I remember only in pieces, montage of slow moving images, many of them confined within a 10-inch vintage screen. I preferred them constrained that way.
A part of me–the part of me that should have been more shaken but was still underdeveloped, still too self-centered and afraid to feel anything too real–shut down. My awareness of what was really happening was blurry and smudged at best.
Now I wonder how many of the missing places in the narrative have been filled by news articles and the collective memory I’ve (sometimes reluctantly) claimed and become part of. Nonetheless, this is what I remember:
Preoccupied with the fact that I was running a little late for my 4th (or was it 3rd?) day of work at my new job, my first full-time gig fresh out of undergrad, I hurried across Union Square and was mildly annoyed by the loose group of individuals blocking my pathway as they, and, to my growing awareness, cars and cabs and messengers on their bikes, stopped mid-street to gawk and point at something in the air.
“Ugh, just walk, people, don’t be such tourists,” I muttered as I turned my head to see what was causing the congestion. I expected the goodyear blimp dressed up as a bunny or some other such prank–like a lewd message scrawled in white upon the sky.
Instead, I saw the towering glittering twins, one of whom had a gaping angry hole that was spewing out greyblack smoke. They looked bruised and all wrong. Tiny helicopters orbited and weaved hesitantly between the pillars, I assumed to try and tame the furious fires.
“They say a plane flew off course and crashed into it,” I heard a fellow onlooker remark.
“That…is no accident,” I whispered.
Upstairs (I must have taken the elevator), we huddled in an unused office before a 10-inch television that our Efficient Executive Director had found stashed in the back storage rooms. We were watching the news. It was awkward. This moment of intense intimacy, of intense history, of intense God-knows-what-this-is, shared among people I’d just met a few days earlier, people who would later watch me go through one of the craziest and most irresponsible phases of my twenties, and who wouldn’t condemn me–or if they did, they did so quietly that I felt none of their accusations.
Without warning, the second plane hit.
“This is definitely not an accident,” I redundantly whispered. I knew something momentous was happening, that our world would never be the same. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to embrace a new world; I’d just made my way into this one, the last thing I wanted was for the game to change.
I must have moved away from the 10-inch at some point, to try and get some work done, pretending that things could be normal. I was the well-mannered, Asian, recent magna cum laude grad with a great work ethic; I was responsible and level-headed; yes, even in national crisis, I could file, email, and photocopy.
I came back to the 10-inch just as the ruined steel & glass giants with holes in their faces crumbled into billowing brown and gray clouds of dust, fire, dust, ash, dust.
“Oh my God,” my Boss With The Tender Heart gasped, tears streaming down her face.
Our Efficient Executive Director told us to go home, no work could be done today. “Call who you need to if you can get through and try and get home. The subways’ll be a mess right now.”
The subways were indeed messy, my regular route on the 1/9 subway blocked. So I walked to the A, C, E blue line and climbed down the stairs, allowing only 10-inches of life at a time to come into my line of sight.
The underground was crowded with bodies and an eerily orderly tension. I scanned the crowd, not resting on one face for too long–until my eyes stumbled onto my Efficient Executive Director’s face in the sea of unfamiliar faces, her eyes squinted and forehead furrowed in concentration and heavy thoughts. I didn’t know she would be here. For some reason, her presence disrupted my montage; I was still watching everything through a screen, just 10-inches, still separated from it. Her familiar face threatened those confinements, made the outside changing world too real. I looked away quickly, pretending I hadn’t seen her.
“All service on the northbound A, C, and E trains to Central Park West has been suspended until further notice.”
The underground collectively groaned as a mass exodus to buses and street cabs ensued.
On the bus uptown, I watched out my window as light ash drifted down upon people who were luncheoning outside in cafes–the September air still held a remnant warmth of summer.
It was strange, these strangers calmly eating with each other, aware and yet so far away from the chaos and agony happening less than 10 miles away; the scenes of utter terror that the television crews caught and transmitted across the nation seemed worlds away, the towers crumbling so swiftly to the ground…Surely that wasn’t the same New York I was witnessing right outside my bus window; what did these quaint cafes and brownstones awash in fading warmth and light ash have to do with what I had seen this morning?
Competing images clouded my vision. Which pictures were right, which were real and true and solid? I couldn’t tell. I felt confused, but mostly I didn’t know what I should be feeling.
At some point, my boyfriend at the time–a very devoted boy–walked his way, I think, to the Upper West Side apartment that I shared with two other girls. He worked at a hedge fund in Midtown. Maybe he brought food, or maybe we walked to one of those quaint cafes that I had earlier seen packed with people. We sat down and ordered a beautiful meal, maybe.
(One of my first instincts in crisis is to connect with someone over food, to eat. Some people lose their appetites completely, but for me, I crave to partake of something vital and familiar, something everyday and ordinary. Maybe you’re like this too. The next time crisis comes, come on over).
Fourteen years later, and I’m not in my very early twenties anymore. For many people, 9/11 is…well, I don’t know what it really is for many people. I can’t presume to know, and I haven’t asked. But for me, for many years, it was a date that I didn’t want to commemorate in the way that it seemed like most did. That day, that New York, felt simultaneously so removed and so personal. I had tucked that film of the day into a corner pocket of my soul and sealed it. I didn’t want it to be something I shared with the public.
But then, 14 years later. On a God-whim, I take a trip back to the city that I love, to old friends that I love and want to reconnect with. Fourteen years later on the third morning, my feet find their way down downtown, and I find myself walking around the very crowded and very public deep, sharp, cascading pools with waterfalls that glitter in the sun and move, incessantly move, into a square hole whose bottom I can’t fathom.
Are the waters taking our sorrows and burying them into the earth, or sending them to Sheol, perhaps, while simultaneously holding the memories, the beauty, the hope up to the sunlight so we could measure how true they are? So we can remember that there is still light that glitters even if all is not gold?
I didn’t break. Not while I walked around the first angular pool, one, two, two and a half times. Not while I weaved in and around tour guides and groups, families, children, grandparents, maybe some who had beloveds they lost on that day.
But then I walked further in, toward the 2nd pool, and closer, closer to the parapet. And then I foolishly began reading what is carved into bronze.
Flight 93. Jason M. Dahl. Sandy Waugh Bradshaw. CeeCee Lyles. Wanda Anita Green. Deborah Jacobs Welsh. LeRoy W. Homer, Jr…
Tears strained in the corner of my eyes, and all the emotions that I’d tucked away into the pocket of my soul along with the film montage of that day began to rumble. The stone monument I’d built in my heart began to creak.
Lorraine G. Bay. Honor Elizabeth Wainio. Donald Freeman Greene. Nicole Carole Miller. Marion R. Britton. Donald Arthur Peterson. Patricia Cushing. Christine Ann Snyder…
They were the ones to stand in the proverbial belly of the beast, the first to look terror in the eyes, hear it whisper or shout or silence above their heads in a place where exits are impossible.
Alan Anthony Beaven. Christian Adams. Joseph Deluca. Toshiya Kuge. Lauren Catuzzi Granolas and her unborn child.
I couldn’t take it, my heart cracked and my soul’s stoic tower that held all those memories and sorrow crumbled to the ground, and, stifling hysterical sobs, I walked away. I needed breathing room, I was making a ridiculous spectacle of myself.
I thought of my Boss with The Tender Heart. I remember her name, Darlene Gold. Darling, golden. I think I could understand her tears, now. I couldn’t fully back then, but I was starting to now.
I thought of these people whose names cried out to me now. I wondered if in those last moments, were they able to hold each other’s hands, find a sense of family, togetherness, hope that this would not be THE END, even as their world around them slid from out of their hands? I would like to think so. That in their last moments, some of them found solace.
I composed myself and walked back to the bronze parapet and continued. I felt I owed it to them to read their names, to read all their names, Flight 77, the Pentagon, the first responders, Squad 252, Squad 10, no matter how vulnerable or uncomfortable it made me.
I felt I owed it to those all around our cracking and hopeful planet whose names didn’t make it onto the parapets, whose names don’t make it onto any memorial, either because they are too humble or too horrible; whose faces may become completely forgotten or remembered by only a handful. I owed it to them, and to those who are left with just memories of loved ones taken too early from them–either by acts of corporate violence to the human anatomy, or corporate violences to the mind and soul.
I read each name, and with each name I added them and the many who remain unnamed into my montage, placed them into the pocket of my soul that’s no longer sealed so tightly, but just simply there, and expanding. Not a bruise, not a prison, just an open and slowly growing more and more fertile space for them to be loved and be remembered.