My Post 9/11 Thoughts

9-11-lightsJonathan Safran Foer said in an interview (paraphrased), “I’m not trying to rewrite history.  I just want to tell the events of 9/11 the way I see it, not the way others framed it for me.”

I feel very much the same way.  Politicians, anchormen, journalists, bloggers — they all try to tell me what 9/11 was.  And I always call bullshit because it’s obvious that most of them were not there, that they watched it unfold on TV and constructed a story, oftentimes bordering on mythical, to fit their interpretation of the events.  Here’s how I experienced it:

My office was in the process of a move from Reade street & Broadway right across from City Hall to just above Houston Street, also on Broadway.  I went directly to the Houston street office to meet the Verizon phone guy who was there to set up DSL.  I had my guitar with me, as I had a lesson that evening right after work.  But I never got to the office.  When I got out of the subway I looked down a side street at downtown and noticed white smoke.  I thought perhaps a local building was on fire, just a few blocks away.  But by the time I got to Broadway, I saw several people huddling on the street and watching the burning building.  Then, with the open avenues, I saw.  It was the Twin Towers.

“A small plane hit the World Trade Center,” someone told me.

“An accident?” I said.

“Yeah, an accident.”

But my thoughts were otherwise, especially since in ’93 terrorists tried to blow up the towers.

Then someone else said, “No, it was a cargo plane.  727.  My friend just told me.”

There were a lot of rumors flying.  But an accident or not, no one said.

I tried to use my cell phone, but it kept saying, “All circuits are busy.”  That made me nervous more than the smoke or the crowds of people.  What did cell phones have to do with a burning building?  I walked into a hardware store where they were playing the news on the TV.  “Jetliner crashed into the World Trade Center” read the headline.   The proprietors didn’t know anything more than what was being said on the streets.  Neither did the anchormen.

By this point, people started to pause on the street.  There was this strange sense that something was wrong.  You could see it in people’s eyes.  The fear.  I decided to go back to the office downtown.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe I should have just gone home, waited for the news to tell me what happened.  I don’t know what led me to the downtown office, but I had a sense that I had to be there.

The number six subway line was pretty empty.  I sat next to a black woman named Angela, in her late forties.  She looked scared, and we spoke as the train slowly rumbled underground.  “Do you know what’s going on?”

“Not much,” I said.  “A plane hit the World Trade Center.”

“Do you think it was…intentional?”

I could sense the hesitancy in her voice.  “It’s very possible,” I said.

“We don’t want to prejudge,” she said.  “But it might be, you know…”

She didn’t want to voice it.  Didn’t want to be the first to cast a stone.  “Terrorism?” I said.

She nodded.

“Could be,” I said.  “Lots of people want to kill us.”

“Arabs, maybe?”

“Maybe.”

“But not all of them want to harm us.  And anyway, we don’t want to prejudge, do we?”  I had no idea then how right she was, how our entire nation prejudged another Arab nation and led to a war which we are still fighting, where more than a million people have died.  Think about that: one million people.

“No, you’re right,” I said.

My stop approached.  “I’ll pray for you, Matthew.”

“I’ll pray for you too,” I said.

I may have been on the last train to run that day.  The subways had been closed.  When I got out of the subway, there were hundreds of people crowding Chambers Street.  I got a close look at the World Trade Center.  I had walked down Chambers Street a thousand times on my way to work, and I had remarked only weeks before that the World Trade Center was like our generation’s Great Pyramids, colossal structures that would survive the ages.  I looked up and saw it burning, metal shards hanging like a fist that had punched through metal.  I might have seen people, but I looked away.  I could not bear to see them burn.

“Goddamn Arab mother fuckers!” some tall guy shouts in front of me.  “Fucking sand-nigger faggot mother fuckers!”

And with his words I realized what Angela and I were trying to avoid, the blind hatred and rage and fear.  Little did I know how the president would use that emotion to manipulate the entire country into a frenzy of war and suspicion.

When I got to work, a small office, my boss said, “Don’t worry.  It’s only World War Three.”  I thought his humor was disgusting.  By now the second plane had hit.  It was obvious it was no accident.  I tried calling my sister, who also worked in the city.  No one could get a call through.  Finally, after twenty long minutes of dithering, my ineffectual boss says, “You can all go home.”  Thanks, boss.

I walked with the young receptionist girl, Jessica.  I told her we should take Church Street, in case they tried to bomb City Hall and the Federal buildings.  Fear was running high, and so anything seemed like a target now.  I had my guitar on my back, and we were walking down Church Street with a thousand other people because the subways were closed.  I passed pockets of language.  Spanish, German, French, Arabic, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese.  Little groups huddled together over radios or portable TVs or just talking with each other to see what the fuck was going on.  And everyone had this slow creep north.  Then the screams.

“Oh my God!”

We turned to see the one hundred and thirteen storey tower begin crumbling to the ground.  We were five, maybe six blocks away.  This thing is falling, people start screaming, running.  It so goddamn close. Jessica turns to me and says, “What do we do?”

I paused for an instant.  Was she relying on me?  “We run!”

We take off, my guitar bouncing off my back.  Jessica beside me.  And then everyone is screaming and running as this great big cloud of dust is coming down behind us, and you hear the thing pancaking, boom!-boom!-boom!, as each floor gives.  I can see how the conspiracy theorists thought it was a controlled demolition.  It sounded like explosions.  But let me tell you this thing was not under any sort of control.  On the curb there’s this obese, middle-aged woman who falls and can’t get up.  “Help me!” she screams.  “Help me up!”  Four men try and lift her from the ground to no avail.  Her ankle might be broken.  I feel terrible and scared, but I keep moving with the crowd.  Fear is pushing us forward.

You know all those movies you see where people are running for your lives.  It’s easy to eat popcorn and candy and feel your heart pump with fear, but that’s not — cannot ever be the same as experiencing it first hand; it can not ever be conveyed in words.  For those who think you “experienced” 9/11 because you watched it on TV, think again.

The screams chill me to the bone and I look back at the falling building and think two things:  1) people are dying right now, and 2) I am going to die any second now when that stuff falls on me.  And then my mind went away.  When you think you are going to die, instinct takes over.  I’m not sure what happened, but I have little memory of the next several minutes.  I’m pretty sure I was so afraid that to remember would mean recalling the fear.  So my mind protects me by blacking those minutes out.  I’ve had a few cases of extreme anxiety since then, and I can only attribute it to the memories of those minutes trying to resurface.

My next memory is reaching Canal street, my mouth utterly dry and sour with fear.  By then people have slowed their run to a brisk walk.  Behind us is this growing cloud.  I realized that, at least for now, I would live.  But that many people just died behind me.  I looked at Jessica.  She stared back at me terrified, and I wondered if I looked the same to her. Pale, frightened, helpless.

Then we walked.  We walked north.  Everyone walked north.  More than a million people swimming upstream.  I saw jet fighters fly overhead.  At first I was excited.  I cheered them on.  But then I thought, What the fuck can they do now?  The damage has been done.

We were walking to Jessica’s friend’s office when the second tower fell.  We were between streets and didn’t see it collapse, but some assholes ran to witness it like it was a fucking fireworks show.  “C’mon!” one guy shouted to his buddy, laughing.  “We’re going to miss it!”

We got to her friend’s office.  My mouth was dry, and they gave me water.  My body shook from all the adrenaline. The coworkers seemed unusually calm.  I guess they didn’t just run for their lives.  I borrowed their phone.  After dialing at least twenty times I got through to my father’s office.  “He’s in a meeting,” his receptionist said.  “Can I take a message?”

“Get him the fuck out of the meeting!”  I guess had hadn’t heard yet.

Then I spoke to my dad.  Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I was hoping he’d make it all better.  But there was nothing he, nor anyone could do.  Not even jet fighters.  The events had happened.  There was no erasing them now.

I walked home up Park Avenue South.  I saw a tall black man in an army uniform walking determinedly up the street with a US flag draped over his shoulders.  He was photographed and became, briefly, one of the famous images of that day.

By the time I got home several hours later, I had several messages from relatives asking me if I was okay.  I tried to donate blood, but there wasn’t much need, the hospitals said.

I slept over my sister’s house in the Village that night.  We both didn’t want to be alone.  We watched the same footage of the tower collapsing a hundred times, flicking to different channels to see if they had any news.  We started to get sick of it — the same terrible collapse, over and over, like Clockwork Orange. I had seen it with my own eyes.  Watching it on TV made it seem like it was just a movie.  I felt like I was being brainwashed, watching the horror repeated, so we turned off the news and watched a comedy.  It might seem silly, or even grotesque to you that we watched a comedy that night, but both of us were so shook up by the events of the day that it was the only way we knew how to cool off.  Later that night I got a call from a college girlfriend who I hadn’t spoken to in ages.  She had tracked down where I was to see if I was all right.  She told me the price of gas in Texas jumped to $20 a gallon.

It just seemed so absurd to me then (and now) that all those thousands of miles away, they would be just as terrified as me.  More afraid, it seemed, than people were here.  And it seemed that, in the days and weeks that followed, people from all over the country tried to tell me how I should feel about that day.  Bush getting on top of the debris with his bullhorn.  His “big moment.”  (I disliked him even then.)  Right away, I saw and felt the manipulation, actually feared the sudden appearance of US flags everywhere, from every building, storefront, automobile, even subway cars.  Flags, that seemed to me, to represent a new kind of militarism.   And I couldn’t help but think of the rise of Nazi power in Germany.  A flag ostensibly based on national pride but with a subtext of superiority, of rage, and of vengeance.  Not the flag that I knew.

This was exactly what Angela, the woman on the subway, had warned me about.  Not to prejudge, not to fall into that easy place of hatred and rage.  But it was too late.  The US populace was not intelligent or introspective enough to see how their fear and anger was being manipulated by the media and politicians, and so we were whipped into a fearful frenzy, passing Orwellian laws that reduced and curtailed civil rights, going to war in Afghanistan and then Iraq under false pretenses, starting a “War on Terror” with no clear enemy and no objective end, and basically, as a corollary, fucking up the economy for generations to come.  So, yeah, I’m angry when I see someone try to co-opt the events of that day, as if they were present, as if they experienced the towers falling first hand and therefore can comment on it as if it affected them personally.  But they weren’t, and couldn’t be, and unless they were there and saw it with their own eyes I think they should just shut the fuck up and listen.  Because I’m not the only one with a story.