Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of what has come to be generally known as 9/11 (have you heard??), and I still don’t know what I’ll do, if anything, to mark the occasion.
Everywhere you turn in New York City, remembrances are taking place. Some of them may even be quite good. I don’t know. I am, in general, tuning them out. But they’ve actually reminded me that I’ve never written down my own 9/11 story. Maybe I did right when it happened, but that was probably about five computers ago.
Anyway, this, too, will be a 9/11 remembrance, so you, my six loyal B&E readers, should feel free to tune it out. Or if you’re one of those people who’s been enjoying the memorializing, etc., read on…
The weather. It seems like everyone talks about the gorgeous day that was September 11, 2001. They do so, mostly because it is dramatically juxtaposed with the tragedy that followed. But yes, it was a beautiful day, and I remember thinking that as I made my way to a Pilates studio in lower Manhattan, around 8:30 A.M.
A couple of weeks earlier, I ran into a college friend, one I hadn’t seen since college. We were friends but not in each other’s circles. But I’d been her RA, she was with me the first time I smoked weed, and I had always liked her very much. She was training to be a Pilates instructor and was told that she needed a male guinea pig. I’d been out-of-work since May and was always open to free things to do, so naturally, I accepted her offer for free Pilates sessions. September 11th would be my first.
I’m pretty sure I was hanging upside down in some sort of Pilates machine when I heard what must’ve been the second plane hit the Towers. I didn’t notice the first. We get a lot of loud noises in New York City, and honestly, the bang I heard sounded like a dump truck hitting a massive pothole right outside the building. Then an older dude came in and announced that the World Trade Center was on fire.
My friend unstrapped me from the contraption, and we went out to look. We were just a few blocks north of the Towers. The flames were bad and high up, and I just remember thinking, “How in the hell are they gonna put that out?” It was one of those things you couldn’t not watch.
And then we saw someone fall, or more likely jump, from the building. Then another. Then a couple more. It was fucking terrible, and saying it was fucking terrible is a really cheap way of saying just how fucking terrible it was. After maybe five jumpers, my friend and I sort of looked at each other. In my memory we had the same instinct: Let’s walk uptown.
We dropped into the studio, and they were kind enough to let me use the phone. I wanted my parents to know I was okay. Which is a funny instinct in retrospect because as bad as it was, we had no way of knowing just how bad it was. My dad had an 800 number at his office (I had no cellphone, of course, and you may recall a time when we got charged long distance rates). He wasn’t there, but I asked his secretary to let him know I was fine.
Our plan was to walk to my friend’s office at Astor Place, probably a bit more than a half hour on foot from where we were. When I’m freaking out, I shut down a bit. So even as I was all WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON? on the inside, I expressed a silent, calm exterior. My friend was rather the opposite. She asked questions no one could possibly have the answers to, she openly expressed her fear, and she even asked if I would mind if she took my hand. Frankly, I was glad she wanted to, as I could really use the human touch in that moment.
I found her expressive exterior as comforting as she found my calm demeanor, we discovered, comparing notes later.
But even as we were walking, rumors were flying from other pedestrians. We heard that it was two planes and that another hit the Pentagon. Some people seemed to think that there were more on their way to the White House and the Capitol Building. I don’t remember when I finally heard about the plane that went down in Pennsylvania.
Because we were downtown when we started, and because the Towers were indeed tall, there were pockets of people watching the fires burn while we just kept heading uptown. I remember one man crying out, “Holy shit!” which I can only assume in retrospect was the collapse of one of the Towers. We didn’t look back. We’d seen enough. Cellphones weren’t working. Lines at the payphones were easily a dozen deep.
We made it to my friend’s place of work. My plan was just to make a couple of phone calls from her office and figure out if I could get home. She actually works in a setting that requires a great deal of confidentiality because of the population the organization serves, and they almost didn’t let me by reception. But my friend said, “I don’t think you understand! It’s a war zone out there! You have to let him in!” And in I went.
The clients they serve were pretty open about their freakouts. And it’s like they were expressing what I couldn’t yet express. That this shit was scary. And I found them oddly comforting to be around.
I called my dad again and spoke to his secretary to let her know I was out of the neighborhood now. She said they were watching it on TV. I think that was moment it really sank in that this was a big fucking deal. It was being watched in an office in Kansas, and her tone was such that it became clear that everyone who could watch was watching, no matter where they were.
After a little while, I felt like I needed to be on the move again. I still didn’t think I could get back to Queens, and I felt like I needed a place I could be for a couple of hours to check in with all my people. I actually reached the ex I once lived with, who didn’t live far away. She said I should come straight over. Her phone was working fine. Another mutual friend who worked not far from the Towers was also on her way.
During my next walk uptown, I overheard a mother giving her three-year-old a lesson: “Remember the Twin Towers? They’re gone!” That seemed really odd to me because I still didn’t know they’d collapsed. What little information I’d heard caused my mind to think that just the burned part of the Towers had come down.
I got to my ex’s apartment and spoke to my family. My dad said he didn’t even understand why I called at first. He’d been on the golf course, and when his secretary called to let him know I was okay, he was like, “Of course he is. He’s unemployed and asleep in Queens.” When she called him again to let him know I was out of the neighborhood, he realized that something else was going on. I got a few more news reports, and reached a couple of other people I really needed to reach.
My ex’s neighbors (and my former neighbors) had us over for dinner.
I’d actually recently started dating a woman I’d end up seeing for about a year. She worked just south of the Towers, and it took a while, but I finally got her on the phone. She’d come out of the train into the ash of the fallen Towers, but was otherwise fine. The people I was closest to were all okay.
I knew, slightly, one firefighter who died. He helped run the tech in the theater department at my college for a year that I was there. I knew his wife slightly better, but only slightly. And of course, I knew people who lost close loved ones.
Is that a typical NYC 9/11 experience? I have no idea.
I do think that a terrific amount of myth has been created around 9/11. People crave their stories. They need heroes. We had our firefighters and first responders. We had our Port Authority and Police Department.
And we had Rudy Giuliani. Rudy was a shitty mayor. He created crisis and controversy when there wasn’t a real one around. 9/11 was, of course, a real crisis, and he seemed to handle the pressure pretty well (at least until he tried to name himself Mayor For Life). So 9/11 made him a household name. It also made him millions.
People talk about the sense of unity after 9/11. Maybe that’s true. Especially outside the City. Not that New York City wasn’t united in some way. But mostly I remember being scared out of my gourd for at least a week following the attacks. And really fucking sad.
Still, I was definitely grateful to be in New York City during and after 9/11. It was a time of deep love for me, actually. Sorrowful, mournful, desperate love. Love for my home; love for good friends; love for family.
As for marking the occasion, the idea of a public gathering doesn’t appeal to me. There’s something about the 9/11 experience that felt private to me then and still does. Narcissism? Maybe. I don’t really care. But, unless you were someone I was close to, I hated talking about my experience. And people really wanted to hear about it, especially people who weren’t in NYC on that day. Whether it was their morbid fascination or genuine empathy, I resented the people who asked me about it. Even the nice people.
So, yeah, I don’t know what I’ll do tomorrow. Certainly spend some time with the missus. A drink with friends, including the college friend who hanged me upside down in the Pilates machine.
Whatever you decide to do, I wish you all (all six of my intrepid and lovely B&E readers) a day of peace and love.