Can’t

Maybe I’ve tried too hard not to remember that today is September 11th.  Someone mentioned it yesterday in a meeting; we were scheduling something, and she said, “Oh yeah, can’t forget what tomorrow is”, and my first thought was, “Friday?”  (It’s been a long 4-day week, getting back into the school routine.)  But an instant later, I remembered. 

My problem is empathy.  I can drive myself crazy sometimes, envisioning what other people’s experiences are like.  It works for me as a writer, but sometimes when I see horrific events like 9/11, it’s the kind of thing that could drive me up a tree, never to return.  Especially in this day and age, when everything’s on video, it’s easy slip into my imagination and hear the sickening sound of bodies jumping from the 90th floor, landing on the pavement on Liberty Street or Church Street.  It doesn’t take much to feel the gritty soot on my skin and smell the sting of jet fuel and watch the papers fluttering all over lower Manhattan and feel the weight on my chest as I try to breathe air that isn’t really air anymore.

It doesn’t help that I used to work there.  For nearly 2 years, I looked out a window on the 53rd floor.  I had a fantastic view of NY Harbor and Staten Island’s north shore.  (Which happened to be my home.)  In May I could watch the big ships sailing up the Hudson for Fleet Week.  I’ll never forget asking my boss if I could take an early lunch so I could run to the World Financial Center on the west side and grab a quick picture with my Kodak Disk camera as the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy sailed up the river.  It took two shots to get the whole thing, that monster was so huge. 

We’d watch the tiny yachts sailing around Liberty Island, or laugh as the tourists took pictures as they ferried from Battery Park to Ellis Island to the Statue of Liberty.  The Woolworth in the concourse shopping center was my favorite place, especially when they stocked yarn, but I could just wander around in there browsing for an hour.  Mrs. Fields cookies was a staple in my diet.  For the first few years I’d go there for a chocolate chip muffin, which I’d take up to my office to eat.  One of the ladies in my department asked about them and I raved, so I made a habit of getting her a pumpkin muffin, too.  I never tried the coffee; now that I like coffee, I wish I had. 

It feels so odd to think there’s now a hole in the world where I used to make my life.  All those documents I signed and stored in the file room are now so much ash and dust, crumpled in Fresh Kills landfill.  The people I knew there have scattered to the wind, too.  Some I’ve caught up with, others are gone.  My brother and I, with our respective partners, went back there in January 2002, and we immediately knew the place was haunted.  Walking up Greenwich Street to work used to be like walking a wind tunnel, particularly in the winter, but as we walked up that January, it was eerily calm, no breeze at all.  The area was walled off and the line to overlook Ground Zero was tremendous, and I’m not sure we really wanted to look anyway.  It’d be like looking at the gaping wound where a body part used to be, one you knew wasn’t coming back no matter how hard you wished for it.  Still, every time I cross the Goethals Bridge into Staten Island, I look to the NY skyline and know, something’s missing.  That phantom pain never goes away.

Eight years ago today it was an absolutely beautiful day.  (Which only makes it that much more ironic that here in SE PA, it’s raining cats and dogs.  The Universe is crying too.)  It was probably around 70 degrees, sunny, crystal blue sky, and I thought, “I haven’t seen a day this gorgeous in all my life.”  I sat down at work and my then-boyfriend (now husband) emailed me saying he’d heard a plane had just crashed into the Trade Center, and I thought, “Well geez, how much damage could a Piper Cub do?”  It had happened before by accident, but the building came out okay.  Then we heard about the second plane.  For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine why two small planes would hit the towers.  It never dawned on me that someone would even think to do this.  We started filing into the cafeteria to watch CNN because all the online news sources were overloaded, and reality started to sink in.  I’ll never forget crying my eyes out, thinking about all the people I knew there who might still be there.  When I saw a diagram of where the planes made contact—so incredibly eerie, watching video of the planes just disappearing into concrete and steel—the 2nd plane hit the “south tower” (aka, Tower 2), the tip of the starboard wing went directly through the window I used to look out of every morning.  My department had moved from the 53rd floor to the 49th floor by then, but still, there were people I knew in that building at the time.  (Candace Hurley, if you’re out there, email me, please.)

We heard about the plane hitting in DC—my friend Hope Ramsay has an amazing story to tell about her experiences there on 9/11—and then a lady I worked with was concerned because she’d heard another plane was headed for Pennsylvania.  We thought maybe they’d be targeting historical sites, but my co-worker’s concern was that we’re a technology company; maybe they’d target us.  We’re not that important.  😉 

My sister went down to Richmond Terrace on Staten Island to take pictures, and I think she was there right about the time the towers started to come down.  I remember seeing it on TV and thinking, “No!  That’s not possible!  They’ll stay up; they HAVE to!”  But no amount of wishing was going to change what we were watching live on TV.  To this day, I still harbor this tiny hint of denial that they really should still be there.

I’ll also never forget how, 3 days earlier, on September 8th, I left my VFRW meeting and went home to Southampton, PA.  I did some shopping at Ames on Street Road and standing in line at the checkout, we all heard the roar of jet engines overhead as the Willow Grove Air Show went on.  John and I met on Township Line Road to watch the goings on as the Blue Angels ripped through the skies, performing the most amazing aerial maneuvers.  It was, very literally, an awesome sight to see, and I can’t forget telling John, “What must it be like to have to live with this kind of thing on a daily basis?  I’m so glad that’s not going on here.  How on earth would any country in the world dare to come after us when we have this much power?  Shouldn’t this scare anybody into being afraid of us?  ”  Three days later, I was proven wrong. 

Eight years have passed, and it’s like nothing has changed.  The feelings are very nearly as raw as they were then.  I still remember the first baseball game after 9/11, and crying my eyes out when that eagle soared around Yankee Stadium.  (One of the few times I’ll ever give W credit for a class act.)  I cried a lot that week.  The boys were little so I doubt they understood why Mom was catatonic in front of the TV every night, watching the towers come down over and over and over.  When the TV news stopped showing it, my mind took over, and it hasn’t stopped since.  There but for the grace of God could’ve been me. 

There’s a Darryl Worley song with the words, “Have you forgotten?”  No, Darryl, I haven’t, and I can’t.  I want to, but I can’t.

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2 thoughts on “Can’t

    1. Actually, what I found remarkable was that after 9/11, my brother (who lives in Albuquerque) said people around him weren’t as interested in what was going on. They said, “Oh, that’s in New York. It doesn’t affect us.” But my brother used to work in the commodities exchange in the lower floors of the Trade Center, and it affected the crap out of him. Little did some of those folks realize, that minor event in New York was going to affect all of us.

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