Friday, September 11, 2009

When Will Sept. 11 Be . . .

An official day of rememberance? A holiday? Why does "Labor Day" trump a day like this? Easter? All those Christian holidays where us Jews drive around our towns bemoaning the fact that not even the supermarkets are open. Surely, surely our country owes it to its people to officially recognize this day. But that's just my opinion.

I lived there then. I saw the towers flaming from my Greenwich Village vantage point. I made the four-mile-trek home in the middle of a silent, pedestrian-filled second avenue. I had PTSD nightmares. Didn't fly AA or US or United ever again. I'd never even been prescribed anti-anxieties pre-Sept. 11. I was living on 49th between 1st and 2nd aves. Blocks from the UN, which I was sure was on the terrorists' short list.

I moved to the UES, to a 15th floor unit with an unobstructed view of the towering Con Ed smokestack things, which converged with the view of planes taking off from the Queens airports. I worked at night and from home during the day. My desk was set up adjacent to the windows. For the next several years, each time my peripheral vision spotted a departing flight heading past the Con Ed towers, I expected it to plow headfirst into something. The 59th St bridge that I looked at; New York Hospital. Viscerally, my tummy knotted and my breath held itself till the plane cleared the skyline.

I left New York. Left that apartment. Was forced to see Ground Zero from "Zero" to whatever it is now. I can't go down there. A mass grave in the middle of the only city in the world that I love like a family member—no thanks. But this date will never be just another date for me or any other New Yorker. Especially those of us who actually saw the shit live, in person. Knew what was going on before it was broadcast. Saw that it was nothing short of a war-strike unfolding before our eyes on a beautiful September morning.

Typically, I treat this day like Shomer Shabbos. I feel the need to get out of my own head and think about everything since then. I keep CNN on. I cry at random moments. However, today is the release of The September Issue. And in my very own odd way, I don't feel it's sacrilege to see this film today. Fashion died that day too. Magazines died. Jobs dried up just as I finished my master's program at NYU. Life sucked for creatives looking for jobs. My hope—and only media people will likely get this—is that this film will breathe life into publishing again. Hoping that people go out and buy magazines again. Thus creating more jobs. And a better, stronger, more finely tuned New York. Perhaps this makes no sense. But whatever.

Anyway, each year I repost my own eyewitness account to that day. So here it is. My thoughts are with all of you who lost friends, colleagues, acquaintances or family that day. Many of us can never forget.

From Sept., 2006
It sneaks up on us each year, but it's here again: September 11th. And as all these people are on TV and the radio sharing their experiences of that day, I can't help but reflect and remember. It's our generation's JFK-shooting--we will all remember where we were when we heard the news. It's the event that when I think about still makes my heart race and brings tears to my eyes, even five years later. I don't know if this is true of all Americans, or just for New Yorkers or only for people who witnessed it or knew people whose lives were lost.

Anyway, here's my Sept. 11th story, which I will never forget, and I know I've written about longhand somewhere, but god knows where that notebook went. And not that my story is special, it's not, but it's a valid memory, because, if nothing else, it's history. I had been in the city for about a year, but I'd been visiting New York yearly since about the age of 5, and was always a New Yorker at heart; was living in midtown; attending NYU grad school in journalism in the Village; dating an Israeli who lived in Haifa; had returned from visiting him in Israel. I was on an ElAl flight into JFK July 4, 2001. In general, life was pretty good. I was "in love," had a big apt., was with Wally, was going to NYU, which I'd always dreamed of, and was living in the place that I loved better than anywhere in the world. My mom and two of her girlfriends were staying with me for their annual "girl's shopping trip." I had my only early class that morning, and, ironically, it was a "journalism ethics" class, taught by 'renowned' ethicist Todd Gitlin. Everyone talks about the weather that day and it seems silly, but it's true that on days like that, you remember every detail, salient or not. So as I left my apt. a little before 9 a.m., I remember looking up at the sky and thinking what a nice day it was, no clouds, no awful August humidity. I hopped in a cab, just as I noticed that Second Ave. was rife with fire trucks and ambulances. No big deal, a common sight. As we proceeded downtown, the ambulances and fire trucks grew in number, and the cabbie and I began to wonder, so we turned on the radio. At that point, the world was still in shock, and was talking about the 'commuter plane' that had most likely hit the Trade Center. Details were still sketchy at that point, but we proceeded downtown, both of us, similar to the entire city and nation, in a state of shock. By the time we reached the Village, the second plane had hit, and we were just confused, I mean, terrorism just didn't happen in our country, what were any of us supposed to think until we saw? Until we saw. Because while most people saw it on TV, for me it didn't sink in until I got out of the cab near Washington Square Park and saw both towers aflame. Then, and only then, it sunk in. From that point on, I was plunged into that same surreal, dreamlike, post-traumatic haze that most New Yorkers found themselves in for several days, if not weeks or months. I walked to the corner where clusters of people just stood staring up at the towers. Some were openly crying or looked horrified; most just stood there staring, mouths agape. It really was like a scene out of an Independence Day -type movie. Everything else stood still. I think I must have tried to call my mom and the girls, but cells were probably down. I knew I would never make it back uptown, and was in shock, so I moved robotically into the school's building and went into class. And though it was an "ethics" class, and though many of the students in it lived near Wall Street and hadn't shown up yet, and though we were journalists who should be out literally witnessing history and trying to get the story, our professor kept us in class the whole two hours without TVs, radios, phones, and forced us to debate the 'ethical' elements of jumping to the conclusion that this was indeed a terrorist attack being perpetrated by Arabs/Muslims/Islamic extremists. Perhaps he was in shock to and the mantra, "just carry on normally" was propelling him. I had just returned from Israel, so I remember the shock finally wearing off and my rage beginning to kick in, and getting into a heated argument with an Egyptian student, wherein I blamed this on the Arabs and she defended them saying it could be anyone doing this. We finally got out of class and emerged from our time-warp bubble, and learned that both towers had gone down. In those two hours, the sky had fallen. No, it couldn't be, I thought. There's just no way, my brain rationalized, those towers? It had looked like two small fires when I'd gone into class, relative to the largesse of those buildings. But sure enough, I walked out to the corner where I'd watched them on fire earlier and the skyline was flat. Gone. Now, New York City was a quiet ghost town except there were hordes of people walking slowly, stoically. Just walking like zombies, standing in line for payphones, eerily calm. No traffic, just on foot. No transportation anywhere, save for emergency vehicles, but I don't remember hearing any sirens, any noise at all save for radios with news. Nobody yelling, no street noise, the most disturbing thing in New York City--a lack of noise. I walked all the way from the Village to my apartment; walked amid a crowd stunned silent for probably the first time in their lives. I tried to call mom repeatedly, but eventually gave up. I lived near the UN, and kept thinking that that would be the terrorists' next target, so I kept popping into shops and asking if anything else had been hit, because the fire trucks never stopped going downtown. I wondered where my mom and her friends had gone, but knew that they probably hadn't left the house before the news was out, so I wasn't worried. The horrifying thing is that they had been at the store Century 21, which was leveled by the attack, the morning before. I got home and they weren't there, so then I started to panic, no communication, an empty apartment, with a Wally who just knew something was up. I think I just fell on to the couch and sat there, mesmerized by the footage on TV. It was as if I were in a drug-induced haze, which you really can't describe accurately, but if you've ever witnessed a horrible accident or crime, you can most likely relate to. Mom and friends eventually returned home, having walked over to 57th street to see what it was like outside. Like I said, when in shock, you just go by rote, do what you know. Head into class, teach class, go to work, go shopping. Eventually, maybe two days later, mom and co. rented a car and drove home to Florida. Damned if they were getting on a plane. Damned if I was, not for a year or so I think. And though I didn't lose anyone that day and wasn't connected to anyone in those buildings, the event itself had such an impact if you were living in New York, whether you were able to admit it or not. For me, it meant that each time I saw a plane outside the window of my new 15th floor apartment heading past the Con Ed towers in Queens, each and every time for a couple years after, my first, instinctual thought was, that plane is going to hit that tower; it meant that I didn't take the subway for a couple of years; it meant that I looked at cab drivers appraisingly and unconsciously eavesdropped on their foreign conversations; it meant that I didn't feel safe in my own apt., my own city, for many, many years. It meant living in fear for a great while, thinking how easy it had been for them to do it once, surely they would strike again. And still, I'm kind of amazed that nothing else has happened in our country because, really, we're no safer now, are we? Soon, surely, the sky will fall again.