I remember the impenetrable cloud of dust and smoke at Ground Zero, the silence around the city as you heard police sirens racing up and down the avenues for days after the event, the view of masses stampeding from the site and then marching zombified uptown and across the bridges to Brooklyn.
I remember the smoke that wouldn’t go away, the stench that wouldn’t go away, I remember the rubble — two million tons of it in plain sight when they finally allowed pedestrians to pay their stunned tribute below 14th Street. I remember watching on television people hurling themselves from the windows of the towers and the strange, audible “plop” that eyewitnesses on the scene said they heard each time a body pounded the ground.
I remember the rows of ambulances from all corners of the Eastern Seaboard lined up along the Hudson like colorful floats in a parade, waiting and waiting, even after it was obvious there were not going to be survivors in need of ambulances. I remember the uncertainty, the panic, the disbelief, the horror, the rage.
I remember how all of our phones, cell phones especially, had died. I remember New York being a city under the blitz. I remember how I went to pick up my twins in fourth grade and how I tried not to tell them what had happened when, simply from the look on the faces headed uptown, it was so clear to them that something dreadful had just happened.
I remember the improvised shrines all over the city that same night as people lit candles, prayed and sang. I remember the photographs of faces taped at improvised walls along the city. “I am looking for my sister,” one inscription read. “Have you seen her?” read another.
And I remember New York. How a city that thronged with foreigners and so many tourists became, within the space of a week, what it was in 1968: insular, monolingual, mono-everything, slipping back in time the way some Jewish families that have known great wealth suddenly slip back to the poverty of their grandparents, which they vaguely remember and thought they had permanently put behind.
New York felt quiet, haunted, like a small town in Eastern Europe that continues to feel empty years after the Germans left. No bustling crowds, no hawking vendors, no traffic, an air of curfew. On major thoroughfares you could hear the subway underground. New York, like Prague or Vilna, would never be the same, I thought.
How many years would it take for New York to become itself again, I wondered, before people would again clutter the sidewalks of Chinatown, or nightlife would return to Hudson Street?
Even now, I wonder when, if ever, will signs reading “If you see something, say something” go the way of the yellow-and-black fallout shelter signs?
New Yorkers alive today may never live to see the mason who’ll lay the last stone on the unfinished Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. I can live with this. But I want to be around on the day they rebuild the site of the World Trade Center. I want to be around when the site will no longer even be called Ground Zero, which means the point of detonation of a nuclear warhead.
My children are university students today. They have moved on. Cities, too, have their way of handling time. In this, New York is like Athens and Jerusalem. After the Persians destroyed the old Parthenon, the Athenians dug deep pits around its site and buried the broken statues and unsalvageable spoils of their razed temple. What they buried they venerated.
After the total destruction of Solomon’s temple, the Jews returned from Babylon and built the Second Temple. Parts of it, like the Parthenon, still stand today. Sack these cities as many times as you wish, they always come back, stronger each time.
New Yorkers now share a similar experience. We shipped almost all the rubble from the World Trade Center to Fresh Kills, a landfill in Staten Island. So, yes, like the Greeks and the Jews, we move on. But rubble doesn’t forget, rubble seldom forgives and rubble never heals.
André Aciman’s latest book, “Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere,” will be published this month. Other works include “Call Me By Your Name, a Novel” and “Out of Egypt: A Memoir.” His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books and elsewhere.