September 11th, 2001 was a teaching day for me. It was the second week of classes of my first semester at Sadistic College. At the time, I didn’t know how to drive, and had been commuting with a friendly woman from the Publications Office. I arose at 6:30 am, made coffee, and showered and dressed whilst listening to NPR. I loved Garrison Keillor’s poetry segments, for I thought he had a very sexy voice. Shortly before I was to meet my commute partner at the corner, as I applied lip moisturiser and readied my bag, the plane destined to hit Tower One flew roughly over my head. It rammed into One World Trade Center as I sleepily clambered in her car.
Upon my arrival at school, the campus Internet was down, so I went to the faculty steno pool to make photocopies, which is where I was when Tower Two was struck. Making photocopies. As I was returning to my office, I saw two new colleagues across a lawn and waved at them. They looked preoccupied and in a rush and did not return my wave nor smile, which I found curious and disarming. Upon return to my office, the Internet, annoyingly, was still not working. I busied myself with collating the copies I had just made for my 11:30 class and found myself idly eavesdropping on my colleague next door, who was speaking with her mother in Saint Louis.
Her mother, reporting from Saint Louis, told her there was an incident at the WTC, possibly terrorism. I heard enough of the one-sided conversation to make me uneasy, immediately thinking of Big Sis, whose commute at the time took him close by the WTC. When she hung up, I went over and asked her what was going on. She was grabbing her bag to go to the Student Centre, where apparently they were broadcasting a CNN live-feed in the cinema. How she knew this I did not know. Since the Internet was down we were remarkably ignorant of what was happening at that very moment. We later found out one of our routers went through New York Metro and had collapsed from the volume of traffic that morning.
We walked to the Student Centre together, and arrived in the packed cinema just in time to watch as Tower One collapsed live on CNN, and with it a whole way of life.
The shock was palpable, but I do not remember any expressions of outright grief. Just shock. It was there that I learned of the Pentagon, Tower Two, boxcutters, terrorists, hijackings, the outlines of the plot that have not changed significantly in five years.
I met my 11:30 class to tell them that we would not be meeting in a time of national emergency. Most of them had actually come to class, remarkably enough. However, one of my students, from the Bronx, would not stop asking detailed procedural questions about the syllabus, midterm, and final examination. I answered her questions, and later recognised quite clearly this moment as one of shock, her shock at pressing urgent questions on the final (13 weeks distant), and mine at answering.
That afternoon an information session was held on the soccer field. It was warm and sunny, and there was no new information, only what at that point we all knew. I returned home that evening, made several phone calls, talked to Big Sis, The Voice, and perhaps some others, and listened to my radio. I had no television and no local friends really, so all I had was NPR and after midnight, the BBC World Service. Unlike so many people here and around the world, I did not witness the collapse over and over again. The event was not, initially, a visual spectacle for me in the same manner that it was for people with televisions and cable. Aside from the brief time in the cinema, I had no repetitive visual. Only the idea, which was in point of fact much more frightening.
For me, it was voice and Internet and the New York Times, but most importantly voice. The voices of reporters and witnesses, the live television audio feeds on several local radio stations, and the measured calm of the BBC, reporting the events in every statistical detail, late into the night, listening in the dark while laying in my bed, alone and scared and bewildered.
Big Sis, oddly enough, had gone to work that day. He was able to see the burning Tower One from his subway station in Brooklyn, and got on the train anyway. Tower Two was hit while he was riding on the number 4 train uptown. He emerged in midtown to chaos, panic, terror. Talk about vertiginous (as if the subway wasn’t enough). His office was unceremoniously closed for the day and he ended up walking home, across the 59th Street Bridge, for by then all subway service through lower Manhattan had ceased.
Life has continued, of course. We have survived, if, it is true, not thrived. But I think sometimes of that day, and the horrible year(s) that followed, and think about the life before. A year or two after, I read an interview with an SNL comedian, I can’t remember who, where she talked about the life before 9/11, the innocence which sounds so clichéd but is true, in a certain way, and how she would have given anything to have that life back. I’m no longer sure whether or not that life before was superior, but I do know that I could have happily lived the rest of my days without that moment, at that time, in a new job in a small town with no TV, of feeling awfully afraid and alone.
The spring following 9/11, The New Yorker did a profile on some stunt that the "street magician" David Blaine had performed in New York, standing on a pole for hours or something like that. Afterwards, when asked how it was, Blaine replied that he was afraid. I remember being struck by the piece, which was sadly wry, using Blaine’s trick and commentary, standing alone and cold and afraid, as a metaphor for the national feeling at the time. We haven’t moved very far from that moment, which only adds tragedy to the farce of the last five years, the life after the life before.