151-foot woman at the entrance to New York’s Harbor with an open invitation inscribed at her base: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Years ago, people in other countries got a load of this and thought America must rock. So they came in droves, except for the African slaves, who’d been brought against their will and already knew that America certainly did not rock. Soon the many immigrants who came to New York also discovered that America wasn’t quite the Cancun spring break par-tay they’d imagined.
However, many immigrants were fleeing from even worse shitholes. Famine, state-sponsored murder, destruction, war, religious persecution, political strife, social chaos, widespread poverty, diseases and natural disasters are all things that motivated people to get the hell out of dodge and come here.
Once they got here, they lived in heinous, cramped tenements much like the one I live in now. Only when they moved in, Wall Street Journal reading hipsters didn’t live across the hall. Also, many housing laws hadn’t been passed yet, so sometimes their toilets were outhouses behind their buildings. If they lived in 6-floor walkups like me, they would’ve had to go in chamber pots and then carry their pee down the stairs. Can you imagine if you were drinking beer and had only one small chamber pot and lived in a 6-floor walkup?
Carrying chamber pots up and down stairs wasn’t the only inconvenience back in the day. In the early 1800s, Yellow Fever killed thousands of people and throughout the mid 1800s, Cholera killed thousands of people. Then in the 1860s, the American Civil War killed thousands of people. On top of all this disease, war and death, immigrants found that in order to pay for rent, food and everything else they had to work long hours for “the Man.” Sometimes this ended in disaster. In 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and 146 garment workers were killed, mostly young immigrant women.
Despite all of the horror and death, New York City’s population miraculously kept growing–even after Margaret Sanger opened the first U.S. birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916. This happened because New Yorkers know how to par-tay, and people will invariably go to where there’s a good party.
And everything here caters to this party. NYC’s street grid system means it’s really hard to get lost here, no matter how fucked up you are, and NYC’s subway system means you never have to select a designated driver.
Even in 1920, when prohibition threatened everyone’s good time, speakeasies popped up allover the city, so people partied even harder than before.
Then the Great Depression came along. To say things were shitty would be redundant. Obviously they were shitty. It’s called the Great Depression after all. But that didn’t stop builders from entering a 410-day manic state during which they erected the tallest skyscraper in the world.
The Empire State Building was completed in 1931, and it made everyone else in the world just a little jealous of New Yorkers – partying till dawn, riding their handy subways while drunk on illegal booze, then having sex without procreation thanks to birth control from Margaret Sanger’s local clinic, all while staring out their windows at the TALLEST BUILDING IN THE WORLD.
New York was simply too awesome, and people resented its awesomeness. In 1972, when the even taller Twin Towers were erected, people resented New York even more. It was simply too cool. So people said mean things about New York. They said its inhabitants were assholes, that they were a rude bunch of hippies, punks, faggots, commies, pornographers, anarchists, antichrists, prostitutes, Satanists, strippers, pinkos, derelicts, opportunists and freaks who all smoked crack and didn’t lead normal lives like they were supposed to. And a lot of this was true, which is why New York was so fun.
And then something happened.
I heard it before I saw it – a terrifying, thunderous explosion. It woke me up, and I ran to my bedroom window, expecting to see a tenement building collapsing as they often do, or even thinking maybe my own building had started to collapse. People were on their roofs staring toward Delancey Street, their mouths agape in horror, some screaming. I ran to my kitchen window and saw that both of the Twin Towers had holes in them and were on fire.
I thought the city was under attack and that I was about to die. Banging on Lorne’s door I screamed, “Lorne, wake up!”
Lorne and I stared out the window in shock. He turned on the radio, and we learned that planes had struck the Towers. When they fell, I don’t remember the sound they made, I only remember a collective horrified gasp and then people pouring up the street, covered in soot.
And then in the weeks that followed, everything changed.
Suddenly, people loved New York, because they saw that all the pinkos and freaks really cared about each other. They realized that even though New York is a city where people beat the crap out of each other over taxicabs and openly call each other fuckheads, it is also a city where millions of people coexist on a tiny archipelago without killing each other, because of a profound respect for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
They saw New York’s humanness.
We were like the most popular girl in class who suddenly gets her period while wearing white pants. You can’t hate her anymore. You want to offer her a new pair of pants and a tampon from your purse.
People wanted to help. They wanted to adopt us. So a megalomaniac Mayor who’d created a decency panel while carrying on an adulterous affair was suddenly “America’s Mayor,” and we were suddenly “America’s City,” even though we’d been fired from being America’s capital way back in the 1700s.
People came to New York in droves wearing “Oregon Loves New York” buttons and FDNY t-shirts. And they shopped and ate and tried to help us be awesome again. And little American flags popped up everywhere and everyone, everywhere else in America got so angry as they gathered around their TV sets watching newscasters try to cover their gigantic boners as they repeatedly aired maudlin interviews with grieving family members and trotted out new “America Under Attack” graphics.
Meanwhile in the newly appointed America’s City, a heinous smell permeated the air, one even grosser than before. It was so strong – a mix of dead bodies, fiberglass, metal, everything blown into tiny fragments, hanging in the sky. You couldn’t smell it without thinking of the dead. And you couldn’t leave your home without mourning the dead.
The morning after 9-11, I left my apartment and saw a photo of my next-door neighbor and his brother on a missing poster. I hadn’t realized they’d worked at Windows on the World at the top of the World Trade Center. They had been there when the planes hit. I said hello to them every, day but I didn’t know where they worked.
Most of the missing posters were really death pronouncements. You either walked away or you didn’t. And I knew I would never see my neighbors again. I broke down. Sitting on my doorstep, I sobbed, thinking about their wives and children. When I picked myself up and crossed Delancey Street, I saw trucks carrying the National Guard moving across the Williamsburg Bridge. No one else was out on the street. I felt like I’d survived a zombie movie. Everything was quiet except for the trucks. People were hiding, huddled around their televisions. Our asshole president was hiding, too.
Sometimes I bought flowers and set them down next to all the other flowers and candles outside of our building left under the photos of the brothers. There were makeshift memorials like this all over the city, covered in candles and flowers.
Soon the missing posters fell off of lampposts or were taken down. Mostly when you saw one, you knew the person in the picture was dead. It was like seeing ghosts every time you turned a corner.
Three years later, when the Republicans brought their convention to New York City, I noticed a tiny, handwritten sign on a lamppost. It was someone’s personal protest against the whoring out of the city they loved.
Dear Mr. President,
If Crawford, Texas, suffered a massive attack and thousands of your neighbors died, would I bring all of my friends there and have a big party?
When I saw that sign, I knew New York had once again become awesome. And I felt proud to be a New Yorker.