On September 11, 2001 I was in a doctor’s office when the towers were struck. Remarkably, nobody came into the office in the time I was there, and there was no news on in the office. When I emerged from the appointment after an hour or so, there was chaos, and I had no idea what had happened.
I can remember going into my usual coffee shop to pick up a cup, and the radio was on very loud. I could tell the reporter was saying something urgent, but I thought there was another attack in Israel – I guess there had been a number of them just before. The urgency didn’t register as anything I needed to hear.
It wasn’t until I had walked several blocks in the usual New Yorker’s bubble that I clued into the mood on the street. I called my parents and, remarkably, got through on the first try. Dad was trying to explain what happened, but it didn’t make sense. I thought that two small planes had collided with each other near downtown Manhattan. I was even being glib about it. As I was about to make a snarky comment, I walked past a store with a TV in the window, and I saw the replay of the day’s horrific events.
It’s almost impossible now, after a decade of knowing what happened, to explain how I felt in that instant. Thinking that our country was attacked. Realizing that friends of mine worked in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. For New Yorkers, the World Trade Center wasn’t just a great view, it was an office building – the place people went every day. As a major commuting hub, a number of subway lines ran through the basement, one of which was the line I had been on that morning, going from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side. I did the math and shuddered to think I had been under the World Trade Center at the time the first plane hit.
With no public transportation running, I began the long walk home — back to Brooklyn – toward ground zero.
The further downtown I got, the more chaotic things became. I saw people walking uptown, covered in dust. I saw groups crowded around cars, listening to radio reports. I neared a grocery store and saw a line wrapped around the block – and that made me angry. How could people make a run on the grocery store at a time like this? Then I got closer, and realized the line didn’t go to the store, but to the hospital next door. It was a line of people waiting to donate blood to the expected mass of injured. Seeing that outpouring of support filled me with a fierce pride in New Yorkers.
Once I saw that, I began looking around and saw more and more acts of kindness and generosity. Bodegas were handing out water to anyone who needed it. Shopkeepers in Chinatown gave away slippers to women wearing heels. The stereotype of the city being a unfeeling, hardened place was nowhere to be found on 9/11.
I crossed the Manhattan Bridge and as I got to the exposed middle, felt and heard something that sounded like an explosion. Fighter planes flew overhead – it was surreal and truly terrifying but, remarkably, nobody panicked. Later, I found out that the noise was one of the smaller World Trade Center buildings falling.
Finally, I made it home. I had left the TV on that morning and had nothing but static once I got to my apartment — the antenna had been on top of the World Trade Center. Out my window, where there had once been a view of those Twin Towers, was now a thick column of smoke and ash, blowing in our direction. That night, I gathered on the roof with others who lived in my apartment building. Silently, we stared at the wreckage. The wind shifted, and the smoke and debris started coming directly toward our building. Papers blew onto the roof. We looked at the torn interoffice memos, tattered charts and graphs and, chillingly, actuarial tables.
For a brief period of time after 9/11, there was a tremendous spirit of unity in this country. Sometimes, when I think back and compare it to the current social and political climate, I become frustrated by the opportunity squandered. But today, I choose to reflect on its existence to begin with. When I look back on that day, what I remember was people who came together, looked out for each other, and cared about how their actions affected the greater good. Today, I choose to believe that we can find that place again. And I remember.