Newsletter 124: Another Damn September 11 Anniversary

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one’s from September 2018, about the annoying fact that September 11 happens every year.

For the first time since I moved away in 2013, I was in New York City for September 11 this year. I travel to NYC every two weeks to tape my Sports Illustrated show, and it’s a little disorienting how much more distant New York feels each time I’m here. It’s just not the place I used to live in anymore. It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different. When our youngest son Wynn was an infant, like two months old, I had to leave for three days for a work trip. When I returned, there were all sorts of things he was doing that he hadn’t been able to do when I left. He had changed while I was gone; he was a different person entirely. That’s how I feel about New York now. It rotates and dissolves and regenerates so quickly that if you leave it alone for a while, it’ll be different place when you come back, and if you leave for five years, it will essentially be unrecognizable to you.

I noticed this in small ways at first, my favorite old bar now being a Duane Reade, that sort of thing, but after five years, I’ve changed almost as much as the city has. I actually caught myself, a few months ago, letting the bellhop at my hotel hail a cab for me, which would be just about the most embarrassing thing a New Yorker could possibly do. I lived in NYC for more than 13 years, but I might as well be a traveling salesman from Omaha anymore. I come to town, I do my show, I grab a bite to eat, I have a drink and watch a game, I set a wake-up call with the front desk, I go to bed. I might as well be in Omaha.

But being here on September 11 brought it all back. It was telling how I found myself texting most of my friends from that time on Tuesday, just checking in, what’s up, hope all’s well. In the 17 years since 2001, we’ve grown up, mostly figured out our lives, gotten married, had kids, (mostly) moved out of town. But in 2001, we were just dipshit kids in our early 20s hopping from job to job and couch to couch, trying to get some sort of handle on who we were and what the hell we were doing out here, away from all our friends and families and everyone and everything we had ever held dear. We were all dreamers and ambitious — that’s why we were there in the first place. But it is truly astounding how little we knew, about anything. We were just flailing in the dark, being stupid kids. That’s the point of being in your early 20s anyway.

And then of course September 11 happened, the worst goddamned thing to ever happen happening right in the middle of our little fantasy playland. Everybody’s 9/11 stories are different, and they are all deeply personal and essential, whether you were just sitting in your kitchen in Utah or working in one of the towers or at the Pentagon. Mine is rather pedestrian, all told. I was working up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, answering phones for a doctor at Mount Sinai — Dr. Lewis Lipsey, who still works there — and trying to figure out how exactly all my hopes and dreams and ambitions had led me to being a rotating receptionist for an oncologist. (The answer: He had reliable internet so I could work on my own stuff all day, and I needed to pay my rent.) We didn’t have any televisions in the office, so we didn’t really understand what was going on that morning, which is why I was clueless enough to send this infamous email. Once it was clear there would be no patients coming up from downtown, they let us leave work, and, without a cellphone or any sort of way of contacting anybody, I just walked the 90-some blocks down to my friend Eric Gillin’s place, the notorious Camp Bowery, assuming everyone would just end up there because everyone always ended up there. On the way downtown, a camera crew stopped me on the street and asked me what I thought of what was going on. I have no idea what I said, but I have always wondered if that footage might pop up someday. Everyone was of course at Camp Bowery, and we went to the roof and stayed up all night smoking and drinking and watching the smoke billow.

When people ask me what we all did after September 11 in New York, I usually say, “we drank every night for two years.” It’s a glib answer, but that’s pretty much how everyone I knew processed it. I remember running into a fellow New Yorker friend in 2004 while on a work trip in San Francisco, and it took us three beers to inevitably start talking about 9/11. I think Aileen Gallagher, who I spent 9/11 with and also spoke at my wedding, and I have talked about September 11 in one way, shape or form at least 400 times, including again this last Tuesday night. If you lived it, no matter where you are, it’s still with you.

And you still process it, every day. I remember, when one of our friends was acting particularly erratic that day, telling Aileen, “There’s no wrong way to deal with this.” We all do it in our own way. And I’ll confess: Being in NYC when it happened, during the most formative, pivotal period of my life, of living with it every day, talking about it night after night, the place I’ve landed on, 17 years later, is oddly one of mostly irony. Perhaps it’s my generation, perhaps it’s a way to remove my emotions from the day, maybe I’m just an asshole, but for me, taking a step back from it and trying to wrangle with it from afar through humor is the only logical, rational way to handle it. I loved when Joe Mande used to make fun of how brands would try to “honor” 9/11 through social media.

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I once started a Tumblr mocking people’s self-righteousness and lack of self-awareness — including my own — called “9/11 Happened To Me!” that, alas, I forgot to renew and is now this. (I later wrote a piece about that for Daulerio’s Ratter site, but dammit, that’s gone too.) I think The Onion’s 9/11 issue, a week after the attacks, might have saved my damn life. When I talk about 9/11 in public, it’s in that context. It is forged through much fire. I think this is how most of the people I know dealt with it too.

It appears that this is no longer the dominant response. I found most of the “reflections” on September 11 this year — sorry, “Patriot Day” — performative and self-serving, a way to pretend to be solemn while making sure you get social capital by Taking The Day Very Seriously. In this way, I suppose, we are all brands now. I made a joke on Twitter about the time a bin Laden supporter took to the streets with a homemade sign that had a picture of Bert on it, which, I’m sorry, is objectively funny. But much of the response was tsk-tsking, as if even anything but the most stern, I’m Reflecting! face and tone were unacceptable. (There will be no mocking of Al Qaeda on 9/11!) Everyone seemed to be having a competition to see who could mark the day in the Most Somber Fashion.

I know, old man ranting about social media. But there is something a little unsettling about this performative suffering, one I’ve found, anecdotally, increases the less connection a person actually had to that day. It feels like someone barging into your family room to let you know that they are far more upset about your grandmother’s funeral than you are, than anyone, really. And it was the prevailing attitude on Tuesday: Performative reflection. If everyone had been truly as solemn as they were pretending to be on Tuesday, I have no idea how they got any work done.

Anyway, I was thinking a lot about this Tuesday, and whether thinking so much about this made me an asshole, and whether the scariest thing about getting older is looking around the world and wondering what in hell is going on in people’s brains and worrying that maybe it’s you that’s the problem, and still feeling displaced from the town I lived from the ages of 24 to 37, when I stepped into a bar just off Wall Street. There were two Port Authority guys, older, gruff, who were still in uniform after being at the ceremony that morning, like they’ve surely been every September 11 for the last 17 years. I sat down next to them, ordered a drink and turned my eyes to the Mets-Marlins game on the television. Despite another dominant pitching performance from Jacob deGrom, the Mets were losing 2–1 to the lowly Marlins.

“The Mets fucking suck,” said one to the other.
“It’s fucking unbelievable,” said the other.

This lead to an extended conversation about how much the Mets fucking suck and how it’s fucking unbelievable that the whole bar jumped in on, the bartender saying the Mets fucking suck, the young couple at the end drinking Rose saying it’s fucking unbeliveable, the old guy with his whiskey neat saying the Mets fucking suck, the guy in from Athens for the night who used to live here but can’t even call his own cab anymore saying it’s fucking unbelievable. And I felt at home with New York again, if just for the one night. This place, that day, all of it, it’ll be with me forever. It’s an inextricable part of my soul. It is who I am. It’s fucking unbelievable.

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Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021.

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