I woke up early to drive from Brooklyn where I was staying with friends to my office just north of Manhattan. I went in earlier than usual that morning because I knew I would be leaving early to finally (after six long weeks of limbo, couch surfing, house sitting and hotel hopping) close on the purchase of the first home I would own. Given the hard-won momentous occasion that would be happening that day, it was not surprising that the stunningly perfect morning that unfolded around me as I drove along the outer edges of the island of Manhattan would sear into my memory.
I took the not-too-hot/not-too-cool/just-right air in which a spectacularly bright sun hung in a seemingly endless and cloudless vividly blue sky plus my tingly excitement as a sign that September 11, 2001 would be a day I would never forget.
I hadn't lived in and around New York City long enough for the twin towers of the World Trade Center to become touchstones, totems and landmarks for me the way they were for so many who lived and worked in Manhattan. Nevertheless, when one of my co-workers came by my desk to tell me that people were gathering in a conference room to watch the news because a plane had crashed into one of the towers, I knew it was a big deal and so I joined them in viewing. It feels like I still have muscle memory of the collective shock, gasp and shudder felt when all of us in the room witnessed the second plane hit the other tower, live as it happened.
As soon as I saw the fireball, the gash in the building and the plane disappear, I knew what had happened, what was happening. I couldn't watch much more. I threw myself into spreadsheets and working with the finance department on a particularly tricky bit of analysis. As speculations circulated they were passed on from cubicle to cubicle. I tried to call family members who lived in Queens but phone lines were understandably jammed. Instead I called my mother in California both to reassure her that I was safe and to ask her to call and check in with my New York family for me.
There were several women who worked around me who had met their husbands in business school. They had pursued brand management after graduating and their husbands worked in banking and finance. Our company, so close to Manhattan, allowed such couples to navigate a pursuit of those interests and live in a city that was both exciting and accommodating so there were quite a few. These women were especially terrified in the chaotic aftermath and frantic to connect with their husbands to make sure they were still alive. The woman in the cubicle next to mine broke down in tears after she spoke with her husband. Though he was safe, the comprehension of what so many others were experiencing finally overwhelmed her. Another woman I worked with was married to a popular morning news anchor in Manhattan. Like several of our executives, she was in Chicago at a company sales conference at the time (they eventually had to take a bus home because flights were grounded). She told us she knew her husband was OK when she heard him interview Mayor Giuliani on CNN.
I went to my closing and it was delayed as we waited for a substitute title agent to arrive from New Jersey. The agent who was to attend was in Manhattan and by then the bridges in and out of the island were reportedly shut down. The full weight of the tragedy had not yet sunk in and that was the only reason why I think we were able to complete the closing and I left the real estate office with a set of new keys. Had it been scheduled for September 12 I doubt it would have happened.
My furniture was all in storage. Everything else was in a suitcase in Brooklyn. Fortunately I had a sleeping bag and a small radio a co-worker had loaned me. That night I settled into a dark empty apartment and listened to the one news station I could receive clearly and listened to the same news report over and over, long into the night. My cable and television wouldn't be set up for several days so other than the the bit I had watched at the office that morning, I never saw the news reports. It is a hole in my memory that I've tried to fill in by watching the replays on anniversaries but it is never the same. Those images never stick in my brain or in my heart.
Subsequent events have filled in some of the space between the memory contours I just described. I drove to work a couple of days later and a security guard handed me a flag pin. I was grateful to have been at the right gate at the right time and to have received that pin. I wore it proudly, fiercely for months to come even though flag waving patriotism has never been my style.
A few days later after the bridges were re-opened, I drove to Brooklyn to retrieve my belongings from the home of my friends. That included my two dogs, Zoe and Gracie. My friends filled me in on their experience of that day.
Not too long prior, he had worked in one of the towers on banking software. He had brought a more laid back tech sensibility to the hard-charging banking world and taught some of his colleagues that 10 AM was an acceptable start time and that 7 or 8 AM did not have to be the norm. Those colleagues who followed my friend's lead lived. Some others who still valued an early start and who chose not to defy authority died after they were told to return to their office near the top of the tower after what they heard was a bomb attack on the tower next to theirs and did so rather than follow their rebellious co-workers down the stairs.
She told me that having to walk my dogs forced them up off the couch and broke the spell of watching the aftermath of the tragedy just across the river. Nevertheless they couldn't escape witnessing. As they walked my dogs, she told me, Gracie the more exuberant Chihuahua of my bunch, as always, eagerly pulled to greet, wag her tail for and hope to lick passers-by. Gracie would have to be denied this day because the crowd of people streaming past had just walked across a bridge from lower Manhattan to Brooklyn and many were covered in ash.
The company I worked for joined other large corporations and contributed, if I remember correctly, $10,000,000 to the families of the victims and recovery efforts. It was still nebulous who and where the money was going to and what it was supporting but we all wanted to do something, anything and there was an outpouring of giving. As a result of this donation, as employees we were granted the opportunity to volunteer at Ground Zero. There were so many more people that wanted to volunteer than could be accommodated or used that there were filters such as this created to determine who got to serve. I met two of my co-workers early one October morning and rode the subway to the Red Cross offices in Brooklyn. Lower Manhattan was still closed off so we had to assemble and take a bus specially permitted to bring us to the site of the gash in the earth.
I had seen the crater in the ground, flames still rising, a couple of weeks earlier when I had flown back to New York from Washington D.C. and the flight path took us low and close enough to clearly see Ground Zero as we headed to La Guardia airport. Sill, I was not prepared for the experience of arriving on the ground. Having to de-contaminate my shoes before entering the hotel at the edge of Ground Zero that served as one of the homes to volunteers. The overwhelming smell of still-burning jet fuel. The grime that hung in the air in such sharp contrast to the clarity before.
Inside the hotel I was assigned to work in the hall where volunteers working in the pit came to eat their meals. I worked alongside a bright, chatty young woman who had moved to New York City to become an actress. She had time and was a regular volunteer and this was her regular assignment. That familiarity allowed her to chat, sometimes flirt, and engage with the mostly male volunteers who wearily sat down to eat. The tables were filled with books created by school children filled with drawings and sweet words of support. Some of the police officers, iron workers and firefighters would leaf through them. Others would enjoy listening to the young woman read them aloud. Others had nerves that were still raw and needed shielding. The groups from churches seemed to be especially interested and delighted.
I fell into silence. I felt so unworthy to be in the presence of these people. As much as possible I busied myself with bringing utensils, refills of beverages and replenishing the stocks of donated snacks. I admired the young woman's ability to read the volunteers and know which ones wanted to connect and which ones wanted to be left alone. I erred on the side of not wanting to risk intruding even though it felt somewhat selfish not to fellowship and I regret not taking the opportunity to ask if they wanted to talk and to listen. The experience was the most humbling of my life and gave me a glimpse at the power of community and humanity and how we can nevertheless feel small and helpless.
So many other small things populate and create my memory. The classmate who as an Army Reservist was pulled from his job at Goldman Sachs to patrol the bridges. The outpouring of support for a co-worker whose brother died in one of the towers and wondering if it could ever be enough and knowing that we could never fully understand her grief and pain. The amazing people I met in Hawaii a few months later who were unbelievably kind to my friend and me when they learned that we were visiting from New York and who expressed genuine concern for and interest in how we and the city were doing. The co-workers who, even though the bridges and roads were supposedly closed, would not be kept from their partners and families in Manhattan and refused to stay in hotels or with co-workers and drove back home and made it in without being stopped - the sheer force of their will and determination seemingly clearing a path. The posters hanging in Grand Central Station and around the city of missing people and the desperate hope that somehow they had survived and could still be found. How I stopped watching Survivor because I thought it felt too mean. How I vowed that I would always refer to that day as "September 11th" rather than "9/11" because 9/11 felt too diminutive and too disrespectful. That some amazing art was created in the wake of tragedy (Bruce Springsteen's The Rising is a powerful personal favorite)
The untimely death of any human being is tragic. Murder, terror and violence are always abhorrent. The deaths of September 11, 2001 are to me, no more and no less worthy of our grief, attention and memory than any others. However, what I will always carry with me, in addition to the particulars of my experience, is the sense of the collective nature of the events. How we all have a story, a memory and an inability to ever forget that day even if the specifics might fuzz and soften over time. I long for that feeling of love and shared humanity that so permeated life immediately afterwards and that I grieve the loss of it over time. I hope and I pray that some of that shift will forever be stored inside us and carry on as we propel forward and time carries us further away.
Cross posted at BlogHer