Nothing particularly salient or exciting about my 9/11 experience, but for posterity’s sake, I thought I’d write a few words.
I had moved back to Virginia from Hawaii the previous November, determined to move to New York and write plays. I was young and dumb and had big dreams. But first I needed money and restaurant experience. So I stayed at my dad’s house in Nassawadox, took a gig as a substitute teacher, and waited tables at the Trawler. At the end of August, 2001, I went to New York to try to find an apartment and a job. I interviewed with someone who worked on the Sopranos. The job was 60 hours a week, consisted more or less of getting coffee for the stars of the show, and paid $26k a year. I looked at apartments in Brooklyn and Queens. The cheapest one was in Queens, and was essentially a hallway with a shared kitchen. It was $1500 a month…to move in, I needed first, last, security and “finders fee”, an astounding little real estate trick where you essentially gave away money for absolutely nothing. I didn’t have $6000. New York was not going to happen.
So I went back to Virginia, depressed and with no real prospects. My “New York or Bust” mentality had gone bust. A few days later, my sister and her then boyfriend came to visit from Hawaii, where she was still living.
It was a mutual friend of mine and my sisters, Katie, who woke me up that Tuesday morning with a phone call (on the landline of course, as at the time, none of us had cell phones).
“Have you seen that an airplane crashed into the World Trade Center?” she asked.
Still half asleep, I replied, “No. Let me get my sister.” I hollered downstairs for Errin. The TV at the house was not on. Nobody knew what was happening.
I remembered thinking that it was bizarre that a plane had veered so far off course as to hit downtown New York. Then I went downstairs, turned on the news, and sat there stunned, my anxiety and the TV news telling me that the world was ending.
Time has created a thick enough haze that the rest of the day only plays out almost as a series of photos. I remember writing down my feelings, something to remember my thoughts as I was feeling them in a notebook which has long since disappeared. We sometimes forget in retrospect, but at the time it was happening, we had NO CLUE exactly what it was that was unfolding. Was the entire country under attack? Were these 4 planes the start of hundreds of them falling from the sky? It truly, for a few hours at least, felt like the apocalypse.
Some friends and I went to the Exmore Diner for lunch. Of all the strange and absurd thoughts I had that day, for some reason I remember one of them being “Well if this is it, I want my last meal to be at the Diner.” Plus we just had to get away from the TV for an hour or two, try to process the madness without being absorbed by it.
I don’t remember much else. It’s incredible how 18 years can fracture the memories of even the most memorable days of our lives. But there are a few things I still recall: calling the blood bank to see if they were accepting donations that could help New York (they could always use blood, they said, but not for New York). My sister making a call to Hawaii, and was told that she no longer had a job and should not come back if she could help it…the economy was about to be crippled now that people were too scared to fly.
Her boyfriend at the time actually flew back to Hawaii on, I believe, Friday the 14th to retrieve their things. I had never heard of anything crazier than getting into airplane 3 days after watching those images on TV over and over and flying across the world, then the next day turning back around and flying back, a 12 hour flight including layover. He might have been the only person on the plane. I don’t think I flew anywhere for the next year at least.
The fear of another attack was crippling, both personally and for society as a whole. Remember the whole “Dirty Bomb” scare? The anthrax in the mail? We were shown that beneath our outwardly tough exteriors we were scared, vulnerable, and worried.
I was also not technologically savvy. I remember a few days after 9/11, seeing a picture of a man on the WTC rooftop, with a plane about to hit it, and thinking “My God, that’s awful.” It’s almost funny that now my mind would instantly realize the picture was a hoax, but at the time online hoaxes weren’t a usual thing.
I still have a journal I loosely kept in the late 90s, early 2000s, but never look at it. I decided to give it a look to see if there was anything that jogged any memories. Not really, just a corny, supposedly deep message the week after.
One week ago I went to bed convinced I knew it all. Now I know nothing.
I moved to Philadelphia the next month, into a tiny apartment just off of 6th and South. By that point, things had returned to some semblance of normal, though they’d never quite be the same. Independence Hall now had awkward barriers surrounding it, as if a dedicated suicide bomber was going to be repelled by a 3 foot fence. But it was a lie we told ourselves to believe that something, ANYTHING was being done to prevent another attack on our institutions.
I left one more short journal entry about it.
Things are extremely frightening right now. Anthrax in Florida and New York. Attacking Afghanistan regularly. There will be revenge and moving to Philly does make me nervous.
There was a sense of unity for those next several weeks, but it soon went away, as anything seen as not appropriately “patriotic” meant that “the terrorists had won”. It soon became apparent that the Iraqis, who had nothing to do with 9/11, were going to be blamed for it, and that protests by hundreds of thousands of people in the streets to try to stop the war were fruitless.
The War in Iraq both ended the sense of national unity and split the country in half, a fissure that subsequent politicians have manipulated until we’ve reached a point where if terrorists attacked again, we’d attack and blame each either other instead of them.
There was a chance to learn from 9/11 and to emerge a better nation. We blew it. We pay no more attention to our fire fighters and EMT crews than we did on 9/10/01, while we love our reality show celebs so much that we made one President. We responded to 9/11 by becoming more artificial, more sarcastic, and less sincere, with a shorter fuse and less patience with each other. It’s a sad postscript to the saddest day in American history, a day that we promised we’d never forget, but one in which each year we remember less and less, both through the haze of time and in our treatment of one another.