My first contact with a family member in the immediate hours following the events of the morning of 9/11 was my sister. She’d been up all night feeding my nephew, then less than three weeks old. She was crying. “Hormones and no sleep,” she said, “don’t mix well with tragedy.”
My buddy Paul was missing. She knew him as the kid who got stuck hanging out with me all through high school. A smart guy, a big guy. A handsome guy, a clever guy.
She didn’t know what to say.
“What do you mean missing? You mean you can’t get ahold of him?”
“I mean he worked in one of the towers.”
And then a pause. A small chortle from my nephew. Some tears.
“What will this world be like for my son?”
…In the weeks that followed, her knee-jerk bothered me. I couldn’t quite pinpoint why. Maybe it’s because deep down I knew what Paul’s eventual fate would be. That he wouldn’t miraculously be found walking dazed and dust-covered around the Chelsea Pier triage shelter. That the fliers would simply crumple in the wind and blow away. That the picture we used—him in his specs from the last Thanksgiving, one eyebrow cocked—would be the image indelible to his family, his friends and millions of strangers, for the rest of time.
But in that moment, that actualization of the finality of it all was far from realized. How selfish, I thought, that she skips right over to her son.
…I now understand—hers was the right reaction.
My nephew, now a freshman in high school, a part of the student council and a dedicated runner, did not grow up in a police state. He doesn’t act inconvenienced at airports. He refuses to feel threatened when he walks onto campus. He wants to explore: different cultures, different foods, different people. And he’s found, thus far, that everyone—everyone is actually pretty nice to one another.
But there’s another layer: He’s also grown up inured to daily disasters. There is gun violence. There is cop violence. There is violence against cops. He knows only unrest in the Middle East, instability in the Eastern Bloc and a defining culture of consumerism in his homeland. There is the Taliban. There is ISIS. He’s either used to the unimaginable or has learned to ignore it, or both. The majority of his communication—with his peers, his elders, his teachers and coaches—is done through a black screen that fits in his palm.
Everything is much easier and at once much harder for him. It used to be, if you have a voice, develop it and use it. Now it’s if you have a voice, make sure it fits with what everyone else wants to hear or prepare to suffer the consequence.
I look at him, especially now that he’s at the beginning of the most treacherous, most glorious and ultimately most defining decade of his life, and I think what will your world be like?
Four years ago, I spent the afternoon walking around Manhattan on 9/11 with a mutual friend—one of Paul’s buddies from college. It was the 10-year anniversary and the reflection pools memorial had just opened. We had an event to go to that evening sponsored by Paul’s old company and some time to kill in between. Nothing in the city, save for the footprint of the site, seemed out of place or on pause that day. New York is the watch that never needs winding (or charging). At one point, in search of a slice, I asked him if people ever talked about 9/11 at work.
“Not really,” he said. “I’m one of the last ‘pre-9/11’ guys on my floor. The rest were in college or high school. They know it as something they had to study in class.”
We talked for a minute about history curriculum eventually turning 9/11 into names and dates to memorize for a quiz and what a fucking pity that will be.
Living in Manhattan a decade after that day, he said he felt like the third-year senior in high school. Most of the guys who were there have since left the city for Brooklyn or some other New York Times-friendly suburb, or—more likely—retreated to their home state to start a family.
“In some ways,” he said, “It’s hard to imagine 9/11 was real. To this day, when something happens on SNL or the Giants win, I still expect my phone to ring and it to be Paul.”
I used to take every 9/11 off of work. My ritual was a long run in the morning followed by a really good lunch, usually by myself, followed by a beer that evening with the buddies I grew up with.
My rationale was that my friend, and 3,000 others, died that day simply going to work. And all of them—each one—probably had a fleeting thought in those final mortal moments that there is so so much more I wanted to do…than be here.
And I wasn’t going to let that happen, or at least I was going to live one day a year the way I thought fit.
In more recent years, I’ve shown up to work in the morning and put in a full day. Maybe it’s because my responsibilities are different now. Maybe it’s because 9/11 always happens on the back end of Labor Day weekend and I’m still trying to catch up. Maybe I’m simply not as principled anymore. Maybe my original promise to the victims of 9/11 was just a carefully choreographed excuse to play hooky.
Or maybe it was just time to get back to work.
I don’t mention Paul in the workplace anymore. On the anniversary, people share their 9/11 “stories” and mostly, because I’m on the West Coast, it involves watching it on some TV somewhere. I smile, bemused with their connection. I also now work with people who were in elementary school when it happened. I see what kind of world they’ve had to navigate and know it’s impossible for me to gauge whether their time will be better spent than mine. It’s futile, and lifetimes can be wasted trying to judge another’s experience through your own lens. What I have learned is often they’re so skilled at individual tasks one has to measure out delegation at a pace where they don’t pass you.
Of course, this has all come at the expense of creativity and critical thinking. But that’s just where we’re at.
I always think about Paul when I sit down at my desk on 9/11. The first thing he did that morning was send me an email complaining about his fantasy football team, most notably Marshall Faulk who had a disappointing Monday Night opener for the Rams.
And that’s the last I heard from him.
And here I am now. Almost a decade and a half later, checking my fantasy team and complaining.
I guess the world hasn’t changed much after all.