september 12, 2001

A nice commenter asked: "Since you are a New Yorker and were there on September 11...what were your feelings on that day?"

I said:

My feelings that day... shock, fear, pain. Fear of the future, of where this was going, if it was over. Incredulity, disbelief, a feeling of surreality.

When I remember that day, I see myself sitting in front of the television with a box of tissues, unable to stop crying. Glued to the TV, watching our 24-hour NYC news channel (NY1), just crying and crying and crying.

Everyone was calling each other to make sure we were all there. Allan used to work in the World Trade Center, and several relatives, including my mother, forgot that he no longer did, so we got a few panicked calls, too.

A few hours into the day, I knew I had to go downtown, to be as close to the site (not yet called Ground Zero) as I could. Watching it on television, it could have been happening anywhere. I had to see for myself what was there and what wasn't.

The next day, we rushed out of the apartment to go downtown. Friends later told me they wouldn't go. They said it was morbid, or ghoulish, or somehow disrespectful, treating it like a tourist attraction. They said, "I can't stand to see it." I felt just the opposite. I felt it was somehow my duty to go, my responsibility. If those construction workers could put themselves in that hell all day, every day, if those families could somehow survive through their pain, the very least I could do was stand beside them and bear witness.

On the evening of September 12, 2001, I posted this to a discussion list:
I know you've all been reading and watching events unfold. I'm sure everyone knows all the same salient facts. I thought perhaps people might want to hear what it's like to be in NYC right now. And having just returned from a day walking the streets, having seen many things that moved me to tears, I'd love to share some of it, get it out of my system.

We live on the very northern end of Manhattan; the destruction, as you undoubtedly know, was at the southern tip of the island. We took the subway down as far it was going, then got out and walked.

We went to a Red Cross center to donate blood, but they cannot process all the people who have come to donate -- it could be an 8-hour wait til they get to you. Along with thousands of others, we gave our names, phone numbers and email addresses, and they will contact us later in the week as supplies run down. It was a very moving scene, so many New Yorkers trying to give -- literally -- of themselves.

We walked more. The streets of Manhattan are deserted. As everyone was instructed to only bring vehicles into the city for essential services, there are virtually no vehicles except police cars and a few city buses. The sidewalks are also empty. The bars, restaurants and cafes, however, are all full. Full, but subdued, quiet. People are gathered everywhere to talk and commiserate. Most places have the TV on, but some are just quiet, as if offering people a break from the relentless news if they need it. (I did.)

All the houses of worship are full, too. People are sitting on church and synagogue steps, drinking water and talking to strangers.

We walked for miles, moving southward, downtown, the enormous cloud of smoke hovering over the city coming into clear view as we moved towards it. We finally came to the huge recreation center that has been commandeered as a center for the Red Cross and volunteers. They cannot use any more volunteers, but were asking for specific donations -- first-aid supplies, towels, soap, clothes.

We continued walking downtown. There is a pedestrian and bicycle path along the Hudson River, which ends or begins at Battery, even further south than the World Trade Center. Hundreds of people were walking down it, some on bikes or rollerblades, everyone moving in the direction of the cloud. By this time we were staring at the gaping hole in the skyline where the twin towers should be. Every once in a while, people would just stop walking and start to sob. We couldn't stop staring. It still seems so impossible...

Meanwhile, in the street beside us, there was a convoy of trucks -- construction vehicles of all types, rescue vehicles, dumptrucks, every kind of truck you can think of. Hundreds of them, most flying small American flags, from New Jersey and Long Island and towns all over the metropolitan area. People lined up on the walkway were applauding and cheering and saluting them, giving them thumbs-up signs and raised fists, holding signs that said "Thank you" and "You are our heroes" and such. The people in the trucks would honk and wave and give thumbs-up or shake their fists back. It was really something.

On the other side of the street trucks were returning from the scene, covered in white soot, the people driving them looking like ghosts. People were cheering for them, but they didn't honk.

We walked as far as we could, until we reached the final barricades. It's a good 15 blocks from the scene. We could only look up at the vacant skyline and cry.

Afterwards, we walked to a Duane Reade (the NYC version of Rite Aid or Boots in the UK). We were one of a dozen people at this store alone buying hydrogen peroxide and gauze pads, soap and cotton balls. We trekked back to the volunteer center, and soon found ourselves in a caravan of donors. People wheeling handcarts with cases of bottled water and sports drinks; people pushing those big laundry carts you see in hotels, filled with clean towels, packages of socks and blankets; people with Duane Reade bags, filled with first-aid supplies, like we had. It was incredible. I was so proud of everyone. My eyes are welling up yet again thinking about it.

The subways are running again, and we went home, took showers, turned on the TV again. So, life goes on, for those of us lucky enough to still be living.

Thanks for listening, everyone.
Reading it over now, it doesn't seem like much. It doesn't capture the overwhelming emotions, the dream-like quality, of that day. Maybe words can't.


Mike said...

L-Girl. Thank you for this post. I almost lost my mind while you and Allen were in Canada and not posting last week. The two of you are usually my first three internet stops each and every morning. I know you just got back from a short vacation, but if you have a chance to make it down to Fort Myers, FL the week of 3-12 thru 3-20, I've got some extra tickets to 3 Sox games that I would gladly give to the two of you for the opportunity to meet you both. I read you every day, but don't usually comment, today's post made me cry no fewer than 5 times. Thank you for sharing your memories.

L-girl said...

Mike. This is just about the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my writing. I can't thank you enough.

Oh my goodness, we would LOVE to take you up on your ticket offer! We've been to Spring Training games a couple of times - great fun driving back and forth between Tampa and Ft Myers. But we're really not able to go this year, as we're saving our dollars for The Big Move. Our only trips have been to Toronto to look at housing, and this recent obligatory (but fun) family visit. Thank you so much for offering.

I'm glad the post made you cry. I must have done something right. Take care and keep reading!

Artur Rodrigues said...

Everybody that I’ve talked about 09/11 knows exactly what they were doing on that day. I remember clearly when somebody at my former job came to show me through a web site when the first plane hit the tower. Minutes later the same person interrupted the meeting that I was attending and told us that a second plane went into the second tower. My first thought was it had to be an Internet hoax, unfortunately it was true.

Nobody was able to work that week, we were scared and perplexed. We were afraid of what it could end up and its consequences. We saw the New Yorkers lined up to donate blood and we were very touched with it also.

I have no doubt that there aren’t words to describe what you have seen and felt, but thanks for sharing it with us.

L-girl said...

Thank you, Artur. You're right, everyone remembers what they were doing - and in that sense it was a global event.

In an earlier post (about why I care about public art event in Central Park) I was talking about shared experiences that make us a community. Tragedy does that most of all.