The men had to wear dinner jackets to get in—or maybe it was breakfast jackets that day. The sun had long risen on the skyline, the iconic view paired with an extravagant Eggs Benedict. They could only see that single skyline on that specific island, and yet the restaurant had the curiously grandiose name “Windows On The World.” As if Manhattan was the entire world.
The breakfast patrons were quiet, enjoying a black coffee and a crossword, or maybe they were boisterous, kicking the day off with a mimosa. There were families, or maybe there were parties of colleagues. The waiters were sweet and friendly, or no, wait, they were tired and grumpy. It was Tuesday. Tuesday, September 11th 2001. 8:45 A.M.
I imagine this because there is no one to tell me about the atmosphere in this place on this day at this time. I do not know if it is my place to imagine this, but I do. I will not speculate about what happens next.
I imagine this because I had always dreamed of going to New York in a vague, fairytale way. I could not have told you the reasons if you asked me—only that I was convinced it had some kind of magic that made life more interesting. New York has that effect on a lot of people; just ask Woody Allen.
For me, New York City seemed to embody all of the glamour of the East Coast—a glamour that was physically unattainable to me, living in the nation’s expansive midsection. I watched countless movies that panned the same skyline that the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center saw every morning in a reverie, hoping I might see it one day too.
I wasn’t thinking about those movies on September 11. I didn’t see that skyline; the glass paneling on the top of the North Tower facing north and east was not my window, and what the breakfast patrons saw at 8:45 A.M. was not my view. I didn’t look out my window much that day. My mom had picked me up from school after a bomb threat had been called into the bank across the street from her office—cruel fools taking advantage of chaos.
I stayed in my living room with the T.V. on. I looked out the window only once. My mom and I heard planes. There weren’t supposed to be planes and in that moment, I was sure Chicago would be next.
They were U.S. air force planes. I went back to my television and watched news anchors try to make sense of everything while my parents cried.
This is a familiar story to most in my generation. We watched our world become an ugly place through the lens of a camera. New York unraveled while it burned, no longer floating as a fairy-tale. It was a real place, and it was suddenly touchable. Destructible.
As we were quickly discovering, so were we— the generation who grew up in the gated community made by our Baby Boomer parents, condemned as spoiled, over-protected, self-absorbed. 9/11 punched a crude window through the insular cove we were living in. We came to know a world where you had to take your shoes off at the airport, where anti-terror speech was a common vernacular. Safety stopped being a guarantee for me once I heard those planes from my living room.
More than ten years later, the same rhetoric of suspicion, fear, and war persists. But New York continues to be a destination for Millennials. A recent census study shows that people in their twenties are migrating to urban areas in a big way, with New York in the lead. Despite the fact that New York was the central point of the vortex that jettisoned our childhoods far behind us and hurtled us toward adulthood, we seem to feel no residual grief or trepidations. My friends and peers immigrate in droves, still looking for that elusive romance. I think about what opportunities might be waiting there for me if I ever decided to go.
Because Woody Allen’s New York City still exists. The world looked dark 12 years ago, but the city is not broken. Though hardened, we, the 9/11-generation, are not either. To me, the fact that New York can still represent what it did before 2001 means that we can rebuild too. That we already have.
Incidentally, I have been to Windows On The World, although I didn’t know it at the time. My parents were on a brief vacation, and my mother was very pregnant with me. It was summer of 1991, during the first, all-too-swift Iraq War—events and tyrants and locations which, ten years later, would be erroneously connected with the destruction at that very location my parents sat.
But there was no window into that ugly future. There was no window into our trip to New York thirteen years later, when I finally saw the place I had anticipated for so long. When my parents and I looked down at Ground Zero and wished for the Windows On The World.
And yet, there was more to that 2004 visit than that moment. There was Greenwich Village, there was SoHo, a boat ride on the Hudson. There was a pulse beating strongly in that city, like I had imagined it. There were artists, writers, bankers. People I might grow up to be. It was a city; it was the city. It was not a historic site; it was not a tragedy museum. It was a place people lived. It was a place my friends would live. A place I might live.
Windows On The World is gone now. New York City still stands. And we still come.