PITTSBURGH, Pa., 9/11/21
It is 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2021, a sunny Saturday afternoon. I am driving my 18-year-old son down from our home in the northern suburbs to the University of Pittsburgh campus, to a dorm not far from the elementary school that we both attended. He is meeting his friends and going down to the Strip District section of town to attend something called “TacoFest.”
We are passing through Etna, a town on the Allegheny River at the city’s edge. Trying to stave off danger and problems and bad situations, as I have been wont to do for the past 20 years, I ask Mason how much charge his phone has. He replies: 79%. I ask him whether he wants to plug it in for a bit, and he does.
When it connects with my car stereo, the song that comes up and begins playing is “Mr. Jones,” by Counting Crows, from 1993’s “August and Everything After.” I am surprised.
“You listen to this,” I say. It is more of a marveling than a question.
“I’ve started to, yeah,” he says.
“You have no idea how much a part of my life this album was,” I say. I pause. “Can I pick a song?”
“Sure,” he says. “It’s on shuffle.”
I start punching through the choices on the dashboard screen until I reach “A Murder of One,” the album’s last track and the one I’ve always liked the most.
We listen. As the chords swell, my eyes behind my sunglasses fill. Images cut across my mind’s field of vision — a quick-cut montage of 1993 and 1994, when I was a quarter-century old.
It was a time when I was young and intense but silly and, if not carefree, at least less weighed down than I am now. If I could pick an age to be again, an attitude to have, it would be very much like then.
I listen to the song. Adam Duritz sings to me.
All your life is such a shame, shame, shame.
We were perfect when we started; I’ve been wondering where we’ve gone.
As I hear the lyrics, I begin to think of the place where 9/11 — and what happened to the world 20 years ago today — took me. And how it carried me away from something crucial to my well-being: me.
What happened 20 years ago today sent me hurtling headlong into moments that I had always hungered for, things I had always dreamed of doing as a journalist.
It took me to dangerous places. It exposed me to cultures that I never thought I’d see and revealed friends I never thought I’d have. It was the catalyst for some of the most meaningful work of my career. I look back on the stories I told in the two years that followed 9/11 and I feel proud, which is not an emotion that comes easily to me.
But that period of venturing in and out of conflict zones — the threats, the fear, the intense uncertainty about tomorrow— stole treasures from me, too.
It stole a lightness of being that I can still access now and then, but hardly regularly. Sometimes it’s completely inaccessible to me as I open my eyes, look around and see only twilight.
It took away my young person’s sense that the world was unfolding as it should. Perhaps that sense was always fictional anyway, as it is for so many.
But at its deepest, I think it stole from me a sense that real joy was possible — that the good times can outweigh the bad even when the bad times seem huge. And the decade-long saga of my aged parents fading, spiraling into a fog of dementia, was the frosting on that cake, the calcifier that made sure my damage from 9/11 coverage settled in as part of me — and that the concrete in my brain and heart dried with all the ugly footprints of global anger still pocking its surface.
Somehow I became this person for whom joy often seems an uphill climb. And I don’t know quite how to navigate my way back.
Mason and I cross the 62nd Street Bridge into the city. We come through the Lawrenceville neighborhood, down Butler Street. “A Murder of One” is still playing.
“Do you know what ‘murder’ means?” I ask him. He looks at me like I’m nuts.
“Of course,” he says.
“Are you sure?”
He looks it up on his phone and reads me the definition.
“The unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another,” he says.
He checks Webster’s. His eyes widen.
“Oh!” he says. “A flock of crows.” He seems impressed.
The song finishes, and — thanks to shuffle — “Mr. Jones” comes on again just as we pass, impossibly, a bar called the New Amsterdam, just like the one that’s right there in the lyrics. I think of 1993 and 1994, when these songs were everywhere. Vertigo begins in the pit of my stomach and emanates outward.
“I want to be someone who believes,” Adam Duritz sings.
I tell Mason that there’s an alternate version of this song that was done live a few years later with a totally different arrangement. I unplug his phone and plug mine in, and I cue it up.
I notice that in the mirror-universe version, while almost all of the words are the same, a few have been tweaked.
“I don’t wanna be someone to believe,” Duritz sings in 1997, riffing off himself. “You should not believe in me.”
We cross the Bloomfield Bridge, approaching the Pitt campus, and enter the edge of the Oakland neighborhood near the former Schenley High School, an imposing building that now houses apartments — including the home of one of his friends, where my son plays guitar and practices with his band.
Shuffle is still engaged. “‘Round Here,” the first track on the album, pops on.
Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog …
I remember what it was like listening to “August and Everything After” the first few times, and how utterly sad Adam Duritz sounded. It was fresh and raw and revelatory.
In between the moon and you,
the angels get a better view
of the crumbling difference between wrong and right.
I think of how so many of the familiar and established narratives about America have been pulverized in the past two decades because of that day. The national script is in constant rewrite — I guess it always is — and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what anything means anymore, what is wrong and what is right, because we have created a world where anyone can make a case for anything, because everything can be made to sound right if there’s enough intensity and amplification and determination and manipulation.
And inside my car, Adam Duritz is singing.
Round here, we always stand up straight.
Now we are passing Falk Laboratory School, which I attended from 1973 to 1982, with the exception of years when I lived in Singapore and in China. I see Pitt students playing pickup basketball on what used to be the field where I played pickup soccer through so many lunch periods.
It’s also the field where, in 1981, we buried a time capsule for Falk’s 50th anniversary that disappeared and, as I understand it, hasn’t been located to this day. A time capsule, a thing whose only purpose is to preserve moments, lost somewhere in the dirt under a concrete shell. The aptness of the metaphor feels absurd.
Beyond it, nearer to the building, sits the playground where I played from kindergarten into my early teens. It was my place of recess-level freedom when I was someone else, when I was the ADHD kid (they called it “hyperactive” in those days) determinedly looking in a different direction than all of my classmates during the kindergarten class photo, the kid whom one teacher in second grade called “my favorite jumping bean.”
Back then, I was also often called “irrepressible.” It wasn’t always a compliment, but it did mean something filled with possibility. I do not think I’m irrepressible anymore. And I think that what happened 20 years ago today, and the ripples that it caused for me and for my wife and ultimately for our sons, relate directly to that.
We arrive at Mason’s friend’s dorm. I pull up in front, and I realize I’m dropping off this child whose birth I reached by riding in a convoy through Fallujah and navigating a locked-down airport in Amman where a Japanese journalist’s “souvenir” cluster bomb had exploded a few weeks earlier and killed a Jordanian security guard.
And hours later I sprinted through the terminal in Frankfurt, breathless and sweating and frantic, racing to catch the only direct flight from Europe to Pittsburgh, a USAir flight, knowing that there wasn’t another for a week and if I missed it I might miss him being born.
And I arrived on time to a wife at baggage claim who barely recognized me with the pounds I left behind in Baghdad, and a few days later he was born and now he is 18 and he is sitting next to me in the passenger seat and he is stronger than me and he is holding his phone and he is playing Counting Crows and he is off to TacoFest with his friends, who are all in college at Pitt and Duquesne, and somehow this man is what has become of this tiny little life form who I thought I’d never get to meet because I was pretty sure that Iraq would be the end of me.
And I don’t know how to find my way back from that moment, from the coiled feeling and the quick anger and the always-make-absolutely-sure-nothing-bad-happens mentality that it delivered me into and that I have, across the years, delivered unto my family.
I am caught, suspended there. The moment is almost two decades gone. Its ink has long since dried. Yet somehow it still won’t let me go.
But I know something else, too. I know that 20 years is too long to wander in the wilderness of my own emotional backyard and not find my way.
I have given 20 years to this paralysis. I’ve lost 20 years to it. Twenty years have been taken from me by it. I don’t know quite what verbs to use. I don’t know whether I should say that it was me who stole those years from myself, whether you’d say it was the world that stole them from me or something in between. Whatever the case, they are gone, and what was left in their place is not quite who I planned to be.
It has been 20 years today, and I am not going to let this darkness envelop me anymore.
I’ve tried to be strong and resilient. I still believe those are good things. I have never viewed myself as someone who faced difficulties, but I am beginning to see that, in this case, I did. And I don’t think that I should pretend that I haven’t. I think I must admit it to those around me, and to myself.
I think about how I’ve lived through a loved one’s suicide, though a father’s seven years of Alzheimer’s and a mother’s six years of dementia, through the violent ripples of 9/11 and Kalashnikovs pointed at me by agitated militiamen in the mountains outside Kabul and looking down from a Baghdad hotel rooftop onto gunfire below and having a bullet pass three inches over my head and so many years of running toward the flames while everyone else is running away from them and Chinese military police roughing me up on Tiananmen Square and police reporting in central Pennsylvania and dead bodies and drownings and bus accidents and house fires and murders of one and many, and teenagers killing other teenagers and excruciating courtroom dramas and families riven and pieces of a flaming TWA airplane dotting the midnight waters off Long Island and hurricanes that blow my rental car off the North Carolina county road and wildfires in Florida that deposit me in a cemetery with burning trees all around so I can sit with a woman who refuses to evacuate because she doesn’t want to let her daughter’s grave burn, and Rachel Scott’s car outside Columbine High School parked for a normal day of school and now, two days later, covered with flowers and tributes and surrounded by weeping classmates because she is gone and will never, ever return.
For reasons I have yet to fully process, bearing witness has been the through-line of my adult life. Willingly, eagerly, perhaps naively, I and many in my generation of journalists became lightning rods for a world upended and for places and people that cry out to help make sense of them. I am privileged and lucky and fortunate for all that. And I am so, so tired.
I have made absolutely certain to remember how so many people have it so much worse — people in situations they cannot leave simply by hopping a plane and going home. My instinct has always been to channel it all into my writing, to stow my own pain in the overhead compartment because it was untoward to acknowledge it. That would be selfish and self-focused and indulgent, because ‘round here, we always stand up straight.
I think it’s time to move on from that outdated approach.
Maybe there is darkness ahead. There is most certainly darkness ahead. There’s discord and division and heartache everywhere. The world is heating up, and sometimes that’s a metaphor and sometimes it isn’t. I don’t know where we are going, but I have had a sufficiency of darkness for a while.
And there’s no better day than today, no better afternoon than this afternoon, under a blue sky with a single puffy cloud over Falk School, the place where I spent much of my childhood, where today young men in shorts and no shirts run back and forth up the basketball court, trying to put an orange ball into a small hoop, just because it’s fun, just because they like it, just because it feels good right here, right now.
I left part of myself here. We leave parts of ourselves everywhere. But looking out at the basketball court this afternoon, I know that the part I left here is directly connected to the part I want back.
It is the part that lost its way, that got enveloped in a coating of sludge from a distorted, bizarrely curated cross-section of the world that was chosen for me by the news and my role in it. It is the part that, without it, I have no hope of tuning in to the happiness and joy that might surround me if I simply adjust the way I look at this.
And so I suppose I have work to do. Because I’ve punished myself for long enough by saying that because I have it better than some, somehow I should have no pain at all.
I think back to just a few minutes ago, when I was driving with my oldest son, Edward Mason Anthony V, who is named after me, who is named after a trail of Anthonys who have lived and persevered and endured since 1826. Continuity, the friend of comfort — and sometimes the enemy of progress.
I think of me and my son sitting together as adults in the front seat of a car, listening to music that, for me, is fraught and layered filled with memory and for him is nothing more than good music — something to merely enjoy and absorb.
I want it to be that again for me. I want the world to contain that again. I want somehow to not have everything layered and tinged with the unwieldy ballast of the past. The past is such a part of me — more than with most people, I think. It has guided me — governed me, even. I was, after all, a history major. But it has become too much a part of me. It’s claiming too much space.
I must pull myself back to the moment — to this moment, and to all the this moments that follow. I have to exist here, not in all those other theres. And every time I falter, I have to remind myself that this is where I am, that I do exist here, that I am not already a ghost in the fog.
Sitting parked at Falk, alone now, I play “Mr. Jones” one final time. I try to tune out everything but the lyrics themselves. I want them to reverberate.
I wanna be just about as happy as I can be.
I may not have all the power for that. Like all of us in the end, I have less control than I might believe. But perhaps, too, I have more than I realize. And I’ve been hiding, citing the powerlessness to myself, caught in a loop of paralysis.
Twenty-eight years after I first heard it, I realize suddenly what “A Murder of One” actually means. A murder of crows is a flock, as Mason now knows. So isn’t a murder of one someone who’s in a crowd, but alone? For so long, I have been smack in the middle of the world, privileged to have a front-row seat to history unfolding. Yet for so long I have felt acutely alone, too, carried away by events, believing I am surfing when in fact I am being swept away. Silently, to myself, I invoke an incantation, another Duritz fragment from that song: You don’t want to waste your life.
Twenty years ago today, on a single blue morning, a cabal of angry and misguided men stole many things from many people, in varying degrees. From American families they took fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and husbands and wives. They set in motion events that took those same things from very different people in far-off lands. They took away, for many, a sense of security, a feeling that the world was a good place. And from me, they took an abiding belief that happiness was possible.
But the bird that nests inside me is no longer going to be permitted to eat away as it pleases. I will repurpose it. It will be used, I hope, to help me strive again for what birds are built to do: fly.
I want to be someone who believes. I was that once. It’s time to be that person again — for me, and even more so for the people I love.
Ted Anthony, a journalist based in Pittsburgh and New York, has reported from more than 25 countries. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects his writing here.
Further reading by Ted Anthony:
We Did Not, In Fact, Build This City on Rock and Roll
Aging, death and the lies of 1980s bubblegum music.
The Last 90 Seconds
A fading father, a ticking clock, and one last snack for the road.
Gazing into a long-ago Polaroid taken by my father, and finding multitudes.
©2022 | Ted Anthony