In New York, 8 million satellites beep and glow as they go about their daily rituals. One million of those, the minor stars, are their children, just being coaxed into brightness. The buildings pin this all down like the stars holding up the sky. Once upon a time two bigger buildings, the finest centers of them all, held them together. Until, of course, that day in September 2001.
* * *
The '90s had just ended. We all thought the world was becoming a smaller place, and it suddenly became believable that we could design our future, or, as young Americans, the futures of others in the global village. I was starting fifth grade that year at my school in Greenwich Village, and one of the first projects of the year was to come up with our ideal nation-state. We presented on Sept. 10, 2001.
On my perfect, imaginary island, I told my fifth grade class, anyone could do what they wanted, as long as they weren’t hurting anybody. There would be all kinds of fantastical creatures, including an elephant that delivered parcels and a crazy cat that looked suspiciously like one of those wall clocks with the moving tail.
Mason, a tall and powerful classmate, piped up immediately. (Her name, like some others, has been changed.) “You can’t actually have that be your only law,” she protested. “You have to clarify what ‘hurting anybody’ is. And having some people be free hurts other people. My mom debates what is actually harmful to people all day. It’s her job.”
I was impressed that she’d used the word “clarify,” which was a favorite of our fourth grade teacher but hadn’t gained much traction since. Otherwise, I was standing in front of the whole classroom and I had no idea what to do with her critique. I’d grown up in an artistic family, where freedom of expression was most valued.
“Well, this is a peaceful country. Thank you.”
* * *
As it turned out, this wasn’t going to be a peaceful country for long. Three days after I turned 10, on Sept. 11, the towers were hit and then we all had a shared trauma. Our teachers had difficulty prompting us to share our feelings.
My little brother, 4 years old at the time, saw the plane go into the first tower. My mother was with him at the time, and she said it had grazed the treetops of Washington Square Park. I did not see any plane go into any tower, only a column of steam from which I was supposed to avert my eyes as I barreled downtown into the eye of the storm with my mother, who wasn’t even sure where she was taking me when she came to pick me up. My classmate Andy said he lost his first canine tooth the minute the second plane went in, but he only figured this out later, as he liked writing down the exact times he’d extracted a milk tooth from his mouth. There was a lot of blood, he said. Mason said she heard when the plane went in, a low boom as the teacher was trying to explain to us that there was a big fire downtown, and nothing to worry about.
The way we all said “the plane went in” – it’s like we were too inexperienced to know that planes never penetrate buildings. Billy’s mom died in the towers – PBS was doing a documentary about how he was holding up.
* * *
Now it was a new era. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America …” we’d drone at 9 in the morning each day. I couldn’t see the front of the room when they all stood up; some of my classmates had begun to grow taller and wider at rates that frightened me. I had always been the shortest and the smallest, only now I was beginning to get a little tummy.
Classroom relations seemed more adversarial than usual, with new elements that I couldn’t understand. In third and fourth grade I’d thrown mighty tantrums and swung lunchboxes in kids’ faces, but now that the scale of these performances seemed increasingly shrunken, my effect on the world around me seemed to diminish.
Aside from the impressively formulated arguments I’d gotten from kids with lawyer parents, there was also the old-fashioned clobbering. These enormous children had fistfights in the hallway while we waited in line for various activities. I stood behind my friend Alicia, already over 5 feet tall, and elegant, and wearing a bra since last year, while she pummeled Jasmine. Jasmine, a real bruiser who had grown more width-wise, was her arch-nemesis. She wore a cheap hand-me-down jacket and bits of fake down jacket filling flew everywhere. Walking home from school behind Jasmine, Alicia would whisper into my brother’s ear, telling him to yell, “Jasmine is a prostitute!”
“Jasmine is a crositude!” he would cry, and we would laugh even though I feared for him.
* * *
Among the other smaller kids like me, there were commentators and teacher’s pets as well as the downright neurotic. There was Stephen, whose Jehovah’s Witness parents forbade him from going to the Harry Potter movie with us, and whose lip-sputzing concerts were the manifestation of his repressed will to sing and dance. And then there was George, who had invented characters known as Abdul and Baby Abdul. We got frequent updates on their exploits in the Middle East, but more frequently the name "Abdul" just became a verbal tic for him. Abdulabdulabdulabdul.
"Birdies! Sprinkles," he would cry out in our history class as we discussed the story of the turn-of-the-century immigrants. Meanwhile, Mike obsessively bellowed show tunes in class as he developed his baritone. I struggled to stay emotionally invested in the immigrant stories with them constantly on the periphery, and I often felt like punching him in the face when he joined the Greek chorus of people seemingly out to ruin my academic life.
In truth, we were all harnessing our powers of self-expression. The middle school system in New York was highly specialized for exceptional people just as us, and we did all know we were exceptional, just in different ways. While someone like Mike was practicing his scales for an arts-friendly middle school that could one day land him in the fabled LaGuardia High School, I had earned test scores on a fourth-grade citywide exam that could land me in Lab, the fabled Harvard of all the New York City middle schools, a gem in and of itself. And as we stratified ourselves, there was no attempt to reconcile – no reason to.
But there was one bright spot there: Alicia, with her bawdy sense of humor and curiosity, just wanted to get in to Greenwich Village Middle School, a pretty ordinary place that would keep her in the neighborhood but also allow her to giggle with her friends at the wares of a place called Condomania. I thought a condom was the polite term for a penis pump, and every time she mentioned the place to me, I would imitate Austin Powers (which only the coolest and most mature kids saw in second grade) and go, “This thing ain’t mine, bay-bayyy!”
* * *
Meanwhile, in the darkening fall after the towers fell, things were seriously deteriorating. Now students from a school that was three blocks away from the towers were taking shelter in what was normally our computer classroom, preventing us from having computer class; now my favorite anime shows, full of fantasy explosions and all the other cool stuff American kids weren’t normally trusted with, were being edited or pulled off the air.
I missed the shelter drills, where four slow strikes of the bell would get us out into the hallway, kneeling with our heads against the wall in a questionable relic of Cold War-era paranoia. It seemed like all the jokes and laughing were gone. We weren’t even allowed to wear masks to the school’s Halloween party, because they wanted to know who everyone was.
“Everything sucks now,” I complained to my mother. The world seemed to be getting too big – not small. Now when I visited other kids’ houses, I began to worry that our SoHo loft, with its enormous arched windows and huge central area where my brother rode his trike in circles, was in fact not the biggest and best home in New York. Even though adults at the time thought people would never want to live or work in tall buildings again, I found myself longing for an apartment existence, with friendly neighbors with whom I’d feel a sense of togetherness.
My father had moved into our place back in the '70s, when our neighborhood was referred to as “Hell’s Hundred Acres.” I began to understand that we were staying there for economic reasons, because even though Lower Manhattan seemed deserted at the time, soon everyone would flock back and the purpose of our investment would again become clear.
“Well, everyone’s a little poorer because of the attacks,” my mother tried to explain. I pictured dollar bills physically burning up in the towers. “And everyone’s trying to make the world a little bit gentler.” It seemed to me that my classmates, taking their newly long strides and getting ready to fight in their shrinking apartments, were rebelling against this – though their tactics were different from mine.
* * *
Sometime in the doldrums of October, the members of my fifth-grade class were splayed about the classroom. The mood was dismal. Perhaps we were listening to a book being read aloud or we were being prepared for a state test – in any case, our intelligence was being insulted. Suddenly, our petite, pump-hoofed principal arrived through the doorway, carrying a box half the size of her body. We turned to her with intense interest.
"Some very nice kids in Oklahoma decided to give us a gift," she said, opening the box to reveal a pile of multicolored stuffed animals. "There's one for each of you."
I couldn't believe my eyes. This was the stuff of kids'-television specials, not the regular programming of life. I inched toward the mob that had formed around the box, afraid to invoke my status as class crybaby in such heavy times as these. We were all babies. As I reached through the throng – many of the kids in my class were a foot or so taller than me – there was a pause in the writhings: Michael had made his choice. Suffering from lifelong malabsorption and shorter than me, he always was offered a priority in such choosings. He hoisted his selection into the air with weak arms: the largest, pinkest, fluffiest bunny rabbit of them all.
"His name shall be Bob!" he bellowed.
"Uhhh, that's a girl bunny," said Mason.
"Fine then. Bobina."
The generic teddy bears didn’t interest me, but a Pikachu doll became the first and last stuffed-animal companion of my childhood, following me into bed. Insomnia began to take hold, however, and despite my attempts to remedy it with fluffier pillows, snuggly surfaces, more stuffed animals, I would toss and turn for hours a night. I began calling in sick at school, allergic to the year 2002, perhaps.
Toward the end of the year, when the teachers turned the lights out in the classrooms to keep them cool and get everyone relaxed (but which really just brought the brimming anarchy closer to the surface), our science teacher ran out of things to talk about and instead decided to give us a little holistic education.
“You’re about to enter middle school,” she said, sauntering about the darkened room. “You’re entering a new phase of life. You’ve got to start brushing your teeth more – soon your breath's going to stop smelling like mother’s milk. Use deodorant – get your own, not anybody else’s – because sooner or later you’re gonna get pit odor, and no one’s gonna want to smell that sitting in class. You’re going to have crushes and romances. Your life is about to begin.”
My chest chafed against the inside of my sweater a little. When would I need a training bra? I didn’t want to be restrained.
While other girls wore training bras to cover their breast buds and sprayed each other with glitter-filled body mist, I remained hunkered down with my Gameboy and stuffed animals, unwilling to join the ranks of womanhood. By avoiding wearing provocative clothing, I thought I could avoid provoking others, either negatively or in that positive way whose appeal I didn’t understand. As it turned out my lack of participation brought hostility as well, and though repressed in person, it found me online.
I had been doing my usual rounds on the Internet – Pokémon and video game websites – and the message had just popped up on my screen.
"You fat lesbo."
"What did you just say?"
"You stupid, fat lesbo. Go play your Pokémon some more and leave us alone."
Whoever this was, they knew a thing or two about me, and that was a little creepy.
"Who are you?"
"I can see you in your room."
"I can see what you're doing. You're sitting in front of your computer. Your computer is next to your window ... I'll throw your stupid Gameboy off the top of the twin towers."
"Well, I'll make sure you eat the burning batteries."
I didn't know who it was, but I had my suspicions. This was a new kind of battle, on a new front. I’d have to fight it with smarts instead of strength – the resort of the meek, our form of revenge.
* * *
As the spring approached, the country, now engaged in a war, would be watching. American flags hung outside brownstones in Greenwich Village now. People spoke of a post-9/11 New York, a post-9/11 world. Even when the cherry blossoms came back on the trees and the intoxicating spring asphalt smells returned to the air, and the portents of death and smoke cleared, it was wrong to laugh at most things. Instead, we were reverent.
My classmates and I played the part of the chubby-cheeked patriotic cherubs, rehearsing for our class musical, the real American story of “Oklahoma!”
“You look so cute,” my mother said, adjusting the prairie frontier dress I would be wearing for the dress rehearsal. She lovingly applied lipstick and blush to my face with foam pads that I later turned into a skatepark for my Tech Decks. I immediately smeared the lipstick drinking 7-Up, and I was convinced I had enough natural blush under the withering stage lights. I had been placed in the front row of the chorus, twirling a parasol and singing “Many a New Day,” warming the hearts of parents everywhere with my false vibrato – my mature female voice, somehow emerging from my body.
We were somehow not surprised when it was announced that there would be a fifth grade chorus as well, for the first time in our memory. The theme, American patriotic songs, seemed so in tune with the times; we didn’t even have a chance to roll our eyes as rehearsal went at a breakneck pace. We sang “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Over There” and, most of all, “May old acquaintance be forgot, keep your eye on the grand old flag.”
There was a bizarre sense of resolution at the graduation. "Baby Abdul grow up and go away now," muttered George as we waited in line during graduation. "He go hide in the caves to learn al-Qaida." And so went our aimless explorations and passions from childhood, into the caves – to either be intensified or run out of existence.