East Flatbush Reflections on the 9/11 Attack

The other day I saw the test lights for the 9/11 memorial beam into a hazy dark and gray sky. I had heard they’d be canceled this year, like everything else, because of COVID-19. So it was a little surprising in the middle of a run to the store for more cinnamon to find them starkly contrasting with the night. 

For a moment I had almost forgotten what they meant. There’s so much change happening that it took a full thirty seconds of awe-inspired staring to realize what I was looking at. 

They made me feel young and small like I was when the towers were hit; like I was before a natural disaster came to mean disease.

I was in school that morning at P.S. 235 Elementary, about 15 blocks from my house. I remember being confused as the teachers rolled a fatback Panasonic TV on a cart into the classroom and turned on the news. We watched the planes hit the towers on a loop before running to the corner classroom windows and seeing the clouds of black smoke in real-time. 

The adults were quiet and the students were contemplative. I remember walking home while others were picked up. My grandparents opened the door for me and said Pops was asleep.  

I held onto the bottle of cinnamon and turned away from the sky finally, shaking myself out of my reverie then. There are giant black ants from the yard coming into the front room. We’ve attacked those irritating bugs with everything from the kitchen sink to chemical warfare. Vinegar. Bleach. Boric acid. Cinnamon, at least, smells better than the alternatives and makes my sisters infinitely happier. 

The parkway was also quiet and different for Labor Day weekend, and most of that suspended disbelief has lingered.  

The humming of the generator powering police floodlights was visibly seen and heard in many parts of East Flatbush and Crown Heights over the Labor Day weekend. Photo by Ariama C. Long

Besides the sounds of soca, laughing, and cursing coming from someone’s front porch party there wasn’t much action. Still, cops hung out on the corners, clumped together under huge towers and floodlights attached to those loud, humming generators. Guys perched in front of the liquor store in little chairs or on top of crates. Protesters gathered somewhere. People were still shot or shot at. 

Some things stayed the same. Some things jarringly changed, like our house. We’ve spent so much time here these last few months that it seemed natural to renovate it to keep up with those neighbors that water their lush grass at 8 p.m. and then stare at it in admiration. 

Our fences and porch railings have rusted to the point of danger, browned in some corners where the white paint has chipped off. The bricks had needed filling for some time. No time, like Corona times. 

The front porch steps of the family home in East Flatbush. Photo by Ariama C. Long

The contractor we hired wears a turban and looser, sturdier jeans that show off a standard plumber’s crack characteristic of a man who works skillfully with his hands. The racist tendency to attack the unknown after a large catastrophic event simmers down after a few years and becomes unacceptable once again. Islamophobia and fear of terrorism, much like anti-Chinese or anti-Black rhetoric is hard to stamp out completely when it comes to people’s sense of safety. Eventually, humans remember that not everyone from that other tribe is out to get them.

He ripped up all the decades-old concrete slates to replace it with the new ones yesterday. 

It’s been 19 years since the September 11th attacks and 27 years since the first World Trade Center bombings. People, by the look in their eyes, are still quiet and haunted by yet another cataclysmic event threatening New York lives, and the students are still shocked into contemplation about the world in a way most adolescents don’t delve into without trauma. 

And by the time I got home, Pops was asleep as usual. Softly he murmured with his eyes closed that he couldn’t ever remember a time without the parade. I sat on the floor in the dark next to him and thought I could hardly remember a time without the memorial lights.

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