Eighteen years. Eighteen short/long years.
To Jews the number eighteen is special. “Chai” equals 18. That means “life.”
L’ Chaim is a toast you’ve probably heard on TV, in a movie or a show. It means: “to life.”
Today is a day to celebrate life. Today is a day to remember watching, in much disbelief, two beloved buildings fall down.
Today is the day we remember every moment of 9/11/2001 with sadness and some awe.
For members of my generation, the baby boomers, it must be like December 7th, 1941 was to our parents — but that day had closure; we won.
Maybe it is more like the day John F Kennedy was assassinated, a day I remember with clarity. It was the day Camelot ended. We weren’t to know it then, but it was the day postwar euphoria, prosperity, and faith in the future was going to begin to erode.
This isn’t meant to be about meaningless wars. I can’t help but think of all the people who have left parts of their selves or their lives in faraway countries. “Thank you for your service,” doesn’t begin to suffice.
Many younger people don’t understand the importance of 9/11. My instinct is to say that’s OK. It’s not OK. America changed that day in ways we don’t really understand yet.
As all my friends and relatives know, a month later my mother fell and died fifteen minutes later.
I’m not a crier but I lived near three fire stations. One lost eleven, the second thirteen and the third seventeen. That’s 41 firemen, just from my part of the Upper West Side, who died. I would walk past the fire stations, look at the memorials and begin to cry.
I had to go to Long Island often, and at the Long Island Rail Road, I would look at letters from kids all over the world and begin to cry. That was a cry of hope.
When I went downtown I was lost. The Towers had always been there to guide me to my many jobs, and other places. It didn’t seem right. Nothing seemed right. Since The Towers were no longer there to guide me, my balance seemed less sure. I felt unmoored.
When I wanted to bawl from sadness I would go down to Union Square and look at the missing posters. There were times that I didn’t know if I was crying for buildings or for my mother. It was difficult. So difficult my love for New York began to erode just a bit.
Seven years after 9/11 almost to the month I sold my apartment and moved to South Carolina to begin a new life. I have lived here for over a decade now and have a new life. A good life.
Yet there are many moments I yearn for New York. Then I remember how many of my friends have left.
I remember that 9/11 brought new blood into the city; people with more money than I, and New York is damn unaffordable.
Once in the late 1980s, my best friend’s father came to New York from California. We drove through Manhattan to show him 1980s, New York. He saw the New York we lived in, and the New York he had lived in, in the 1920s through ‘70s, at once. I marveled at that. Now I’m older (not nearly as old as he was) and I’m beginning to understand for when I go to New York I see many New Yorks mixed together.
EB White, the author, said many things best. He said that New York was ever-changing; that the best New Yorker’s weren’t us natives but the people who came to the city hungry to make it.
I took umbrage at that and in some ways still, do. Yet many of my friends were immigrants, and I always thought that they belonged in New York as much as I do. (White was, I believe, talking about people from other states.)
I feel sorry for the newcomers as they will never know the New York that I knew. But my father felt sorry for me as I never knew the New York he knew though I heard his stories, and feel as if I know East Harlem when he grew up so long ago.
I understand what EB White meant much better now. New York has always belonged to the young, to the dreamers, to the people who have a strong desire to make it.
Understand this: I and everyone I know who left didn’t leave because of 9/11. We left for a variety of reasons mostly having to do with money and quality of life. I wanted to know what it was like to live in more than 630 square feet; to have outdoor space; to have a washer/dryer and dishwasher. (Material girl, I am.)
But I miss the magic of New York City streets.
New York will always be the place my grandparents and great grandparents came to on a boat and never left. It will always be the place that afforded their children opportunities to be educated; to have careers; to move freely among others without fearing that they would be physically attacked. They could vote in New York; own land — so many things that had been denied them in Belarus.
Until recently I took all this for granted. Not anymore.
New York is a sanctuary city. It has always welcomed immigrants for we knew and know how much they have to offer. They add color, vibrancy, great food from many lands, skills oh so many skills, and yes they do the jobs that none of us deem to be fitting.
I had promised myself that I would never politicize 9/11. Now I think a bit differently. We live in uncertain, startling times. To not speak out would be a cowardly act. In my parents and grandparents memory, I will always speak out. It is my way of honoring them. It’s also a New York thing.
I have hope. Eighteen means luck and I have faith that we, the American people, will rise up. For not to rise up means the terrorists really did win. And we can never let that happen.
The cartoon above is by R. O. Blechman, a client, and a friend of my father’s. It’s always been my favorite 9/11 image as it expresses exactly what I feel.
Blechman spent 25 years building an incredible studio on West 47th Street, The Ink Tank. His home was on the Upper West Side and Madonna bought the apartment next door. To me, he epitomizes the wonders of Manhattan. Like so many of us, he left. In his case for his summer home upstate.