On the morning of 9/11/2001 I was headed in to work in midtown Manhattan. I was late. My train was constantly getting re-routed as they built a new line, which always made me late. Also, I hated my job. So when the first plane hit I was on the subway, reading the novel Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. I'd never read it in school and I was bored stiff with my life so I wanted a fictional world completely different than my own to escape to. Just as I was reading about Becky Sharp tossing Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of Modern Life out of her coach the first plane crashed into Tower One: These two unrelated images became tangled up in my head. I never did finish the book. Every time I looked at it in the weeks after it made me queasy so I returned it to the library unread.
I exited the subway and walked toward my office while all around me business guys were looking at their phones, which had suddenly stopped working. They were like puppets with cut strings, blinking at their phones and looking quizzically at one another. I walked through a cloud of them who had begun to ask each other what was happening. A man rushing in the opposite direction muttered something about the towers in explanation and kept going. No one understood because none of us had heard yet. Fire trucks full of firemen who would be among the dead before the morning was over went screaming past me.
I got to work and a guy from another department was at my desk, covering the main phones. I said, "Geez... what, is the world ending?" and he looked at me. "A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center," he said. We all still thought it was an accident. "Was anyone hurt?" still seemed like a reasonable question.
But when the second plane hit we knew.
I was working at a private foundation and we all crowded into the conference room to listen to a fancy Bose radio the VP brought from his office and set in the center of the table. (The sound quality on those things is really amazing...These are the things you remember, like the weird details in a dream) We were listening to a reporter who was live on the scene, trying to make sense of the confusion in a shaky but determined voice. We were completely silent.
And then the reporter screamed as Tower One collapsed on itself.
There was a meeting of the Board of Directors scheduled for that day and most of the board was in the wind, caught in the chaos of re-routed traffic. The staff scrambled as we tried to reach everyone and the Executive Director, a medical doctor, announced quietly that she had to head toward the World Trade Center (it wasn't called Ground Zero yet) to offer her help.
I got frantic emails from my ex and my brother demanding to know that I was alive. I responded but soon the server was overwhelmed and useless. The phone lines were jammed so I couldn't call my family long distance. Instead I called my friend Spiff in Harlem and asked him to try and reach them for me. When he talked to my aunt he told her his name was Steve.
Tower Two fell.
As we were standing there trying to understand what was happening our computers began bleeping with calendar overdue reminder messages... we were supposed to be at the restaurant Windows on the World at the top of Tower One for an office celebration. It was rescheduled at the last minute to accommodate the Board Meeting. The change was so recent it was still on the calendar. The HR director just pointed at the screen and we knew: It was blind luck that we weren't all dead.
When the first plane hit the people who worked in the restaurant were killed instantly. Yet the professional 9/11 mourners never talk about those people. They only ever mention the police and firemen who died--"our heroes," they always say. So I would like to ask, what about the busboys? The servers? What about the guys who worked in the kitchen? For that matter, what about the secretaries throughout the building? The janitors? What about me and the other grunts from my office who would have been there early to set up, just in time to be incinerated by the first plane?
Their work was invisible while they were alive and once the narrative became politicized they were forgotten. And if I had been in Windows on the World I would be dead and, aside from the people who love me, I would be forgotten too. There isn't much political capital to be gained in remembering the people who hated their jobs. The ones who fetched coffee and cleaned up. The entire point of their (our) lives is that they (we) weren't heroes. We were all just going to work that day.
There's a lot more to tell and the rest comes in flashes:
Fleeing Manhattan across the 59th St. Bridge a woman from my office slipped her hand into mine and awestruck we watched the massive plume of smoke, heavy with incinerated building materials and bodily remains, just hanging there obscenely in space.
The crazy blueness of the sky (the weather was so beautiful that day...).
Thousands of New Yorkers trudging along, stunned and quiet as planes zig-zagged overhead.
Women carrying high heels crowded into sporting goods stores to buy sneakers. A business guy in a suit whizzed by on a newly purchased bike.
The people with little cups of water at the other end of the bridge and every so often for the dozens of blocks I walked until I found a working subway.
Standing in the laundromat the following night and meeting eyes with a woman from my neighborhood who just shook her head.
The moment when local, New York news morphed into national news.
The moment when the solemn tenderness that suffused the city became became edged with race-hatred.
Shaving off my beard and lying to the VP with the fancy radio when he asked if it was because I was scared.
The Cuban guy in my office who got jumped because they thought he was an Arab.
The veiled women in my neighborhood who disappeared inside for months.
Hearing people discuss killing people like me and my family openly on the street, in restaurants, hallways, the subway.
Wondering aloud, "if they come for me, will anybody speak up?"
When media personalities like Sarah Palin, who is hosting a big 9/11 mourn-off with Glenn Beck in Alaska, use our grief for political ends it turns my head inside out. Not that the Democrats are any better. But unlike 99% of the people on TV talking about 9/11 today I lived through it. And here's the thing the professional scab-pickers do not seem to understand: No one who was really there wants to see it over and over on TV with scary music playing behind it. If I really wanted to see it again I could just close my eyes, it is right there. So, Republicans, Democrats and independents of all stripes, think twice before you rub yourself in the ashes of the dead. Were you here? Forget seeing it on TV... did you smell it? No? Then shut the fuck up immediately. Go about your business, it didn't happen to you. 9/11 is not yours.
It happened to New York City.
It happened to me.
And this year, I am taking it back.