What I Did on September 11th
(My friends shot the above video in August, 2001, one month before the WTC attacks. Watch it in its entirety to get the full effect.)
On September 11th, 2001, I was dating a woman named Bethann and living way the hell out in Forest Hills, Queens, which wasn’t that far from the city by train but was far outside the realm of New York’s traditional young-creativy-artisty-type living options. Everyone else I knew lived in Brooklyn or Manhattan. It was hard enough getting people to come out to Astoria; I would have had an easier time getting visitors in Alaska than Forest Hills.
Bethann’s birthday was September 10th. I don’t remember exactly what we did but it definitely involved karaoke, lots of strange people, and copious amounts of alcohol. We stayed over at her place in Williamsburg that night. We struggled to get up the next morning, in no mood to go into the office. We both worked at the same office at the time – an online marketing company called Answerthink. Answerthink is a terrible name, I agree. It used to be two companies – one called Think New Ideas, which was started by the MTV VJ Adam Curry, who was, believe it or not, an Internet pioneer – and another company called, I don’t know, Answer, I guess. I was just freelancing there, but Bethann was a full-timer.
Bethann straggled into the shower around 9:00 and I stayed in bed, listening to Howard Stern in a half-awake stupor. I heard him saying something about a fire at the World Trade Center. It sounded like big news so I got out of bed and turned on the TV, right after the second plane hit.
I didn’t immediately grasp the impact of what was happening. I didn’t even bother to call for Bethann. When she got out of the shower, she walked in to see me watching the TV.
“Is that the World Trade Center?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Two planes hit it.”
“Oh my god,” she said, starting to panic. “That’s the building where my dad works.”
I knew he worked for the Port Authority, and I knew Port Authority was in the World Trade Center, but like I said, the impact was not immediately apparent to me. It did not seem any more upsetting than a subway outage or a snowstorm or any of the other catastrophic events that occurred in New York on a daily basis.
Bethann immediately called home. Her father had definitely gone into work that day, but no one had heard from him yet. I didn’t think to call my parents, still assuming no one outside of New York would know or care about this situation. I even told Bethann I was going to go into work, which, in retrospect, was pretty much the top of the list of uncaring things I have ever said to a girlfriend. Her father was missing and his office building was on fire, and my impulse was to let her deal with it. I don’t know what came over me; I really just assumed everything would be okay. I even called the office to tell them I was going to be a little late. They were as nonchalant about it as I was.
“Don’t bother coming in,” they said. “The subways are all fucked up.”
“Can you see anything?” I asked. Our office was about 20 blocks North of Ground Zero.
“Yeah, it’s pretty smoky,” they said, unconcerned. “We’ll probably shut the office down for the rest of the day.”
We stayed at her place and watched the coverage until the towers fell. At that point it suddenly set in that this was a major, major deal. News anchors were beginning to talk about terrorists and attacks. We were far away from the city, but we decided to get even farther away. We managed to catch the last cab in Brooklyn and headed out to my safehouse in the Hills.
As we drove toward Forest Hills we could see the skyline of Manhattan. It was completely covered in smoke. Bethann was, understandably, an emotional wreck. I kept trying to call home, but cell phone service was nonexistent. The cab driver charged us $70, which was (literally) highway robbery, but we paid it anyway, grateful to be as far from the danger as we could get. I’m sure he was quite pleased with the profit he made that day.
Bethann finally got in touch with her family around noon, and found out that her father was alive and well. He’d gone out for a late breakfast that day and been out of the office when the planes hit. Dozens of his coworkers were not so lucky. Interestingly, he’d also managed to survive the earlier terrorist bombing in 1993 because he was at the bar when he should have been working. Bethann’s dad is an example to all of us that slacking off can pay big rewards.
I got in touch with my family around the same time. They were overjoyed to hear from me. According to my sister, my dad, ever the optimist, had called her immediately to tell her of my almost certain demise. “Well, we haven’t heard from your brother and I think he works right by the World Trade Center. He’s probably dead.” I guess I carry part of his pessimism with me, because when he told me that he and mom had received numerous calls from people they hadn’t heard from in years asking if I was okay, the only thing I could think was that they probably secretly wished I had died. Not because they wished me any ill-will, but because they wanted to feel connected to the tragedy. And news that I had been nowhere near it and was doing just fine had probably come as bittersweet.
The rest of the day was spent watching the coverage on my couch and crying. In the days following the attacks, there was an indescribable feeling of compassion and camaraderie in New York, unlike any I’d ever felt before in the city. We began to look up at each other on the subway, to have friendly interactions in stores and in restaurants. We no longer kept our heads down and minded our own business. As the attacks became politicized, we all went back to our normal cynical selves, but for a few days, at least, it felt like the culture might actually change for the better. I still feel that our country would be in much better shape today if we’d capitalized on that feeling of goodwill instead of using it as an excuse to start wars against non-threatening enemies, but apparently that’s just me.
It took me about a month before I went anywhere near ground zero, and about a year before I saw the actual site in person. Out of respect for the dead, I didn’t want to go there as a gawker. When I finally went down there, it was for a dance party that I just happened to be going to anyway. You could still smell the fire in the air.