Although she had already shown signs of the anxiety that the trip produced, Elena, the little girl, did not say until the last minute that she would not come with us because airplanes could collide with skyscrapers. As much as he was insisted that this was impossible, although we knew that 50 years earlier an airplane had hit the Empire State Building, there was no way and we canceled his tickets. So it was the five of us, the three boys, teenagers, often prone to out-of-tune laughter, unexpected sulking, absent-mindedness and always disorder, who traveled with us. We wanted to walk them through New York, give them that gift that is always remembered. We had booked three months in an apartment on 61st Street, very close to Lincoln Square, of which they would spend one and we would stay the rest to spend the fall writing, each with his order under his arm. The confusion and crowding is contagious and in the confusion of kids and suitcases that occurred upon arrival at the apartment building, we left behind the backpack with the brand new computer and the money in the trunk of one of the taxis. The money was destined for the trip, hard and fast dollars: that’s how people were still traveling in 2001, even though we already had credit cards. It was a bumpy and tense start that lasted three days because the long Labor Day bridge, a long weekend that leaves the city empty, prevented us from finding the taxi driver listed on the receipt. Luck smiled at us and after three days the guy appeared, a skinny black man with dreadlocks, who after handing us the computer, told us, without naming the holy word, money, that everything was inside. Looking intensely into my husband’s eyes, he added that next time we won’t play so hard. His name was Ron and fate willed that years later, when we were already seasoned New Yorkers, we were lucky again at the airport. He remembered us well and that beginning of September 2001. Both times, on account of his honesty and sympathy, he earned a succulent tip.
After the happy ending, the instructive excursions around the island really began. The challenge was difficult because it was about illustrating and entertaining three kids who often got tired, did not hide the gesture of boredom when they felt it and only seemed to vibrate at the promise of a copious meal and the more American, the better.
On the eve of September 11, we had visited the Twin Towers. They wanted to go up, but we were lazy. There was a them and a us, each team on one side of the wall that rises between parents and children when they go through adolescence. After the long excursion on the 10th to the south of the island, we decided that the next day we would give ourselves the day off, they from us and vice versa. We were sleeping when Elena called to tell us that a plane had just collided with one of the Twin Towers. For her, who had received so much criticism for being apprehensive, the impact was the realization that her fears were well founded. From that moment on, the five of us stood in front of the television. 60 more streets north of the Word Trade Center that seemed as incredible as for those who from Spain contemplated in amazement the images of the Newspaper of the three. The rest is history, a second plane collides with the second tower and the theories. The boys venture that skyscrapers can collapse. I tell them, with maternal authority because I don’t have another, that this is impossible. And as if life were determined to deny me, first one falls, then the other, and everything is wrapped in a cloud of dust, a dust in which the construction materials that founded those two colossi with human remains will melt. A short time later, the cloud is expanding and the indefinable smell of tragedy floods the island.
Doubts about whether to go home or stay were dispelled, at least for a few days. On the one hand, airports were closed and the feeling of being on an island was growing; on the other, the youthful unconsciousness that soon forgets what is not a visible threat served as a sedative in an unprecedented situation. New Yorkers acted with extraordinary calm, even scrupulously guarding those queues at the stores they are so fond of. Supermarkets were out of stock at first, but they were soon back to normal. The gesture of anguish and regret was visible in anyone you crossed on the street. We were a family of tourists in a city that, as soon as it opened the possibilities of flight, reduced its population to what they say almost does not exist: New Yorkers. That night of September 11, we left the boys at home and went out to explore the city of the attack. The streets, always hectic, populous, continuous walkways of the whole range of human diversity, were left empty. We walked in silence, aware that the walk resembled the dystopian images that the cinema often offers. It gave the impression that if we continued walking to the end of the island we would see the Statue of Liberty submerged in the waters, as Charlton Heston found it on land at the end of Planet of the Apes. On the cool night that heralded autumn, a beggar had seized a section of Seventh Avenue and sat in a wing chair, watching the TV that he had plugged into a streetlight. We passed him as if we had broken into his living room. We went down to a Times Square that gave us a memory of the future: that of the ghost square in times of pandemic. Not only did he feel the strangeness, but also that uncertain peace of silence and remorse for having left the boys alone. They weren’t children anymore, but what could happen if a new attack shook that night landscape. The Empire State Building was surrounded by a police cordon. One of those large American policemen approached us and, with that film authority that assists them, told us to go home, that they should stay there, taking care of the buildings that were still standing.
Our activity was incessant, from shepherding the boys to becoming special envoys of misfortune for this newspaper from the first morning. Every morning we were getting a little closer to ground zero, as the streets were opened. There was no traffic, but the incessant commotion of the taxis had been replaced by the sirens of the fire engines, the police, the ambulances. Day and night they roamed the island, we did not really know why, perhaps they just wanted to testify their presence before some citizens who greeted them as heroes. It should be remembered that 373 firefighters and 60 police officers were included in that number of victims, which is close to 3,000. We visited the door of the hospitals near ground zero where the relatives of those still disappeared showed the media the photos of the faces of loved ones of those who only saved one last call from the towers about to collapse. The voice of the disappeared broke into the television news, causing even more unrest. I love you, I don’t know if I’ll see you again. With each passing day the question became more pressing: where were the dead, where were their remains. We saw on television the work of the dogs that sniffed among the burning rubble that impossible prey: the bodies already turned into pure ash. The special services of the police assured that when a dog, trained for such a mission, does not rescue a victim, it becomes depressed. We also attended a vigil in Washington Square, the square of 1,000 protest acts, in which we remember those dead without a body to watch over. Our sentimental connection with the city was growing because we saw the pain in the front line, at the same time the disgust and the concern that the nationalist discourses that cried out for revenge increased in us. President Bush was slow to visit that city to which he was refractory; when he finally appeared he murmured an awkward speech, laced with patriotic slogans that fueled what they finally called the war on terror.
We went from museum tourism to sociological inquiry, from the vicinity of ground zero to the Frick Collection, to the Moma, to the Museum of the City. Our boys were more entertained by the sheer visual spectacle of the streets of those crucial days that felt historical than the high culture of the great museums. The family called us from Spain and it was difficult for us to explain the accumulation of sensations that crowded our chest, a kind of immediate solidarity that strengthened our ties with our fellow men. Under the house, every night, a saxophonist played poundingly My favorite things, honoring John Coltrane. That song became unbearable when the boys left. In their unconscious, immature and carefree way they had alleviated the fear that, at least to me, tortured me. Life continued to beat in our small family nucleus even though the collective anguish was so evident around it. Never has a small group of tourists visiting empty museums, silent restaurants, been so well treated. When they left, when our children took the plane back, we couldn’t get into the airport, we said goodbye to them at the door, delivering pastrami sandwiches and a New York cheesecake. Then, in those autumn days, came the threat of anthrax: guys dressed as ghostbusters broke into buildings to neutralize a suspicious envelope. The threatening news of the invasion of Afghanistan also came. The language of war had anticipated a series of decisions that were to change the already fragile world balance. One morning in November, wandering around Lincoln Square, I got close to a group of people who were watching TV in a bar from the street: a plane had crashed in Queens. I returned home with the intention of leaving, but I did not, I stayed with the quiet man who lives with me.
These days, watching the images of the attack on a Netflix series, Turning Moments: 9/11 and the War on Terror, I relived the fear of that time, which I thought was overcome. In my memory, the memories appear dissociated: in a compartment, those referring to our tourist experiences, the laughter with the youngsters; in the other, especially when they returned home, the anxiety of feeling trapped on an island, trying to sleep in a city where the sirens did not stop sounding at night. These days we are living the consequences of so many foolish decisions, of the lies that fueled a violence that does not cease. But there is also an emotional family souvenir: the five of us are on a fridge magnet at one of the piers, on the Circle Line, where tourist boats dock. I display such an open smile, inevitable in my gestures, that it would seem that I am enjoying the best experience of my life. Missing the girl Elena, who somehow had her part right. There are times when airplanes collide with skyscrapers.
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