Over the past two weeks since I’ve been back, there have been a number of things I’ve plain old forgotten. Like, for example, that I can take the E train from the West side to the East side. Or that I need to stay to the right and not the left when descending stairs. (Lest I get a very mean, “Stay to your right!” from a fellow straphanger. True story. Happened last week.)
As these mere momentary lapses in memory occur, I feel less of a New Yorker — as if I have shamed the city and myself in some way. I mean, really, what New Yorker forgets stuff like that? (Cowers under desk.)
But there’s one thing all New Yorkers never forget — and here’s where I get all cheesy on ya — and that’s 9/11.
Yesterday, for the first time since it opened almost three years ago, I visited the 9/11 memorial.
While some New Yorkers feel they can’t go near the site, I personally hadn’t been for any other reason than a lack of time and an abundance of impatience. But I’ve got more of the former and less of the latter these days. I’ve also got spontaneity in my step, and since I happened to be down in the area for a meeting, I just followed the tourists. I didn’t rush past them. I didn’t get annoyed by the line. Or the need to be patted down through security. I didn’t even let the impending thunderstorm rolling in via grey clouds and Kansas-like winds turn me away. In fact, I let it push me further along.
I must say, while it does feel a bit odd to visit such a place under tourist-type circumstances, I found the memorial itself — two massive square pools that sit in the “footprints” of the former towers — to be incredibly moving and the most fitting of tributes. They’re truly breathtaking, if perhaps ironically so. I’d seen photos and video, but there’s no way to really understand their full scale than by visiting in person to peer over the edges and stare deep down into the beautifully manicured holes. While it’s certainly somber to have created a “monument” that goes down into the earth rather than high above it, the new shiny Freedom Tower will do that. It’ll literally stand tall for all they were and all we, as a city, has become in their honor. This, however, is a tribute to the fallen, and cascading water into the ground seems profoundly appropriate and immensely metaphoric to me. I hope those who lost someone feel the same.
I knew someone who died that day. I think every New Yorker did. Josh Birnbaum wasn’t a close friend at the time, but his was a high school name I wouldn’t forget — mostly because our French teacher Mrs. Barry was always calling it: “Josh, ecoutez vous?” “Josh, avez-vous terminé la lecture du Petit Prince encore?” (Did you finish reading The Little Prince yet? Thank you Google Translate — sorry, Mrs. Barry!)
He teased me often, which I suspected was his way of flirting. I never really allowed him to pursue it, though. Funnily enough, years later, our paths crossed outside the classroom as the pair of us became part of the 90s rave scene. (Don’t judge!) While I focused more on contemplating a tongue piercing, buying terribly unflattering Jnco jeans and perfecting my glowstick figure 8, Josh was all about the music. Somewhere between parlez-vous Francais? and 1998, he became DJ Samsson. Occasionally, I’d go with Amy — who I was with coincidentally on the morning of 9/11 — to hear him spin and to practice my figure 8’s. I still have some of his tapes.
While it had been some time since I’d said bonjour to Josh, I never quite imagined having to say goodbye in such a way.
Now, every year when they announce the names on TV, I — and everyone else in my family — wait until they read his before continuing on with our days. See? We all knew someone.
So I’m relearning my city and remembering small tidbits that maybe a true New Yorker would never forget. But it’s funny the things that do stick with us, oui?