September 11, 2011

Watching History- 9/11 and Ten Years of Hindsight

I remember when I was in fifth grade, learning about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  I had known that he had been killed, I had known that he had been president, and I had known that many people had loved him.  I hadn't even come close to understanding what sort of national tragedy it was until that day.  Our teacher, an African American woman some years older than my own parents, was nearly in tears as she told us that all of our parents would know where they were that day.  That she had been a freshman in college, and that she had huddled around a small television with her friends and watched the news.  I understood that what had happened that day was history.

I never expected there to be such a day for me.  And yes, I remember where I was.

That summer had been the best of my life.  For my birthday (which is in April), my parents had given me the coolest present any teenager could possibly want.  They had given me the keys to the minivan, a few hundred dollars in traveler's checks, a loaner easel and set of paints, and permission to take off at the end of the school year and just hit the road.  I had planned out the whole trip- I mostly visited friends and family all across the east coast.  I started out in Michigan, drove through Ohio and Pennsylvania, and went visiting all on my own from Pittsburgh. PA (where I spent the first part of my life) to Smith's Falls (home to a now closed Hershey factory), Ontario, to Washington, D.C. (where my uncle,an AP reporter lives).  I went to the National Holocaust Museum all by myself, an experience I knew as it was happening I would never forget.  I got robbed in Cape Cod, and made my way to family friends in New Hampshire by making my very first art sale.  I stayed at my grandparents' house while they were in Spain, befriending a friend of theirs and spending a week in their guest room, writing a dreadful screenplay.  For over two months I drove around, singing along to Madonna and Lisa Loeb, flirting with cute boys in Providence and sketching crows in the Finger Lakes.

I had one week left in my trip.  I was in New Jersey.  I'd already visited my uncle and aunt in Manhattan (they were so cool- they had me push their baby in a stroller into bars so I wouldn't get carded when they bought me margaritas), but I'd taken the train rather than drive in.  I called home and my sister mentioned some party where all my friends would be, and for the first time I was suddenly homesick.  I suddenly wanted to blow off the last week of my trip, and just head home.  As I headed towards the west, I realized I hadn't gotten a look at the New York skyline.  Taking the train, I'd missed the view.  I had a moment of hesitation, and then I decided.  The New York City skyline wasn't going anywhere.  I'd be back.  But if I hurried and drove through the night, I could make it to that party.  I decided not to go to the bay and look, and instead I turned towards Pennsylvania.

That was in the August of 2001.

A few short weeks later, school had started up.  I was taking a biology class that started at 9am on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  As usual, I was running a little late.  As my sister and I headed out the door, Bev- who's birthday it was- popped her head out of the kitchen door.  "It's Grandpa on the phone- he says a plane just flew into Eliot's building!"  (Eliot was my uncle in NYC.)

Knowing that Eliot worked at NYU, and lived in a NYC high rise, I figured one of two things had happened. The first was that a probably drunk celebrity in a private plane had crashed into a random high rise in Manhattan, or that my Grandpa had his information skewed.  Probably both.

When I got to campus, I got on the elevator to my lab.  A girl in the elevator was telling her friend, "TWO planes hit the World Trade Center!"  I looked over my shoulder and said, "My grandfather heard that one, too.  Sounds like a hoax."

But class was cancelled.  And all the televisions on campus had been turned to the news.  I started watching, standing in the hallway outside of my art class, as the third plane hit the Pentagon.  I went into shock.  I knew that my uncle didn't work in the World Trade Center, but he lived just blocks away.  Manhattan is a tiny island.  In fact, he was standing in the park with his son in a stroller, expressing shock and horror with every other New Yorker- stopped in his track.  His wife, on the other hand, was stuck in train under the city.  She would be there for most of the day.

I started running to the cafeteria, where there would be pay phones.  I needed to know that not only Eliot and his family, but also my family in D.C. were okay.  Of course, nobody could reach anybody.  Eventually it became clear that at least Eliot and his baby son were alright, but nobody knew about my aunt.  And my uncle Seth in D.C. had done what any reporter worth his salt would do- he had run out of his office to the Pentagon to begin interviewing people.

Around the time I got all that information, the first tower collapsed.

I began walking.  Just to do something.  I walked back to the art room, and stood in front of the first television I had encountered.  There, a friend of mine found me.  We were both watching, shocked, when the second tower fell.

She and I had a moment of anger- not at whoever had caused this disaster, but because there were people in the crowd behind us who began talking about building Arabic internment camps.  I was ready to kick him in the shins with my steel toe combat boots.  We decided we just needed to leave.

She took me to a friend's apartment.  As we passed the Red Cross, we got stuck in a gigantic traffic jam.  Already the roads were flooded with people trying to donate blood.

We sat in her friend's apartment, chain smoking and watching the news.  There were what seemed like hours of film from a doctor with a video camera- he had gone running with his hand held camera into the dust, looking for injured people to help.  I don't know his name.  He's still the first person I think of when I think about heroes.

We sat there and smoked and smoked, and cried, and just kept saying over and over, "I can't believe it."

Eventually, I went home.  My family, some friends, all sorts of people were gathered around our television.  I don't remember how long we stayed there.  But I do remember the occasional phone calls, letting us know our family out east were all right.

And somehow... the day ended.  That I don't remember.  That part seems to be a blur.   I don't remember how late we sat in front of the television.  I don't remember what we ate for dinner.  I don't remember what words my parents spoke.  I don't remember whether I slept on the couch or went to bed.

But I will never forget that day.  I will never forget the fear, and the confusion, but more than anything the shock.

And there are images that are forever burned into my mind.  People jumping out of windows.  That one shot of the first plane hitting the building.  Over.  And over.  And over.

The man with that video camera,his hand probing through an impenetrable cloud of dust and his voice shouting out, "I'm a doctor- does anybody need help?  Can I help?  Does anybody need help?"

Ten years later, I don't think we're really any safer.  I don't think we've really come to understand what it meant to be attacked that way- because we're still clinging to the same ideas of safety.  The idea that something bad happened, and we won't let THAT happen again.

I think the truth is that someday, we WILL be attacked again.  And again, it will be like something out of a movie.  Something that we never imagined,  Something that we didn't expect.  Not a trick out of the book of terrorist plots.

I'm a writer.  I have ideas, nightmares if you will, of what it might be.  The sort of thing that would make a great movie.  That nobody would believe would ever happen.

But there is one thing that came out of that day that I feel HAS strengthened us.  That has made us better.  And that is the sense of community.  Of wanting to help each other.  Of wanting to work together to make ourselves whole again.

I think about that traffic jam outside of the Red Cross, and I cry.  Because we didn't know who the enemy was, we didn't know the toll.  We didn't know ANYTHING, except that there were people- probably MANY people- who were hurt.  And that we were going to help.

And for any group of people, be they a country or a town or just a random collection of strangers, to head not to the many churches to pray, or to the gas stations to fill their tanks, or to run mad through the streets, but to go to the one place where they knew they could help...

That gives me hope.

That gives me hope every day.  Because I have seen that there is truly a best possibility for all of us.  And while it might have taken a horrific tragedy to show me that, I am grateful to know that it's there.  That despite all political differences or ideological clashing, when it comes down to it... we really just want to help.

We're all calling out, while rushing into an impenetrable cloud, "Can I help?  Does anybody need help?"

So when we do, as I fear we someday probably will, there will be arms in that darkness to hold us, and lead us back into the light.


  1. I've had chills all day as I have watched the coverage. I can't believe it has been 10 years. Very inspiring post!

  2. Beautiful post. I also admire the gift your parents gave you. You will cherish that summer forever. Thank you for sharing.


  3. Thank you so much for sharing your story of 9/11. I'm so glad that your family was safe. There are some terrible people in the world but I still think that the good outnumber the bad.

  4. It's crazy, I had a simliar summer - just got back from 5 weeks backpacking in Europe. We landed at JFK on 9/9 and came with in a few hundred bucks of staying in New York for a few days. We flew United back to LA. When I woke up that morning and saw the news my first thought was "a few hundred bucks kept me from being on one of those planes". Freaked the hell out of me. Still does.

  5. A wonderful post, but of course all I'm focusing on is the bit about pushing Lev in the stroller so you wouldn't get carded! I'd completely forgotten about that. Looks like you owe Lev one (but not for another few years, though, pleease....)

  6. This made me cry. Thank you, it was beautiful.

  7. So beautifully written. I think I'll always tear up when I think of that day.



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