I have been posting at this space for just short of the last two years, and had been working in long hand for a few months before that. In all that time I have written not more than a few tangential words (You Had To Be There) about the events of September 11th, 2001. No reason. Which makes it all the odder still. The attack on the World Trade Center is, in my mind, the seminal historical moment of my adult life, and had an impact that changed me in ways that were substantial, if somewhat slow in developing. Although I was not actually at the site, that endless day and the ensuing months were really the beginning of a different path for me. With all that being the case I’d have bet anyone any amount two years ago that I would have tackled the subject on more than one occasion by now. If I had known in advance that I would remain mute (so to speak) on the subject I would have been certain that there would be a definitive reason for my inaction. It just happened. Or, I guess, didn’t. That said I’m pretty confident I know what compelled me to write about it now.
Both my wife and I were home on September 11th this year. Each of us had household and work related tasks to attend to, but the television was on, and so both apart and together, we took a moment here and there to listen to the families of the victims read out the names of the dead. Beginning at the time the first plane hit, 8:46 A.M., the list, which comes in at just short of three thousand names, took hours to get through. Hearing pieces of that tragic litany while sitting next to her put me in a reflective mood. I spent a fair amount of the next few days thinking back to that Tuesday morning eighteen years ago.
Whenever I recall the events in question, my first thought is always of the stunning weather that day. For those of you who live in, or around New York City no description or explanation is necessary. If you live somewhere else, the best (if inadequate) description I can offer is this: it was simply perfect. Cool enough to be crisp but not cold. A clear, sun lit sky. That may sound pedestrian to you but for a lifelong denizen of Brooklyn it was that far too rare “just right” day that we’re lucky to see a dozen times a year. In countless conversations since, with a broad variety of people, I’ve found out that I’m not unique in this particular memory. Driving to work with the windows open was the last time things felt normal for weeks to come. At 8:45 I was listening to the entertaining obnoxia of Howard Stern, enjoying the wind in my hair. And then things changed. It didn’t take very long. Listening to the radio, I heard a report of the first tower being hit and thought of it as a horrible accident. I was still in the car when the second plane struck, and there was no way to be confused after that. Not long after I’d parked my car and made my way into the office, the Pentagon was hit.
The miseries of the rest of the day have been documented at great length, and weren’t any different for me than they were for anyone else that lived through it, without actually being there or having someone lost in the rubble. The hours passed, the horror grew. The practice I worked for had a full schedule that day with only one cancellation that I can recall. The gap occurred just in time for me to walk across the hallway to one of the offices that had a television in it’s waiting room and watch the North Tower collapse. The rest of the day was busy enough to keep me from obsessing too badly over all that had happened. Going home that evening was a different story.
I left work a few minutes after 5:00 and joined a sea of humanity idling in cars that were not appreciably moving. There were no roads open headed back towards my apartment in Marine Park, Brooklyn, and so I slogged my way towards the south shore of Long Island. A couple I was friendly with lived there, and knowing of my predicament they gave me a place to wait out the worst of it. What should have been a thirty minute trip took more than an hour and a half, providing me ample time to listen to the radio and begin to take in so many of the details I had missed during the day. The immensity of the loss this nation had suffered was quantified for me, somehow making things feel more surreal as they became more concrete. After spending a few hours with my friends I finally began to drive home, leaving their house at close to eleven. On the road I had the deep sadness inside of me turn to genuine fear.
I was unsurprised by silence of the streets as I set out. It had been an endless day and anyone who could get home had done so. I found myself on the highway soon enough and had been driving for a while when it hit me. I was alone. Completely. Traffic was not light. It was not a case of there being a few stragglers left. I had been on that particular road (the Belt Parkway) thousands of times before at every conceivable hour of the day and night, and had never had a stretch of more than five minutes where I was the only vehicle in sight. By the time I’d come to that realization, I must have been driving for at least four times the above mentioned period. I began to wonder if I hadn’t somehow accidentally gained access to a road I didn’t belong on. With a few miles before the next exit I had the opportunity to imagine my life coming to an end courtesy of a Hellfire missile or some other lethal greeting from an Apache helicopter dispatched to eliminate the threat that I imagined I appeared to be.
A few minutes later I was breathing deeply and locking my car door. I walked across the front lawn of the house that my apartment was located in. As I fished through my pockets for my keys something caught my eye. The grass I was walking on seemed to be covered in litter. I picked up a piece and held it under the porch light. Although I lived more than nine miles from the lower end of Manhattan, the ground was carpeted in burnt paper and chards of glass from the explosion that morning. Almost two decades later it is that memory that best encapsulates the day for me. Those people, the buildings, and everything in them reduced to not much more than ash, borne by the vagaries of the wind to my front door. And then I went inside, thinking that having no one to share it with was nothing compared to what so many were suffering through all around me. In the weeks that followed I reflected quite a bit on that night, grateful to be spared the agony of losing a loved one, but unavoidably aware that my unscathed state spoke as much to my fairly isolated life as anything else. I tried to reach out to the people in my life only to find that I was a little more on my own than I had realized. My married friends were, for the most part busy with their own families. What took me a bit by surprise was the distance many of my single friends displayed. When I point to a moment in my life that brought me to where I am today, the autumn of 2001 was definitely a time of taking stock for me. It took a few years going forward to meet the woman who became my wife and become a part of a family with her and her children, but I think I started looking for her not long after the wind changed direction and blew the remains of that terrible day out of sight if not mind.