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There Be My Dragons

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I’m a museum junkie, and New York is full of them. Art museums, history museums, kitsch museums, a museum of sex (which I kind of can’t believe I haven’t seen), you name it. Today, the city added another one to its roster.

And I am already quite sure that it is one that I should not ever visit.

I’ve had a complicated relationship with the events of 9/11. I was living here at the time, in an apartment close enough to the Twin Towers that I actually heard the impact of each plane as it hit; close enough to be part of the “Frozen Zone” that first week, and close enough to qualify for free health care if I ever contract any 9/11-related physical symptoms. Both of the industries I worked in at the time – theater and office temp work – also took major hits in the aftermath.

But I don’t look like the “typical” 9/11 survivor – I didn’t work in the Towers, or near there, nor did any of my family or friends. Nor do I personally know anyone who lost their lives that day. The closest I got was that an actor I’d worked with a half a year prior escaped from the Towers before they collapsed; I heard through theater channels that he moved to Philadelphia very soon thereafter, and I never saw him again; but I’d only had the briefest of relations with him anyway, he was only one of the lengthening list of actors who flitted in and out of my life in those days; someone I worked with a couple times, spending two intense months in daily rehearsals and performances, and that intimacy snapping off after the show closed and everyone went their own way.

So I’ve had a much easier time of it than most, and I realize that. I went through the same crisis mode everyone in the city did during that first year after, but not having to grieve for a lost husband or lover or child or friend gave me one less thing to worry about, and not having any of the health affects gave me still one less thing on top of that. It was only my hometown that was attacked, only things I witnessed that I had to recover from.

I’ve had the luxury of getting to the point where my only post-9/11 symptoms are psychological and intellectual ones – mainly a bit of moodiness on the anniversary each year, which I’ve learned to cope with by shutting myself in the house and tackling some vaguely annoying and taxing household task (usually canning tomatoes – it takes a long time, it’s just enough busywork to distract me, it’s unpleasant so I can justify being cranky, and the reward when I’m done is huge). I’ve also gotten thoroughly cranky at anyone who seems to be exploiting the day for their own ends; mainly politicians, who often wrap themselves in the “Never Forget” sloganeering in an effort to make themselves look suitably patriotic, but then turn down political actions which would benefit victims of the attack, like the Senators who initially struck down the first First Responders health care bill.  But I’ve also taken a really dim view of the people who look like they’re making a buck off the attacks with all manner of commemorative tack – coins, Etsy-made crap like magnets and teddy bears and blankets, commemorative coffee gift baskets, even wine. Blessedly, the figurine that the Precious Moments company designed expressly to commemorate 9/11 was apparently never released.

All that tat is one reason why I was already a little uneasy about the 9/11 Museum. A lot of the people making the collectible stuff claimed to be donating part of their proceeds to the Museum; and frankly, I’d rather have waited a bit longer on the museum if it meant we wouldn’t have had to see 9/11 wedding cake toppers or whatever out in the world. Not that I wished there weren’t one, mind you – something that gets at more of the truth of that day is always good, lest the story be carried by people with particular axes to grind. But I was already pretty sure it was a museum I was gonna skip. I’ve always thought any of the commemorative tat in gift shops to be on the tacky side – things emblazoned with logos or what-not. And I really didn’t need to see any that also had a logo commemorating what was effectively one of the worst days of my life.

Because I already remembered that day plenty well, and that was the problem. A few years back, on the anniversary, I let myself chew out the friend of a friend on Facebook – someone who primly noted that she hadn’t seen very many people commenting on the day, and how funny it was that we all forgot so quickly. Not her – she’d gotten her children up early and dressed them up in red, white, and blue for the early Mass that day, and…goodness, wasn’t it funny how many people seem to have forgotten?

And I responded that I’d lived less than a mile away on the day of the attacks, had heard both planes hit, and had to spend the next three months under a haze of smoke from the site and the next year seeing the city wallpapered with missing persons signs, and that trying to forget some of the things I’d seen and heard was the only way I’d been able to stay sane.  I got thirty replies from other people who said “I can’t even imagine what that must have been like,” and then everyone left me blessedly alone for the rest of the day.

The thing is, though, I really had been trying to forget a lot of what I’d seen and heard and felt in those weeks – and up until today I thought I’d succeeded. This past anniversary felt pretty much like an ordinary day again, for the first time, and I was unbelievably grateful. So a couple days ago, when the New York Times posted a virtual tour of the new museum, I clicked through to look at the pictures.

And there was everything again. Fragments of the fallen planes. A beat-up fire truck. An officeworker’s shoes. Charred paper, out of someone’s wallet. A shrine to fallen firefighters.

And after only a few minutes of looking I started to feel a quiver in my chest which I haven’t felt in nearly thirteen years. I started flashing back to hearing a solid twelve hours of sirens streaming south on the FDR drive, three blocks away. Hearing how many people had had to walk home over the Brooklyn Bridge, including my friend Colin who’d had to also walk all the way south from the Javitts Center on top of it. Seeing every station house in the city with its own makeshift shrine outside, and a list of the three or four men who’d been killed in the attacks – every single stationhouse, no matter where you went, had its list and its pictures and its burnt-out candles next to a couple of dead and dried carnations taped to the wall under the names. And the paper was just like all the scraps of paper blowing around Downtown Manhattan right after – boring, ordinary paper, like you’d find in any office, half-completed fax cover sheets and random pages of financial reports and memos full of businesspeak, flying loose on the street, and all of them with ragged charred edges and it always took you by surprise because you forgot for a split second exactly why they would be charred and then you smelled the smoke that was everywhere and then you remembered, and that just got you thinking again about one thing you were trying to forget which was exactly what it was that was burning. Just like you tried to make yourself turn a blind eye to all the missing-persons posters going up because there was really only one place those missing people could be, but those posters were still up, begging and hoping against hope, and the smoke lingering over the city telling you that no, there was no hope in this case….

That feeling is the one I’ve been trying to forget for 13 years. I don’t even know if it has a name – I don’t want to know its name. I don’t even want to feel it again, and yet I felt it again yesterday looking at those pictures.

It is probably best for all concerned if I take a pass on this one New York museum. My own head is saturated with this enough.


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