I’ve been trying to unpack this day for years. I’ve never written about it. I’ve been too afraid, but here’s where I’m at today…
That day I awoke to a ringing phone, which I ignored. When my machine picked up I heard Tom’s voice.
“Call me when you get this.”
God I hate cryptic messages. And right before my alarm was going to go off. I’ll never get those ten minutes back. My first day back from vacation and it’s already starting.
I laid there with my eyes open until 1010 WINS clicked on with my radio alarm.
“Suspected terrorist attack.”
I slapped the radio off, news about some crap in the middle east was not what I needed that morning. I needed coffee, so I could deal with going back to work after a ten day break.
We got out of bed, I got some juice and Yves started the coffee. We’d been living together on West End Ave for a little over two years. The commute to Times Square was a breeze and my 11am start time made my job at the studio a 20-something’s dream. I could play gigs or hang out at clubs every night and still get to work on time (or close to it). It was perfect for a budding rock star.
I figured I’d better dial Tom to see what was up. I’d rather know now. There was probably a last minute session. He needed me to get milk or some shit.
He answered. “Good, you’re ok.”
It didn’t even register that he was concerned for my safety. “I’ll be in at 11, what do you need?”
“Did you just get up? Turn on the TV.”
I found the remote and turned on my TV, it automatically tuned in to NY1.
That’s when I saw it for the first time. Both towers. Smoking. Burning. Horribly wounded. All I could think was, that’s going to be a bitch to fix. I was half listening to Tom explain what had happened and half listening to that guy with the hair that used to read us the paper on TV. Words were scrolling across the bottom of the screen where the image of the burning towers occupied one half and a replay of the planes flying into them played on the other. It was absolutely the most shocking thing I had ever seen and it was happening just a few miles down the road.
I don’t remember the rest of my phone conversation, but when we hung up I said, “I’ll see you at work later.”
I stared at the television. I thought of the people in the planes. Things were taking forever to register in my brain. The fact that those buildings were full of people, there were people on the ground, there were people everywhere; it’s New York. It all came into my consciousness slowly as I took in the visual.
The flight information got inside me somehow. Did someone tell me? Was it the news ticker? I don’t know. I heard “Logan Airport”. In my haze of disbelief and horror I remembered that my mother was supposed to fly to Boston for a meeting that day. She’d be on an early shuttle. Panic welled up in me.
I think I called her then, I don’t know, but I found out she was ok. She had been at LaGuardia when the planes hit. Her boyfriend came to get her. She was on her way back to Long Island. She could see the buildings from the car. Burning.
Yves and I sat on the couch, watching the smoke rising from the towers. Voraciously consuming any information they would give. Flipping from channel to channel, as if NBC would know more than CBS or CNN or NY1.
They all showed the same live feed. The billowing smoke highlighted by a clear bright blue sky. It was a perfect late summer morning. Things were falling from the windows. Papers, debris, human beings.
As we flipped, eager for answers, who, why, how, false reports of more attacks came in with the true reports from DC and Pennsylvania. We knew we were witnessing an unprecedented event, we knew we were under attack. We didn’t know what to expect. Were we safe in the city? And then…
The split screen in front of us filled with a single image. The south tower was crumbling. I was frozen, on my sofa, in my living room. All I could do was watch, horrified as a piece of the skyline collapsed. There hadn’t been enough time to get people out, had there? The people. There were real people in there. Trapped. And now they were gone. And all I could do was sit there.
As the dust began to settle, what we knew we had just witnessed was reconfirmed. The tower was gone. I still couldn’t quite process it. Thinking, won’t it be weird, one twin left without the other.
There wasn’t time to grasp what had just happened. Threats – imagined or otherwise – poured over the airwaves. Don’t take the subway. Leave Manhattan. Stay put. Bridges and tunnels closed to traffic. The event was so large, so dramatic, that the human factor didn’t resonate immediately. To this day, I feel that guilt. The guilt of forgetting them in the panic over our own safety. The guilt of thinking about material things, the buildings, my city, my home and my way of life. The guilt of having been asleep when they attacked.
We stayed glued to the television. Hoping for answers, or a miracle, until the north tower fell, leaving a whole in the skyline. It felt like hours, but it had all happened so fast. Had it been a normal day, I wouldn’t even have been at my desk yet.
I remember Mayor Guiliani. He was strong and comforting, like a father. Or a general. He made me feel safer, though I’m not sure how. In that moment he was a true leader.
We had no idea how many people had perished. How many people work in those buildings? How many people were in the tunnels beneath them? How many in the mall? How many nameless, faceless New Yorkers had no one to come looking for them?
Eventually, we turned the television off.
We went for a walk in Riverside Park. Like zombies. Going nowhere. Just walking. The air carried with it the smell of the fires. There were people around. It’s New York, there are always people around, but it was almost as if none of us existed. Suspended. Confused. Shell shocked.
I called my friend Wendy from the park. She was ok. We were sure there would be a war.
We resolved to give blood first thing in the morning, but by that evening they were already turning people away from the blood banks and hospitals. They didn’t need blood. There was nobody to save.
I told Yves the story of the time I walked from NYU to the plaza at the foot of the towers with my friend Jay. We lay on the concrete benches, gazing up at the towers. They appeared to spin as the sky stood still behind them. We got dizzy and laughed at how small we were. We were probably high… or drunk.
The next day the studio stayed closed.
On Thursday, I was ready to get back to normal. That was what they told us to do. As good New Yorkers, we were supposed to go about our lives to show the terrorists they didn’t win. But right before I was about to leave I got a call from the studio. There were reports of a terror threat on the subway, so I’d better just stay put. I could make calls from home.
The next week I went back to work. From midtown, the smell of the fires was stronger. They were still burning. A giant funeral pyre where there once was a landmark.
In the weeks after that day, news started trickle in from friends and family of who was lost. I knew some of them, but not well. A kid from high school was a paramedic downtown. He had been one of the first on the scene.
My birthday came and went. I taught myself how to drink straight vodka. I started walking home from work. To avoid the train? I don’t know. I called it exercise.
In early October, I went downtown to see it. Because somehow what happened wasn’t real enough. I had only seen it on TV. I thought it would help. It did not.
We all told stories of our WTC memories while we worked on our martini habit. Three or four a night. I gained twenty pounds. I felt completely powerless to help, to comfort. I had no control.
I don’t remember a whole hell of a lot about the last quarter of 2001. Martinis. Turkey. Anthrax. Christmas. Retaliation. The smell. Work vehicles heading south on West End. Sirens. Fear. Feeling like we had a bond, New Yorkers. Like we weren’t so cold.
I played my last original show in November… December? I don’t know. When I played my song, Chinatown, it took on new meaning. I later changed the lyrics. I covered Elvis Costello – Peace, Love and Understanding. I said goodnight. Then I quit. What could I possibly offer to people when nothing mattered anymore? How could anything hold meaning? What was true?
The path I’d been on on Septmeber 10th was completely obscured. In that moment my weakness was exposed to me. I more or less slept through the next few years. I tried to audition. I swore I was going to start writing again any day. In 2003, when we started the wedding band, it seemed like a good place to hide out.
I didn’t understand – or begin to understand my own experience surrounding the events of that day until years later. I was fine, right? That’s what I told myself. My loved ones were safe. What right did I have to feel any sense of loss? I never knew I was so sensitive. I’d always thought I was a badass.
At 24, my life was on a specific track. I was certain that track would lead to something extraordinary. I’m sure a lot of 24-year-olds feel that way, but I lost that feeling that day. That certainty hasn’t been revived. I’m too old for certainty now, and really what I mourn is the lost innocence. The trust. The belief. I wonder if I’ll ever get that back. Maybe it’s all just an excuse.
I haven’t been able to write about that day until now. And even this is incomplete. It’s as true as I can be at this point in time. It may be self indulgent, but sweeping it aside and pretending every year that the event is merely an historical pivot point, a day of memorial and reverence hasn’t worked. If you made it to the end, thank you for listening.