I was 18 when we went. As soon as I graduated from high school in May 1999, my Brazilian-brother-from-another-mother, Thiago Fragoso, and I bought Greyhound bus tickets from our small Alabama town straight to New York City. We intended to see the world and we were going to start from the greatest city on the planet. Adventure called — we answered. It took well over 24 hours to get there!
It was a surreal place, this center of the American Universe. So many familiar landmarks and the weird mix of food and car exhaust that filled the air and the hundreds of languages you heard everywhere and the homeless man that would rap your name for a dollar and the professional figure skaters on roller blades in Central Park. It was a perfect adventure for a young person to go on. Welcome to the world! I was beside myself with excitement. I talked to people about staying. Maybe I was serious. Maybe I was a New Yorker? I still think I could’ve done it.
We made our way to the World Trade Center. How could you not? You can see them from everywhere…gigantic, bold, dominant, centralizing. They were a work of American art. I’d always saw them on TV but didn’t really know anything about them. I didn’t even know what they were called, honestly; got them mixed up with the Sears Tower. The elevators traveled up to the top at 50 mph! The lobby was big and filled with daylight. Women in power suits and high heels would see right through my young male gaze. It was a living place. Important people bustled around doing important things. There was a Sbarro’s somewhere, I recall. I can still smell the pizza.
At the top there was a restaurant. We couldn’t afford to eat there, and it was busy. But, we went in and put our faces against the windows anyway. Manhattan stretched out before us. Concrete canyons and rivers of humanity…NYC, the greatest city on planet Earth! Look at all this! Just how big is the world?! The spectacle of it was mind-numbing. It was humbling. It was spiritual. My friend and I wanted to conquer that world. We felt we were touching the infinite.
We went out on the roof with the other tourists into the wind and the sunshine. So many nationalities! Such an insane height! You could actually feel the building sway in the wind, just a bit, as it was designed to do. It is incredible what humans can build. My first real taste of the world was up at the top of it, on the roof of one of the tallest structures ever built in the history of our species. Look at how high! Skyscrapers is such an apt description! Welcome to the world!
I’ll never forget that time of discovery. I had no idea what I was doing or thinking. I was just feeling the moment, imagining the future on waves of positive emotion. It was pure magic; a euphoria confined to the invincibility of youth. Later, on the 11th of September, 2001, an overly beautiful fall day, the worst happened. I had a hard a time processing it, as any of us did. I worked two jobs back home in Alabama. At work, we stole glances at TVs whenever we could, trying to make sense of the chaos of the day. Quick, frantic images of people covered in grey powder holding each other up, moving, always moving. Streams of people staring into the void as sheets of paper rained down like snow. There was no sense to be made of it in that moment. No one knew what was going on, least of all us out in the imperial backwaters.
I remember the first time I saw a video playback of the towers collapsing. It was later the afternoon of the 11th, after we all knew the buildings came down. Those buildings where we stood at the top of the world, buildings that I touched and inhabited with all those people and tourists and the Sbarro’s and the expensive restaurant with the windows, with the world beneath us stretched out to the horizon. My knees actually got weak and buckled. I slumped into a chair in the TV room at the Pizza Hut. It was the only time my body reacted like that in my entire life. My knees actually gave way due to something like emotional shock. What universe did I live in now? Will there be war? Will there be peace? All those poor people…
I’ve gone back several times since. Last time was in 2009 when the ruins were a construction site, with my Brazilian brother and my soon-to-be wife. We took a moment to soak in the changes, the drama, our infinitesimal connection to it all. All that death and heroism and chaos. All that tangled steel and hatred. All that darkness. And still people come to New York to find themselves and explore. Still people find a way to go on living past bizarre, random tragedies. Maybe people are amazing, just like they were at the top of those towers? Maybe it’s all still waiting to be conquered? Welcome to the world, indeed.