Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11, 2001

Today is the day that can eclipse my personal pain.  I have no idea how to be reasonable about this day.  There are so many rules in our house surrounding it.  No one may refer to it as 9-11 or 911.  I find that disrespectful.  Take the extra few seconds, damn it.  Say September 11th.  It isn’t much extra effort.  We haven’t come up with some convenient nickname for Pearl Harbor Day or the Battle of Gettysburg.  If a dramatization of the events of that day, or live footage is on television the TV must be turned off or the channel changed.  If a story about that day is on the radio the radio must be turned off.  If Z wants to talk about that day he cannot do it with me.    If he gently tells me I need to deal with it or talk about it in therapy I tell him to go fuck himself. 

Z was doing a show in North Carolina in early September of 2001. He was out of town for a week or two.  I had one day left working for a casting director on the Upper West Side.  We were casting in midtown, but I was to be in the office setting up future auditions.  As usual I walked to the Clinton-Washington C stop and waited for the train.  I remember hearing a tremendous sound, but at that moment I didn’t give it another thought.  The train arrived and we got to Fulton St in Manhattan normally.  Then we waited there with the doors closed for a really long time.  The doors opened for a moment and a frantic woman jumped on.  She said, “A plane has hit the World Trade Center.”  Every person in the car ignored her.  People say crazy things on the train all the time.  We all went back to reading our books.  I was so focused on mine that I didn’t notice the platform fill up.  When the doors opened next a flood of people rushed in, many bloodied and hysterical.  They were shouting that two planes had hit the two towers, bodies were falling to the ground, it was pandemonium.

The train started moving.  Even more people got on at the WTC station.  Everyone was talking fast and trying to share information.  At West 4th Street many people exited and a few got on.  For the first time I spoke to someone who had just got on the train.  “What does it look like?  Is it just a big hole in the side of the building?”  “Yeah.”  That was as far as my brain got that day.  It was all I could handle to imagine looking south and seeing that big hole.  For weeks I didn’t believe the towers actually fell even though I saw the empty space with my own eyes.  Later I was told I suffered from post traumatic stress and that is why my brain stopped processing after a certain point.  I don’t know about that, but for some reason I couldn’t accept new information beyond there being holes in the building.

I was scared to get off the train and scared to stay on.  But I rode all the way to 86th Street which was my original destination.  I remember walking up the stairs and passing a business man and wanting to say to him, “Don’t bother.  There won’t be another train.  There has been an attack.”  But I knew he wouldn’t believe me.  And I didn’t want to have the responsibility of telling anyone.

The day was perfect and beautiful.  What happened downtown had yet to affect 86th Street.  I pulled out my phone to try and call Zeke, I was able to get through and explain the little I knew.  I noticed there was a message from my mother.  I couldn’t believe technology was such that this had all happened within an hour and my mother knew about it from her home in the Middle East.  My parents were in the Middle East, my sister was in Washington D.C., and I was in New York.  Tracking each other down was a long and scary business that day.

I didn’t know what would be happening so I ran to an ATM and got a bunch of cash.  Then I ran to a newsstand and bought my first pack of cigarettes in over a year.

I let myself into the office and tried to get a hold of my boss.  She lived in Battery Park City.  Her building was the closest apartment building to Tower 2.  I used to babysit for her and after her daughter went down I would stare out the window at the towers that were so huge that close and feel like I was in the center of the universe.  It was pure magic. 

The landline didn’t have a signal.  I sat with the TV on in the background listening for news as I tried again and again to get a dial tone.  Eventually a call would come through, mostly my boss’s family frantically trying to locate her.  I tried not to cry as I told them I didn’t have any news.  The other woman who worked there was running late and she called from a subway station in Queens.  I told her to go home.  She didn’t understand what the issue was.  She said there was a problem with the trains, but she’d get the next one in.  I screamed, “There won’t be a next train.  Go home!  Put on the news!”  She still didn’t get it.  Who could blame her?  I still didn’t get it myself.

The newscaster getting hysterical grabbed my attention.  Her voice got so shrill and she said “It’s falling!  It’s falling!”  I remember thinking she must be a very bad newscaster because she lost her cool and they are never supposed to do that.  I simply did not believe the tower fell.  And I didn’t believe it a few minutes later when the other one fell.   I thought when the dust cleared they would be there.  Sure, they’d be beat up a bit, but they would still be there. 

The director from the theater in FL we were casting for called.  He said something like, “This is a real tragedy, but you know, the show must go on.  The auditions need to happen today.”  At this point I had no idea if my boss and her family were OK.  I wanted to wring the neck of this self involved ass who clearly had no idea of what the scope of this thing was.  I think I said something like, “When I FIND her she will give you a call.”

Eventually I learned she and her family were safe.  They walked to the Village where her parents lived and they ended up camped out there for a few weeks.  The windows of their apartment were left open so they lost almost everything.  Including their beloved cat.  But they didn’t find that out until much later. 

I needed to figure out how to get myself home.  Kevin was working in Hell’s Kitchen, which was between the Upper West Side and Brooklyn.  I managed to get a hold of him and told him I’d walk down.  I crossed over to Amsterdam.  I needed to get hold of Z, my phone had no signal, so every block I grabbed the payphone praying for the dial tone, but I didn’t get one all the way down into the 40s.  All of the cafes were open and filled with people and I wanted to shout, “What are you doing?  How can you sit and enjoy yourselves?”  I walked by St Lukes and there were all these doctors milling around doing nothing.  There didn’t end up being many people to treat. 

I ran into a deli on the corner near the Film Center Building where Kev worked because I knew it stocked Tastykakes.  I bought water, soda, and a bunch of Tastykakes because I thought we needed a treat.  Upstairs I offered the treats to Kev and his boss, but they weren’t in the mood.  Kev was ready to go home with me.  We decided to walk over to Port Authority and see if the trains had started to run again.  We found out the A/C was running, but it was being diverted along the F line into Brooklyn.  It seemed weird to take the train, but it would be so much faster than walking and we were emotionally exhausted. 

We got on the train and kept waiting to cross over to the F line.  I noticed a handsome black man in a very smart business suit.  His feet were covered in ash.  I looked away and tried not to cry.  And then we were slowly moving through the WTC station.  We weren’t diverted after all.  The newsstand on the platform was left wide open, the evacuation must have happened very fast.  There was dust everywhere.  And there was complete silence in the car. 

At Lafayette Ave in Fort Green we got out.  There was this amazing Middle Eastern restaurant called Bedouin Tent and we stopped in to order take out.  We were starving and I suddenly understood why all the cafes along Amsterdam were full.  While we waited we walked to the top of the hill in Fort Green Park.  It is the highest point in Brooklyn.  We looked at the columns of smoke and again I was sure the battered towers were right behind, that we’d be able to see them in a few days.  It seemed like half of Brooklyn was on top of that hill.  Eventually we trudged back to the restaurant and then to Kevin’s place.  I stayed with him for several days until I arranged to join Z down south. 

So those were the mechanics of the day.  But there is so much more to explain.  I feel like there are rings of involvement to that day.  And you can talk to the people in your ring about it, but it’s hard to talk to anyone else.  I just can’t talk to Z.  He wasn’t there.  But every year I talk to Kevin.  We don’t say much, but we understand each other’s sadness and residual fear.  We don’t even have to say anything at all, just being quit together can be a comfort.  Kevin’s roommate worked near the towers.  He ran for his life when the towers fell, he saw things I can’t possibly imagine.  He can’t talk to Kevin and me about his experiences, and that is OK.  It is natural. 

September 11th, 2001 was obviously not about me.  My story is just one of millions, I was one of the millions who were witnesses to the events of that day.  When all is said and done I was not very personally affected.  I casually knew a man who died that day.  The sympathies I feel for his family seem mightily insignificant.   My former boss lost her home and cat, but thankfully her whole family survived.  I was physically unharmed that day.  My apartment was unharmed.  The view from our roof was altered forever, but that was of no real consequence. 

This is the most open I have been about the events of that day in 9 years.  Now that I’ve started writing about it, suddenly it feels hard to stop.  I feel like there is so much to say.  But there will be other anniversaries.  It seems imperative we don’t forget.  I honestly wish I was anywhere but there on September 11th, 2001.  I abhor the cowards who killed innocents and sullied the name of a major religion.  It also seems imperative we don’t twist the events to demonize a religion and a culture.  I believe America is better than that.  


  1. Karen - it was a tough day, I am glad you are getting some catharsis here. For me, I saw the towers collapse on live TV at work after someone yelled to run to the conference rooms a tower had been hit. After watching them both collapse, on TV, I ran up to track down Dave. While I was on the phone, people were listening to radios, yelling out news. Another plane was on its way to hit the White House, the Pentagon was hit, CIA was under attack, and bombs were going on all over town. Most of those were rumors and panic. But what made it all eery for me was the F-15s (or whatever fighter jets they were) that starting zooming back and forth past my office windows. My office was very close to Dulles airport. We could hear them and would freak out that another plane was coming down. I too am lucky, my family was all safe, my house was fine. But I sure hope to never see another day like that again.

  2. M-thanks for your story.

    I'd love to hear what everyone experienced that day. All our stories are important. They make a patchwork of our collective memories.

  3. My mom was in the Pentagon when it was hit. I was working in a nearby building and was on a conference call with some clients who were also in the Pentagon. I had heard a few minutes earlier that the WTC had been hit but did not know the severity of the attack and I was shocked when I heard our clients on the other line yelling that the Pentagon had been bombed. I am a very impulsive person so I left work immediately and drove 2 minutes up the road to the Pentagon. I was planning on finding my mom and taking her home ! Insane, I know, but that was legitimately my plan.

    When I got close to the Pentagon, it was with a sinking feeling that I realized my plan was not going to come to fruition. The ENTIRE sky was black and there were armed military men surrounding any entrances. People were milling about in the street frantically trying to get a cell signal and I could see people who would suddenly stop moving and yell, "it's ringing, it's ringing." Suddenly, there was a loud explosion that I could feel reverberate under me and people started screaming and ducking and running. It was surreal...I found myself thinking how much this scene looked like a movie... Later I heard on the news that a gas line exploded a while after the initial impact of the plane.

    I realized I needed to just get home because that's where my mom would call. So I sped down 395 (on the wrong (incoming) side because they had opened up all lanes of 395 to flee the city) and reached my insanely frantic father shortly there after. Anytime someone would call to see if we had heard from my mom (well-meaning intentioned people but sorry saps nonetheless), my dad would yell expletives at them and hang up the phone (we didn't have call waiting so he was not only scared out of his mind that my mom was hurt but he also didn't want to tie up the line).

    Thankfully, my mom called us in the middle of the afternoon and told us she was on her way to the Springfield metro. I grabbed water bottles and towels (which was a heaven-sent idea) and drove my dad and me to her (he was in no condition to drive...he almost throttled a metro employee because we had trouble getting into the kiss and ride area).

    My beautiful mother got into the car with mud all over her legs. She had helped grab the kids in the child care area and then had been told to go lay down on the side of a mud bank on the Potomac by a female Navy officer. They had received word that another plane was on its way (the one in PA). After finally being told it was safe to make her way home, all the buses and metro trains were packed.

    Through all of this, my mother had no idea how bad the damage was at the Pentagon at which she worked for 30 years. She sat down in front of the tv when we got home and looked dumbstruck with tear-filled eyes at the gaping, smoking, black hole in which the plane had impacted the walls. The next day, she got dressed for work, got in her car and drove to the Pentagon to go to work...because Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (who was also there with my mom pulling kids to safety, btw) said publicly that this attack had in no way damaged the Pentagon enough to prevent everyone from coming to work. Of course, the military was quietly turning everyone away and sending them back home for the remainder of the week. I personally am glad she went to work the next day, because it gave me no excuse to not go to work either (I did not ever want to leave my house again).

    I know everyone loves their moms, but I think my mom is the most amazing, beautiful, and strong example I could ever have. I am so proud of her.


  4. It's hard to describe to anyone who wasn't there what the city was like that day. I remember walking from my midtown office uptown to a friend's apartment (before the trains started running again), and just a mass of people in the streets and on the sidewalks. And every time I stopped -- at the ATM to grab cash, at a bodega for water -- strangers would start feeding me random rumors (i.e., "They're saying that more than 8 planes are still unaccounted for").

    Like you, Karen, I wasn't personally affected, but it was just incomprehensible.

  5. Karen, thank you. It was a difficult day for anyone in the US, much less New York. Your openness about it made me feel more a part of that day.

  6. Funny, all of your stories are in the heat of the action but mine is not - and it feels just as traumatic to me. I had been at a store meeting with WholeFoods Waterman street. My kids always went to the meeting with me - then I drove them to school. Driving back to work, the radio kicked in with a frantic voice talking about planes hitting the World Trade Center and bodies jumping from unbelievable know when a voice has so much fear and emotion that your own body tenses and vibrates? I pulled over at the 7/11 on Smith Street and burst into tears screaming "we're at war! we're at war!" Once I calmed down, I got to work and John Santos had turned on a little tv in the team leader office. He let us know that we could just go home if we wanted...such uncertainty...I'm such a control freak and I had none...none at that moment. Every time I see war in these other countries on the news, I flash to that moment and wonder how they live with the fear everyday - right outside their door?

  7. Thanks for sharing your experiences guys.

    R-I am particularly grateful for yours because I think many of us have the tendency to forget the suffering at the Pentagon and for the families of those who worked there. Shortly after the attacks I remember that being addressed on a NPR story and the gist of it was the military feels it is always a target and therefor should underplay how hard it was for those who were there. Which is brave and stoic, but I also think remembering is important as well. I'm glad you mother was OK.

  8. Karen,
    Thanks for your post. We all deal in our own way. I pray we all come through this still recognizing the 1st amendment rights of everyone and that we heal together as the United States of America. My sympathy to all who lost loved ones that day.
    Carol Bentley

  9. You're so much stronger than you know, Karen. Thank you for sharing your story.

    Smokes and tastykakes. I'm glad that in the grand scheme of things we're on the same team. That's my kind of preparation.