When I was a kid, I considered myself one of the luckiest people in the world because I got to live in New York City–the greatest city in the world. Nothing, not LA, London, Paris, Rome, could come close to how amazing my city was. What defined New York City to me? The skyline. My skyline. Even though I did not live in Manhattan, I knew there were places I could go where I could look up and see it. Driving in the car on the BQE (Brooklyn Queens Expressway), shopping at the Metro Mall in Middle Village, riding the A Train out to the Rockaways. It was a part of who I was. (My dad, a staunch Mets fan, had this seat cushion; I doubt he even remembers it. It was in Mets orange and had been something that I imagine he got at a game. I was probably about five or six when I first remember seeing it and to this day, I can still see it in my mind’s eye.) I can’t even google it any more without seeing those traumatizing images of the Towers on fire.
That day signaled the end of the world as we knew it. That morning, like the day before, I left my house at 6:30 and headed out towards the Rockaways, where I was a sophomore in high school. The new kid. The one thing that stands out about that morning was that from my seat on the A Train, I looked out the window, across the clear blue sky and saw the Towers for the very last time. I remember thinking that it looked so beautiful. How was I to know that I would never see it again?
I’ve written about my experience that day before, but I think it is important to do so again because the further we get from that day, the less people understand what it was and how it changed everything. I have a cousin, 11 years old, who obviously wasn’t alive in 2001. He’s watched BrainPop videos on terrorism and knows about 9/11, but I get the sense that he doesn’t quite know what it really was. How can he? It is the same way it is for those of us who didn’t experience the Pearl Harbor attack or the assassination of JFK. He doesn’t have that connection to it the way that I do. It is our duty to explain to these kids that it isn’t just a story in a history book or a video on their computers. It was real. People left for work in the morning and never came home again. Within a week of the attacks, I found out that a church close to my high school lost 59 congregants,
many of them firefighters. 59 people in one church in one community. It was astounding to me.
On the morning of 9/11, I was at school. At 8:46, when the first plane hit the North Tower, I was in gym class, playing some stupid game that my gym teacher had made up. There were no windows in the gym. There were no PA speakers, either. By the time gym class ended, the South Tower had also been hit. I still knew nothing. It wasn’t until I sat down at my desk in my Italian classroom that I learned something was wrong.
The guy in front of me, a junior from the other Italian section that my teacher taught at the same time he did mine, turned to me and told me that the Twin Towers were gone. I didn’t believe him. I thought he was playing a sick joke on me because I was the only new kid in the class. It took me a minute to realize that half of the class was hanging out the old, rusted windows, trying to see something outside, off in the distance. At that same time, one of the teachers came in to talk to Mr. Chieco and I knew it wasn’t a joke because I could just hear this other teacher, a woman, possibly the German teacher, saying that the South Tower had been hit too.
From that point on, teachers tried to keep us from thinking about it. My math teacher, Mr. Lawrence, insisted on teaching us how to factor. I hated him for that.
My biology teacher allowed us to talk amongst ourselves. I’m sure he was in as much shock as we were. No one knew what to say or do because no one had ever experienced anything quite on the scale of 9/11.
At lunch, they served pepperoni pizza in the cafeteria–a rare treat as most of the food they served was absolutely inedible–but I couldn’t eat it. I sat there, staring into space before retreating to the world of Harry Potter, where the deaths were fictional and could be prevented by three 12 year-old kids.
I was in my 7th period Global History class when my name was called over the intercom–it had been decided that students, whose parents had come to pick them up, would be called into the auditorium and because so many were being called, names would be read over the loud speaker. I remember running from my classroom as soon as my name was announced, fearing that the only reason my mom would come to get me was that something had happened to my aunt, especially since it was so late in the day.
I can still picture the scene in the auditorium. Parents and kids crying, administrators handing out dismissal slips and telling us that there needed to be a reason written on the slip. My mom turned to me and asked if I thought “National Emergency” was a good reason. I nodded and immediately asked if Aunt Mary was okay. That was my biggest fear. When the Towers were attacked in 1993, I remember my mom telling me that my aunt worked very close to the Towers, and eight years later, those words scared me more than anything else could have. She quickly reassured me that my aunt was fine, but urged me out the doors, so that we could get home before the police closed the bridges and we’d be stuck in Rockaway. As it turned out, the bridge was already closed and we had to beg the cops to let us cross it. From that bridge, we could see the toxic, white smoke coming from Manhattan.
The rest of that day is a blur of keeping the younger kids from seeing the television–my mom watched a couple of neighborhood kids, whose mom drove a school bus and was working in Manhattan that day–or from hearing the news on the radio because all of the FM stations were airing news instead of music. I remember sticking my Grease soundtrack in my boombox and teaching the girls the hand moves to Grease Lightning.
I was 14 years old that morning, but by the time I went to bed that night, I felt old, weary. A modern-day Methuselah. Nothing was ever going to be alright again. There was a hole in the middle of Manhattan where 3000 people lost their lives. For months after the attack, there were signs all over the city. Family members looking for their loved ones, who when they left home on the morning of September 11th never thought that it would be the last time they saw it–the last time they’d say goodbye to their husbands or wives and their children.
For a week, everyone walked around in a daze, not able to believe that this could happen to us. We were zombies. It was at this point that things started to slowly get back to normal. Letterman and Jon Stewart taped their shows again. Mayor Giuliani appeared on SNL and told us it was alright to laugh. And the Mets played at Shea. It was their first home game since the attack and they were playing their arch-rivals, the Atlanta Braves and John Rocker, who the last time they played each other was widely considered the most hated person in NYC. When we won, I say “we” not being a baseball fan, it was as if we were taking our own back. Nothing was ever going to be the same again, but everything would be alright. (If there is one thing about this country, sports tends to be a signpost, a way for us to say that we are okay–twelve years after 9/11, Bostonians turned to hockey and baseball after the domestic terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon. Just watching the fans at TD Bank Garden sing the National Anthem days after their attack is an emotional experience.)
It would take a decade and two wars for us to finally get Bin Laden, but that night will also forever live in my memory. I remember getting a text from my dad at about 11 PM EDT. It said,”The devil is dead.” To say I was confused was an understatement. I hadn’t been watching the news or on twitter when the announcement was made. Instead, I was watching Doctor Who on iTunes. Once he clarified the message, I turned on CNN and watched young people in Times Square, partying, singing God Bless America. For that one night, everything was right with the world. The next day people were scrambling for pictures of him–my brother’s friend found what he thought was one and made it his facebook profile picture.
I’m going to end this post with a video from The Concert for New York, which was held in October 2001. Admission was free for NYPD, FDNY, EMS, and members of their families. This is from the opening, performed by David Bowie. The whole opening (including Heroes) is found here.