Near the start of my sophomore year of college, I piled into my old Saab 900 with three friends on a warm Friday afternoon and gunned it down Route 17 toward New York City. We were on an extremely tight schedule; I had a date with Pedro Martinez.
The AirCon in my car had stopped working and upstate New York is pretty humid at that time of year, so we alternated between rolling the windows all the way down – rendering the car too noisy to speak or hear the music – and keeping them up so we could talk, until we got too sweaty and started the process anew. I remember listening to the Outkast album ATLiens on repeat, via my Discman plugged in to the adapter in the tape deck of my car.
My extremely loud and obnoxious friend Dave (a New Yorker, of course) was in the back seat. We’d become friends – and worthy adversaries – freshman year and talked pretty much constant smack about the Red Sox and Yankees. Sadly the Sox were at a bit of a nadir at that point (other than Pedro, whose Hall of Fame career was peaking), while the Yankees had won four of the last five World Series, including the previous three.
As I recall Dave (also a left-wing radical) spent much of the ride alternating between picking baseball fights with me and engaging my somewhat conservative and politically-minded boyfriend, who was driving. My friend Jen, who hailed from Buffalo and therefore also rooted for the Yankees, but in a much milder way, rolled her eyes and laughed bemusedly at all of us. Baseball dominated the conversation, though. After all we were going to a Sox-Yankees game at Yankee Stadium.
As we got down into New Jersey and took 95 onto the Major Deegan Expressway, we hit brutal rush hour traffic. We’d left Ithaca around 3pm and were cutting things far too fine to make a 7pm first pitch. Eventually we snaked our way onto some shady South Bronx side street, where Dave insisted it was fine to hand an old Dominican man the keys to my car so he could “valet park” it in a dirt lot. I was more than a little nervous but could already hear cheers from the stadium so I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and ditched the Saab. I’d never been so scared in my entire life.
A short while later we dashed out toward our seats in the bleachers. One of the most magnificent sights on earth is exiting a dark stadium tunnel to see the emerald green expanse of a baseball field. It took my breath away the first time I did it at Fenway Park when I was 6 years old, and it certainly happened that night, my first visit to the legendary Yankee Stadium. Pedro was on the mound, the crowd was roaring, and camera flashes were sparking constantly.
It was the bottom of the 1st inning and I was pleased to see the Sox had staked Pedro a 2-0 lead, though a bit bummed I couldn’t have been there to cheer for it myself. I was wearing my Red Sox hat, of course, though Dave had warned me I’d hear nasty insults – and might even be physically threatened – by Yankee Stadium’s notorious “bleacher creatures.” I told him my boyfriend would protect me. Ha. As a hapless Cleveland Indians fan he declared himself completely neutral (and an equal opportunity hater of both teams).
Sure enough I soon felt a poke on my shoulder, yet when I turned around it wasn’t some overgrown Bronx buffoon, but a couple girls from Manhattan that I’d gone to high school with. I remembered one of them as pretty much perpetually drunk from 9th through 12th grade, yet she always managed to avoid getting kicked out. That happened with a lot of the rich New York kids at my high school.
Anyway, I marveled at how small a world it is. Here at the great crossroads of the world – the bleachers of Yankee Stadium in the middle of New York City! – I was spotting familiar faces. The world felt like a slightly cozier place.
Although I somehow remember the game as a great pitchers’ duel between Pedro and Orlando Hernandez (aka “El Duque,” ugh), Baseball Reference tells me Pedro got chased in a mere three innings after giving up three runs in the second. On the bright side – I guess – Tim Wakefield came in and pitched four beautiful scoreless innings. Unfortunately it was one of those games where all the action happens early and then it becomes a stalemate; it’s only fun (and not boring) if your team comes out on top. Sadly in this instance, the Yankees prevailed 3-2.
As we walked out of the Stadium Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blared over the speakers, just as it does every time the Yankees win a home game. I kept my hands glued over my ears as drunken fans poked fingers in my face and jeered at me from every direction. “I HATE New York!” I thought to myself, determinedly.
Miraculously, my car was still intact. Dave hopped into the front seat to guide my boyfriend toward his parents’ apartment on the Upper West Side, where we’d be spending the night. As we crawled through Harlem in the postgame traffic, I remember seeing cops slam a young man onto the pavement and handcuff him as he howled with pain. I still remember the thud of his body on the sidewalk; I’d never heard anything like it, and was suddenly gripped with terror. “That’s pleasant,” Dave mumbled sarcastically as he slowly rolled the window back up.
When we got to Dave’s parents’ place we were exhausted and pretty much crashed. We might have been the only 19 year-olds who went to the game that night and didn’t take a sip of beer.
In the morning I was the first to wake up and wandered out to the kitchen, where Dave’s mom had laid out some bagels (of course! The world’s best!) and was making coffee. I’d met her briefly the night before, but knew only that she and Dave’s dad were classic Upper West Side liberals, and I had a feeling he’d inherited his fieriness from them. I wanted to be on my best behavior as we made polite chatter.
“Andover? Hmmm,” Dave’s mom said when I proudly told her where I’d gone to high school. “My brother went there. He was hazed by George W. Bush.”
Ok then. Disdain didn’t just drip from her words, it gushed.
A little while later everyone else joined us. “Mom, this guy’s a REPUBLICAN!” Dave cackled as he gestured toward my boyfriend, who was still wiping the sands of sleepiness from his eyes. I forget exactly how the conversation devolved from there, but suffice to say, we should have prepped with debate notes before meeting Dave’s parents. They were tough New Yorkers in every sense of the word. “I think they hated me,” my boyfriend whispered, a bit shell-shocked, after we exited their apartment. “We’ll just have to write them really, really good thank-you notes,” I answered. I’m of the firm belief that thank-you notes solve everything.
Someone needed to be back in Ithaca that night, but we spent the next few hours wandering the city on what turned out to be a glorious late summer day. It was reminiscent of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or something: we went to brunch on Broadway, we stocked up on bagels at H&H, we rode in a yellow taxi, and we meandered through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We laughed our way loudly through all of it, as only obnoxious 19 year-old college students could. As we drove up the Hudson River Parkway a bit later on our way out and I saw the city skyline in the rearview mirror, I had to admit to myself, I don’t hate New York.
A couple days later, I woke up to drive two friends to an 8:30am class they had on the far side of campus (about a 45-minute walk, which truly sucked given Ithaca’s hilly terrain). Since my next class on Tuesdays wasn’t till 12:15, and because I am not at all a morning person, I’d drop them off while still in my pajamas then climb back into bed to sleep a few more hours. I liked to listen to classical music on the local NPR station as I fell back asleep.
“An airplane has just crashed into the side of the World Trade Center in Downtown Manhattan,” the newsreader said nonchalantly in her typically-woozy voice (so NPR!). “Hmmm,” I thought as I drifted off to sleep. It must have been a dream.
I don’t remember what woke me up; whether it was my mother calling me frantically – “I just want to make sure, you’re not still in New York City, right?!” – or my housemate whose South Carolina accent always seemed to reverberate off all the walls, particularly when she was in a panic. It might have been another housemate knocking on my door to let me know that someone from Time Warner had finally arrived to install our cable and Internet. The two of us stood in the living room in our pajamas, dazed, as the cable guy activated the TV. It was still scrambled, but we could hear the frantic reports from CNN. There had been a second plane. One of the towers was falling. The Pentagon was on fire. Who was responsible for this? Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it didn’t seem real, particularly when juxtaposed with everyday crap like cable installation.
That day happened to be the first session of a kickboxing class that I’d signed up for and, knowing attendance counted and unsure of what I was supposed to do or what in the hell was really going on, I decided it would be good to head up to campus. Things were so quiet. The sky was so, so blue. Like, the kind of blue that you only see in Ithaca about four days a year. As I walked to the gym I found myself behind two old professors (they had white hair and were wearing tweed jackets, so I have to assume that’s who they were). Feeling they’d be much wiser and better informed than me, I strained to eavesdrop.
“This could be worse than Pearl Harbor” was all that I heard. Fuck. Seriously, that’s all I could think. Just fuck.
I made it to the kickboxing class, where about 100 of us distractedly kicked and punched our way through the cardio while glancing around nervously. Were there more planes coming upstate? Would someone run in to announce if something else happened? Deciding to ditch my other class, I headed home to watch more CNN.
The rest of September 11, 2001 passed by in a blur. I hugged my boyfriend tightly as we watched the news in his dorm room with his roommate and his girlfriend. “Box cutters!” his roommate, a slightly nerdy engineer, kept exclaiming. “How could they do all of this with a few freaking box cutters?!” He was used to finding a logical solution to everything. There wasn’t one here.
Later on we were sitting in my kitchen when Dave, who lived next door, walked through with my roommate. “Bomb the bastards!” Dave the bleeding heart liberal, the Jewish free Palestine activist, but most of all, the New Yorker, bellowed. Looking back, I’m still not sure if he was being sarcastic and mocking Bush per usual. If ever there was a day when I think he meant it, it was then.
There was more bad news in the days to come. Two of the hijacked planes had come from Boston. Friends lost co-workers and other friends. I didn’t know them, but just two degrees of separation somehow suddenly made it seem more real. A couple days later a high school friend IMed to let me know that the sister of another high school friend was missing. She was 25, and worked in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center. The friend and I had started to fall out of touch when we went off to college, but a few days later I received a phone call letting me know that my presence and support would be appreciated at the memorial service for her sister, whom I’d met a couple times over the years. She’d gone to Yale and had always seemed like one of those super-cool, smart people to whom everything came easily and naturally. My friend, who was in turn a lot cooler than me, idolized her.
And so, 10 days after we visited New York for a madcap night of baseball, my boyfriend and I found ourselves heading down Route 17 once more. Things were grayer. I felt 10 years older. We didn’t listen to any music. We spent Monday night with a family friend in Westchester, then took a train into the city for the memorial service on Tuesday morning. It was pouring rain. The air smelled terrible — even worse than it normally does when it rains in New York City and everything smells like hot garbage. Although we were in Midtown, we could still see the smoke hanging over Lower Manhattan.
I met up with a bunch of high school friends in a Starbucks before the service. I remember being slightly delighted to be able to get a mocha frappucino, as back then Ithaca was still devoid of any chain other than McDonald’s and a Gap (a point which I despised). One of my best friends, Casey, came into the Starbucks and we hugged for about five minutes. It felt good to see someone old and familiar. We held hands throughout the service. When our friend came down the aisle with her father and her mother, who was weeping, she winked at us.
I felt like such an interloper being there; I hadn’t known this victim well and didn’t feel like I had the same right to grieve as her family, her fiancé and her many adoring friends. I was utterly floored by the people who gave readings. One was a co-worker who sat at the desk next to hers, but happened to be late to work that day.
Another was a college friend, whose father had been on one of the hijacked planes. I don’t deserve to grieve, I thought, when these people have suffered such a devastating personal loss.
To this day part of me still feels guilty about being there; honestly I think as a 19 year-old part of me was just curious about what the city would be like. And, because I was an immature 19 year-old, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to my friend, or to her parents.
Because what do you say to someone who’s not only suffered a tragic and horrible personal loss, but done so within the framework of one of the most horrific events in our nation’s history? I know there’s no right answer, but I was terrified to even try. I tried to make eye contact and convey support with glances, but I’m pretty sure I failed miserably. I told myself I’d write them a note, because I can always express myself better in writing than speaking, and yet as the days and months and even years passed I simply never found the words.
Trite as it may be, I feel like we all lost some kind of innocence on September 11. I think of it as the first time I truly felt burdened by the onus of adulthood. Whenever something horrible had happened before (and some truly horrible things did happen in high school), my parents had always dropped everything and come to me. Now, six hours away in upstate New York and amongst friends from all over the country, I knew this was something I had to handle and process on my own.
It’s not like September 11 is constantly on my mind, but living in New York it was often hard to avoid. Between the “If you see something, say something” posters and announcements that permeate the subways (hilariously echoed by Singapore’s overly paranoid, “If you see something, REPORT IT!” campaign), to the omnipresence of policemen, to the painful, shoeless security lines at JFK and LaGuardia (and pretty much every airport in the US), you just think about it a lot.
My husband used to work around the corner from Ground Zero in the Financial District, where they were given emergency preparedness kits that included gas masks (but no parachute, wtf?). Incidentally, he’s the college boyfriend I referred to earlier. We hadn’t been dating for very long at that point. I wouldn’t say that September 11 brought us closer together, but I do think going through such an unthinkable tragedy at such a young age created some sort of unique bond. I mean, love is a crazy rollercoaster at the best of times when you’re 19. When you truly feel like the world could end at any moment, all bets are off.
I’ve of course thought a lot about September 11 in recent weeks. New York Magazine has rolled out a really impressive package of stories and I highly recommend checking it out. Being the pop culture dork that I am, Emily Nussbaum’s article about how Sex and the City responded to 9/11 really resonated with me. I remember watching the oh-so-sad Season 4 finale and being terrified that Mr. Big would die in one of the planes bound for California. I had no idea they’d filmed it all before September 11.
As I’ve written before, living abroad you think a lot more about what it means to be American than you ever do at home. We miss certain things, we sometimes cringe at how some Americans behave (and in turn how we are all perceived). I’m not sure how I’ll feel on September 11 itself (never mind the fact that it will mostly be September 12 here). I’m still filled with so much sadness, and I’m not sure if anything’s much changed or improved in the last 10 years.
I’m hardly the first person to state this, but I feel like political discourse has devolved into a shouting match of absurdities. It’s not about cooperating and compromising to help the maximum amount of people, it’s about who can make the other side look worse. I am utterly disgusted by the number of morons who have risen to prominence in American politics; how can people not realize that they’re just going to fuck up our international reputation even further?
Flying domestically certainly sucks, and I can’t see that improving any time soon. I’ve always had an over-active imagination, and I don’t think I’ll ever get on a plane or subway, or ride to the top of a super-tall building again without imagining the worst.
We’re all a bit wiser and more introspective, I suppose. We’ve experienced the darkest of days and so have a gauge against which we can measure other terrible times. If we can move on and survive that, we can move on from anything, right?
I guess I’ve personally just come to associate September 11 with grief and loss. (Brilliantly profound, I know). I just keep seeing myself as the carefree 19 year-old bopping around New York on September 8, when the scariest thing I could imagine was parking my car in the South Bronx. That sunny Saturday New York had such a joy and lightness about it. On the one hand I’m glad I experienced it one last time. On the other, I feel like I took it for granted. Like I took so much for granted that I can never get back.
At Berkeley I had friends from Israel and Iraq who could identify different types of bombs just by the noises they made. In Laos and Vietnam and Cambodia I saw landmine markers and unexploded ordnance. The terror we felt on September 11 may have seemed unique to the U.S., but can we say our country hasn’t visited similar terrors upon others? It was a shocking and horrible lesson to learn, but in a way I guess it gave us something to share with so many other countries. It also showed us how precious our freedom and way of life really is. Or was. I don’t know.
September 11 happened before I’d had a chance to send Dave’s parents a thank-you note for hosting us at their apartment on the Upper West Side. For quite a while I didn’t know what to write to them, because again, what do you say to New Yorkers who love their city so much and have lived through something so unimaginably awful? By about November or so, my manners got the best of me and I felt compelled to write. I think I said something about the city rebuilding, about how we were all united now and somehow rooting for the Red Sox or the Yankees didn’t matter so much anymore. It came from the heart, but it felt like a card full of clichés. Dave told me they loved it, though. His Mom said all our faults (me being a New England preppie, my boyfriend being a Republican) were forgiven and we could visit their country house in Woodstock anytime. It was the first time I was able to laugh in quite a while.
I’d now like to thank you, readers. Or, the one or two of you who have managed to make it to the end. Everyone has their “where were you when 9/11 happened?” story; thanks for letting me share mine. I couldn’t tell you what I had for lunch yesterday, yet 10 years later certain moments from that day and the days leading up to it are crystallized in my mind. It feels good to put them to paper.
I’ll leave you with one last piece of 2001 nostalgia: Jon Stewart’s opening Daily Show monologue from their first show back, on September 20 (I’m unable to embed the video, so click here or click on the photo below). When I was in college, we watched him religiously every night; if it wasn’t for Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, I’m not sure any of us could have survived the 2000 presidential election. He always had the perfect snarky comment. I remember him coming to Ithaca to do stand-up in the spring of 2001 and calling George W. Bush “a retarded cowboy.” So when the Daily Show came back, we wanted to know how he’d manage to make us laugh, how he’d cleverly lampoon Osama Bin Laden or Donald Rumsfeld.
There was plenty of that to come, but Stewart’s opening monologue is heartbreakingly earnest and honest and apt. He talks about “the difference between closed and open” (incredible to think about in the context of now living in Singapore). He discusses the difference between free and burdened. He tells us, “This is why I grieve but why I don’t despair.” He assures us chaos can’t sustain itself. After the show aired we talked about it for days. This was pre-YouTube, so it was pure word of mouth adulation. To this day this monologue still gives me goosebumps. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch it and not cry. I love the United States. I am proud and lucky to be an American. I’m humbled and moved by the bravery shown by our citizens that day and every day since. And I still have hope that things will get better.
A few other interesting links:
The Berkeley Blog: “Our insistence on recalling 9/11 is one symptom of our failure to recognize what it meant and therefore to devise a way to prevent future acts of a similar kind.”
The Onion: “Nation Would Rather Think About 9/11 than Anything from Subsequent 10 Years” (ha)