Making 9/11 All About Me*

In the last ten years I've finished university, been married and divorced, moved cities, traveled across the Pacific twice, got out of retail, got out of publishing, made and lost friends, found a great love, and chose to get sterilised. It's been a big decade.

In 2001 I was 25, living alone and in my last semester of university. My routine was as it had been for years: get up after about five hours sleep, attend one or two classes, race home and change to go to work till 11, study, five hours sleep. I didn't interact with people at school, because I never really had time. Class, work, sleep. So on September 11th I went to school as usual. I had one class that morning, so I likely woke up around 9 am, without listening to the radio or turning on the TV, just racing to school. The professor didn't mention anything. There were no scenes of people crying and being comforted. There weren't TVs in the hallways or classrooms tuned to CNN. Everything was perfectly normal. People were probably talking to each other about it, but I hadn't talked to anyone that day, other than the people serving coffee. They didn't say anything. Maybe they assumed I already knew. I had no idea.

In writing that, I think I've just come to understand the biggest mystery of my whole 9/11 story. People asked "How could you not know? How could people not have said something about it?" I think the answer is timing. By the time I left my house, and got my first coffee of the day, it was 9:30, mountain time. The towers had collapsed an hour before. It was already done, and maybe at that point it was unlikely you'd say to a stranger, "Have you heard?" Because everyone would have heard. Except, I hadn't heard.

I got home from school a little after 1 pm, 3 pm eastern time. That's when I turned on my TV. I remember this part clear as anything. The first thing I saw was some politician or another saying "America is still the greatest nation in the world." My first thought, as a Canadian used to complaining about the cultural imperialism and hubris of the United States, was Oh, these fucking Americans! And then the scene switched to footage of Tower One collapsing, Tower Two just rubble and smoke behind it. Something was very, very wrong.

What everyone already knew, I learned six hours after the fact. Was I the last person to hear about 9/11? I sat on the floor in front of the TV and watched the highlight reel, because that's what it was by that point. The second plane strike, the collapse, the people fleeing in terror. I called my then-boyfriend, later husband, who was living in New Jersey. I hadn't been out there yet, so I didn't know if where he lived was that sort of "across the river from Manhattan" New Jersey, I didn't know how widespread the attacks were, how bad the national damage was. He was fine, he told me not to worry, everything was fine. I don't remember being emotional when I called. I was too confused.

After talking to the boyfriend, I was finally able to start putting things together, and I got online. Livejournal was the preferred social network at that time, and there was a lot of material to get through. People had been posting events as they happened, and the fear and confusion of watching it all go down in real time was a live wire in every word. I had friends in Toronto who'd been evacuated from their workplace. I had Calgary friends stranded in Toronto, because all flights had been grounded. At some point I realised a Calgary friend was in New York City that day, and no one had heard from him. I'm sad to say that this is when I started crying; the possibility of my loved one caught up in it all made it real and human, finally. I suppose it may be possible that's when the shock wore off enough to let in some comprehension of the real scale of what I'd been seeing. I called work, because I was so scared for my friend, told them I couldn't leave until someone had heard from him. Work understood. And so I waited. Around 4 pm Calgary time, I learned he'd been in contact with Toronto people. He drove out of NYC that morning, before rush hour to avoid traffic, and had gotten stuck at the border trying to get back into Canada. The borders, of course, were total chaos. He'd been in the WTC the day before. He still has the ticket stub dated September 10, 2001. They'd gone a day earlier than planned.

I went to work, at the 7-11, shell-shocked, two hours late. My loved ones were accounted for, I could go on. It was a weird night. A special edition of the paper came in around 9 o'clock. Customers were infrequent, and quiet. Everyone, by now, knew. Everything was still up in the air, there were no answers yet. We were so far away from what happened, yet we had tilted a little, and it took a while to stop feeling like every day was going to change us again.

In the past couple weeks I've been obsessed with watching 9/11 coverage. I found a site that has archived the live feeds from CNN, CBC, and the BBC from that entire morning. I still have such a hard time understanding that day, because I missed so much of it. I literally slept through the events of 9/11, and it creates this need in me to fill in the missing pieces. I've seen some people talk of a memorial fatigue this week, and I get that. I, however, don't suffer from it. If anything, I require more information, more pictures, more taped phone calls.

If I remember right, it's 10:28 eastern time that Tower One collapses. I watched the five seconds of that on the CBC feed, over and over. They're saying they don't know what happened to Tower Two, because it's in the background, and then Tower One goes. You hear the entire newsroom make a sound... it's a horror movie sound. It's the sound of a heart and a brain breaking into pieces simultaneously. I wasn't there for it, so I needed to feel it, repeatedly. I don't know what that's about.

I was in NYC last month. The PATH train I took in from Jersey City lets out at WTC. On a day I spent alone, just wandering Manhattan, I spent some time at St. Paul's. Hard to imagine how it escaped damage, let alone total destruction, being just feet from Ground Zero. That whole block, even on that sunny day ten years later, full of tourists and citizens going about their day as normal, is a heavy place. I took pictures of Revolutionary era gravestones, while America's involuntary mass burial ground sat behind construction-boards in front of me. Heavy, yet peaceful. In that place, in those moments, all I could feel was hope that peace had come for all those souls, and the ones who loved them.

I'm sure, though, I'm not alone when I say that I still don't understand any of it.

Photo: James Nachtwey, Time.

*This post isn't about the politics of 9/11, the aftermath, or the reasons why. This is just a personal reflection on that day. It's my answer to "where were you when?"


justalillost said...

A friend of mine, who lives in NYC (but up by the 70-something street) said that she heard, and went out to get lunch and even everyone at the deli there acted like they hadn't heard.. She kept wanting to ask someone if they had heard, and was shocked nobody was reacting, when it was happening just south of them in the same city.

I agree, I can't stop watching the memorials. It still evokes a gut-wrenching emotion at hearing the stories, the phone calls.. seeing the images. That 2nd plane going in still gives me a sense of disbelief.

My BF used to go to school by Pearson and had heard what happened but was still stunned at how quiet it was because all the flights were grounded.

justalillost said...

Also, when we went to NYC last year, we also sat at St. Paul's Chapel too.. it's incredible how unscathed it was.. completely withstanding the attacks right across the street.
So sad and sombre inside with all the memorials and gifts that had been tied to the fences...

Panic said...

St Paul's is so amazing. I'm really glad I accidentally wandered over there. I lit a candle for all the folks there.