13 years after 9/11

Everyone´s experience of 9/11 is personal.  (Can such a defining event be otherwise?)  13 years later it still remains a watershed day: there was life before it and life after it, they are different, and we never regained the comparative innocence of the late 90s.

This is my story.

Until a year before the attacks I spent a day or two each week in the area around the WTC, and still had client relationships which led to short trips every few months after that.  My main client there was AIG, the preferred hotel was the Marriott WTC, client meetings over dinner were often at Morton´s Steakhouse on West St across from the corner of the WTC, our breakfast meeting spot of choice was Windows on the World, the top floor restaurant in one of the main towers, and evening decompression drinks were often at the Tall Ships bar at the Marriott.   All these are now gone, although technically AIG lives on in name if not in spirit.

In Vino Veritas anchored near Isla Vedra, Ibiza.  Still innocent.  Early morning 9/11/2001.

On 9/11 I was a few weeks into a 2 month solo sail in the western Mediterranean, my form of therapy following the split from my ex-wife.  From the anchorage in the shadow of Isla Vedra at the south end of Ibiza it was a few hours of sunny sailing to San Antonio, Ibiza.  Arriving in town around lunchtime I popped ashore for a newspaper and a small lunch in the club nautico.  On the way back to the boat I received a rather incoherent call from my mother saying there had been a big plane crash in America.

Turning on my heels and heading back ashore I saw pictures on a Spanish TV channel of the WTC attacks.  My Spanish was nowhere near good enough to understand what was happening, so I went searching in San Antonio´s multitude of English bars for news in English – with little success.  While most of the world was transfixed watching the events unfold, most of the English holiday pubs were showing soccer.  I finally found one bar with a news channel on, being watched by a group of young British guys already very drunk by mid-afternoon, and cheering each time the planes were shown hitting the towers.

With a better understanding of the events I was sure that people I knew had died.  The consulting company I worked for had a regional HQ in Boston and the Boston-NYC shuttle was a regular commuter flight for colleagues.  There were plenty of people I knew at AIG who commuted from New Jersey on the PATH train, terminating under the WTC.  It was eminently possible that some colleagues or clients were having a breakfast meeting that day at Windows on the World.  To the drunken Brits in the bar this was all a long way away, perhaps comparable to the Bhopal disaster years earlier, but for me it was personal and present tense.  It was only 2 months since I was last there.

I don’t think I ever felt as alone as I did that Tuesday afternoon in Ibiza.  Surrounded by my countrymen, feeling absolutely nothing in common with them, indeed even questioning their humanity.  I know that they are not representative of Brits in general, but something in me changed that day.  It was the tipping point on a journey fuelled by the liberating freedom I felt living in the US compared to the oppressively congealed UK, and I went from being merely indifferent to my nationality to being estranged from it.   At a political level Blair´s subsequent actions, with the passive support of most British people, added to that sense of estrangement.  Thirteen years later, with the help of Elgar´s oh-so-English music in bright Peruvian sunshine, I have slowly started to rebuild bridges to my nationality.  But there is a long way to go.

13 years is a long time, and 9/11 is less painful now than it was say a decade ago, but the best words and music from that time still hit something deep inside.  Two pieces stand out for me.

The first, Land of the Living by Lucy Kaplansky, is a sublimely human meditation on the events of that day.   (Ignore the embarrasingly literal video that someone has added…)

The second is Ani DiFranco´s raw, angry, thoughtful poem/polemic Self Evident.  Time has dated a few of the references, but the feelings about 9/11 still ring true even now. Maybe more so now, with the blood of countless Iraqis and Afghans running together with the blood of coalition soldiers.

As it turned out I was mercifully wrong about people I knew dying in 9/11, although plenty I knew at that time were directly caught up in it.  Some have never talked about the day, others told it as a story over beers that always seemed to lead to bourbon shots, and one colleague left the US within half a year, unable to live with the altered view of the Manhattan skyline from Hoboken as a daily reminder of his lost friends and colleagues.  Everyone deals with it somehow, and life goes on, many living perhaps a bit more in the present.  And just maybe that is a gift hidden within the pain of 9/11.