This morning I logged on to my computer intending to file yet another pithy entry about the trials and travails of life on the domestic front lines, but my plans changed when I read Bharat’s lovely post marking the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist bombings. I was living in New York at that time – I still am – and for me, like so many of my friends and neighbors, it is a rare week when it doesn’t occupy my thoughts, or at the very least cross my mind.
Bharat writes that on that day we were all victims, and he has a point, but that’s not the whole story. So if you’ll forgive a temporary darkening in tone, I’d like to add my own thoughts.
When the first plane hit the Trade Center Tower, I had just dropped my daughter off at school; it was the beginning of second grade for her. It was a glorious day, warm and clear with a bright blue sky, and as I walked back home I looked up at what I thought were a flock of homing pigeons. We live in an Italian neighborhood, and there are still a few people who keep pigeon coops on their roofs and fly their birds in big swooping flocks that sort of glimmer when the sun hits their wings just so. It’s an Old World hobby, like playing bocce or making wine in the cellar. After a moment I realized it wasn’t birds – the movements were too chaotic and random – so I stopped. I was passing the pharmacy, and a man standing outside told me a plane had hit one of the Trade Center buildings. At that moment I realized it wasn’t birds in the sky, but papers, thousands of pieces of paper that had floated across the East River and were fluttering above my Brooklyn neighborhood. And so I ran.
I ran toward home because my husband worked downtown, and many of his former colleagues were still clocking in at the Trade Center. When I turned on the TV, it was unclear what had happened. Maybe it was a private jet whose pilot had had a heart attack or had been flying drunk; no one seemed to know. But then the second plane hit, in real time, live and for the world to see. I cannot tell you what that was like, there are simply no words for the horror of that moment. News reports were starting to come in of flights off course and heading in the wrong direction and people fleeing the towers. Somehow I got my husband on the phone. He was OK he said. I begged him to get out of his building and come home, but he said the firefighters had told them to stay put and that he had to go and would be all right.
Then the dust started blowing over, across the big river and into my neighborhood, carrying with it more paper, no longer pristine white sheets like birds, but scorched and singed refugees from the fires that were now driving people to jump from eightieth and ninetieth story windows rather than being incinerated. My husband tells me they often leapt two at a time, holding hands, taking what solace they could in the warmth of one palm against another, knowing at least they weren’t dying alone. His office was on the eighteenth floor of a building a few blocks away. They had a view. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to bear witness to such a thing, but I know everyone who did died a little that day.
When the towers crashed, our TV went out; we didn’t have cable at the time. By then I knew I had to get my daughter home. Her school was directly between our house and the Trade Center; it would be full of smoke and she would be afraid. I also knew that the upper floors of her school had views of lower Manhattan and it occurred to me, as I ran, that some of the children might have seen the event, and a few even watched as their parents breathed their last. By the time I got there and claimed my daughter and the son of a friend who was stranded in the city, the smoke was thick and rolling in from across the river, and I was afraid the children would choke. Luckily a friend was there with her car and we took refuge and got home in one piece.
Later, as the news reports came in and I waited for my husband to return, I worried that there might be a second phase of the attacks. What if the bridges and tunnels were rigged to explode with all those pedestrians on them? What if there were snipers in windows waiting to take them out? Luckily, my husband made it home, when so many others didn’t. That paranoia, though I suppose it’s not really paranoia if the threat is real, lasted for a long time. I didn’t fly for five years, and then only with a skin full of Valium. On the subway, anyone taking photos was suspect and often berated by other passengers. Anyone traveling with a backpack or heavy overcoat might well have been concealing a suicide bomb. I, like many, began sitting in the back row of the movie theater and found myself constantly planning escape routes in public places.
Had we, as a nation and a city, all become victims? Yes, I suppose we had. But we became more than just that. In the aftermath of the attacks, as we walked the streets of our city, we read the missing posters and grieved with our neighbors for every loss. It became common to see people reading the newspaper and weeping quietly in diners and cafes and at their desks in the morning. In a city that prides itself on toughness, this was something new. We opened doors for one another, relinquished cabs and stopped shoving to get on subway cars at rush hour. And for a few months, we even stopped looking at each other with fear or mistrust, because we knew there was something far bigger and more menacing out there, and it had us all in its cross hairs.
Victims we may have been, but so too we had become warriors. Some in the literal sense of taking up arms, others by writing and speaking out and educating, and still others by being just a little bit kinder, and a smidgen more considerate. In the New York of today, and I suspect in Shanksville and the Pentagon, life goes on, but not as before. It will never be like it was. Every day we mourn the dead and pray for the living. We raise our kids and get dinner on the table and fight with our spouses about money. We loathe our bosses and adore our dogs. We follow the Osbornes and the Real Housewives. We vote and we hope. But every day we go on, and that is victory.