We Are All Infected
Today marks 15 years since I started high school. How do I know that with such great precision? Because the first plane went into the first tower while we were unloading my things from the family car at a storied New England boarding school. I remember having no real concept of what had happened. My parents understood; they were scared and had to get home to my little sister in New Jersey and check on their friends and colleagues in the city. But I could not understand. Planes flying into towers? Sounds like something out of a movie, and so very removed from my own experience even though I lived just across the Hudson River and my father had worked in that area for a time. I loved the Winter Garden as a kid, and its palm trees growing indoors with such determined randomness. My dad would get me ice cream when I visited and I could eat ice cream and look at palm trees while it snowed.
Eventually I did understand what had happened and now, after 11 years in New York, have heard the stories first hand from those old enough to remember, to have been there, to have made this choice or that choice on a given day that turned out to be that day. The sense of 9/11 is still reverberating through the city even if we don't want to see it. The way we tend to bluster. The way we yell at someone walking slowly as though we're afraid if we don't move fast enough we'll be trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time. The way subway delays move quickly from provoking annoyance to fear. What if this time something has actually happened?
New York has, or so I've been told, always been rough, but deep in our collective core our fears are no longer local. The muggings and the bullets and the random dudes who run around slashing people in the face are par for the course. No, the true fear is now global. It is the fear of living in one of the world's great cities and knowing that it is a target. That we are targets. The constant vigilance against threats known and unknown lives in this city's inhabitants. We are always alert. I'm sure people disagree with me and feel that their yoga and their SoulCycle or their rough neighborhood and rough upbringing absolve them from this deeper, globally sourced fear. Their problems have been released or are in the here and now, both of which are freeing in their own way. If that is their truth then I wish them the best, but I don't believe them. I see it in all of our eyes, the constant calculating risk and reward. Whether or not today will be the day we emerge from underground and find rubble where our bodega or school or home once stood.
9/11 was a trauma, and its effect is far-reaching. It catches like a virus so that even those who were not present on that day have a ball of adrenal anxiety to call their own. The past, present, and future of New York has been infected. After a tragedy, press and politicians and Facebook commenters give lip service to letting the affected heal. Giving them time to heal. Promoting healing in the community. These asinine statements fail to recognize the integral fact that healing is ongoing. Healing is the work of a lifetime, not a period to be completed and left behind. It has been 15 years and this city is not healed. People come and people go, but the city is still here, still traumatized, and still stuck in the reactions of fight, flight, and freeze. The city shares that pain with us, perhaps hoping that through dispersal it will weaken into nothingness. But we are all infected, and we are all afraid.
I don't have a prescription or a quick fix, and I bet those who do think this problem has long been solved. I do, however, think we can be a touch nicer to each other. We can take a breath or two to realize that we are all acting out of fear, and in return deserve compassion and love. Just a little nicer. After all, if you manspread on the subway, the terrorists win.