This essay, published on Wednesday, September 11, 2013, is exclusive to Notablog.
[REMEMBERING THE WORLD TRADE CENTER: 2001; 2002; 2003; 2004; 2005; 2006; 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016; 2017; 2018; 2019; 2020]
MY FRIEND MATTHEW:
A 9/11 BABY OF A DIFFERENT STRIPE
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Towers, from the Staten Island Ferry, May 12, 2001
This photo by Chris Matthew Sciabarra
The "9/11 Baby" has referred variously to babies born on 11 September 2001, or babies born to mothers whose fathers were killed in the tragedy of that horrible day in American history.
But there is a "9/11 Baby" of a different stripe: people who were born on 9/11 in years long preceding the one that earned its place among days of infamy.
For me, 9/11 was always a special date... and it still is, but not only for the obvious experience of memory, for which I have written an annual remembrance ever since. It is because it is the birthday of one of the closest friends I have ever had in my life, a man whose generosity, support, guidance, love---and even anger, have taught me a thing a two. We met in the mid-1980s, and as our friendship matured the first thing we learned to accept about one another was that our evolving mutual trust and respect often led Matthew to give me a good (metaphorical) swift kick in my ass every time I was making an obviously stupid mistake. And there have been plenty of those. But what keeps this friendship alive is not simply love, or the occaionally deserved ass-kicking; it is loyalty. I could not and would not live for him, but I'd not hesitate to take a bullet for him. He is family. He is everything anyone would ever want in a life-long friend, even when he was lacing into me with his latest tirade about how I was screwing up.
So, for me, 9/11 took on a very special significance for me long before 2001. For it it was on that date in 1967 that Matthew was born at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. And once we met and became friends, I quickly became aware of his generosity and kindness. There wasn't a 9/11 that did not begin with me phoning him at an ungodly a.m. hour to play (hum) on my "Humazoo" (a version on the kazoo) my own off-the-wall rendition of "Happy Birthday." He despised being awakened this way... but once he came to expect it, it became, no doubt, a sign of reassurance. A reassurance that I was still there, and would forever stand by his side. Oh, life has a way of challenging such resassurances... and we've been challenged as much as anyone else. But we're stll here. And we're still friends.
And 9/11 still has that very special signficance. Except that in 2001, something happened that greatly affected the significance of that date... for him, for me, for too many other people in this city, the country, the world.
Matthew was the youngest of five siblings; one sister and three brothers, two of whom were born mentally challenged and suffer various physical disabilities. His parents had met in the early 1940s, and had both quit high school to work for the war effort. They married in the early 1950s, but his Dad could not escape the ravages of war. Injuries sustained during the Korean War ultimately contributed to a life-long struggle with various illnesses, contributing to his death in 2004. His Mom, who turns 82 this month, has long needed Matthew's help in taking care of his special brothers.
This was a special Italian American family, with emphasis on American. Both maternal and paternal grandparents were naturalized American citizens; it was Matthew's great grandparents on both his mother's and father's side, who had emigrated to America in the 1800s, from Naples, Italy.
Like so many Italian American families, this one settled in New York City; Matthew himself was a Brooklynite through-and-through. He attended Brooklyn public elementary, junior high, and high schools, and was the first in his family to earn a college degree (from Pace University). He went on to complete a Doctorate in Business Administration, and spent the bulk of his adult life managing profit and not-for-profit organizations, earning enough to own property, and maintain financial interests in start-up companies, running the gamut from real estate and day care to fitness and food services.
Life-long Brooklynite, or not, Matthew was very disconcerted by the rising real estate rates of the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially in his beloved borough. That trend would greatly influence his decision, in 1993, to move to Staten Island. He has never forgotten his Brooklyn haunts (including L&B Spumoni Gardens and Totonno's Pizzeria). And he has never forgotten that no matter what of the five boroughs one calls home, he is a New Yorker, with everything that implies about love of home, hard work and pride in the accomplishments it generates.
An attack on New York City could only be a personal attack, if ever there were one.
Matt had actually been out quite late with friends on the evening of Monday, September 10, 2001---the night before his special day that gave way to his birthday. At 5 o'clock, on the morning of September 11, 2001, he decided to take the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel en route to the Belt Parkway, the Verrazano Bridge, and his home on Staten Island. Before entering the Tunnel, he passed directly in front of the Twin Towers on the West Side Highway, a growing shimmer of light coming from the promise of a sunrise on what was to be a gorgeous late summer day.
Even if I'd known he was out to 5 a.m., it would not have prevented me from being the obnoxious person of habit I'd become on this particular date: I fully intended on calling him early, Humazoo in hand, ready to greet him with my grand birthday motif. But by the time I had called him, I could not bring myself to hum "Happy Birthday" (though I called him later in the day, and serenaded him with a brief version anyway).
It was a little after 9 a.m., and New York City was officially under attack. I still wished my dear friend a Happy Birthday but fully expected to see him at a surprise birthday party we planned on Staten Island that coming weekend. We were all a little frightened that something else might happen in the interlude to make that party impossible.
In fact, the party never happened. But that was only because downtown Manhattan was a simmering graveyard, New York was in a state of war; bridges and tunnels were still closed, and most people found it impossible to travel beyond their immediate homes.
These events would forever change the meaning of 9/11 for Matthew and everyone else. He spent days as a captive of his own home, and equally, a captive of the horrific images being played over and over on televisions across the country.
Matthew is not the kind of guy to overreact; even if he'd worked at the WTC, he probably would have told his employees to do what he would have expected of himself, his work ethic fully motivating him to get the job done, unless asked to do otherwise by the authorities.
But when Matt saw this brutal act of terrorism against the city of his birth, even with his typical inability to overreact, he was shocked, very angry, and deeply resentful that these bastards had completely shut down the city of work, the city of movement and vitality. They had crushed his ability to come and go as he pleased and needed. But not for long, he knew.
He had friends whose loved ones had been injured or killed in the tragedy, but fortunately the events never affected his family on a truly personal level. Everyone he knew and loved was safe.
Years later, however, there have been lasting changes in the social psychology of New Yorkers. We are far more aware of our surroundings, and there are always questions lurking in the back of one's mind when one is going up the elevator of a tall building, or crossing a bridge, or traveling through a tunnel, or using the subway: will this be the day when some nutjob tries to make some statement that destroys the lives of thousands of people once again.
There are more subtle changes, however, that continue to remind Matthew of something he can never personally forget. There rarely is a time when Matthew has called a company or a financial institution or a customer service agency, and has not been asked to verify his date of birth. And invariably, the mere mention of 9/11 generates a discussion of how he can celebrate the event of his birth on a day now so filled with the painful memory of tragedy.
I always emphasize to him: It was your day long before it became the day of terrorism. And on this date, September 11, 2013, you are still here, a living, breathing tribute to the spirit of New York. And an embodiment of the meaning of friendship.
Happy birthday, my dear friend. It's something to celebrate. Always.
My friend Matthew