Thursday, September 15, 2011

September 11, 2001

The morning of September 11th was the Democratic primary. I was excited to be able to vote for Hillary Clinton as senator since I had voted for her husband for president in my very first election. My polling place was in the elementary school around the corner from my apartment in Spanish Harlem. Like so many things in NYC, it was completely inefficient. The polling booths were set up in the gymnasium which was also where they had all the children line up every morning. It was a mad house with adults and children running and pushing everywhere. Needless to say I was late to work and still on the cross town #66 bus at a quarter to 9.
I had managed to score an individual seat on the left hand side of the bus. The passenger behind me asmswer a cell phone call, and like most New Yorker, spoke with a phone voice loud enough for everyone else on the bus to hear him. A plane hit the World Trade Center? What? The building was on fire? Sure enough, as I looked out my window towards the south I could see smoke at the end of the urban tunnel. As the bus headed east I could see more and more smoke at the end of each avenue; it was getting bigger and blacker. The bus had erupted in a din of conversation as everyone was one the phone or sharing hypotheses amongst themselves. One man was very upset because his daughter worked down there and got off the cross town bus as soon as he could so he could head down there to make sure she was okay.
When I got to work I went directly to my desk without greeting anyone because 1) I was late and 2) I wanted to get ont he internet to learn more about what had happened. At that point I didn't think it was a big deal, the rumors on the bus were that it was a small charter plane. I thought it was more of a curiosity than anything else. My co-workers quickly came to retrieve me and I learned what a big deal it really was. The entire office was in the conference room watching the scene on tv. By then the second plane had hit.
Holy shit.
How could this be happening?
I know it is what everyone says, but it was so surreal. Here I was, living in a city that wasn't my own, where everything that "matters" happens. NYers can be so arrogant and self important. And now I was here when something really important was happening. And I was watching it on tv, as though I were still in the PNW and not just a few miles uptown.
I don't really remember what happened next, it all seems like a blur. Trying to figure out what the hell was going on. What did this mean for my safety? Why weren't they using helicopters to get the people trapped at the top of the buildings out of there? Why didn't they have those planes we use to fight forest fires dumping that forest fire fighting liquid on the building to put out the fire? Where people really jumping? How bad must it be in there for jumping to your death to be the better option?
At some point we began to hear reports that there was a fire at the Pentagon. Was this a plane too? It couldn't possibly be a coincidence, could it? The television was mesmerizing. How could this be real? This seemed like it must be a movie. This can't possibly really be happening.
And then the first tower fell. Holy effing shit.
I will never, as long as I live, forget the blood curdling scream that came from my friend Mrs. B. I remember turning around to see who was doing it, thinking someone was being overly dramatic. What I didn't know at the time was that Mrs. B's husband worked in the south tower. So she understandably was freaked the eff out. I don't know if she assumed at the time that her husband was still in the building when it collapsed, but he was killed that day.
I was dumbstruck. I couldn't beleive the building had imploded like that. I am quite sure that I didn't realize how many people would have died in that. I think my naivete made me think that surely everyone must have gotten out. I just didn't want to imagine that the building collapsing would kill so many people.
Stunned, in disbelief, I was still trying to get a hold of Ms. H-G. Although she and her husband had left Brooklyn for Seattle two years prior, she had returned to try to finish up her degree at the Pratt Institute before I left. She was staying with me in my studio apartment and working nights at Bowlmore Lanes. I couldn't reach her on the phone. I was pretty sure she was asleep, but I wanted her to wake up. I needed a non-NYers perspective on what we were witnessing. And then the second tower fell.
To say that I was scared is an understatement. This was bad, very, very bad. Clearly we were under attack and being in NY was not a good thing. What must my parents be thinking? Oh my God, my parents! I quickly called them to let them know I was okay, so far from the damage in my office near the Lincoln Center. My poor parents. It was a terrible day for them. My inbox was full of email from my friends hoping to learn that I was safe. I was still unsuccessful getting through to Ms. H-G, the phone lines were all so busy.
Everyone in my office was leaving, a bunch of people were going to walk a few blocks up to the Red Cross to donate blood. I had never given blood, but if ever I was going to give blood, this was the time. When we all got to the Red Cross there was such a crowd of people there also hoping to donate that they began turning people away. The actress Kathleen Turner was among those who were turned away with us. There seemed to be nothing else to do but go home. So my friends Ms. S and Ms. N and I started walking north. We joined a mass exodus of people heading north. I felt like I was in a scene from a movie, like Gone With The Wind after Atlanta burns or The Joy Luck Club. I was walking away from a war zone.
I was still in a daze. We didn't know what to do. I don't know why going home seemed like it would be better, but where else would I go. I walked north on the West side with them until I needed to turn and head east towards Spanish Harlem. This would be the first time I was alone that day after the attacks. It was creepy. The thing is that September 11th was such a beautiful day. The sun was shining, it was warm, but not hot. And the wind was blowing the smoke off the island. If you hadn't been watching the news you might not have known. As I crossed Central Park I saw a couple women having a picnic with a couple of children. There was no one else in the park. Did they know what had happened? Should I tell them?
When I got home Ms. H-G wasn't there and I started to get worried. There was no way she would have been down there, right? She was asleep when I had left for work. It turned out that she freaked out after she woke up and spoke with her husband in Seattle. But because the phones were all so busy and she couldn't reach me she decided to go to my office and had missed me. Eventually we found each other and huddled in my apartment watching tv. At some point we decided to go to Krispy Kreme and bought a dozen donuts. That's how we survived September 11th. Krispy Kremes and watching Dude, Where's My Car over and over again. It was that kind of mindless bullshit that got our minds off of how scary it was in NY.
We could smell burning World Trade Center in my apartment for weeks afterwards. I wouldn't take the subway for almost a month until I felt assured that they had finally put the fire out. I had recently seen the movie Holland Tunnel in which and all I could think about was how dirty and yuck and filled with grease and debris the subways were it seemed like it would be no surprise if a giagantic fire ball swept through the tunnels. I guess I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Things happened in such succession that day. The other plane bound for the capitol crashing in Pennsylvania. #7 WTC collapsing late in the day.
Ten years later it is hard to imagine that that much time has passed since I lived in NY. Hard to imagine that life has gone on with little disturbance. I'm grateful we haven't been attacked again, but angry we used that momentum to invade another country. Frustrated that we are still involved in two wars with Americans and innocent civilians dying all the time. And yet, my life isn't impacted at all by the wars. Our government hasn't asked us to make any sacrifices and only a small part of the nation is bearing the brunt of fighting the wars. Perhaps if the draft were reinstated and children across all socioeconomic levels were forced to fight the nation would come to a quicker resolution to end the wars and bring them home.

1 comment:

  1. Very powerful synopsis of that eventful day - I remember talking to you that afternoon after you were turned away from donating blood and then calling all my family to share