My neighbors are all women in their late twenties, and they have the priorities people their age have, like dating and FWBs. We have a picnic table in our backyard, and they like to hang out there when the weather is good, sometimes with the company of gentlemen callers. A handful of times, when I’m taking out the trash, they will invite me to sit with them. A handful of those times, I’ve taken them up on it. I never say anything, I just listen.
On one occasion, the subject of September 11 came up. They weren’t kind. They treated it as an overrated, overhyped spectacle that people needed to get over. If I really wanted to make them awkward, I could have told them where I was that day, but I’d probably no longer get invites to enjoy their show. Plus they’re kids. When I was twenty-seven, I wasn’t a kid, but twenty-seven-year-olds now are kids. Prior to September 11, 2001, I was pretty flippant about Vietnam and the people affected by it.
I wasn’t offended, and that’s because I’ve been writing a novel where two twenty-six-year-old women fall in love. They’re in Battery Park, New York City, and the subject of the 9/11 Memorial comes up, and it occurred to me as I was writing that the Twin Towers on fire looked just like a movie. If you were a kid, say five years old, when this happened, how would you be able to tell the difference? Maybe I should ask a Baby Millennial/Geriatric Zoomer.
My main character: “September 11 is Generation X’s defining moment, like Vietnam was for Boomers.”
Love Interest: “What’s the Millennials’ defining moment?”
Main Character. “Look around. Take your pick.”
If disaster and disaster came my way just as I’m becoming an adult or trying to settle down with my young family, and if the people in power don’t represent your viewpoint anymore and are legislating hard against people like you, somehow two buildings falling down doesn’t seem like that big a deal.
September 11 is old enough to drink or, in select states, purchase cannabis. What’s happened is that it, like every memory, grew hazy with time. September 11 was bad, but twice as many Americans died in Iraq fighting a war that was proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be manufactured by people who profited immensely from it and were never punished. Almost that amount died in New Orleans when a hurricane they should have been prepared for ravaged a US state, and many more died because relief efforts were so poorly planned. And so on, to this decade, when a virus spread through the country, killing almost a million people, which could have been contained if leadership wasn’t incompetent. Now we have mega-billionaires bending the country to their will and a reactionary minority preparing to take rights away from all of us.
All that in mind, what does 9/11 mean to me? It’s not the worst thing to happen to this country in the past thirty years. Why do I feel something heavy in the pit of my stomach every time I see the date on a calendar? Is it because I was there? Because everybody’s memory of September 11 is one tower burning while a plane crashes into the second, while mine is from a different angle, on the ground, looking up buildings so tall, you couldn’t see the top, now covered in flames and smoke.
My experience with COVID was disappointing, to say the least. I was hoping to be bedridden for a few days, but all I got was a headache. But twenty-one years ago, for about four hours in the morning, the world was on fire. Strangers would grab you and yell in your face that they destroyed the Pentagon! They’re taking out the bridges! And the guilt. I actually believed I could run in there and help people. I didn’t care how or what I did, I thought I could help. Instead, I ran. I’ve made a lot of decisions in my life, but that was probably the smartest.
This essay doesn’t have a clear thesis. Like September 11, there’s no lesson to be learned here. It reveals nothing about our humanity. My generation likes to think they’re jaded, latchkey kids who’ve seen it all. But we were spoiled. America won the Cold War and was riding high when we were young. We were the punching bags of the Boomers until Millennials came along with their avocado toast, and that’s really as bad as it got for us collectively. (Individually, I know a lot of Gen-Xers who’ve suffered unfairly in life, but as a whole, we’ve done pretty well.) Our innocence died on September 11, and as a result, the subsequent generations never really had any. Maybe that’s why I go back to that day, again and again, starting in August every year. It was the morning that changed everything, even for the Millennials and Zoomers who don’t realize it.It was the morning America got so scared that it went completely mad and hasn’t recovered since.
Imagine growing up in that.