For some reason, most people native to the New York metro area have never visited the city’s most historic landmarks. I’m no exception, having never set foot on Ellis Island or inside the Empire State Building. I’ve never been to most of the city’s renowned museums, and have almost no interest in seeing the world’s best theatrics being played out on and off Broadway. As a Long Islander, Manhattan is usually a stepping stone to other places more central to my life. At the same time, Manhattan has subconsciously remained at the center of the last decade and a half of my life.
I can recall September 11, 2001 and replay it in my head like a movie, from the moment our school began to send everyone home that morning. I was home in time to see the second plane ram into its target, sending flaming shards of glass and steel across the skyline. That day has shaped the path of my entire life, directing me towards the military and foreign affairs. As the American mission in Afghanistan winds down this year, the 9/11 chapter of my life closes with it. I’ve seen two invasions, occupations and withdrawals unfold overseas on the same TV where I watched live as WTC 2 was attacked. I purposely studied “Critical Languages” and trained with the Army for the last three years, gearing myself for a life spent among murkier lands in Central Asia. Yet somehow, through all these years, I never actually visited Ground Zero.
Our class visited Conde Nast’s new offices in One World Trade Center yesterday. More commonly known as the Freedom Tower, it stands ferociously tall, and I found myself rather intimidated by its size as we walked in. It was sleek on the inside, meticulously styled to impress. Glamour magazine’s offices sprawl across several floors, their black and white interior design scheme not-so-subtly exuding the power and influence of Conde Nast’s media empire. I found myself quietly appreciating the notion that one of America’s most vain, materialistic and feminine publications proudly lives at the Freedom Tower, publishing content jihadists must certainly loathe. I’m not a Glamour reader, but I liked their quietly standoffish attitude. They loaned the Freedom Tower their own sense of superiority and pride.
Afterwards was the inevitable visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. I got a preview of the waterfalls from Glamour’s windows. For lack of a better term, it was surreal. I can’t describe how it felt to look down for the first time at the place where the last fourteen years of my life began. Standing beside them a bit later, I was torn between searching the stone outlines of the towers for the names I knew to be there, or letting them be in peace. I halfheartedly scanned about half of the North Tower names before following the group inside the museum. I didn’t find anyone familiar. Half of me didn’t want to. I didn’t necessarily want my mind to be jolted into vivid, obscure memories of old neighbors or parents of friends I’ve not spoken to in years. The other part of me longed for them to be back, but wasn’t brave enough to bring them to life in my own head.
Everything in the museum was riveting. After passing through security perimeters reminiscent of US embassies, we plunged underground into the caverns below Ground Zero, where I set off alone through the exhibits. I’m normally very good at keeping my composure, but the museum severely strained the limits of my stoicism. Walking along the scenes of 9/11 felt nearly as horrifying as the day had been a decade and a half ago. I’ve seen some pretty gruesome sights overseas, and am not one to flinch at the sight of blood or grisly injuries. But a gnarled, melted and punctured FDNY helmet that had been sheared off a dead fireman’s head sent me reeling on the inside. It was just one of many items on display that churned my emotions. Remains of an annihilated crushed fire truck, mangled police badges and photos of EMTs trying to staunch arterial bleeding drew my awful gaze. Recordings from flight attendants and firemen echoed their dying breaths, forcing their final moments into the minds of thousands of visitors. And me.
Afterwards I met my dad and a friend from high school for beers at a Belgian restaurant in midtown. I avoided talking about our visit to the World Trade Center, letting my buddy Connor entertain us with stories from his wild semester in London. After several pints of Palm and Leffe over dinner, Dad went home, and I intentionally continued down a course towards blackout with Connor. We’re both rather competitive by nature, so it was easy to drive the memories out of my head by going pint for pint with him while swapping stories from our collegiate misadventures. It was a wild, raucous night of immeasurable fun. But today, my memories from last night are foggiest, while 9/11 lives on in my head with unyielding clarity.