A year ago, this week, I stood on the rooftop of a first responders’ communication site on Lafayette Street in downtown Manhattan looking out to where the Twin Towers fell and emotionally broke down. I was working, surrounded by four other middle-aged men, who were in a similar state of emotional turmoil. I don’t know why they were tearful and it’s taken me twelve months to figure out why it hit me so hard.
I’m not a New Yorker but I always wanted to be one. I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia where very little happened and most of the towns closed down after 10 o’clock at night. Spider-man was my childhood hero. I imagined being Peter Parker, his “real” identity, working for a newspaper in New York City during the day while web slinging at night.
My dad’s favorite sports figures were Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees and Joe Namath of the New York Jets. They became mine as well. I eventually graduated from the same college, the University of Alabama, as Broadway Joe then adopted his Jets as my “other football team”. I could never pull off a fur coat on my high school football team’s sidelines, though.
I thought I’d end up a comic book writer, or a great American novelist or a stand up comedian, riding the subways in the Big Apple. I’ve been there as a tourist a dozen times, worked there through my real day job a dozen more, and even turning 45-years-old yesterday, I still hold out the possibility that once my three daughters leave the house, I can convince my wife to move into a brownstone in Brooklyn or a small house in Queens or get real crazy and rent an apartment in Manhattan and be poor New Yorkers forever.
When the planes hit the buildings, I was 842 miles away, working in Lawrenceville, Georgia as a project manager for a small design build firm. I turned 31-years-old the day before, was married to someone else different than I am today and wasn’t a parent, yet. I was entertaining thoughts of ending my difficult marriage and running away to pursue dreams I’d thought I’d already let slip away. The only direct impact of that terrible day was that it scared me, not just of terrorism but of being something other than a settled family man with non-creative pursuits. I became more guarded and eventually afraid to make positive changes to my life.
The anniversary makes me sad because of how it changed all of us as Americans. It created a monster called Fear. Those towers falling and the emotional chaos that followed impregnated the worst instincts in mankind and born from it was this Godzilla creature of doom that drives personal politics, interpersonal communication, and how each of thinks our neighbor is supposed to be.
By January 2006, I was a divorced father of a toddler. By November 2008 I was a married man with three girls. By early 2010, I was beginning to pursue those lost goals of a decade earlier. In the past five years I’ve published two books and started doing stand up comedy. In between all of those years, I’ve tried to fight the Fear monster. I went into therapy, treated my mental illness, and dedicated myself to being outspoken about things I considered important.
The day after my birthday, September 10th, will always be hard to get through. In remembering the innocent lives taken and the brave ones that tried to save them, we passive-aggressively tie patriotism into fear-mongering because that monster is so massively destructive.
New York, the Pentagon, and that field in Pennsylvania of Let’s Roll heroes deserve our reverence. But somewhere, I hope my fellow Americans can harness the self-awareness to look Fear in the face and fight back. Because we’re just not going to be as great as we want until that happens. If one guy can find positive change in his own life, surely millions more can too.
I know why I lost it on that rooftop and it wasn’t just because almost three thousand people died. It was because what it meant to be an American perished too. And now we’re all running from that Fear creature, hiding in shelters of misery hoping it just goes away.
I love you New York.
One day, I hope America learns to love itself, all of itself, too.
Here’s Ryan Adams.