“History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity.”
It was my day off.
I worked full-time at The Sharper Image at Ghiradelli Square. It was the highest-paying job I’d had at that point, but the assistant manager was a dick and one can only shill overpriced Chinese-made air purifiers to tourists for so long before he goes a little batty. As the one non-managerial full-time employee, that meant I would either help open or close the store – at 8am or 8pm – depending on the day. It meant dealing with people who wanted to return their Razor scooters because their kid didn’t like the colour. It meant having to chastise customers who didn’t understand why it’s a bad idea to hold a cold beverage on an electric leather massage chair. It meant eight straight hours of standing on my feet in uncomfortable shoes, chasing away shoplifting kids playing hooky, hearing that damned clock chime every six hours, and having to listen to the horn player in the courtyard play his Bobby Caldwell and Michael McDonald covers ad nauseum.
But not today; this was my day off. As such, I did what most anyone would do on their day off: I slept in. I think we all know the feeling of waking up some 30-or-so minutes before the alarm, trying desperately to fall back to sleep, only to realise that you can’t, and that you might as well get up now because you’ll be off to work anyway. Not on a day off, no sir! Time no longer has any meaning on such a day. Let the alarm go off at 6am, I dare it. Not only will slam that sucker off, I’ll pull the covers over and lie there ‘til noon if I feel like. When you’re 20-years-old and have all the time (and energy) in the world, the greatest feeling is the one that you can just relax.
It was around 10am when my father told me to get out of bed. “The worst thing to ever happen to America is happenin’.”
My experiences regarding 9/11, and the changes that followed, have always been from a distance: I watched the replays and updates through tv screens; I read about it provoking two American-involved Middle Eastern conflicts across that Pacific; I had Indian and Middle Eastern friends that would tell me about getting the third degree at the airport; hell, the fact that it happened in New York – a place I’ve wanted to visit since childhood, but, to date, have not – gave the whole thing a 3,000 mile literal distance. The images disturbed me, but I never had to breathe in the ash, dust, and smoke. I was struck by the loss of life, but I never saw any of those people on my daily commute. The sight of the collapsing towers is one none of us will ever forget, but I have no idea what it’s like to see such a radical and permanent change to your city’s skyline.
To my credit, I’ve been wise to never patronise to my New York-borne friends when they recollect that day. The last thing they need is someone-who-watched-from-the-safety-of-his-own-bedroom-on-the-other-side-of-the-country telling them “I feel your pain” and that “I’ll never forget where I was on that day”. What is it about loss that brings out a person’s most disingenuous nature? Sure, people may have the best of intentions at heart, but as the saying goes: “The road to Perdition is paved with the best of intentions.” Attempting to co-opt someone’s loss under the guise of sympathy is something I’ve always found reprehensible, be it an attempt to speak to the bereaved at a funeral, or faux patriots who have spent the last decade using 9/11 as an excuse for any and all things (“I lost something that day, too. We all did.”).
Yesterday marked the 11th anniversary of the towers falling. Like the day itself, yesterday was a Tuesday. I was at my parents’ house, as I was then and have been for the last four years, since losing my job. My 3 ½-year-old nephew also lives with us. Not to be crass, but I’ve spent the last decade watching 9/11 be exploited every which way but loose, so I chose to forego any documentaries or memorial tv specials.
Nevertheless, walking through the house I noticed something that struck me unexpectedly. As I was walking from my room, I could hear my parents in their bedroom talking over some memorial tv show. In the next room was my nephew, whose PBS cartoons I could make out coming from the tv he was watching (the boy loves Caillou). It was at that moment that I was struck with a sudden epiphany: of how a “generation gap” is more than a high-fallutin’ phrase thrown around by old folks looking for a return to the “good ol’ days. You see, my parents – both born in the ‘50s – have no idea what it was like for their parents to sit by the radio and hear updates about the attack at Pearl Harbor; my siblings and I will never really get what it was like for our parents to be school kids whose classes were interrupted by news of the assassinations of JFK or Martin Luther King; I was about a year older than my nephew when The Challenger blew up, but for the life of me, I can’t recall a single first-had detail about. And my nephew will never really know why 9/11 was such an horrific defining moment for those of us who watched it.
It’s jarring to think that he’s going to grow up in a world defined by policies based on an incident that occurred long before he was born. He’s part of a generation that will inevitably turn it from a tragedy into a Michael Bay-ish action picture and/or casually joke about it in sitcoms. He’ll grow up thinking that being unnecessarily groped before boarding an airplane is the way it’s always been. He might visit New York, but he’ll never know just how radically different the view was from downtown.
And yet, maybe that’s for the best? His generation will likely experience its own tragedies, wars, and setbacks – there’s no need to heap ours on them as well. “Never forget” won’t be a concern to them because they wouldn’t remember anyway. We’ll have the memorial monuments, tv specials, and an endless cache of first-hand information to place at their disposal; if they want to know what 9/11 was, all they need to do is ask.
For us, it was a day that changed everything. For them, it’s just another Tuesday.