ReelThoughts: September 11, 2010

"The Least Wonderful Time of the Year"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


This year, without the blissful oblivion of the Toronto Film Festival to shield me from the reality of life, I have come to a realization: I dislike September.

I'm probably in the minority making such a declaration and, since I was born during this month in 1967, I may sound ungrateful, but September 1967 was more a time of joy for my parents than for me. Many would argue that the weather in the northeast is at its best during September, with the heat of summer fading as the coolness of autumn seeps into the air. Still, I like the sticky, sweltering conditions of July and September feels like the death of long days and short sleeves and a harbinger of darker, colder things to come.

My two primary reasons for disliking September are rooted in my past - one back in the days when I was a student and one in more recent times. They are different sorts of events and, when compared in magnitude, there is a vast gulf separating them. I view Labor Day less as a cause for celebration and more as a wake; it's my least favorite holiday behind the even more depressing New Year's Day, which ushers in 75 days of truly bleak weather and even more bleak movies. At least in September, the baseball teams are still playing and the best of Hollywood is on the on-deck circle.

As a kid, I didn't hate school. For the most part, I found it to be boring and at times pointless, but there were rare days when one class or another would challenge or intrigue me. It was a basic fact of life and I accepted it as such. I probably greeted the summer vacation a little more greedily than many of my peers and waved goodbye to it with a twinge more of regret.

During the entirety of my public school tenure, which ran 13 years (kindergarten through grade 12), I never held a proper job. Today, that's mostly unheard of, but it was not so rare back in the 1980s. Labor laws made employers reluctant to hire anyone younger than 16, and I didn't turn that age until early in my junior year of high school. (I was still 17 when I started college.) Another complication was that I couldn't drive until three weeks into my senior year. But those weren't the real reasons I postponed my entry into the wonderful world of employment. Simply put, I didn't want to work.

The reason my friends worked - those who did, that is - was to make money. But my financial needs were slim. I could subsist happily on $5 per week, which might sound extraordinary, but that's the way it was for someone who didn't buy many records, occasionally went to the movies, and ate at fast food joints only when someone else was paying. That's not to say I sat around the house doing nothing. I provided lawn mowing, leaf raking, and other landscaping services to several neighbors (at one time, I had five regular customers plus my own yard, for which I did not get paid), which brought in about ten times the amount of money I was spending. So, with the financial end of things covered, there seemed to be little reason to slave away at a Burger King or Woolworth's. So I spend my summers mowing lawns and relaxing. From the time I was about seven or eight until I was 17, I can't remember a bad summer.

When you're a kid, time moves differently than it does as an adult. It's more a matter of perspective than of science. During the school years, summers seem endless, especially at the outset. 10 weeks is a long time. The last day of school is the best day of the year - better even than Christmas or a birthday. The present provided on that day is the nicest possible gift - freedom, or at least the illusion of it. Freed from the demands of routine and homework, the next glorious 70 days stretch ahead like a road disappearing into the sunset. Looking back on it, I can taste the excitement of those late June mornings. Summer is new and the days are long.

Sometimes, the reality of summers didn't live up to their potential. I never got to experience that elusive summer romance I halfheartedly pursued during my high school years. One year, I spent the entire two weeks of our family's vacation in the Pocono Mountains sick in bed with a July flu. Still, those were road bumps. The summer of 1977 gave me Star Wars. Other summers allowed me to become immersed in Star Trek and to play D&D five or six days per week. I had (and still have) a passion for thunderstorms and there were plenty of those.

The least appealing summer was the one before college. My father, thinking I should be getting a job, decided that if I was going to be a bum, at least a portion of my hours needed to be accounted for doing something productive. So I was given an order to paint all the shutters. I didn't play as much D&D that summer - I was losing interest in the game and some of my co-players were working. Also, my affair with Star Trek had reached the seven-year itch stage. But I read and wrote and, now able to drive, I went to a few more movies. But college loomed and that summer became the first of many to speed by uncommonly fast.

For my entire early life, I equated September with the end of pleasure. The return of school, easy to ignore in July and even August, was an inescapable reality in September, when the days dwindled down to a precious few. Had classes been more stimulating, I might have welcomed the passage of Labor Day, but that was never the case. I didn't hate school but there were times when I resented it because it felt like a waste of time and effort.

Labor Day, always the last day of vacation, was the hardest. There were no more "free nights." By afternoon, all that remained was the normal period between the end of one school day and the beginning of the next. Friends were unavailable in the evening because everyone was preparing for Tuesday morning. The comfortable routines of the summer were put away for another year, replaced by the drudgery of the scholastic seasons. Bedtimes were adjusted earlier to compensate for the need to get up with the next appearance of the sun. During my school years, every Labor Day was surreal, a requiem for the summer. And not at all welcome.

Then 2001 gave me a new reason not to like the month. A starker, less self-absorbed reason.

My infatuation with the Twin Towers began in 1976, only two years after they were completed. Living in the New York area at the time, I had vague recollections of news reports detailing their construction, but it wasn't until King Kong climbed them that I took notice. The poster of Kong straddling the towers, although depicting him at about twenty times his height in the 1976 remake, captured my imagination and became one of the driving forces behind my campaign to coerce my father into taking me to attend my first theatrical feature. (My guess is that I enjoyed the experience a little more than he did.) For the monster-movie obsessed child, the new King Kong was the crown jewel and could not be missed. Kong and the World Trade Center were both larger than life and were inextricably entwined for a generation. (For some reason to a 9-year old, Kong's last stand atop the WTC seemed more dramatic than his final moments on the Empire State Building.)

Traveling to my grandparents' house required that we pass through a marshy area on the Garden State Parkway that had an unbroken line-of-sight to lower Manhattan and, on a clear day, it was possible to see the World Trade Center. On every trip, I scanned the eastern horizon eagerly, hoping to catch a glimpse of the towers. The sight was even better on those occasions when my father took me into New York for visits to the Museum of Natural History. Still, although there was one occasion when I had the opportunity to pass by the Empire State Building on street level, I never got closer to the World Trade Center than about 34th Street - until 1992.

In my capacity as an engineer working for Bell Communications Research, I was required to attend a meeting at the NYNEX building in lower Manhattan. The building, which was subsequently renamed the Verizon building, would be heavily damaged on September 11, 2001 when debris from the collapsing towers (and WTC 7) smashed into it. On that day in 1992, as I emerged from the subway, my gaze lifted skyward. I can recall standing at the base of the North Tower (WTC 1) and looking up... and up... and up. It's the only time I have gotten vertigo while on the ground.

Over the next few years, I attended several meetings at the NYNEX building, including one after the 1993 bombing. The subject of that strategy session was protecting the Manhattan telephone infrastructure in the event of a terrorist "event." On each visit to the NYNEX building, I spent anywhere from a few minutes to an hour in the WTC plaza. I never ventured beyond the lobby of either building, but I had vague notions of one day visiting Windows on the World. Like everyone, I thought the towers were permanent and the opportunity to climb to the top would always be there.

I understand why the towers were Bin Laden's target. Even more than the Empire State Building, they represented strength and indomitability. Nothing, it seemed, could bring them down. Their destruction was unthinkable yet, like many unthinkable things, it happened. The primary shock came from the suddenness of it all - from normalcy and calm at 8:45 to utter devastation by 10:30. The vacancy in the New York skyline, like a wound that never quite heals, is a constant reminder, even years later.

I casually knew two people who died in the World Trade Center that day, but no one close to me, either friend or family member, was in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. Many, of course, have a more intimate connection with the 9/11 than I - those whose losses were more tangible than the disintegration of peace of mind. The real tragedy of the loss of the Twin Towers was not the steel and concrete but the fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, and compatriots for whom lower Manhattan became a final resting place. Nevertheless, for those unconnected with the victims, the deaths of the icons loomed. We don't need video for our mind's eye to recall the moments in painful detail; those images haunt through the years, clouding September mornings today as they polluted the pristine one of September 11, 2001.

There are many reasons to appreciate September, but it remains my least favorite 30 day period of the year. Bring on October.


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