Every year I dread the beginning of September. I moved here in October of 2000, and landed a 9-5 gig in the west village with office windows that faced the Statue of Liberty. And the World Trade Center.
I have not written about my experiences previously because everyone I know was safe and sound. So my experiences seem small. Not that I'm saying my experiences don't matter, but that I know so many people whom were personally effected by the tragedy.
But I should write something. And I think that the length of the document to come, and the level of detail even after all these years should speak to how much 9/11 has imprinted itself on my being, as well as every person who was in New York on that day.
I was a little bit late to work. As per normal. I tended to work long hours, so if I arrived to work in the west village after nine by a few minutes I never had it held against me.
One subway stop before my exit the train stopped. The message on the speaker was vague, saying there was smoke ahead and the train would be held for a few minutes. Being that I had to get to work the walk of the extra stop was worth taking.
It was odd, as I exited the subway. Everyone was looking up. Everyone. Up and south. See, the avenue I was exiting had a perfectly clear view of the world trade center, and there was a gaping flaming whole in one of the towers.
Really, it looked like a scene out of the movies. It was so weird. I wracked my brain for anyone who would be awake that early and possibly be willing to check the news, and thought of my parents. I rarely call my parents. (rarely being never) I called home and my dad answered. He mentioned that a plane had hit one of the twin towers before, that the news thought it was an accident of some similar experience. I mentioned I could see everything but was safe and a good mile away. (Which worked in all our favors later when cell phones went down.)
So I had time. I stopped at my local deli for coffee and a muffin like any morning.
Then I walked the last block to work. And everything changed. A girl I knew met me and couldn't stop crying and saying "we're under attack! oh my god!" I mentioned the plane in the 70s and she told me she saw the second plane hit. This was no accident.
We were all just confused. In shock. What do you do? What was happening?
I went upstairs to work. When in doubt, follow the routine. We spent a lot of time in the conference room watching the news. And then walking to the windows to see the towers burning without the commentary. Some people just kept working, safer in the ritual than reality.
Then the first tower fell. We all gasped, ran to the windows. And it all became real.
The CEO of the company walked around and told us it was safer to stay put for now, until we knew what was going on.
One woman wouldn't stop crying, her fiance worked in the twin towers. Younger employees desperately tried to call their parents for comfort.
And we waited. Watched.
I was staring out the window at the spectacle with my friend Jane when the second tower fell. One minute it was still burning. Then it started to collapse. You could see people jumping/falling. It became dust and rubble. The dust didn't just fall down, it travelled out. It filled all the streets, it spread across the entire landscape in front of us.
We stood in shock. It was just too much.
The fiance showed up. He was covered in dust, head to toe covered in grey. Our co worker cried even louder in relief.
People started moving in slow motion. No one was thinking logically. I was ready to go home, it had been a couple hours since the planes hit and the attack seemed stalled. My home was in walking distance and more sustainable for me than to stay at work. I offered my home to those who lived further away.
About seven people left with me. One friend tried to get me to wear a piece of fabric over my mouth to protect me from fumes or dust. People moved slowly, it took a half hour to get everyone to leave and then we had to stop at a McDonalds so people could eat. It was like everyone had stopped thinking. I didn't need a big mac, I wanted to get where I had a store of water and food. But people were not smart that day.
We passed people covered in ash and crying often. There were exceptionally long lines of people donating blood. As much as the city was in shock it was also calm and generous. I thought there may be riots. Quite the opposite. People took care of each other.
At the time I lived around the corner from the United Nations, and had to show my ID to get to my apartment. It wasn't an issue and some of my non-manhattan living friends got to hang with me.
Until I had to go to work.
Oddest side effect of 9/11 - travelers couldn't leave. And they still had to eat. And I lived 2 blocks from the restaurant I moonlighted at so they needed my help to feed the stranded people.
No one wanted to work. But the people who were there knew they were all there was. We didn't realize how busy we would be.
It was an odd struggle, to feel so scared and violated and have to wait tables. You are used to smiling for a living, but who wanted to smile?!? I specifically remembered one table accusing me of being too positive, and how dare I. To which my response was "the only reason I'm here is because you are. I don't want to be here. I'm here for you."
That shut them up. Jerks.
Working did get me out of the shock wormhole, and that was good. The shock was hard to take.
The next morning I walked five avenues over to check out times square. There was one other person. That's it. It was breathtaking and terrifying at the same time. I've lived in NYC since through the blackout, earthquake, and hurricane, and never did the heart of manhattan freeze like on that day.
New York City had stopped.
We all broke a bit, that day. New Yorkers are a tough breed, unflappable. That day we were more than humbled. We were heartbroken. The amazing thing is that since we as a city are such scrappy people and so bent of the idea of being the best that we actually became a stronger community. We started to take better care of each other, united against some mysterious invisible foe.
And how it changed me? I started to run, as in jogging. Because for the first time in my life I realized that being healthy enough to be able to run away could save my life.
Stope and think about that for a moment. Really. Are you healthy enough to save yourself? I wasn't. Not then.
So as much as running has become my hobby it really is so much more. It is a genuine survival strategy. Because I saw how the towers fell and the dust spread. And in the story of my life, in my narrative I'm the one who gets out. But now I get that it takes a little practice.
And that is my story. I avoid ground zero, if i can I avoid the stories. I still tear up way too easily when the news brings up that day, even my beloved tasteful NPR. If I can I will avoid the entire media blitz this Sunday. All I would do is cry, and there is no use for that.
God bless to those who died or lost loved ones on that day. I can't imagine what you've been through, and am so sorry for your pain.
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