There's a theory I have about having been tertiary to this event, this day in history. You got your primary experiencers who are part of a group and among that group they know what they know, either staying quiet or protesting something, depending, all the rest of their lives. They are part of a terrible invisible club no one should want to belong to. I can’t speak as one of them, and would never try to. I honor their forbearance toward the rest of us as we tried to figure out how we fit into the picture.
You got your secondaries, in this case, people like me who were external witnesses in some way, and it affected us immediately in a number of areas, but not quite painfully, and we wouldn't think of laying claim to more than our share, because we could see the pain in and for others, right there in front of us. We stood on the beach in little groups and stared across the harbor at the blackened skyline, looking for flames. We rode the train to the city for the first time afterwards in some trepidation, not sure what we'd find. We watched planes circle overhead for weeks, and we attended memorials for the dead in our townships; "bedroom communities" for people with Manhattan offices. But as I said, we did all this just as external witnesses, nothing more. All we experienced during that day and those months afterwards was sometimes scary, sometimes frustrating, sometimes touching. We have stories. Yet we could always go home and scrub it from our skin and move on with our typically mundane lives.
If you were tertiary, you read about it, bumped into aspects of it, and wanted to embrace it because it was really, really big, but you didn't know how to fully connect. You simply weren’t there. So you flew your little car flags til they were raggedy, played Six Degrees of Separation from Tragedy, and cried “Never Forget" ensuring you’d always have something to remember and nod your head over. You discussed it online, compared Degrees, theories, solutions. All of this is completely understandable. We didn’t know back then what might happen next, you didn’t know if it could happen to you. But of course, it didn’t. Instead of still trying to lay claim to part of a huge tragedy after all this time, you get to be glad you didn’t have to.
I miss New York. It literally (literally) throbs with life. Something I will never forget is the first time I walked up the steps out of Penn Station onto 7th Avenue, and felt the air breathe around me. It was palpable, and it has stayed with me for fifteen years. I catch my breath as I write about it. It’s chaotic and it smells bad at night when they put the garbage out, and the public restrooms, if you can find them, are really lousy. But it is a living, breathing city like no other, and I will always be glad for the time I have spent there, even if I am never to go back. It’s been four years since I was an 80 minute train ride away. Yet my time there helped shape who I am now. New York taught me to embrace texture, pattern, and the juxtaposition between, oh, just anything and everything. You should go, if ever you can. Not so you can touch a part of history, but so you can experience everywhere on the planet drawn together into one neat crowded rectangle of humanity. It’ll be something awe-inspiring for you to embrace.