September 9, 2011

Memories



I read a lot of history books. I watch a lot of documentaries. Mostly I focus on World War II and all that goes with it (translate: Holocaust), and I’m always surprised at how emotional people get when talking about the events that shaped them, regardless of the passage of time.  I’m always a little incredulous when I see people struggle to speak; it’s almost like, Really, haven’t you moved on yet?  That makes me sound insensitive; I don’t think I am. I just never had real access to understanding history.

Until recently, anyway.  Until people started gearing up for the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001.  My “favorite” piece so far is a small encyclopedia in New York Magazine, and I’ve been reading through it for the past few days, typically with a glass of wine in hand.  I’ve been surprised at how many times I’ve gotten choked up.

Because, c’mon! This was ten years ago! It’s not like the buildings fell yesterday.

But still. The memories burn.  Who knew how much they could still?

I’ve wondered what to do to commemorate this strange anniversary. I know the Internets will be full of memorials, stories, memoirs, you name it.

I briefly considered ignoring it all together.  But that would be like ignoring a little part of me.

So I decided  to do what I  do best. Write about it.  I’m going to get down on paper my memories of September 11th and the days following.   There will be three parts. Two, as of this posting, are done, and those are my memories.  On Sunday I plan to write something, but I have no idea what yet. I just know I will want to write on the actual anniversary.  So we’ll see what a run in the morning and some reflection in the evening will bring.

This is not my way of saying my memories are special. They’re not. Nor are they important, nor different from anyone else who was touched by that day. But they are my memories, and if one day someone is collecting 9/11 memories the way historians are frantically collecting the memories of WWII survivors now, I’d like to have some sort of document to simply hand over. Here, I’d say. One person’s account, as written ten years after the fact.

This is also a little selfish. I’m a better writer than a talker.  I  bet that one day Zoe will come to me and say, “Mom, you were in New Jersey on September 11th.  What was it like?”   Chances are, I still won’t be able to talk about it without getting worked up, so I can hand over this document.  Here, I’ll say. My account, as written ten years after the fact.

So...without further ado...Here.  My account, as written ten years later.

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Part 1

On the days leading up to September 11, 2001, I was 22 and starting my final year of college at Montclair State University in northern New Jersey.  I was engaged to a boy who was not Charles, and we’d just moved into an apartment in Bloomfield with a mutual friend.  We were all  adjusting to our new place and our new landlord, who we called “Jerry da Butcher,” on account of the fact that he was a butcher and, we swore, a secret member of the mafia.   I had a job working at a small bakery in downtown Montclair.

That morning, I had the opening shift and had to be at the bakery by 6:00 a.m. to bang on the back door for the Baker (and co-owner) to let me in.  I drove my little green Mustang into work that morning, all bleary-eyed sleepiness, and set out bread on the shelves and brewed coffee in semi-darkness.  It was peaceful. I helped myself to some strong Italian coffee and a roll with butter and raspberry jam, by far the best perks of the opening shift.

Around 7:00 a.m. the Baker left and the other co-owner, RL arrived.  RL and I chatted for a few minutes, then she ran out to pick up some supplies or to the bank, I’m not sure.  Then the Pastry Chef arrived, and we sat down and chatted, mutually surprised by a lack of customers.  I don’t remember any of our regulars showing up even that early that day; I have no memory of anything other than sitting at a cafe table with the Pastry Chef, chatting about how beautiful of a day it was going to be, and how I had my first ever drawing class later that day.  The stereo was playing some silly Italian pop music that we both hated, but since the Baker loved it, we left it on, lest he come back and fuss at us for changing it.

Soon, RL came back from her errands. She burst into the front of the store, and all our lives changed.

“Turn on the radio,” she cried.  “A plane crashed into the World Trade Centers!”

“What the fuck,” I whispered as I flew behind the counter and flipped on 1010 Wins, the local AM news station.  It had to be some kind of crazy accident, right?  The Pastry Chef, always pale, was now a ghostly white, and we three listened in frightened silence.

The news went from bad to worse.  As we listened to reporters give dispatches from a scene which sat less than 20 miles away from our store, another plane struck.  One of us was the first to say out loud, “This isn’t an accident,” but I don’t know who it was. The Pastry Chef started to cry soft, quiet tears.

I started accounting for friends and family in my head.  Daniel lived in Queens and worked in Manhattan, in the Empire State Building, and I was momentarily unable to breathe. “They’ll evacuate the Empire State, right? He’ll be ok?” I asked, but then I looked at the clock and breathed a sigh of relief.  It was barely past 8 a.m., and my night-owl brother would still be in bed. I crossed him off my list of people to worry about.

Then I remembered.  The family for whom I babysat near daily lived close, and they’d become like family to me, sort of like a sister and brother, niece and nephew.  The dad, SB, worked in the city. Sometimes, he took the Path train through the World Trade Center stations.

I dove for the phone.  Like everyone else on the East Coast that day.  There were no available phone connections; I’d have to wait for news.

We all turned back to the radio, staring at the speakers, waiting for them to tell us something new.  I started to wonder if this wasn’t all some crazy play, like when Orson Welles broadcast The War of the Worlds to an all-too-gullible public in 1938.  I mean, this couldn’t have been real, right?  Nothing like this had ever happened before.

Then the first tower fell, and the radio broadcaster whispered, “Oh my God.”

And I knew it wasn’t a prank.

The towers which had stood for my entire life fell in what felt like immediate succession, even though in reality it took a little while.  I still hadn’t looked outside, even though I knew from where the bakery sat it only took a little bit of climbing (like onto the roof of my car) and craning of the neck to see where the smoke would rise.

I sat in silence, unsure of what to do.

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An hour or so later, a  good friend who also worked at the bakery walked in with the three children for whom she was babysitting that morning.  We’d had no other customers.

She bounced in, smiled, and said, “Why the long faces, guys?”

And we stared.  She knew, but was trying to be light for the children.  But we weren’t ready for light yet.

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Around noon, RL finally sent me home. My shift was over anyway, and she was finally convinced (I found out later) that I wouldn’t crash my car by speeding somewhere frantically.

So I sped frantically to the house of the family for whom I babysat, and when SB opened the door, without even thinking I threw my arms around him, so thrilled was I that he was alive.  Then I hugged his wife, and we both cried a little. I have no idea what we all said to each other, but I did find out that SB had left for work that morning in his cute little Saab convertible, instead of taking the train. When the first plane hit, he hadn’t even reached the edge of town, and he turned immediately around. Slightly comforted, I left soon after I arrived.

I sped frantically back to my apartment, where the fiance was barely out of bed.  The roommate had just gotten home from work; they'd closed his office early due to the attacks.  The fiance didn’t even know what had happened yet, so I had to tell him.  Shocked, he turned on the news, and then all three of us sat on our futon couch and watched as the planes hit again and again and again, on that continuous loop that seemed to run for days, interrupted only by images of people hurtling themselves from hundred story windows, and the towers ultimately crumbling.

We lived in the flight path for Newark Airport. There were always airplanes flying overhead; we were numb to the sound of them. But on that morning, the lack of airplane noise was eerie.

Then, when we did suddenly hear the thrum of a jet engine, we bolted outside, terrified. The whole street was out there, staring up into that incredible blue sky that was smelled of smoke and ash.

It was a military plane, running a protective route above the city.  I’d never seen a military plane in active duty before. It was terrifying.

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The fiance was a runner, and he was in the midst of training for a marathon that month.  He left shortly thereafter to go for a long run, which never took less than two hours. I begged and pleaded with him to not go, to not leave me alone on that day. I was so scared.  But he left anyway.

I guess we all deal with fear in our own ways.  Me? I held the roommate’s hand instead as we continued watching the endless news loop.

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At some point I got through to my mother on the phone, or she got through to me.  All the family members and friends we could think of were accounted for, although she worked for a financial firm that had offices in the city that were effected by the crash. She wasn’t sure yet how many co-workers she’d lost.

*****************************

That night, at my insistence, the fiance and I drove to Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange.  Set into the side of a mountain, it’s an overlook with an amazing view of the Manhattan skyline, and I loved to go there on clear nights.

But,instead of the usual city lights, the sky was black but for two surprisingly bright plumes of grey, solid-looking smoke that rose high into the night, obliterating the stars that would otherwise have been there. The air quality was terrible, smoky, and smelled almost like barbecue charcoal.  I tried not to remember how many people had cooked in the towers that day.

The overlook was already filled with flowers, pictures, names. Little memorials to those who were already among the known dead.  I scanned the hundreds of offerings, holding my breath, afraid to find a known name. I didn’t.  As scary as the day had been, I didn’t have to mourn.

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