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  • The Black Hawk they were going to fly in and display couldn’t make it. That’s OK; it wouldn’t have been a good fit for the day. I’m keeping my sunglasses on even though it’s overcast and gray. That’s OK, too; I don’t want people to see my eyes, especially the nice couple who stayed at Walkinshaw Place with me last night. They’re sitting behind me at the service, held at the 9-11 memorial at the International Peace Garden, to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the attacks. They attempt pleasant conversation. I appreciate the effort, but by the time the ceremony ends, I’m not much for talking.

    I lived in New York for 13 years. The day my wife and I eloped, we went straight from City Hall to the World Trade Center observation deck to take pictures. I still have the ticket stubs and the flattened penny from the machine that was up there. I remember being so happy I pumped my fist in the air on the walk over.

    My friend Chris’s construction company did nearly all of their work in the Twin Towers, and he showed me around floors stripped bare of all walls, wiring and lights. Coming into the city from a distance, the first things you saw on the horizon were the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers. When you came out of the subway and were disoriented, you used the towers to determine which way was south.

    You understand that I’m talking about the buildings because I can’t talk about the people, right?

    You may leave a place, but that doesn’t mean it leaves you.

    On September 11, 2001, I’d been living in L.A. for more than a year. I was driving into work, having just dropped my wife off, when I turned on NPR. I thought I’d turned to the wrong station and was listening to a radio play. Over the next few days, the stories came in from friends back in the city. I didn’t lose anyone I knew, but it took a long time to find that out. Friends did, though, while others talked about seeing some very bad things—things I won’t talk about here. My friend Jenn, whose apartment across the river was left with a coating of ash dust, even through closed windows, told me she was glad I wasn’t there because at least one of her New York friends didn’t have to know what it was like.

    On the night of September 12, my wife and I stood with neighbors from our apartment building on a nearby corner. Someone left a collection of lit candles under a streetlight. We added our own and watched their flames, none of us speaking. If you remember what it was like, you may recall not wanting to be alone. A young guy came out of a nearby natural-foods store, having stocked up on groceries after a week of camping by himself, and asked us what we were doing. He'd had no contact with any media. I had to explain what happened several times before it sunk in. "Why?" he said. Then he looked into my eyes, from one to the other, to gauge whether or not I was telling the truth. When he decided I was, his face changed. "I have to go," he said. "My brother works in the Trade Center."

    I never saw him again, never heard about his brother. For several nights afterward, I went out and re-lit the candles when the wind blew them out.

    I keep all this in a little box, and I open it very rarely and very carefully. And for seven years it’s almost been like the towers are still there in my mind’s eye because I’ve never been to Ground Zero to see them gone. It’s not much to have left, but it’s something.

    This memorial, composed of 10 girders from the Trade Center, changes that. It's here. The towers aren’t there. When I walk up to have a closer look after the service, I start to cry, and I can’t stop. People around me notice, pretend not to, and then move away from me. Want to be alone in a crowd? Cry. I see out of the corner of my eye that two of the soldiers, a man and a woman, start to approach me to say something, but think better of it. I don’t blame them.

    They start the Freedom Walk, the first to be held here. I do the mile-plus loop with everyone else and, even in my own inner fog, realize I’m passing people right and left. Fast walking is another New Yorker trait that’s never left me.

    When I finish the loop, I’m not ready to go yet. I sit down on one of the empty chairs in the front row. I’m the only one left, and I stay until the workers start stacking the chairs and taking them away.

    Back in the rental car, I call my wife. Then I listen to the radio for a while. Two or three hours down the road towards Bismarck, I just about have the box closed. Or so I’m telling myself.
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