Twenty years ago on September 11th, I was just getting settled at my desk at work after returning from the trip of a lifetime. I had just spent two weeks exploring jungle caves and Mayan ruins in Belize, and wasn’t quite sure how I was going to re-adjust to my tech support gig after being out in The Actual World for basically the first time as an adult.
As I was signing into my email, my phone rang.
“Are you watching the news?” Becky sounded slightly breathless.
“No, I just got to work, why? What’s going on?”
“Bring up a news site. Something is happening. A plane just hit a skyscraper in New York.”
I pulled up a site and saw a picture of a plane hitting a building, with a little blurb about breaking news, but the internet was a much different place in 2001 and it was actually fairly hard to find much as it was happening. Becky was home and had the news on so she was relaying information to me as it was reported. We watched the second plane hit in as close to real time as was possible at that point.
A couple minutes later, someone down the hall from my office yelled that everyone needed to come watch the news. They had a TV set up and CNN or something was on. It was a small office, only a handful of us. We stood around, fixated on the set, still not understanding what was going on. Cell phones started ringing, then office phones. People wandered off to take calls and then came back, sometimes with wet eyes, sometimes with pale faces.
Our little office in Vermont was a long, long way from Manhattan, but some of my coworkers had family down in that general area, and we were all booked to go to a trade show in the city at the end of October. I had just flown in to JFK on my way home from Belize two days before. The friend I had been travelling with was still there, spending time with other friends for a few days before his flight back to London. They were staying just a few blocks from the towers. We had walked by them one night on our way to dinner before we left for Belize.
Nobody in the office really knew what to do with themselves. Someone said that the local Catholic church was doing mass shortly and several of us decided to go. I don’t think a single one of us was Catholic, but it was more about being with other people and trying to wrap our heads around what was going on.
Mass was surreal. I had never been to a Catholic church before and had zero understanding of what to say or do. I mostly just sat and cried on and off as waves of emotion washed over me. Everyone else was doing basically the same thing, although most of them knew when they should be kneeling, at least. When it was over, my coworkers and I wandered back to the office in a daze. We were greeted with the news that two more planes had been hijacked – one crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside and the other hit the Pentagon.
I don’t remember if we got sent home, if we just left, or if I stayed the whole day. I think I probably went home early. I was still living with my folks at that point. My dad would have been at work still, and I think my mom was still working nights then, so she would have been asleep I guess. I honestly don’t remember a thing about that afternoon or evening at all. It’s just gone. All I remember is being very worried about my friend in the city and not being able to get through to his cell…which was understandable, of course. I know I eventually did get an email from him a day or two later and he said they were all fine, aside from some breathing issues from all the dust in the air, and of course some mental trauma.
After the attack, I remember weeks and weeks of almost every channel we had showing the footage of the planes hitting the towers over and over again. They did finally stop showing the clips where you could see people jumping / falling out of the windows, so that was a small relief, but still. Looking away felt like dishonoring those people in some way, I think…so we just kept watching and watching. Trying to see where it all went wrong, maybe. But it’s pretty hard to learn from mistakes when a country can’t admit that it actually made any.
We did end up going to the trade show at the end of October. My mom was worried. She kept asking what if it happened again while I was there? All I could do was shrug and, with a wisdom well beyond what my 21 years should have afforded me (and which I since have seem to lost the vast majority of), say “life has to go on”.
The venue and our hotel were a good three miles or so from the footprint of the towers. One night as we were getting into the elevator to head back up to our rooms, a guy in a hard hat and orange vest waved at us to hold the door for him. He was maybe 25 feet further down the lobby and walking very slowly. When he got closer, we saw that he was absolutely caked with dust and dirt. When he got into the elevator he apologized for making us wait.
“I would have walked faster but I’m kind of beat,” he said half-jokingly.
“Are you working down there? Where…it happened?” one of my coworkers asked.
He nodded, keeping his eyes trained studiously on the ground. My coworker silently put out his hand toward the dusty guy, who reached out and shook it with a quiet “thanks”. It was a long, quiet ride up to the 20th floor where my group were staying. When we got off the elevator, we turned back to wish the guy good luck but he was leaning back against the wall of the elevator, eyes closed, chin tipped like he had nodded off. We didn’t disturb him.
I hate what the anniversary of 9/11 has become. I hate that it has been co-opted by the ‘Murica crowd with their These Colors Don’t Run t-shirts and their Terrorist Hunting Permit bumper stickers and their racism. I hate that they refuse to learn history, to understand context, to grasp nuance. I hate that they can’t see that this cycle will continue to play out over and over again because this country keeps making the same mistakes, keeps voting for the same wrong-headed politicians pushing the same wrong-headed ideas. I hate that we can’t seem to find a way to honor the lives of all the people that died in the attacks and the aftermath without turning it into some kind of garish, jingoistic, self-masturbatory political spectacle. Those were real people, with real families, real lives. They deserve better than some bullshit parade full of rednecks waving Don’t Tread On Me flags. They deserve better than a country that continues to vehemently deny it bears any responsibility in the way the world is crumbling around us.
But life has to go on.