Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Six Years Ago Today

The phone rang at seven in the morning -- ten back East -- and my mother said, "Turn on your radio." (She knows we don't have TV.) "Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center, and another one flew into the Pentagon."

"What?" I said, struggling with sleep. "What kind of planes?"

"Commercial jets. They say it's a terrorist attack. Turn on your radio."

I woke up Gary and we turned the radio in the bedroom to NPR. We were both sitting up in bed when the newscaster announced that the first tower had collapsed, and I watched Gary's jaw drop, literally. I'd always thought that was just a figure of speech.

I was having a medical procedure, an endoscopy, that afternoon, and I wasn't allowed to eat, which made the morning even more surreal than it would have been otherwise. We had radios on all over the house, all of them tuned to NPR, broadcasting horror in stereo. We were numb, disbelieving. Back East, we'd lived in Jersey City, directly across the harbor from the World Trade Center. Gary took the ferry across every weekday morning, and then took a subway to work from the WTC itself. I often took the ferry across to rollerblade on the long bike path that ran past the WTC and the World Financial Center.

We worried about friends in the city, especially my friend Claire, who worked in the WTC. A few days later, we'd learn that she was okay: she'd left for work late that day, and by the time her train pulled into the WTC station, people on the platform were yelling, "Don't get off! Stay on the train!" She took the train into Brooklyn and another back into Manhattan, and then started the long walk home to the Upper East Side. Her husband Peter, who worked in the Wall Street area, was doing the same thing. Neither of them would know for hours that the other was still alive.

Back in Reno, a friend from church picked me up to drive me to the doctor's office; since I'd be sedated for the endoscopy, I needed someone to take me home. My friend's son worked in DC, near the Pentagon. He was okay, thank God.

As I was being prepped for the endoscopy, one of the techs and I talked about the attacks. We agreed that there must have been at least 10,000 people killed. I'm still amazed that the death toll wasn't higher than 3,000, as incomprehensible as that number is.

The endoscopy showed that I had GERD but no precancerous damage, which was good news. It was hard to take in what the doctor was telling me, between the morning's news and the fact that I was still in a haze from sedation. My church friend took me home, and Gary and I kept listening to the radio. We couldn't wrap our minds around the fact that the World Trade Center wasn't there anymore. "It would be like waking up in Reno and finding the Sierras gone," Gary said.

On Wednesday I taught. My students were angry and grieving and acting out, especially in my workshop class. One woman punched my desk, furious at my comments on her manuscript. "The only reason you don't like my story is that you don't know anything about fantasy!" (In any other context, this would have been funny. At any other time, I also would have called the campus police if a student displayed any kind of violence in my classroom, but that day, I let it slide.) Another student, a young man whose mother was a flight attendant and knew one of the pilots who'd died, exploded in my office. What had I been thinking, telling everyone that I'd lived in New York? Did I think I was the only person affected by this?

Of course I hadn't meant that at all, but everything I said that week seemed to make someone angry.

On Thursday, I blew out the brakes of my car. I'd been driving with the emergency brake on: everything was so much more difficult than usual that it didn't occur to me to wonder why driving was, too. The brakes went out on a quiet side street, when I was already almost stopped. A minute earlier, I would have been on a very busy, 50-mph road, and could easily have been killed.

I called AAA, who towed my car to my garage, where I proceeded to become semi-hysterical. My mechanic sat me down, gave me a glass of water, and said gently, "Susan, the important thing is that you're all right. You wouldn't believe the stories I've heard this week. Nobody's normal right now. But you're all right. The car will be all right. Everything will be all right. Nobody got hurt, and the damage can be fixed."

On Friday, I went to a prayer service at church. By then, everything was plastered with American flags, but it seemed to me then -- and still seems now, although I've drawn plenty of criticism for saying so -- that nationalism was part of what had created the horror. I wanted to try to find a way to express solidarity with all victims of terrorism, wherever they lived: not just here, but in Europe and Asia and the Middle East and Africa. So my bumper bore a Planet Earth decal, instead of a flag. I wore a cross to the church service: I'd carefully avoided that the rest of the week, because I didn't want it to be seen as an anti-Muslim statement, but I figured I'd be safe wearing a cross in church.


I walked in, wearing my cross, and promptly ran into a friend who was sitting at a table making American flag pins. She tried to give me one. "Thanks," I told her, "but I'm not comfortable wearing that right now."

She glared at me. "Why not?"

I tried to explain about wanting to express solidarity with all victims of terrorism, not just the ones in the United States. I told her that I respected her position, but also felt the need to honor my own. She sniffed and said, "Well, that's very nice, but it wouldn't hurt for you to wear your colors."

Hands shaking, I held up the cross I was wearing. "Here are my colors."

Her voice was icy. "Well, excuse me, but I think that's bullshit!"

Whereupon we both burst into tears.

I wound up being bundled into a bearhug by one of our priests, who kept telling me it was okay, I was okay, whatever I was feeling was okay. During the brief service, I sat in a back pew and bawled, hunched over the kneeler. I felt shamed, isolated, miserable. When I finally opened my eyes, I discovered that I was surrounded by tissues: boxes of tissues, pocket packs of tissues, individual clumps of tissues. People had crept up during the service and put them next to me, as if I were some shrine.

After that, things got a little better, although it was months before I could look at photographs of the ruins without crying. Gary and I wound up being immensely glad that we didn't have TV: I'm not sure I'd have been able to turn it off, but looking at the endless-loop footage of the planes flying into the towers would have been more than I could bear.

Most of my friends in New York, meanwhile, told me that I had no right to my own grief. I wasn't there. They were there. It was their disaster, not mine. I couldn't possibly understand what it was like. (This is undoubtedly true, but they clearly couldn't understand what my experience was like, either.) I did my best to listen to them; they didn't want to listen to me. This makes perfect emotional sense, but it still hurt.

I kept hearing people talk about how much nicer people were to each other after 9/11, but that wasn't what I saw and felt. I saw people discounting other people's feelings, angrily dismissing any pain that wasn't theirs, scoffing at anything except scripted, hegemonic symbols. With some notable exceptions -- my mechanic, the priest who bearhugged me, the tissue donors during the church service, a friend from Canada who knew I was from New York and called to find out if Gary and I were okay, if we'd lost anyone we knew (we hadn't, thank God) -- I saw far more lashing out than reaching out, along with a terrifying insistence on conformity.

It was an ugly time, and it brought out a lot of ugliness. I know, and am immensely grateful, that there was love mixed in too, and kindness, and generosity. But on the level of national policy, the first prevailed, and we're going to be paying the price for that for a long, long time.

Let me be clear: I'm not trying to privilege my own 9/11 story over anyone else's. I'm trying to point out that all of us have 9/11 stories, even those of us who weren't near Ground Zero, and that all of them are compelling and important.

So what's yours?


  1. The kids still lived at home then and since they'd left for school on the bus, my first thought was: do I need to pick up the kids? I'd planned to go grocery shopping and so I just decided to go about that task as though nothing had happened. The store was almost deserted. The few of us who went about our business of selecting produce and cookies and soy burgers were weirdly quiet and solemn. I couldn't say that people in that store on that day were either kind or unkind. On the surface, we were unusually detached from one another. None of the usual polite greetings in the aisles but also none of the usual rushed impatience. We were, however, despite the apparent disconnect, somehow connected in our quietness and solemnity. It could have been church, come to think of it.

  2. OtterB2:59 PM

    I had gone to the doctor, here in the Maryland suburbs of DC, for a minor infection. Part of me felt like I should go home, but I knew I needed an antibiotic and it seemed silly to have to come back later. When I got home, I needed to pick up one child at Catholic school and felt foolish for not realizing sooner that school would close and I would need to do that. The other was coming home on the bus from public school after the early dismissal, and I sat on a neighbor's front porch and talked to the neighbor and watched for the bus. It was a beautiful clear September day, and it all seemed surreal.

    My husband worked across the Potomac from the Pentagon, a long way by road but not far as the crow flies. He left his car because of the gridlock and ran home; he was in training for a marathon and had clothes for a lunchtime workout with him, so running 15+ miles was a plausible, even sensible option. The things he remembers most are the column of smoke from the Pentagon, visible much of the way home, and all the people sitting at sidewalk cafes on his route home. I think most people didn't want to be alone.

    Traffic around DC was a mess, but everyone was way, way politer than they ever are normally. A major traffic artery runs a half block from my house, and outbound traffic was crawling bumper to bumper, and nobody was honking at all. Amazing, actually.

    I went to noon mass that Friday. Our church has a noon mass every weekday, and there are normally maybe 15 people there. That day there were hundreds and hundreds. It was far more crowded than I've ever seen the church for anything else. I don't think most of the people were Catholic; we were the nearest church to a business district and a lot of people wanted to be in a church, any church, that day. And again, people were astonishingly polite. I'm almost glad that wore off, y'know? Just didn't seem natural.

  3. Anonymous3:16 PM

    I was in a diner having breakfast with friends from church when the waitress told us that a plane had flown into the twin towers - and I knew right away that she meant the World Trade Center, even though that wasn't exactly what she said. I didn't want to be by myself, so I headed to school after breakfast broke up - spent an hour or so watching the television coverage in a crowded office that didn't actually belong to any of the many people there, saw the second tower fall, an image I really never want to see again. I followed the news on the radio after that.

    Eventually I went home to call my family and check in with my friends. I'd just gotten home from a summer in France two weeks earlier, so I called my French family as well. I remember how quiet the sky was with air traffic grounded, and I remember how far away Paris seemed in spite of the telephone. I remember how I couldn't quite believe what was happening, how I wept at my desk at work reading a speech about the beauty of the Statue of Liberty still standing in the harbor.

    Most of all, I remember how helpless I felt - even though the towers didn't play much of a part in my life when I was growing up or going to college in New York, I still experienced the attack as an attack on my home. I hadn't lived in New York City in twenty years - but I wanted to be there so badly to share the experience and do something to help. I heard and saw how firefighters, nuns, nurses, social workers, priests, psychologists, and other people from all over America flocked to New York to be useful - but I couldn't think of anything a history professor could really do. I stayed in Rochester to teach my classes, lead evening prayer, and generally try to carry on with life as usual for myself, my friends, and my students.

    Now I'm in France again, and I can't say whether the intervening six years seem long or short. At the library yesterday, where everyone knows I'm an American, one person asked me whether my country was still a democracy. Today another offered her condolences on what she said she knew must be a difficult day for me. On my way home from work this evening, a woman stopped me to sign a petition to end religious violence in Iran. I don't think she was advocating war, but I can't help wondering whether we will be going to war. If we do, I wonder what she will think.

    Perhaps the hardest thing for me in the aftermath of September 11 is that I know longer know what I think. The world is bigger and more complicated than I ever imagined, and the past is sometimes far easier to understand than the present. I hope for eventual clarity, and I pray for the internal and international peace that makes understanding easier to find.

  4. I appreciate your telling your story. I mentioned in my post about 9/11 that even though I didn't know anyone who died, or even anyone who knew anyone who died in the attacks, it still changed my life. That was the day I realized life was too short to hate what you do, and the day I began working on becoming a nurse.

    I also agree with your statement about paying the price for years to come. I think we used 9/11 as a rallying cry and took an event perpetrated by fanatics that was pretty much condemmed by the majority of the world, and used to create a situation where half the world now sees us as mortal enemies..

  5. Oo, ouch on the unpleasantness of the people in your area. People were kinder where I was that day.

    I heard about the first attack a few minutes before 6:30 a.m. Mass. At work that day, nothing got done. The TV in the cafeteria was tuned to the news (it's normally for internal announcements) and people just stared at it all day. The guy across the aisle who's usually very by the book regarding things like personal use of e-mail spent the day glued the BBC on his computer. (He's a Brit and doesn't trust American TV.)

    People were nicer to each other around here. Parents were in tears, afraid they wouldn't be able to look strong for their kids. It was like the shock we felt after the 1989 earthquake.

    On that Friday, I went to church at lunch and found myself leading an impromptu prayer group. Again, as someone said, it was people I'd never seen before who had just glommed onto any church they were near.

    I was choir director then. On the Sunday, we sang "America the Beautiful," every verse, for the closing (we usually just do two verses). Only one person didn't stay for the entire song, something which never happens.

    I wish we had grown as a country from this. Instead, we've in-grown.

  6. My viewing of the events of 9/11 coincided with part of the breakup of my marriage. I first heard about it on the radio on the way home from work. When I saw the images I was sitting on the sofa with the real estate agent. That night, at work again, the images kept playing over and over again just like they did when Challenger exploded. It was gut wrenching, and steadily building up emotional damage. I went home early. I don't know anyone from NY but I love this country and don't know how any caring person could see hear and see those events and not feel something. What surprised me, expressed very well by a country song, was how little I knew about the people who attacked us. I didn't know the difference between Iraq and Iran. I still don't understand the issues well enough to feel as if I can talk about them intelligently. I just sit here and observe that our emotional reaction seems to have escalated into a chain of events that while understandable, may be a chain of wrongs being done on both sides. I wish it was over, I hope and pray for peace.

  7. I was two weeks into my senior year at a small, conservative college. (I went there to cause trouble. ;) I came downstairs to find seven of my nine housemates clustered around the television, not talking, looking at smoke rising over the rooftop of a building. "Is Buckingham Palace on fire?" i asked - i have no idea why it looked like that to me, but it was the Pentagon.

    My morning classes were cancelled, so my boyfriend and i went next door to my good friends' house and sat on their sofa all day, watching television and checking things on the internet. We were there when both of the towers fell. I remember crying and feeling vaguely sick, and the whole day was covered with a veneer of unreality, that glassy-eyed "this can't be happening" sensation.

    I was in concert band then, and at the time we were working on "Elegy for a Young American," a song written about the assassination of Kennedy. We were supposed to have practice that evening, but instead we held an impromptu concert/service and played "Elegy."

    My creative writing class was that evening, and my professor emailed all of us and asked us to come to class (although he understood if we didn't). In class, we talked a bit about everything, and he said: don't write about it yet. Write - but give yourself the time to process before you try to turn this into a poem. Allow yourself some distance. I didn't quite understand it then, but i do now.

    I spent the rest of the year hiding from campus - going to class, doing what i had to - but i quit being involved in much. Dropped out of band, stopped being as involved in my campus organizations, stopped causing trouble and riling up my conservative campus, and instead spent my free time in another town, an hour away. I still think a large part of the alienation and distance came from the events of September 11th.

    (I hope the YouTube link works - i can't get it to load right here at work.)

  8. I had just come in from walking one of my dogs, and switched on the TV to watch morning news. I remember the first mention of an airplane flying into the WTC, and how little concern was in the anchors' voices. I think everyone assumed it was a small plane and an accident, and then, moments later, the word that a second plane had struck, and then the awareness that this was terrorism. I quickly called someone at work (I was going in later) and told them to get online, see what was happening. When I went in, the silence with no airplanes in the air was disorienting; and then, a few hours later, the deafening roar of military jets, as two F18Fs forced/escorted a small aircraft down at the neighboring municipal airport. I, too, expected the death toll to be even more horrific than it was. I remember the news websites in almost constant update. And I remember later in the afternoon our management dismissing us early so that people could be with those important to them. For me, sounds silly, but it was my dogs--I had a visceral need to wrap my arms around them and hold them tight. I live in a city with a big federal center and there were worries that the city would be targeted. Everyone was on edge. And I remember the crowds flocking to churches looking for something, anything, and the fear felt by Muslims and any person of Middle Eastern descent, fear of reprisal. I remember how disappointed I was at the knee-jerk reactions of so many, the kind of "national religion" that links Christianity with the aims and needs of the USA in ways that to me seem so different from the message of Christ. And I remember how learning of friends who had lost other friends or relatives, and thinking what a small world it is in some ways.


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