Remembering 9/11 and the New York loss of innocence—in Toronto 20 years later

Sept. 11, 2011

It’s an unseasonably hot night in New York and the haze is making the beams of the Memorial in Light hard to see. But the warm weather also reminds me of the weather on that unbelievably perfect Tuesday morning 10 years ago. As downtown came to life, the skies were a cloudless blue and a feeling of summer still lingered in the air – careless, lighthearted people still bathing in the glow of the summer just ended as they made their way to work. In light of the imminent horror, it could not have been more bitterly ironic.

It was a warm autumn that year, and all through September and October the winds blew often from downtown. I lived and worked in midtown Manhattan then, and well into November I sat with my windows open, and the southerly wind would suddenly gust and carry the charnel stench of charred and smoldering ruin and death into my apartment, together with the occasional bit of yellowing paper, one of the many heartrending “Have you seen this person…” flyers posted everywhere in that pre-digital age: on fences, on hoardings, on walls, with their fading, photocopied pictures of happy smiling people at birthday parties, at work, on holiday, with family. Fluttering in the warm breeze, they seemed to deliberately blow the unending grief uptown from a deserted Wall Street and the carnage of the World Trade Center.

For many years, the first question I got from anyone when I traveled outside the city was “Were you there when…?”

Yes, I was there when.

Yes, I was there when the local news initially told us that a small plane had accidentally hit the North Tower.  Yes, I remember the shock spreading among my colleagues, having long abandoned our desks and all pretense of work, as we watched the towers balletically crumble into oblivion within minutes of each other. Yes, I remember watching for hours the unending, soundless lines of people, taxis, buses, all slowly creeping uptown, trying to make their way home from the devastation in a silence so absolute that it was astonishing: no revving engines, no screeching tires, no honking, no shouting, nothing—just the uncanny silence of the grave, broken only by the shriek of the F-16s circling above us as they were scrambled on patrol.

Yes, I remember too the aftermath: the panicked run to the supermarkets the next morning as the news warned us that all bridges and tunnels might be closed for days and Manhattan be cut off from the world with no restocking of food or necessities; buying batteries, flashlights, bottled water, non-perishables, the last loaf of bread on the shelves. The continual false alarms that sounded for days afterwards, alarms that sent panicked people fleeing into the streets from the office towers and the railway termini; my colleagues who were terrified even to get into the elevator at work, who would walk home to Brooklyn at the first hint of an alert, false or not; and the implementation of increasingly rigorous levels of security scrutiny: at ferry docks, in office tower lobbies, outside government buildings.  I vividly remember the poignant vigils of those who waited for news, with ever-diminishing hope – their nightly gatherings in Union Square that evolved from vigil to memorial, joined each night by more and more of the bereaved and the sympathetic. And I remember with regret the friends and colleagues too traumatized to remain in the abode of terror, who found new jobs elsewhere and moved away.

In the weeks afterwards, I saw the long flatbed trucks endlessly driving away from the site carrying shredded but still-recognizable chunks of the towers; saw the office buildings adjacent to the WTC site, still standing but with facades ripped away, looking like nothing so much as monumental tombstones, their offices deserted, the erstwhile homes of companies where no one answered the phone any longer and we had no idea if their denizens had relocated their workplace—or were just gone. And much later, I finally saw the onsite memorial with its thousands of carefully inscribed—one a friend who had died on the plane that flew into the Pentagon—including the names of women killed in the attacks followed by the heartbreaking phrase “and her unborn child.”

In my haste to catch a flight and my boundless irritation at the TSA, I forget sometimes why we must now shuffle through airports barefoot with our beltless pants falling down and our carefully measured 3.4 ounce travel-size bottles; but then I remember flying to Phoenix only three weeks before that fateful day, in a fairy-tale world where we still treated airplanes like buses, and breezed through airports 15 minutes before departure; a world where we didn’t yet know what Al-Qaeda and domestic surveillance powers and the Patriot Act were. And in that moment, I am compelled to reflect that 9/11 embodied another kind of death—not just the deaths of so many innocents, but the death of American innocence.

As the years pass, we who were there remain the torch-bearers, the oral historians, the keepers of the flame… the ones who say the mourner’s Kaddish on Sept. 11 not just for one person we may have known and not just for the thousands we didn’t, but for the glorious and vanished city that once was.


Mark Kingstone, a Montreal-born lawyer now in Toronto, lived in the New York City area for 18 years.