Monday, May 2, 2011

My 9/11 story

I woke up last night to the sound of the TV blaring in the next room, and stumbled out to find my husband watching the news. "Bin Laden is dead," he said, and I stumbled back to bed and went to sleep. I thought it was a dream until I woke up this morning and saw the headlines.

Well, Bin Laden is finally dead. Yippee. I'm not sure how to feel about that--I mean, I'm glad and all, maybe this means we can finally get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, where we shouldn't have been in the first place. Then again, maybe we can look forward to more terrorist attacks as retaliation. Who knows.

What I do know is that it is impossible to not think of 9/11 today.

So here's my 9/11 story, for those of you who don't know it already.

On 9/11, I was at work. I was working at Barnes & Noble Publishing at the time, on 17th Street and 5th Avenue (just around the corner from Union Square, and about a mile and a half northeast of the World Trade Center). Someone came into the office and said they'd heard a plane had just crashed into the WTC. "Dumbass," I thought. "It's not like they're hard to miss." Like everyone else, I thought a little prop plane was involved, maybe a pilot asleep at the wheel.

So I tried to log onto and, to no avail.

That was my first clue.

Then I started getting emails with subject lines like "Are you ok?" I think I got an email from every single person I ever knew that day.

More people were coming into the office, with bits of news trickling in after them, none of them good.

I called my boyfriend at the time. We were living together in a high-rise apartment in Midtown. On a clear day, you could see the towers way off in the distance. He was working from home. I thought perhaps he could turn on CNN and tell me what was happening.

I woke him up. "Turn on the TV and tell me what's going on," I said.

"I'm sleeping, that's what's going on," he said.

"Look out the window," I said. There was a pause.

"Oh my God, the World Trade Center is on fire," he replied.

"Duh! That's what's going on! Now go turn on the TV and tell me what's happening."

So for the next hour, he dictated the news to me and I relayed that to everyone in the office.

My boss finally showed up--she'd been stuck in traffic on the West Side Highway. From her unmoving car, she'd watched as the second plane plowed into the towers.

Someone found an old radio, and we turned it on just in time to hear that the Pentagon was on fire.

"Oh my God, we're being attacked," said my boss.

"Fuck this shit," I announced. "I'm going home. Clearly no one is getting any work done today."

At the time, I walked to and from work (it was a little over a mile each way), so I was prepared to hoof it rather than getting on the subway. I called my boyfriend back to tell him I was on my way.

"I'm coming home," I said.

"I can't see them anymore," he said.

"What do you mean? The towers?"

"I can't see them anymore. I think they fell down. I THINK THEY FELL DOWN."

"If I'm not there in an hour, come looking for me," I said, and hung up.

If you've ever been to New York, you know how loud it is. And how busy. The streets are always filled with people, who are talking. There are sirens, horns, traffic noise, helicopters and planes overhead, the screech of subway trains coming up through the vents, birds, dogs barking, cell phones, you name it. Even at 3 am, it's noisy.

When I walked out onto Fifth Avenue, it was deathly silent.

There were no people. No cars. Nothing. Even the birds were silent and unmoving.

That's when I got scared.

What few people were on the sidewalk, were just standing there. Looking toward downtown. There were lines 17 deep at the few working pay phones, and everyone was waiting patiently. Silently. All the cars had pulled over to the side, many with people inside, listening to the radio and crying. The only sound was the occasional siren, of yet another emergency vehicle screaming toward downtown.

I rounded the corner, to where there used to be a view of the towers. There was nothing there now--just an enormous plume of dust and smoke. And more people watching, silently. Crying.

I rounded another corner, and almost collided with a woman running full-tilt toward downtown, her shoes gone, tears pouring down her face, her cell phone clenched in her hand.

When I got home, I parked myself in front of the TV and didn't move for two days.

My dad called me every day for two weeks, wanting to know when I was going to move back home.

I didn't sleep through the night for months.

I had a friend who worked on the 7th floor of the south tower. She was late to work that day (thank God); she got there just in time to turn around and go right back out again in the first wave of evacuations. She got turned around in the subway and ended up going south, instead of north. When she went above-ground to change directions, she was far enough away to actually see what was happening. She saw the jumpers.

She came to at Park and 57th, half an island away, still wearing her WTC ID badge. She'd walked all that way in shock, in a complete daze.

On September 12, I ventured outside to buy a newspaper. That's when the silence really hit home. Still no people, no cars, no planes. It was like being inside a zombie movie. All the newspapers were sold out--I had to go the New York Times headquarters to buy one, and stand in a line of at least 40 people.

I opened the newspaper, and saw the photographs of the jumpers. I read the entire thing, start to finish, closed it, and put it in a box. I haven't opened it since.

Two or three days later, the wind shifted direction. Even with the windows closed, the smell got into the apartment. It smelled like burning plastic, and bodies.

I think the NYC skyline is one of the most beautiful sights on earth. But I still can't look at the skyline without seeing a hole there.

Every year since then, on 9/11, I go into full media hibernation. I don't turn on the TV, don't read the newspaper, don't listen to the radio. I don't want to be reminded of the anniversary. It'll just make me cry all the tears I never shed. This year, I have a feeling that won't work. It's going to be especially hard the next few days, as 9/11 gets full media rotation in the wake of bin Laden's death.

At the risk of sounding trite, I can't believe it's been ten years.


ulla said...

the first timme its ever been brought home to me!

L. Britt said...

I don't know if I've ever written down my 9/11 story, though I know there is a post about the after shocks. I remember I was working at that horrible theatre literary agency in the Puck Building in SoHo. They made me come into work the next day. The day after that they made me send out press releases about a client's show. We burned so many bridges because it was in such bad taste. All the hate mail we got was the only thing that made me smile because I felt so trapped in that building. It was so close, you know?