Twenty Years On

Dear Paul,

I’m sure you’ve heard by now. I know you’ve seen the teasers. Tomorrow is 9/11, The Anniversary—twenty years in the making. Hooray, we did it! We somehow managed to give them their exact desired outcome of that day!!! 

They hit us with our own planes, and we watched it go down, live on TV. Giant steel and glass structures—impenetrable, monolithic, grossly oversized monuments to capitalism—fell like a toddler had stumbled right through them. They tumbled to the ground leaving a permanent scar in the brilliant September morning sky and our collective psyche.

Dust and debris and cancer flew up into the air and into the lungs of those who worked among the wreckage as the rest of us watched, helpless and alone. 

So you know, we never came back. Nope, we never did. Instead, we did the thing empires do after seeing their very real, very physical demise happen in front of them in an instant. We receded, deteriorated, vanished too. In every way you can imagine, we broke. 

Whatever was left in us before that day, that ginned-up narrative to get up, dust off, and keep moving, to go forward, to make plans as we went and to stop along the way to get gas, and a bite to eat, and have a little conversation with a stranger—to look one another in the eye and treat one another as people, not transactions—to reach down and grab someone by the hand and pull them up. That too was gone, for good.

You know this all by now. We had a prodigal son leader who maybe is a bad person, and maybe he isn't, but we know he was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Remember him sitting there, reading a children’s book, one of his aides whispered in his ear we were under attack. His face spoke for all of us. Oh shit. What do I do know? Where do I go? How can I hide? Who's going to save me?

The truth is, it got worse from there. At the urging of his colleagues, he blindly plunged us into two decades of warfare that cost us trillions and ended us up back in the same spot we were before, only worse. It weakened us in every other way, too, at home and abroad. Uncertainty led to more fear, and more fear led to letting septics have the run of the place. We let religious zealots, and grifters, and charlatans have their say first. We put the discourse in front of fact, in front of reason, in front of compassion. 

We let people who’d been waiting, some for generations, to outwardly express their disdain for brown people living and thriving on American soil have at it. We enabled them to stir up fear and mistrust. Competence and compassion, maybe the likes of which we never really had, was forgotten, dismissed. But instead of doing something about it, really actively engaging with it, fighting—people like me ordered bumper stickers and posted platitudes that did nothing, that meant nothing. 

But you know that. And you got to see the news clips as we passives destroyed a whole generation of kids, bullied at school, shot down in their first-grade classrooms, made to feel less than for any number of things far beyond their control. We took our last hope for justice, for a fair and peaceful tomorrow, and we shoved them in a closet for active shooter drills. We put them in the crosshairs instead of addressing the problem. 

Who captured the imagination? Screamers, sinners, racist hacks, shitheads, and fuuckfaces—warblers of dissonance in Old Navy flag shirts and selfish ingrates who've caused their grandparents to spin in their graves, filled with bile, filled with hate. They picked up on the collective insecurity and malaise and ran it in.

The rest of us—the hapless majority—tried to do right, went to work, spoke up a little at the ballot box, but overall we were shaken up so much and so often that we too we let lies guide us, let them lead the way—we started to believe that our own insecurity about a system that was breaking meant it was OK to short sell common sense and decency.

So we sought solace in handheld devices that were invented along the way using slot machine technology—serotonin hits instead of progress, little rewards to be given and received for hitting a shiny “Like” button. 

Our information is no longer in a public space but curated algorithmically for us—each individual. I can find any "Fact" to support my argument any time I want. The sky is red, I say. PROVE ME WRONG!!! 

So now you've seen it—do what you want, believe what you will. But don't fuck with me. I get it; I've heard it all before: the most massive propaganda and tracking machine right now is in the palm of your hand. If you were around to read this, it’d probably be on one of those. Thank goodness you’re not.

You weren't there, but I woke up that morning to the sound of my girlfriend’s clock radio alarm going off. It was Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” 

"I’ve given up, stop” was the last lyric I remember in my half-sleep before her roommate Bridget burst into the room. “Turn on your TV,” she screamed. She was in her work clothes, sweaty. She’d run from downtown San Francisco two miles all the way back to their apartment. “It’s over. It’s all fucking over.”

What a prophet old Bridget was. 

I called you on my phone, an old Nokia Brick, sitting on the window sill. There wasn’t good reception. I got your voicemail. “Hey man, I know things are going down this morning; I just want to make sure you’re OK.”

Your other friend Alex and I were living together. He called me up. "Get the fuck home,” he said. “It’s not great.”

I ran fourteen blocks. The city was quiet, frozen. There was no chit-chat buzz in line at the coffee roasters. No Moms out walking their litter charges through Golden Gate Park. No runners. No morning commute lineup on 19th Street crawling toward the bridge. I bounded up the stairs to our flat, and Alex was sitting in front of the TV with a dip in. There were holes punched through the wall by his desk. 

“What’s the deal?” I asked. “What’s happening?"

He didn’t say anything at first. His eyes were all puffy, and his knuckles were bloody. 

“What do you think, man?”

It’s tough all these years later not to take an explainer's approach to this day, not to make it personal. It is. I lost my best friend. I looked at my email a few days later, and you'd sent me one about our fantasy football league about forty minutes before the the plane hit. The last word was “Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” Just like that. A normal day. A normal kid going to a normal job. Normal Normal. Normal. 

And I think, at least when I let myself go there, about what those final moments must’ve been like. On the ten-year anniversary, I was in New York and met up with one of your buddies from work. He made it. It’s a story I’m sure he’s been forced to tell a million times, so much that it probably feels like fiction coming out of his mouth. You guys were in the same training group of your financial services firm. 

The guy who lived was on a sales track and you, to research. You were both on the same floor that morning, the 89th of the South Tower (WTC 2). You both had a meeting to were prep for. The first plane hit the North Tower (WTC 1) at 8:46 am, and you had a front-row seat. The boss of your buddy was there in ‘93 for the bomb attack down in the parking garage and said that was it. He gathered up his team, and they got the fuck out of there. No hesitation. "Some guys on the floor were making fun, talking shit," he said, "My guy didn't care, didn't hang around to hear it. We were gone."

By the time the second plane hit WTC2 at 9:03 am this guy and his team were running down the street toward the waterfront, “We were just trying to get out of the city as fast as we could. Ended up on the ferry to Hoboken watching the buildings collapse.”

And that was it—just one decision to run. One minute to say this doesn’t feel right, this feels all the way wrong, and it’s time to leave, regardless of what the others are saying or doing. It’s time to go. One decision meant a lifetime. 

The guy has two or three kids now and featured a full head of gray hair at thirty-six. He was happy, or at least content; it seemed like. Detached from the whole thing, I suspect. I understood why but also I don't. I don't know at all how he does it. I hung on to his every word but later realized I’m nothing to the guy. Everything from that day is probably just a part of him he'd rather not dwell on—not have silly, curious people remind him of. It's there. It's permanent. He’s living on borrowed time, and what’s he going to do with it? What are any of us to do with it?

Does it even matter?

So I go on. I look down the road as much as I can. I think about twenty years, and it’s a shockingly long time to feel such a short distance from that morning. I didn’t grow up that day. I didn’t learn anything. The lessons that should’ve come so fast about vulnerability and what’s important and when to actually stop and reassess and maybe go another direction didn’t happen until much much later, maybe, like America itself, after it was too late. 

I fumbled around for years. I made terrible decisions. I was self-centered a good chunk of it. I said the wrong things and forgot even what was right. I hurt people. I hurt myself. I don’t point out any of this because I’m proud or because things are cool like they've been fixed. I do it because I’m still sad. 

So where are you, Paul? Where are you now? Certainly alive and vivid in my memory. Are you proud of me today? No. That’s not even the right question anymore. Would we even be friends? I don’t know. I get to tell your stories now and you're not there to correct me. And isn’t that the ultimate luxury? All this time, just speeding right by. All the things you never saw. 

Anyway, you missed some good stuff, too, these last twenty years. Like The Royal Tenenbaums and Lost in Translation, a really good documentary on De Palma and the entire Fast and Furious franchise. The Radiohead song Backdrifts is one you would've liked. You missed running the Big Sur Marathon with me and your little brother Pete. There are eleven!! (count ‘em!!) nieces and nephews on your side; your siblings have been busy. You missed a slew of kids named after you by your family and large group of friends, the eldest of which started college this fall. You missed not one, or two, but THREE Giants World Series championships, all in the span of five years. And if you think they waited to do that till after you were gone, you’re probably right. You missed the time I walked into CBGB when I was fucking off around Manhattan and they said, “We’re closed,” and I asked when they’d be open, and they said, “We’re closed for good.” And oh boy, if that didn’t stick with me as a metaphor for how I'd missed everything. And you wouldn’t believe it if you didn’t see it, but I got to become a Dad too. I don’t know how or why. And I'm not really sure what I’m doing. Early returns are mixed. But I want you to know every time I look at him, I think of you—every goddamn time. It's wild. When I mess up or when I do right by him, your voice is in my head. I get tired and lazy and lonely and crazy I’m not sure what I’m leaving behind for this kid. None of us really know right now. We can guess at it, but we try not to. It's not great. I want you to know still, two decades later, I push through because of you. Because I know that’s what you’d do too. 

So I’ll sign off now with what I say every day in my dumb little head to you: I miss you. I love you. And I hope you’re doing OK. Maybe we’ll see each other again someday. 

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