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When Your Childhood Belongs to Everyone: Growing Up in a Manhattan That Changed Forever on 9/11

Loft life above the Fulton Fish Market and the day that everything changed.

On the morning of 9/11, after my mom biked downtown against the flow of traffic to collect me and my sister from our fourth and eighth grade classrooms, after the south tower fell, after a sound I’ve tried and failed for decades to describe, after we ran, she tried to take us home. But they’d cordoned off access to Lower Manhattan.

We had to stay with friends in SoHo for ten days, returning home to no power and a fridge full of rotting food. Friends who lived in TriBeCa were displaced for months. My elementary school was used as a triage center and we were relocated. We were slated to be back in the building by January but when parents began protesting the scheduled return date to our school building, for fear that there was asbestos lurking in the radiators, my mom tore up a flyer in front of a protestor’s face.

Twenty years later, I would read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, and one line would lodge itself straight in my throat: “So much ash, so much choking smoke—it was clear to him miles before he reached his home that nothing could be left of it, but he went on anyway.” There’s something unconscious in that pull, and I saw it in my mom during those months: she thought if she could only get us home, everything would be alright.

Home can center us, it can swaddle, it can alienate, it can isolate. Home is something we can create in our own image, but that very well may go on existing in another form once we are gone. Decisions about whether we choose to leave or are forced to. Whether we never go anywhere. Whether we outgrow our homes or our homes outgrow us.

When your own past is subsumed by a collective past, you cannot lock away a memory until you feel equipped to deal with it; it is not yours anymore. What to do with a childhood that, while in some ways singular, private and cozy, is wrapped up in a history of a city that belongs to everyone. When your 9/11 story no longer feels like your own because the beats are worn, known, and predictable, at least to you, served up to each new listener like a surprise treat when they find out you were three blocks away.