New York Times

It took two years for me to be able walk to the end of my block and not feel a visceral shock each time I looked down University Place and saw that the World Trade Center towers weren’t there. Eventually, I got used to the fact that I wasn’t going to see them, though from time to time I’d look south down University, as if it had all been a mistake or a dream — and the buildings might have come back.

Even now, I think about the towers, but in a more abstract way. 9/11 happened. They used to be there; now they’re not. But I no longer feel that lurch of pure panic you get when you see a gap where something is missing — a lost tooth, a car that’s been towed.

Some months ago, straightening my files, I found an old notebook that, at first, I thought couldn’t be mine. The handwriting seemed like a deranged version of my normal illegible scrawl, and I couldn’t read a word of the random, disconnected jottings. It wasn’t until I read the phrase “TriBeCa. Two firemen crying” that I realized what it was.

It was the notebook I’d carried around in the days after 9/11, when I walked down the West Side Highway as far as the National Guard allowed, and I thought I should take notes. Around the corner from a line of well-wishers cheering the convoys of rescue workers, the two overwhelmed firefighters had been weeping, awkwardly comforting each other on a dusty stoop. Like almost everyone, they wore surgical masks. The smoke and the grit in the air were dense.

I still find the memory haunting, like all memories of grief. And it makes me understand why the notebook looks as if it were written by someone who was having trouble breathing.

The notebook seems like a metaphor for our memories of that time. Not counting those for whom the loss of a loved one is a painful, minute-by-minute reminder, each New Yorker — that is, each of the fortunate ones — probably has a place or an image that brings 9/11 back.

For each of us, some part of the city has been permanently transformed, depending on where we were that day. And for all of us, there are places — the Cortlandt Street subway station, Trinity Church, indeed all of Lower Manhattan — that we no longer see without recalling the days that followed.

When the planes hit, I was on my way to the airport to take a transcontinental flight. I still can’t see the Van Wyck Expressway on-ramp without thinking of the terrified but orderly procession of passengers and airline workers speed-walking away from the shut-down airport, dragging their wheelies behind them. Every time I take the Long Island Expressway, I experience a momentary, awful recall of the sirens and the mysteriously steady stream of police cars racing into the city that morning.

Places close to the eye of the storm, and those where private griefs converged, have a history and an aura that surrounds them, no matter how much the city changes. With its candles, handwritten messages, mementos and expressions of sympathy, Union Square became, for that time, a kind of mourning presence.

To walk through the park was so intense and demanding that sometimes I was able deal with it and wanted to be there, and sometimes, to tell the truth, I found myself walking around it. Even now, I need only unfocus slightly to visualize the flowers and makeshift altars on the steps where, these days, sunbathers work on their tans as skateboarders weave around them, practicing their heart-stopping swivels and jumps.

It’s telling that the fragment about the sobbing firemen snapped the puzzle of my notebook into place for me. Because for many New Yorkers, especially those who lived downtown and in Downtown Brooklyn, a whole subcategory of memories from the time just after 9/11 is associated with places where we burst into tears.

A friend who lives in Brooklyn Heights describes walking over to the Promenade and looking at the smoldering skyline and crying nearly every day until that Christmas. I remember weeping as I sat in the window of my favorite coffee shop, Joe Junior’s on Avenue of the Americas and 12th Street, as I watched a young man put up a missing poster on a lamppost. To live downtown was to cope, every day, with the smoke from the ruins and the sadness of seeing those innocent faces — men and women, old and young, posed for graduation portraits or snapped at some family party — the missing whose loved ones were still hoping against hope that they might turn up.

To walk past St. Vincent’s Hospital, where the wall and fence at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Greenwich Avenue were covered with hundreds of those posters and memorial tributes, was — and still is — unbearably sad. Whatever else that corner becomes, it will always have been that, and if you pass that way, even now, you can’t help remembering.

Which seems right. We should remember. And not only because the missing — the dead — should not be forgotten; not only because we need be reminded that the other shoe may indeed drop; not only because, given how much violence and killing there are in the world right now, we need to recall that so many died here, as well.

We need to remember because that day, New Yorkers lived in a war zone. Five years later, the most familiar neighborhood places still have the power to evoke the horrors of battle. That day, many New Yorkers and indeed many Americans — again, the fortunate ones — came the closest we’ve come to the experience of living through a war at home. I want to remember partly because I feel it’s the nearest I can come to imagining what it’s like for the millions of civilians, not unlike us, people in the Middle East and other places where local wars are being fought, people who are perpetually seeing their cityscapes transformed into grim reminders.

Unasked for, melancholy landmarks appear constantly as the innocent try to survive the destruction, the Sept. 11 that goes on for them, not just for one day, but relentlessly, from morning until evening, daily, and for years.