With all the recent hubbub over Cordoba House and Koran burnings and such, I thought about this year’s anniversary of 9/11 more than usual. Typically, when September 11th rolls around, I really only think about one thing: that it’s my friend Paul Koob’s birthday. I know a lot of people out there have a birthday that falls on 9/11, but to my mind, Paul carries a particularly heavy burden, for if he fails to celebrate by eating a whole deep-fried red snapper from El Barco, the terrorists win.
I’ve always taken it as a given that for anyone capable of processing news and feeling even the slightest twinge of humanity, 9/11 was a shitty, shitty day. Shittier for some than for others, granted, but still, that collective shittiness, the sheer enormity of it, was what supposedly “united” us. It was a profound event that deeply affected everyone on an individual level despite the fact that for most of us it was also completely distant. Most of the stories from that day aren’t stories of loved ones in peril or the immediate effects of the attacks themselves. They’re stories of grotesque normalcy, of routines carried out in the face of abject horror or otherwise completely disrupted. And for the most part they always end the same: “it sucked.”
That’s not to say personal accounts of 9/11 are inherently tedious. When I think of tedious, I think of someone trying to make sense of a dream they can barely remember. (Some people believe hell is nothing more than a room with a chair; I believe hell is a room with a chair occupied by a Jungian.) But personal 9/11 stories are, by and large, unremarkable. It’s why when you hear the average person talk about their 9/11 experience, it’s only natural to drift off into thoughts of your own. Not because theirs is so boring, or yours is so unique, but because they’re so strikingly similar. People all over the world — people you’ve known your entire life, people you were introduced to just last week, people you won’t meet for years — went through the same thing you did, on the same day, at the same time. It was a moment so rampantly personal it couldn’t be anything other than impersonal. Something that, terrible as it is, belongs to all of us.
Of course, these are things I can say because enough time has passed. The shock has worn off and in its place lies perspective. Which I guess is why I find the current wave of anti-Islamic fervor coursing through certain segments of our populace so utterly perplexing and distasteful. When I look at gatherings like those that took place over the weekend — the Park51 protest in New York, the 9/12 Rally in D.C. — all I see are people clinging to that moment nine years ago when the news first hit. When there were few explanations. When it was perfectly acceptable to be consumed by your own emotions. When it was okay for everyone to feel like a victim.
But we no longer live in that moment. And now, whenever I see a photo of someone at Ground Zero hoisting a posterboard placard with two badly drawn towers collapsing beside the words “3000 Dead” and “Never Forget,” I feel like that person is inappropriately trying to shove their version of 9/11 down my throat. I mean, who are the 3,000 I should never forget? Among them were foreign nationals, illegal immigrants, liberals, socialists, homosexuals, and atheists — not to mention Muslims. Are they worth remembering, too? Or is the number all that matters? If so, what’s its significance? What is the number, exactly? The magnitude by which the values we all supposedly share were debased? What are those values? Who defines them?
Like I said, when someone forces their personal 9/11 experience upon you, it’s only natural to drift into thoughts of your own. And this past weekend, that’s exactly what I did. Specifically, I spent some time revisiting something called The Official Unwound Food Diary, a journal I kept during the final weeks of September 2001 while working as a roadie on what would eventually turn out to be the final tour by Unwound, a band from Olympia, Washington, that was not only one of my favorites musically, but personally. They were dear friends. And when 9/11 went down, they’re who I was with.
We’d been on the road a little longer than two weeks. Seven of us piled on top of one another in an eight-passenger van so crammed with merch and equipment we had to buy a special luggage compartment we affectionately called The Burger to transport stuff on the roof. On day two we’d found out the hard way that the van’s fuel gauge didn’t work. On day three we’d killed eight hours in a Target outside of Fargo while the mechanic down the road worked on the van’s differential. Later that night, at a club in Minneapolis, Sara, Unwound’s drummer, had her hand crushed in one of the van doors about an hour before she had to play (which she still did). That’s basically how the tour was going. It hadn’t been catastrophic, but it hadn’t been smooth sailing, either.
The morning of 9/11, we were in a hotel in Northampton, Massachusetts. We’d just had our first night off, which we spent at the movies (a few of us went to see Ghost World; the others, if I recall, went to see Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back) and in our rooms, drinking bourbon. Dave, the soundman, woke us up with the news. He did so by banging on our doors yelling “We’re under attack!,” a statement that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you’re half-asleep in New England. Then there was the TV, and phone calls, and beer at 10 in the morning, and finally a reluctant decision to drive to Boston, where the band was booked, ironically enough, at a club called the Middle East.
(The Middle East show didn’t take place in the end, but six years later, some dudes who’d had tickets decided to stage it themselves, in Brooklyn, with CDs and cardboard cut-outs. There’s even video documentation. As a gesture, it’s slightly sweet and mostly weird.)
The next day we were routed for Manhattan and the annual CMJ Music Marathon, which was supposed to have just gotten underway. It was one of the biggest shows of the tour, at Irving Plaza with Clinic, who were just starting to take off in America. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. We stayed in Boston, wandering aimlessly from record store to museum to restaurant to bar wondering all the while just what the hell we were going to do next. Go home? We were thousands of miles from Olympia, in an unreliable van that got ten miles to the gallon, and rumors were flying everywhere about fuel shortages and gas stations demanding a king’s ransom for a fill-up. Could we even afford to go home? What about finishing the tour? Was there a tour to finish? What if the next week of shows were canceled? What if they weren’t? Would anyone bother showing up?
In the end we never really made a decision. On the 13th we got word from the band’s booking agent that the show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken was on, so we went. We spent the day directly across the river from Ground Zero, close enough to see and smell it, but still a world away. The next night, there was a show at the unitarian church in Philadelphia, where everyone seems to play sooner or later. After that, the Black Cat in D.C. Before we knew it, we were back on tour, as though nothing had ever happened.
I’m not sure what originally inspired the food diary. Boredom, most likely. I do remember that the first few times I pulled out my notebook and asked everyone what they’d had to eat that day, there were incredulous chuckles, as though I couldn’t possibly keep it up. But it quickly became this thing we all took *very* seriously. The entries took on ridiculous levels of specificity: “13 jelly bellies”; “3 discs of bison jerky”; “weird ice cream with strawberry topping”; “couple sips of egg drop soup”; “Thelma and Louise smoothie”; ”pretzels, salt removed”.
At the risk of overstating the value of the food diary, I dare say it as much as anything contributed to us pulling through the weirdness of that time — because it was exactly the sort of stupid inside joke a bunch of friends on tour were supposed to come up with. It felt normal. And it opened the door to us getting comfortable with humoring ourselves again. Soon enough our jokes were about the cancelation of CMJ and why Osama bin Laden had been so determined to ruin it. Maybe he couldn’t get a VIP pass. Maybe he was sick of hearing about the Strokes (the most hyped band in the world at that time). Maybe Jessica Hopper had refused to do publicity for him. (That one was my favorite. Hi, Jessica.)
And that’s my personal 9/11 story. You know what’s special about it? Absolutely nothing. It’s odd and sort of funny and cute in its way but it’s also nearly identical to the story you’d hear from anyone else who was on tour at that time. And there were many of us.
Shared experience, even an ugly experience, is a wonderful thing. It tightens bonds. It provides us with insight about people we might never have imagined understanding. It reminds us we’re not trudging through life alone.
But shared experience, by its very nature, is something you can’t own. What you went through, what you felt, what you learned from it all — the only person to whom those things matter is you. Because everyone has their own narrative. And the risk you take in asserting yours is somehow more truthful or important is being reminded that you’re wrong.
So when I talk about September 11th, I talk about Paul Koob’s birthday. I talk about food, I talk about jokes, I talk about my friends. All that other stuff, the bigger stuff, I keep to myself. I quietly observe.