Ten Years Ago
Everyone remembers where they were. We asked readers and contributors to share their stories
Published: September 7, 2011
Our country has been at war for nearly a decade, but the amorphous fronts of Afghanistan, then Iraq, and now Afghanistan again are so distant, and not just physically. Ongoing American military action, as costly as it has been, has created little noticeable effect in the daily lives of many Americans. In another sense, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have torn the country apart, violating our (ultimately false) sense of security and stoking our worst natures as well as our best. It wasn’t long after the attacks before people could make jokes about, “If ______, then the terrorists have won.” Osama bin Laden is dead now, from an American bullet, but in a very real sense the GWOT is still his to lose.
One of the most potent feelings of that first day, and the days immediately afterward, was the sense that we had been united, been transformed by the horrific events. Before long, though, the cable channels were back to Oprah and fishing shows and so much of life returned to normal that that feeling ebbed away.
But at this most fractious juncture in our country’s history, we still have that terrible morning in common. As the 10th anniversary drew near, we asked City Paper readers and contributors, “Where were you?”
I was at home, getting ready for work, when I heard about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. I thought, Oh, it’s like 1945, when a military plane hit the Empire State Building. What an awful accident. Then I heard a second plane had hit the World Trade Center and that neither crash was an accident. I got to work [at WBJC-FM] as fast as I could, and that was an absolutely surreal day to be on the air. We stayed with music programming, but kept listeners up-to-date on breaking news, all of it so sad. We also set up a TV in the lobby and watched the ongoing coverage in complete horror. My boyfriend (now husband) was supposed to drive down to D.C. for a meeting, but fortunately, he heard the news before getting into the car.
Oddly enough, I’d been in New York the previous weekend with a friend and one of the subway stops we got off at was in the basement of the World Trade Center. A very nice security guard gave us directions . . . I hope the following Tuesday was his day off. I have no way of knowing.
My husband, my 5-month-old son, and I had arrived in Rehoboth Beach the evening before. We woke and got ready to go eat some breakfast. We walked up Rehoboth Avenue and into a restaurant with large televisions above the bar. I couldn’t understand why so many people were standing just inside the door, with their gazes lifted to the TV. Then I saw the image of the plane striking the second tower. I couldn’t grasp what I was seeing. Everyone was quiet and no one seemed to breathe. We stood there a long time watching that soundless screen, the towers collapsing, the Pentagon ablaze. Snipers on the roof of the White House. We spent a long time trying to decide if it was too disrespectful to sit down and eat. It seemed like we should just pack up and go home, like relaxing wasn’t what we should be doing. The other thing I vividly remember is feeling so upset by the idea that my baby boy had to live in a world like this. I was relieved he was too small to understand. I was also thankful for that great big never-ending ocean to take my mind off all the horribleness happening nearby.
I was in my 10th grade math class the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. My teacher was trying to change the channel on the TV in our classroom so we could watch the morning announcements. She passed by a local news station and all I saw was footage of one tower and talk of a plane hitting it. At the time I didn’t think anything of it. I just assumed it was a normal plane crash. My teacher hurried to change the channel and that was the end of it.
I went to my Spanish class and then lunch afterward, and in the lunch room was where everyone started talking about it being a terrorist attack. By the time I got to my photography class, the TVs were on the local news station, and I was slowly being informed of what had actually happened. It took almost my entire school day for any staff to mention the issue to any of us. My classmates started getting pulled out of school one by one by their parents. My mom eventually came to school to pick me up and take me home. On the way to get me a lady was in such a rush to pick up her grandson from elementary school that she rear-ended my mom’s car. My mom still made it to my school to pick me up and take me home and then headed to the hospital to get checked out. Thankfully she just had a mild case of whiplash.
I remember being afraid to go to the hospital with her, but also afraid to be home alone. I was uncertain about whether anything could happen here in Baltimore. I didn’t hear from any of my friends until much, much later that evening. I sat at home while my mom got checked out, watching the news and just worrying about whether I was safe where I was at or not.
I was at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Towson giving birth to my first child. I was in labor at 4:00 a.m. and my son, Lucas, was born at 9:56 a.m. so we did not know the magnitude of what was happening until after that. It was very chaotic, but also gave hope as something special still was able to happen that day.
On the evening of Monday, Sept. 10, 2011, I came home from work and unplugged the TV and rolled it into a corner of the bedroom. I had just moved into a rental property in Canton, and the rugs needed a good cleaning, to say the least. When I started my day the next morning, I was annoyed that the carpet cleaner was late. Where could he be? I thought. Who does business like this? When I phoned the contractor, he apologized and stammered that he’d been watching the news, and that he was sorry and would be there shortly. Still confused, I opened the door to let him in, and that’s how I found out about 9/11, from the nice guy that cleaned my carpets. Just two working-class Americans, standing in my living room, crying like 5-year-old children.
I was in San Angelo [Texas] at Goodfellow Air Force Base, near the end of my Army training as a linguist. We were in class when it happened, and when we went to lunch at 11 everyone was standing around TVs. I thought it was a hoax, said something to that effect, and almost got punched in the face by a Marine who was from New York.
Since my classmates and I didn’t want to get stuck inside the building without any lunch, we left and started heading toward the barracks . . . at which point the security police ordered us to stop (they even threatened to shoot when we didn’t listen the first time) and go back inside, where we sat for a few hours speculating how long it would take before our friends in the Arabic program left.
Two days later, half the security police were gone.
I was sitting in a college course at my school, Loyola College (now University), titled Political Response to Crisis.
We were working on the Best of Baltimore issue—it was deadline day for the last section. I got in on the early side and headed down to the art director’s office, where the final touches were being put on the pages, and the TV was on. Andy Markowitz, the editor at the time, was sitting at one of the Macs, typing. The South Tower was burning on the screen of the small TV that still sits on top of one of the filing cabinets. Like a lot of people, I assumed it was an accident at first.
I don’t remember how or when I understood the import of what was happening. It’s all a bit of a blur—we were on deadline. I don’t remember us actually talking about it. If we did, we didn’t talk much. I know that we pulled the colorful Best of cover and replaced it with a plain white one featuring only the words city paper, best of baltimore 2001, the date and issue number, and one small black star in the middle of the page. The initial cover we planned is the one you see on the City Paper web site now.
Just after the second plane hit, I called my wife, who was then seven months pregnant with our first child and home on bed rest. Both of us were upset and deeply worried. What kind of world were we bringing him into?
I remember going back to working on the table of contents for the issue, one of the last things we finish on any Best of, sitting at the Mac next to Andy’s, both of us typing and not saying anything.
I was a 19-year-old college sophomore living in Boston. I had stayed up much too late the night before, and was woken up by a phone call from my mother at 9 a.m.
“A plane just flew into the Twin Towers! Are you OK?”
“What? Twin Towers? In New York?”
I wasn’t in the city where the disaster had struck, but I was 3,000 miles away from her home in California, and so her fear registered.
I switched on the news, staying on the phone with her, watching the devastation, connected in silence.
And then I remembered: The last time we heard from him, my estranged uncle (my mom’s brother) had been working as an elevator repairman at the World Trade Center. I struggled to get the words out to remind her of this.
We panicked. She called her father. He panicked. Nobody had heard from my uncle in months, and the phone number we had for him in New York wasn’t working. I spent the day watching coverage of buildings crashing to the ground and going up in flames, wondering if my uncle, father of two small children, was inside one of them.
Days later, we learned that he wasn’t. He had left that job just before the attacks. Relief washed over me once I found out he was safe.
Then I went back to watching the news.
I was late for work and hungover. Yeah, yeah, on a Tuesday. I’m a class act. It took a little while for me to work out what they were saying on my car radio—“We have a very, um, strange situation in New York, it looks as though the second tower has fallen—.” My first thought was that it was some kind of War of the Worlds radio play, which seemed odd for the classic-rock station. Then they started talking about the Pentagon, and it began to dawn on me that The Shit Was Hitting The Fan. I seemed to be the only person driving down Chicago, a busy avenue, and there was a car crashed into a light pole. I thought maybe the whole world had gone and ended while I slept through my alarm and was suddenly, massively, and utterly irrationally grief-stricken that I wasn’t pregnant right then. It honestly felt like my womb contracted, so badly did it want something it could protect.
I worked in record distribution and Tuesday was our busiest shipping day. Our offices were close to downtown, where they were evacuating, just in case Chicago was a target. (And don’t think there wasn’t some resentment when it turned out it wasn’t. Poor Chicago, not important enough to terrorize). My boss sent us away until they sorted things out with all the planes, and when they did, we went back and had to try to get the whole day’s work done in the hour before UPS arrived. There’s a certain level of cognitive dissonance in caring about whether or not some record store in Poughkeepsie gets its five copies of some new indie release on time and trying to figure out if life as we knew it was over. I spaced out for a second while pulling an order, and my boss barked at me to “FOCUS, goddamn it,” UPS was gonna be here any second. I almost giggled at him, it seemed so horrifyingly weird. So the world just went on, just like that? It would seem that it did.
As it happens, the guy who would later become my husband was living in Brooklyn at the time. He was late to work and hungover too (it was meant to be, with us), and rode his bike up Sixth Avenue, faced away from downtown as the towers fell, yelling at people to get the hell out of his way as they stood there, pointing and screaming. Really, hadn’t they ever seen a plane accident before?
I was driving to work in Bethesda and listening to Howard Stern. Howard was on a riff about Pamela Anderson’s breasts when one of the other people in the studio broke in to say that he had just heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Howard was deep into his detailed analysis of Pamela Anderson’s breasts, and he said something to the effect that he didn’t want to talk about airplanes but wanted to get back to talking about her breasts.
I parked the car and went into the office where all of the TVs (I worked in television, so everyone had a TV on their desk) were tuned to the towers, and we stayed glued to them as the disaster unfolded.
I was an art student in New York at the time. That morning I had 20th-century art history class. Usually a sleeper, but this morning everyone was alert and whispering. The first plane had hit before class started, but no one knew what was going on. From the seventh-floor hallway of our building, we had a perfect view of the towers, framed stark and alone against the blue sky. When we left class, the first tower was gone and the second one was burning. Everyone went outside. Our school was on Third Avenue and Eighth Street, about a mile uptown from the World Trade Center. It was a safe distance, but close enough to feel, well, close. My classmates and I watched as the second tower fell silently, hearing only quiet gasps and “ohmygod”s from the gathered crowd. I remember thinking that I’d never heard the city so quiet before. About 30 minutes later, throngs of financial-district workers and residents came slowly walking up the Bowery, covered in white dust and looking like an army of ghosts.
There was a lot of confusion about the trains, but somehow I caught one of the last ones out of Manhattan and made it back to my apartment in Queens. My roommates were there and had CNN on, trying to figure out what was happening. We heard D.C. had been hit, Pennsylvania too, and figured the whole country was under attack. When would the next bomb hit New York? This had to be only the beginning.
I was too young to really know what had happened. I was in seventh grade at the time and I remember the teachers were acting really strange. They were whispering with each other a lot, acting really solemn, but I didn’t think much of it. I was more concerned with things like chocolate milk and puberty.
The school administration decided that they should let our parents tell us what happened, so throughout the day, mostly no one knew what happened. There was chocolate milk, we knew that much. However, when we got on the bus to go home, all the high school kids were talking about what happened. They told us that a truck full of bombs drove into the Pentagon and that someone had knocked down the Twin Towers. At the time, I didn’t know what the World Trade Center was. I didn’t know how many people worked there. I didn’t know how, when two buildings fall, the dust hangs in the air for days. They were buildings full of money. In New York. I was in Massachusetts, and my dad was an elevator constructor in Boston. I was so far removed from everything that it didn’t seem like that big of a deal.
My brother’s babysitter was there when I got home. All the TVs in the house were on the same channel. She told me, “Remember this, because it’s probably the most historical thing you’ll ever witness in your life.” I wish I understood that then.
I was a 14-year-old just beginning my freshman year of high school in suburban Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh. I had just walked into my biology class from gym when my teacher got the news that a plane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. We thought there had been a catastrophic accident, and I remember watching in shock and horror at 9:03 a.m., as United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. It was the first time that I had ever seen people outside of my immediate family weep openly, completely overwhelmed by their grief. What I remember most, however, was the sorrow, the mourning for the people that I had never met and for the lives they would never have.
I set out to run errands on foot that morning, reveling in the blue perfection of the sky. I reached my neighborhood bank a couple of minutes after the first jet hit the Twin Towers. The teller was in tears. It was already a disaster, but at that point we were still thinking it was an accident. By the time I reached my next stop, there’d been a second attack and the horror sank in. I confess my first thought was, Aha, they waited until we had a complete idiot in the White House. I went home in turmoil, wondering how to respond. I dug out the huge 48-star flag that had covered my grandfather’s coffin in 1957, and strung it across the front porch. Later that day, a doctrinaire lefty friend of mine came walking by with his girlfriend; he chuckled derisively at my flag display. From his perspective, the Sept. 11 attacks were payback for decades of U.S. foreign policy. Did that justify the slaughter of 3,000 people, just because they were Americans—or happened to work in America? The killers would have been just as content to kill me and my family and my neighbors. I hung up the flag in solidarity with the victims. It was personal.
I awoke in my small attic room in Pittsburgh’s South Side. Sunlight spilled in through the small window. Pittsburgh is usually gloomy, so I walked over, ducking for the angled roof and looked out at the crisp blue sky.
When I came down to the kitchen, my Cypriot roommate was listening to the radio and reading Hegel. He was already on his seventh cigarette and his fifth cup of coffee. I poured a cup, lit one up, and looked for my book. We were second-year grad students in philosophy. That’s what life was like: an endless string of caffeine, nicotine, and dry prose.
The windows were open and a breeze rustled the pages of the book. I got up to refill my mug. Tony walked into his room for something. “Did you hear that?” he asked, bursting back in. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center.”
We turned on the TV and adjusted the antenna until we found a channel, just as the second plane hit.
The room filled with smoke as we tried to give meaning to the horrible images we saw. Then United Flight 93 crashed about 80 miles from us. Immediately, the coverage was all local. It was hard to resist the cynical thought that the local newscasters thought that this could be their big break. We could see Colin Powell, in a small, silent box in the corner of the screen, but we had no idea what he was saying. Instead, a Somerset County official was talking. The local details were important, but we wanted the big picture. What the hell was going on?
My wife-to-be had just moved to Maryland. Neither of us had cell phones, and we were unable to talk until that night. In the scope of things, our problems were tremendously small, miniscule, in fact. But that’s the point. On that day, we somehow realized how miniscule we were by ourselves. We wanted to be connected.
When I think back on that helpless, dreadful feeling, I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t part of why everybody is always plugged in now, incessantly checking our messages and updating our statuses. Ten years later, it feels almost as if we’re trying to use our smart devices as talismans to ward off the anxiety that still lingers from that disconnected day.
I worked as a consultant for the state of Maryland. I arrived at work before 9 a.m., and I was organizing my list of to-dos for the day. I had heard something crazy on the way into work—people were making fun of people who had said they saw planes flying low through Manhattan. Everything around me was calm. People were drinking coffee, keyboards were clacking, nothing was strange.
I got up and went across the building to meet with a colleague. She was unfocused and flustered. I sat down in her cubicle and was put off, annoyed—what was she so upset about? I leafed through the papers I had brought with me, and I heard her saying something to someone in a nearby cubicle, something about it being on the news now. I said, “Oh, that thing about the planes in New York? It’s a hoax.” She looked at me and informed me, “No, it’s not. A plane just hit the World Trade Center.”
From that point until about noon, things happened in slow motion. I talked with my manager—she was hysterical, because her husband was flying to Los Angeles that morning and she couldn’t figure out which flight he had booked himself on. I had never heard her like that. In our training facilities, two brand-new, large-screen televisions had been delivered to facilitate video conferencing. We wandered up to the training rooms and watched mutely as our colleagues tried to clear static from the news coverage. I leaned in the doorway, unable to believe my eyes. I watched as both towers collapsed, and then I wandered back to my desk, where I sat, dumb, until the governor ordered all state facilities evacuated and closed.
I remember driving home. The roads were eerily still and quiet. It was a strange trip home to turn on the television, where I sat, mesmerized and teary-eyed, for hours. I realized the magnitude of this event in our American culture when the newscasters reporting from Manhattan begged viewers to stop sending food and to send money in lieu of food. In some unexpected way, we had come together to wrap our arms around New York City in a tearful gesture of collective sorrow. I remember wishing, then, that this feeling of unity would never stop.
I was living in the Netherlands as a high school exchange student. I was shopping for field hockey cleats with my host mother when I overheard people talking about the USA. I was there for only a few weeks, so my Dutch was very poor, but I could understand the words, “airplanes, New York City, bombing . . .” so I was naturally very concerned.
My host mother quickly took me back to the house, where my host father sat watching the news. I watched everything in silence on TV from thousands of miles away from anyone I knew and felt helpless.
I was sitting in my 8 a.m. class, bleary-eyed and barely awake, a couple of weeks into my second year at Towson University. You’d think I’d remember what class, but I don’t; I do remember the room in Linthicum Hall, though, so it was probably an English class. Halfway through the lecture, a student popped his head in the door and said that a plane hit one of the World Trade Center towers. I think at first a lot of us weren’t sure if he meant the tower in downtown Baltimore, although generally there was that inclination to just assume it was some freak occurrence, some small charter plane. The chatter in the hallway had started to pick up by the time someone—and again, you’d think I’d remember if it was the same kid—popped his head in not long after and said that another plane hit the other tower.
The professor managed to keep us until the end of the period, and by then the hallway was full of students who’d left class early, huddled together talking or standing impatiently looking at cell phones. I went back to my dorm room, where my roommate was glued to CNN already. My father had just decided to retire the summer before, but was still working in Washington, in a government building (but nowhere near the Pentagon), so I was on pins and needles for hours not being able to reach him before I felt like he was most likely safe.
I remember going to bed that night feeling like I’d awake the next day in a totally different world, one much scarier than the one we ended up with in the ensuing years, much as that wasn’t a picnic either. It took a lot less to start World War I, after all. I certainly don’t feel like I had it tough that day or was traumatized in any long-term way. But the dark thoughts that ran through my head when the earth suddenly started shaking beneath my feet that afternoon last month made me realize just how much I’ve been left perpetually on edge in some small corner of my mind for the past 10 years, like the beginning of the end was always right around the corner.
My private school had an assembly each morning, which it quasi-religiously called “Prayers.” On Sept. 11, 2001, we all filed in and sat in our places in the gymnasium, but I think even as a sixth grader I could place a thickness in the room. Our headmistress approached the podium and told the class that a plane had just hit one of the twin towers.
I’m almost embarrassed now to say that then, I had no idea what this meant. I assumed it was merely a tragic accident.
But as soon as the news was announced, some students broke out in tears. Immediately we all thought of our executive fathers who could happen to be traveling somewhere by plane that morning. Where were they flying from? What airline?
We were all immediately ushered into our advisors’ offices while some of us cried, scared 11-year-old girls. The following news reports were delivered by an anonymous teacher as they came in, hours or minutes apart.
My clearest memory is looking out the window, seeing planes go by in the clear blue morning and hoping that they were all of friendly intent.
Eventually, our parents came to pick us up from school, and I recall that I returned home and took a long nap—the kind that disorients you in the most distinct way. I woke up, groggy, in the late summer day. The air seemed altogether different.
I lived in a one-bedroom lower-level apartment. My son, who was 3 years old at the time, was waking me up with his normal hugs and kisses. Little did I know someone had broken into my apartment while we were asleep. They came in through the living room window and stole my purse (nothing else). I called the police; while waiting I looked at the TV that was already on—and saw the second plane hit. It took me a minute to process what was happening, but I somehow forgot all about my problem. Months later they caught the guy who broke in—some gratification for me. The same cannot be said for the American people, the families of the victims, and the victims themselves.
I was on the way to work with a friend. He was picking me up and heard mention of it on the radio. We didn’t believe it was true until we got to work, and I went to Eddies to grab breakfast. There on the TV the horror of it was very unmistakably real. An hour later they sent us home.
Then I tried to call everyone. My father, who works for the government, was stuck in Germany and couldn’t come home for a few weeks. So glad when I finally saw him. But his girlfriend at the time was able to confirm he was safe at least. Next call was my mother, who unbelievably had no idea even by 1 in the afternoon. She swore she had the TV on, but seriously, what channel was she watching? How could you have had the TV on and not noticed?
I was nobody. I’d graduated from art school, strangled with a millstone of student-loan debt and the dawning horror that I was an overgrown child incapable of joining the civilization of adults. At least I’d finally gotten a job—waiting tables at Alonso’s—and I’d met a guy. He was cute enough and he liked my smile and he could define terms like “baroque” and “straw man,” unlike my last boyfriend. He lived near D.C., and he was working there that Tuesday morning while I bundled forks and knives in napkins. The barback turned on the TV. I saw those grim plumes of gray. I heard wild news reports—a plane at the Pentagon, car bombs in Capitol Hill. My guy wasn’t picking up his phone. I panicked. Like the baby I was, I called my mother. “He’s in the middle of it all right now,” I sobbed.
It turned out my guy was OK. There were no car bombs, and he was miles away from the Pentagon that day. We kept dating, a somewhat shell-shocked but enduring couple. The thought of him being spared from doom was like the endless video loop of crumbling towers 200 miles away, sealed safely behind the glass of the TV screen: horrific and abstract in equal proportion. You’re supposed to be grateful that your boyfriend was snatched from the jaws of death—aren’t you? Even if he was never in any danger to begin with. Even if you’re not really in the thick of a great and immortal love. In four years I married that guy. In six years I had a child with him, and in nine years I divorced him, after realizing that assuming the postures of adulthood is not the same as actually being an adult. All of these were imperfect decisions that propelled me into the imperfect life I have now. It’s a grownup’s life, at least.
I was in my 1st period, eighth grade English class in Indian Mills, N.J. My fifth grade social studies teacher came into our classroom and turned on our television as the second plane hit. We all watched in horror. A few students from my class were pulled out because their parents worked in NYC. After about 20 minutes of watching, our teacher turned off the TV, and we continued our day at school. We were one of the only local middle schools that stayed in session. Parents were encouraged not to come pick their children up to avoid mayhem.
Today, I’m a 23-year-old graduate student at Johns Hopkins. I can still remember every single TV channel playing the news when I got home from school.
I was a sophomore at College Park. My alarm went off around 9:30 or 10 a.m. (unbelievable) and instead of DC101 there was an emergency news feed. We commiserated up and down the hall and went to class and tried to act normal. Thirteen days later a tornado touched down in the parking lot behind my dorm building and crushed my old Cavalier. No amount of first-world enlightenment could stop me from thinking Osama bin Laden had caused the tornado.
Michael Ter Avest
I lived in Laurel and worked in Arlington. My daily commute was 90 minutes one-way: 30 minutes to drive to the Metro station and an hour on the train. The morning of Sept. 11, I was reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. My job was one I didn’t like much, in an industry that was crumbling and that morning started like most mornings. I woke up full of doubt and concern. But I rode the train and I read my book and I moved through the crowds and I went upstairs to my cubicle like every day. I logged into my computer and also into a friend’s MUSH (Multi User Shared Hallucination, is where that came from), where a bunch of us who used to be coworkers still “hung out” daily.
It wasn’t a very social workplace—at least I didn’t participate well there socially, usually keeping my head down and talking to my friends online. I generally arrived at the office by 9 a.m., so I got there not long after it first happened. The first I heard were murmurs, and people talking over the cubes, though I didn’t hear anything specific. A plane had crashed, somewhere, was all I could pick out distinctly. Most people tried to pull up the major news web sites, but they were all swamped, timing out, unavailable. Instead, I looked to my friends on the MUSH. One of them was near a television at work. The television at my friend’s workplace was on CNN, so he was frantically typing what was happening, and I just started reading out loud. My co-workers all stopped to listen to what I was saying. It felt, to me, like too much to absorb. When I first read about a plane hitting the World Trade Center, I thought of a small plane, a Cessna, going out of control in a freak gust of wind. But of course that wasn’t it.
Our manager came out of his office and reminded us that there were televisions downstairs, in the lunch room, so most of us just left our desks and walked downstairs. I got downstairs and sat on the floor in front of one of the televisions just in time to watch the live coverage as the second tower fell. All the coverage was on the Twin Towers in New York for a long time, but eventually they also started showing footage of the Pentagon. My company had people there. As far as I know they were all OK, but no one knew that then. It was also not very far away from us, maybe three miles in a straight line.
I remember small moments. I remember sitting on the floor and watching the coverage of the fallen towers, and realizing my throat was dry, and then realizing that was because my mouth was open. My mouth just hung open, and I didn’t remember opening it. Eventually I went back upstairs to find that “nonessential personnel” were dismissed for the day. I remember being very glad I was nonessential. I remember walking to the Metro station amid clouds of rumors. I remember groups of people pointing and saying, “If you walk down to that corner you can see the smoke!” I remember getting on that Metro train and that train being more crowded, and yet more quiet, than I could imagine. I remember everyone being polite, and quiet. Rumors were exchanged, but mostly people were friendly and nice. The entire federal government was trying to cram onto those trains, and we made as much room as we could. I remember smiling, moving out of the way. I remember a man with his seeing-eye dog, and the way people parted for him, as much as they could. I remember looking into the faces of the people on the train, wondering who would take charge in a crisis, what would happen if something happened on the subway like had happened in Tokyo. Or even just a tunnel collapse. I looked into the faces of everyone because I just didn’t know what else to do.
I remember coming up, at last, at Greenbelt. The end of the line. I remember it was a bright, gorgeous, blue-sky-wonder of a day. I remember no planes in the sky and no horns honking, just people politely walking to their cars. Some trying to make cell phone calls, which was futile, but most just walking. Slowly. I remember nothing being right.
I was in college in Boston. I woke up as normal, when my roomie came to get me out of the shower. My mother was on the phone and wanted to make sure I was OK, since planes from Boston were crashing into buildings in New York. I assured her I was safe. I was still way too tired to appreciate her concern. In my first class, Russian Lit, they told us it was an air-traffic-control problem, but by the time I left and went back to my dorm I knew the truth. When I entered my dorm I sat on the bed with my roomie and we looked at it on TV. I looked at her and asked, “Are those people jumping off that building?” She respond, “Yes. I think so.” It was way too much to handle, so I left and went to my fluid mechanics class. A class I hated and usually skipped, but anything was better than watching those people jump. I still think about the people and their families. God bless them all.
I was living in New York then, and on my way to work. I was on a train running a bit late and just climbing up the stairs at the Whitehall station, and I heard a woman running down the stairs and screaming, “Do not go up there, turn around and go home, people!”
The first thing I saw as soon as I was out of the subway was paper. Lots and lots of paper flying all over. I looked down at the paper already on the ground and it had burned edges. Then I noticed people, some frozen looking up and some running in every which way. Then I looked up and saw it, one of the towers on fire. I should have turned around to go home, but I didn’t. I went to the office.
My cubicle was on the 20th floor of a building on Water Street, next to a huge window facing the towers. Most of it was barely visible because of the smoke, so we stared at the TV. Everything was quieter. And then we saw [the second plane] on TV, like a large bird flying, and BOOM! We couldn’t look away, we just kept looking at the screen, and it was happening right next to us.
When the tower started collapsing, I was so scared I kept thinking, How is this possible? That’s not possible! And then the whole world went white. Dust, like a very thick fog, landed on the island. We were all given some cash by the executives for transportation, which wasn’t working anyway. I ended up spending it on water sold on streets for $5 a bottle. I was all white, my black trousers were completely white, my red hair was white, we all looked alike. It was bizarre.
I was walking toward the Brooklyn Bridge and thinking that they might blow the bridge next. There were more people on it that day than ever before. Herds of dusty people crossing bridges. Brooklyners were there with water, sandwiches, bandages, and Tylenol. It took altogether three hours to get home. I finally cried when I was in the shower.
I was entering my morning history class during my freshman year of high school. I grew up with lots of friends and family commuting to nearby D.C., so kids were getting pulled out left and right during the middle of the day. By the end of the school day, there was hardly anyone left, and the administration was sharing as little information as possible. That evening I sat in front of the TV all night with my parents and brother by my side. We were mostly silent as news poured in and the number of dead or missing grew. I still can’t believe that it’s been 10 years, and that I’ve lived my entire adult life in the post-9/11 world.
Blue sky. That’s the first thing I think of when I remember that morning. The sky was so clear and blue, and the air was just a little crisp with the first hint of the coming autumn. I remember looking at the sky that morning and thinking, Wow, what a beautiful day.
I had to drive my (now ex) wife to a job fair at M&T Bank Stadium. I dropped her off and headed back to City Paper to help on the deadline for that week.
I was driving up MLK and absently listening to NPR on my car radio. Eventually I focused on the reporting, and I was trying to figure out where this tower was that had been struck by an airplane. Because they kept referring to a “tower,” I thought that the event might be occurring in Europe somewhere. Then they said the South Tower of the World Trade Center had been hit.
I rushed to work, and ran upstairs to Joe MacLeod’s office. I asked if he had heard about the crazy shit going on in New York. Wordlessly, he slowly pointed to the tiny television perched on a filing cabinet over my shoulder, and I turned and saw it on the screen . . . the burning tower. Seconds later, the second plane hit. I knew then we were under attack, because I remembered how the World Trade Center had been bombed before. I remember feeling sick at how terrified the people in the buildings must be—the fire, the explosions, the absolute horror of people jumping to their deaths in groups. I had no idea how bad it was about to get.
It seemed like just a few minutes passed, and the first tower started to bend a little. You could see it from certain angles, and then it just came down in a shroud of white ash and bits of paper. I thought, All those bits of paper are the records of these people’s lives. Joe’s office had filled with several other City Paper workers, and we all gasped in shock as the second tower dropped. I remember people saying the Pentagon was under attack, and there were other planes coming down as flying bombs. We all were stunned.
I left the office thinking we may now be at war. I remember thinking that this wasn’t supposed to happen. Not to us. And I knew that nothing would be the same after that day. I was scared, and I had no idea what was going to happen next. I watched the news all that day until I couldn’t stand to see it anymore. I went to bed that night wondering what our future was going to be like, and I remember thinking I had never felt like that before—never had a feeling or thought like that before.
I will never again look at a cool, crisp autumn morning without at least a little sense of unease.
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Ten years ago PLUS a few days, I sat in the woods outside Crownsville with a few dozen other people and wondered. We looked up into the end-of-summer greenery as our bosses told us that the world we knew needed escapism, needed a chance to step out of itself and get away from the painful reality that filled our television screens hour after hour.
On the 15th and 16th of September 2001, the football games were postponed. Movie theaters closed. The usual early fall entertainments vanished. But out in the woods of Crownsville, for a bunch of us who play-act at a village in England in the early 1500s, the show went on.
For most of my professional career, I had enveloped myself in the detachment that one assumes as a journalist. I had recently left a job working just off K Street in Washington, D.C., a deadly serious public-policy job, and I wanted to write a book. To pay the bills, I was working at my hobby as an entertainer. And then suddenly, almost 3,000 people died in the worst act of terrorism ever on American soil. And we were told, “The show must go on.”
I recently looked up something I wrote on the morning of Sept. 15.
What do you do as an entertainer when you don’t much feel like being entertaining? My job is to bring joy, to demonstrate the impossible, the create an enveloping cocoon of fantasy to hide in from reality.
People always need a diversion to divert their attention from their heavy hearts and unanswered questions. FDR even ordered baseball games to continue after Pearl Harbor, knowing that it would be good for the nation’s morale.
Writer P.J. O’Rourke once joked about the “joy” that creeps into any journalist’s voice when he or she finds himself in the middle of something completely awful. He was being flip, of course, but there is always the need to know, to relay, to tell. Linda Ellerbee once said if we couldn’t report the news the way we do, we’d go door to door.
Alas, that’s me no longer.
So today, and tomorrow and for this coming weekend, the job of the entertainer is to entertain. But for the showman, one whose job is to do the impossible, sometimes the illusion of the impossible just can’t be enough. Nevertheless, we’ll open the gates. The show must go on.
Ten years later, I have a far better understanding of what “the show must go on” means. To most people, it’s probably a hoary old Broadway cliché. We don’t save lives in show business. We don’t lock up criminals, we don’t jump out of planes or charge hills, we don’t even make the trains run on time.
But without theater and joy and the life they bring, how is it any better than what Thomas Hobbes said, a world with “no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”?
That first day was far more somber than the usual Renaissance Festival day. Sure, there were turkey legs and jousts and beer. But for the bagpipe band that played “Amazing Grace” every weekend, there was added poignancy, and when they followed it as they always did with the Marine Corps Hymn, there was open weeping.
Near the end of the day, when I tend to wander around doing magic for random people, I chanced upon a mixed group of friends just outside a pub and began to perform. Three women, two men, seemingly in their mid-30s to 40s, they were fully “into the moment,” as we say in our little world of make-believe. If anything, as I remember it, they were probably the best audience I had all day—I was getting hugs and applause at the revelation of every card trick.
And after I finished, I asked what brought them to the festival.
They were a flight crew from U.S. Airways, based out of BWI. And every single one of them knew someone on American Airlines flights 11 and 77 or United flights 175 or 93.
They told me they needed to get out, to get away, to hide from the relentless flood of horrible news. And they thanked me, and us, for staying open that weekend.
I have never since questioned the importance of entertainment.
Entropy had already gotten the better of me by the time summer 2001 rolled around. In one day, I lost my conveniently located apartment and my cushy contract job. By summer’s end, my turncoat doctor had stopped returning my calls and the majority of people I cared about most had left town, leaving me with little more than an opportunity to plan my next step from a little queer collegiate enclave. My world was melting all around me, and I was feeling pretty bummed out.
The diner owner looked at me askance when I handed him my résumé. I told him I wanted to focus on writing and music during the days, working the graveyard shift at night. I’ve always felt in my element at night, although I soon learned that the graveyard shift was the world turned on its head. Day was night, 10:30 to 6. Friday was Monday. Monday was Thursday. Tuesday was Friday.
Every day as dawn approached, I’d serve the usual orders to the regulars, men with whom I never would have expected to develop a rapport. There was a time when I suspected that these very men were my worst nightmares made flesh, but instead they rose to my defense against dine-and-dashers and condescending tourists. I didn’t exactly spend my wee hours talking the finer points of postfeminist gender theory with them, but then again I didn’t need to. I brewed up a little queer activism and visibility with each coffee pot.
When I left the diner the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the first plane had already hit the World Trade Center. I was oblivious, heading home to share a Breakfast Special No. 4 with my cat. I was about to sleep when I heard one of my seven housemates tromping through the living room. In less than a month I had grown to resent his cheap cologne and his sniveling voice. He told me that the towers were being destroyed.
We did not yet have a TV in the house. I brewed coffee and listened to NPR as the anchors tried to make sense of things. They brought on some poet of note who, in his best radio voice, drew an analogy about the nation’s loss of virginity. I found this shockingly foolish and unhelpful and became fascinated to find out what the other stations were going on about if NPR was permitting this kind of talk. I soon had cassette tapes rolling in every deck in the house, recording all the babble I could—NPR, ABC, the classic-rock station, the country station. I taped more than 24 hours worth of reactions, all the while feeling more certain that the first cultural casualty would be the freedom of discourse, the freedom to speak freely. While I worried about my incommunicado city friends, I also worried about what was coming undone.
I may not have napped that day; I was exhausted when I got to work that night but that was fine. It was my weekend: Tuesday was Friday.