Maybe now that 20 years have passed, I could bring myself to visit the memorial where the Twin Towers used to be.
The visit, however, would not be practical. I’m far from Manhattan these days. I’m in Mérida, Yucatán — along with several other people who lost their taste for living in the crossroads of the world after 9/11.
New Yorkers gravitated to Yucatán in greater numbers in the years that followed. It’s impossible to know exactly how the terror attacks connected to the subsequent growth of Mexico’s international community. Maybe a lot of us were destined to be here anyway.
“I think there are several here more or less because of 9/11, but I’m here specifically because of it,” says Keith Heitke, whose lower Manhattan apartment had a direct view of the towers, four blocks north.
I really didn’t ask a lot of people about this, however. This will never be an easy conversation, at least for some of us. I find that the Americans who weren’t there are the ones who can speak pretty stridently about it — they’re the ones with 9/11 Christmas ornaments and the “We will never forget” t-shirts. But the topic is still raw for people who witnessed it or, like me, were three miles away in Midtown.
It’s no coincidence that the 2000s were the beginning of a big expat push, not just here but in many places that had the bones of a great place to live. Information technology — Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube — still propel the trend. But the upending of our assumptions about the safety and viability of a New York career still had a profound impact on faraway Mérida among other more peaceable destinations.
Alongside these forces is the current state of unrest in the United States. Most people in my generation — I was born in the mid-1960s — grew up thanking God they were born in the US. If you graduated from college and landed a job in Manhattan, as I did, you felt on top of the world.
Along the way, the top of the world became a less inviting place. A place where nuclear missiles weren’t pointing at us seemed a much better option.
I was jolted into that point of view. On 9/10 — 20 years and a day ago — I was picking up my partner Paul at LaGuardia. Airport security then was kind of a joke. I wanted to meet Paul at the gate, so I squeezed around security to do just that. That’s how different air travel was up until that point.
I had taken the day off and the weather was nice, so we decided to take a detour into the West Village for lunch. Tea & Sympathy on Greenwich Avenue to be exact.
I distinctly remember glancing at the towers, which were two miles south but visible from the Village. My young idealistic self perceived those two giant symbols of capitalism as messing with our cool, bohemian West Village vibe.
The next day I was back to work, commuting in from Connecticut to the magazine publisher where I worked at Rockefeller Center. Capitalistic symbols must have been less of a bother to me that morning because I was reading Vanity Fair’s excerpt of a new book from Jack Welch, the legendary and ruthless head of General Electric.
We were rolling toward Grand Central when someone on the train put down their cellphone and told no one in particular that a plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center. Remembering that once a small plane had hit the Empire State Building, I thought to myself, how unfortunate! I’ll bet hundreds of people are dead. It was the second strike that confirmed our worst fears. A deliberate attack.
Later, I crossed Fifth Avenue and could see the towers burning. I had never noticed that one could see them from that far away — I suspect smog normally shrouded them, but today the skies were spectacularly clear. Like most everyone else, I still continued in to work. We didn’t get much done. We watched the fall of the towers on television. Only then — and I still don’t quite understand our mental process here — did we decide we should go home.
I also don’t quite know how I got home. The trains were shut down for a while, but I happened to be at the right place at the right time and boarded a packed Metro-North car and made it to Connecticut by mid-afternoon. Paul and I sat on the back deck, staring out at our gardens and trees, and tried to wrap our heads around it all.
All I really know is that my priorities started a slow shift that day. I had ambitions, but they were more personal. New York had lost its allure, and I eventually found jobs closer and closer to home. And then at home.
And then “home” became our place in Mérida.
New York City used to be a lot more fun, but then again, so was I. Eventually, it was time to go. I’m lucky enough to be able to pack those skills I learned to take a stab at running my own publishing company from Yucatán. My imagined Village townhouse near the Duplex materialized as a colonial near Hennessy’s. Rockefeller Center was replaced with a tiny office on the Paseo de Montejo.
I’m not sure how many 9/11 tributes I’ll be watching on TV today. I know I wasn’t ready during the 10-year anniversary when I worked for a daily newspaper and couldn’t avoid the topic. If I do watch, at least it will be from a good distance.