Memories have a distinct smell. 9/11 is char and soot.
My mother saw the plane burst—she was walking the dogs at Houston and Greene, where the grid of Manhattan streets gave rise to a view of the impressive towers. She looked up and saw a silvery glint followed by plumes of smoke. Soon after, my sister was evacuated from her high school. Stuyvesant and the rest of downtown Manhattan, the ones who could make it, stumbled uptown along the West Side Highway.
I wonder how John Cage would reinvent the crash of the planes and Twin Towers, the metallic boom. When people ask me about 9/11, I tell them what I remember: the walk downtown from elementary school, home elusive amidst thick soot and fumes. The acrid smell of smoke permeated the city, even at 16th street. The suffocating haze tasted ashen, a brown-gray: torched dirt. Circular memories: I see myself walking down to a little square on West 10th Street, but a second later, i’m walking back uptown. My mother tells me that it was Theresa, Timmy’s mother, who drove me home because I was too young to walk home by myself. My sister recalls that it was my dad who picked me up and accompanied me home. But I do not doubt my memories. Of wandering home alone in a smoky daze.
I tell them about the high school I later shared with my sister. She recounts her walk up along the Hudson in a pack of students: somehow in solitude, somehow united in the haze settled over the city. Over the next months, we find that the country has kept the panic elicited from the first hours following the crashes; friends are questioned for the way they look as the media spurs and hides racism, general discrimination.
If there is anything I have learned in my travels, it is that people notice what is different, exotic. And that racism and objectification will follow me across countries.
“Mira, la Chinita.”
“Konichiwa,” a man says and bows down at me.
Yells in German to return to Tokyo. Relentless efforts to divulge my roots, my place of birth. New York I tell them. America.
Even in the city whose diversity I boast, I get asked if i’m going to eat my dogs.
Street harassment; suck it up, people say.
They must have never felt trapped in judgment.
Recount the fears that settle in: of isolation, of uncertain identity.
It’s complicated when you can’t find a tie to the cultures to which you’re supposed to belong to and represent.
Especially with an estranged father who yields from a beautiful country and a mother who sometimes seems scared of her roots—has no desire to rediscover them, yet fears their loss. Add in the struggles with imposed societal labels, people labels. At what point do you acknowledge them? All the while, I wonder: where are my roots? They’re somewhere; i’m wandering the world searching for them.
Sometimes I can’t help but pity the grotesque creatures that roam the streets, moving mechanically and too fast, holding on so tightly to a single and make-believe truth. Sometimes I worry about losing my many pieces. Then I taste the smoke and recall how easily the world can lose its music. Extract me from judgment; leave me intact, and I request only a music box for the rest of the world.