When I was Late on September 11th

me with twin towers

Me at the Statue of Liberty trying to point at the plane flying over the WTC

The train had rocked most of us on this New Brunswick to Penn Station train to sleep but not me; My MP3 CD with 100+ songs burned from Napster had not yet lost its novelty. I was listening to the Cure as a good teen Catholic high school pseudo-goth when a man sitting by the window blurted out, “there’s a fire!”

We were about to go under the tunnel, still on the New Jersey side. When the buildings cleared again before we descended under the river the few people that had gathered peered out but the angle had changed, or the wind picked up. We didn’t see anything. “I saw smoke” said the man. “I really did.” We were unconvinced, and returned to our seats. I focused on the task at hand: filling out a yellow slip and forging the signature of my school’s lobby receptionist.

I was late, really late, and when you were late at my school, you had to check in at the front desk to collect a slip, which you then gave to your teacher. Once you collected three, you got detention. I was late a lot — my parents had moved out to New Brunswick for the birth of my step-brother and I was having trouble catching the 6:20 train every day to get to school on time– which is where the stolen packet of late slips came in. On September 11th, I was on the 8am so I was “missed first period” late.

Riding the 6 train and running the couple of blocks to my school felt odd but I attributed it to rush hour being over. A classmate let me in the side door and I bounded up the stairs, my teacher waving my late slip away not even bothering to sign it. Class was not in session, everyone was talking about the Twin Towers. That man on the train was telling the truth!!! My chemistry teacher burst into the room and ordered everyone into the basement. We were under attack. The Pentagon had just been hit.

A teacher wheeled a television downstairs, and we gathered around it. Through the static we watched the towers collapse and learned of a fourth plane. Then the school released us, told us to go home.

Outside, there was a mass exodus of people walking north, plumes of smoke off in the distance. No one was talking. The trains weren’t running, so classmates that lived in other boroughs grouped together for the long walk home. I remember hugging them and thinking they were very brave.

Trains leaving Manhattan were not running either, so I couldn’t go home. A friend who lived upstate had me crash at her father’s Upper East Side apartment but we grew tired of watching the news. We decided to do something wildly inappropriate, because it was wildly inappropriate: go shopping. The stores were still open but void of customers except us, attendees milling about giving us weird looks.  “Did we not know what had just happened?” their eyes asked. We stopped after less than an hour, wondering what made us think this would be hilarious to do in the first place.

 Back at the apartment, the doorman had opened the roof access door so tenants were up there watching the smoke plumes, muttering things like “surreal,” “terrorist attack” and if this meant war. We joined them, until the sun set. My homecoming the next day was a blur. My step-father, who used to work at Ernst & Young, knew 10 people who died in the collapse. I decided there and then to leave New York City for college — I didn’t want to witness another, or die in, a terrorist attack.

In the weeks that followed, soldiers moved into the Armory on Park Ave. They patrolled the train station next to my school with automatic rifles or rode around in military vehicles, their presence only heightening my anxiety. It took me weeks to get used to them, after I saw one using the food cart I got my morning bagel from.

One afternoon sandbags were set up by the Italian Embassy next to my school and we couldn’t leave until they gave us notice. Smoke from the WTC collapse could be seen for months.

My stepfather was laid off during the economic downturn that followed and the fighting over finances that dissolved their marriage years later began. My parents decided to moved to Fort Lee to be closer to the city in case of emergency (originally from Roosevelt Island, but the waiting list to return was years long). I stopped being late to school, but found myself getting detention for things like rolling my uniform skirt up or talking back to the nuns — but I didn’t care. I didn’t want to go home anyway. I joined a handful of after-school clubs too.

My friends and I took to joking about terrorists bombing NYC because it was a cool thing to do or other “too soon” jokes, and at night I got into online spats with 9/11 conspiracy theorists. When friends went to visit the WTC site when the air was deemed safe (debatable),  I didn’t join them. I did not want to see the wall of pictures of people who had died in-person  — it was constantly on TV anyway, along with sobbing widows and tributes — even when they tried to reason with me that it was my duty as a New Yorker. I viewed the friends that did make it down there as tragedy voyeurs.  I was determined to keep whatever small distance I had just that.

It took until the Northeast blackout of 2003 for me to get over my fear of catastrophe in the city. A friend offered to let me sleep at her apartment in Harlem that night, but I politely declined and joined the mass of people walking through Central Park up north and across the George Washington bridge. Unlike 2001, the crowd was talkative, even somewhat jolly. Many compared it to September 11th and the spirit of solidarity was infectious.

I still left  for college. When people ask me if I will ever move back, I tell them the the city is too expensive, too crowded and too dirty with its rats and bed bug infestations. Or even, “everyone moves to NYC or Portland, I don’t want to be like those hipster losers” and “it will be underwater in 2045 anyway.” These are all excuses. I love New York City but  I think 9/11 ruined it for me as a place to live.

I’ve yet to visit the memorial site.

One Comment on “When I was Late on September 11th”

  1. DivilOnYourShoulder says:

    Thats sad. I’m a transplanted part of the Diaspora that landed in NYC and loved living there, enough to call myself a New Yorker. It was magical. It was sometimes exciting. It was always fun. Now that I have abandoned the City I still feel myself mourning for it and what it gave me.

    9/11. I saw ferries overloaded carrying people across the river. I saw plumes of smoke in the air as planes were vanquished from the skies. I saw terror in peoples eyes as in disbelief that this could not happen here. I saw highways and roads closed. I saw people walking in their hundreds. I saw a mother crying for her children. I see myself crying in the mirror – every year. I carry a burden you will never ever know of, just from that one day.

    You can’t predict a life. You never know the day nor the hour you will pass onto the next life. You should live where you are happiest, and with whom you are happiest with.

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