“Unfamiliar People” by Paul Weidknecht, New Jersey

September 11 October 26, 2011 02:05

topic: 9/11 medium: TEXT

as submitted for the “9/11” Open Call

Night had fallen on Jersey City by the time my brother and I arrived. We’d driven the seventy miles from northwestern New Jersey, finding ourselves in a city where water utility workers were pressed into service directing traffic while police officers worked the waterfront, assisting boats as they bumped across the dark Hudson carrying in the injured to local hospitals. We ended up in a hotel parking lot with a handful of others, all of us staring across the river toward the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center. Lower Manhattan was in a blackout, a void illuminated only by the soft white light powered by generators that ebbed at the base of where the towers had stood. The absence of light was startling, incongruous with every nighttime memory I’d known of the towers, always bejeweled with lighted windows no matter the hour. When I’d lived in South Jersey, the towers were the first sign of Manhattan—a place miles away and worlds apart—that came into view whenever I would head north. My brother and I talked about our own small memories of the World Trade Center: a delivery he had made there years before as a courier; a photograph I’d stood for on the roof of the South Tower in 1991.
In the parking lot now, people turned to each other, speaking in funereal tones about what they had seen earlier in the day and what they felt now, then shook their heads. Initially, I suppose most of us had come to see where, along with the Pentagon and Shanksville, the entire world’s attention was focused. This was part of history, and history requires witnesses.
But after several minutes of watching that stunning sight, I was jarred from any remembrance of how these towers had appeared. In that singular moment, it didn’t seem important to recall them with any measure of nostalgic longing. Their collapses made them the most visible images of that horrifying day, but not nearly the most tragic subjects. And then I didn’t want to think anymore about familiar buildings when I needed to ponder the unfamiliar people who had been in them, and these strangers’ loved ones who would have to carry a pain that would only leave when they themselves passed on.

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