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    Thursday, September 07, 2006

    Old New Yorkers, Newer New Yorkers, Emotion, Territory, and Distance

    There's an incredible snobbiness about New Yorkers that often manifests in a who-was-here-first, the-best-hole-in-the-wall-to-get-gelato-is-..., you-know-you're-a-real-New-Yorker-when-..., if-you-can-make-it-here-..., attitude. (Just to be on the up-and-up, I'll admit having indulged in such snobbery from time to time.) The longer I live here, the more I realize that I'm not a "real New Yorker" and probably never will be because I'm not a real, authentic, unadulterated anything or anyone, though, postmodernist critique aside for the moment, I sort of think there may be some real, authentic, unadulterated _______s out there. But it's hard not to identify pretty strongly with being a New Yorker when I think back to 9/11.

    But let me be clear: I did not know anyone killed. I was not in Lower Manhattan. I did not see it happen. I am not, in any real way, an "owner" of the experience. However, one thing I will never forget as long as I live was watching the city I love fall limp around me with grief and shock. The liveliest, most energetic thing I'd ever met dulled like a light flipped off. That to me, far more than any particular image of the towers, is Sept 11. And the fact is that, though one could see the Trade Centers topple from any television in the world, one could not feel the whole of New York City waste away in the blink of an eye. Only someone who had lived there and loved it, who felt it was her home, could feel that particular loss. There are losses I didn't feel and couldn't begin to understand. But what I felt was something particularly New Yorker and I think my love for this city, that began long before that day, has since developed out of it.

    In today's New York Times, there's an article on the divide between New Yorkers who lived here on Sept. 11, 2001 and those who didn't.

    It reminded me of a day last year in a grad school class where the professor asked if anyone in the classroom had been here for Sept 11 besides himself. I was the only one. And I suddenly felt afraid. And I have no idea, no idea, no idea why that would be the emotion that came to me in that moment.

    I am always surprised to meet people who moved to NYC after 9/11. It seems strange to me that they would have done so, but, of course, why not? Living elsewhere in the country and the world, one is often told how very very dangerous it is here, so one who chooses to move here has obviously come to terms with that before making the decision. Somehow though, I am still taken aback.

    It's hard to know what effect it had on my fears about terrorism. I don't know if I'm more afraid than other New Yorkers who moved here after 9/11. I doubt it. I think it might actually just be being in the City itself, rather than the firsthand memory. But there's no doubt that I am far more afraid of another terrorist attack than people I know who live in other places. When I'm not in NYC (or DC) and I get my usual heart-clench at the sound of a low-flying plane, I always breathe a sigh of relief when I remember I'm not in NY, so it's unlikely that it's a terrorist attack.

    One quote in the second article caught my attention:

    Nearly a third of New Yorkers said they thought about Sept. 11 every day.

    I can't imagine that being accurate. I can't believe that there's any New Yorker who doesn't think about every day. Not that it crosses their mind, but that they think about it. I don't think I'm oversensitive here.

    I'd like to know how many times, in an average week, other New Yorkers fear a terrorist attack. Despite my survey research background, I have no clue how to formulate that question: "When you see someone put down their briefcase on the train, what percentage of the time do you feel a panic?" or "When you feel your building moving and settling, what percentage of the time is your first thought that there's been another terrorist attack?" or "When you see someone open their compact and powder their nose vigorously on the train, do you wonder if she's got anthrax ... all of the time, most of the time, some of the time, a little of the time, or none of the time?"

    I am a big Gothamist fan these days, so here's what they say. In the comments section, people start to discuss the smell. Which actually made me feel sick with memory. And, like I said, I wasn't even in Lower Manhattan.

    I am also fascinated by the experiences others shared in comments: the particular feeling of having been born and raised in NYC, but not being there on 9/11, the particular feeling of being in the suburbs of NYC and having so many of your loved ones there and not knowing where they were, the particular bold, fearless solidarity shared by those who moved here afterward.

    I think what Dave H. says makes most sense:

    I'd like to say this is a stupid debate, but it reminds me of the episode of "Rescue Me" in which a NYFD firefighter in a grief counseling group berated its other members when he found out that they were nowhere near the WTC on 9/11. He had a legit point. There are differing levels of trauma associated with horrific events.

    This is true even for the person who was with me the entire day, my partner, A, upon whom the event made far less of an impact at the time, though we both have come to realize how it affected us in different ways over time.

    This is strange, but I think there's a defensiveness and territorialism over any pain. As someone who was not born and raised here, I became a sort of 9/11 ambassador to the states of Colorado and Kansas, where all my family live. And my defensiveness came, I think, from having had the memory evoked against my will by sometimes innocent and truly caring questions from innocent and truly caring people that weren't there and wanted to know how it felt. I didn't want to be caught off guard with, "What was it like? How did it feel?" and be taken back to that time. I was also offended by people who didn't seem to care enough. My sister never once, never one time, asked me what it was like around 9/11. She didn't call me or speak with me at that time because she was mad that she thought I'd stolen a bra of hers on my last visit. (Seriously.) And she never apologized for that, she never said, "I wish I'd been there for you. What was it like?" and that's something I don't know if I'll ever get over, though she's one of the closest people in the world to me.

    There's a way in which I don't want to ever have to tell anyone how anything feels. I am always annoyed and offended when someone says, "Wow, what was it like to move from little ole Colorado to New York City?" Instead of saying, "It was a profoundly beautiful experience of liberation I can't describe, at the same time as it was fraught with difficulties I didn't even realize until it was over and blah, blah, blah," I want to say, "Ummm. Hmmm. Fuck you." Or, as a gentleman asked me the other day, "What's it like to be a beautiful woman and get shouted at on the street?" Well, sir, none of your beeswax. All because words cannot express something that's mine and I am, in some sense, comforted by that distance.

    But I have no idea how to handle it when I'm the one on the other side of that distance. For example, the other day I met a woman who just moved here from Louisiana and, before I knew it, I was talking about Katrina. Because, though the pain I feel is drastically different from the pain she feels about Katrina, I feel pain about Katrina. Just like my unassuming aunts and uncles and cousins and grandmothers and family friends felt pain about 9/11 from hundreds of miles away. And, though it is perhaps a strange comparison, the born-and-bred-on-the-coasts people who ask me about what it's like to come from Colorado are asking because they are part of the rift, they are on one side of a national tear and they feel it, though ever-so-differently; and men who see women harassed on the street probably feel their own frustration, though frustration of another kind.

    I wish our language allowed a certain space around these emotions, a way to express that the pain we feel about things and the pain we feel from things is different, and even that one specific experience collides with so many other factors, often unknown, to compound or diminish or simply reconfigure our reactions and our relationships to one event or structure or another. It's why identity politics, without anything other analytical mechanism, never works to explain how things feel, whether identity is gender or identity is pre-9/11 New Yorker. Emotion is intersectional, personal, and relies on being internalized, in pieces, and shared, in other pieces.

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