Everyone has their story. Where they were; what they were doing and thinking. No matter how close to the situation or how far away, we all have our stories. Some of us were halfway or all the way across the country when we found out the news of the burning towers. Some of us were halfway or all the way across the world. No matter where or how, we fell to our knees.
I myself, was close. I certainly wasn’t as close as many but I was close. Close enough to see the smoke. Close enough to hear horror stories from close friends. Like everyone says, it was a brilliantly beautiful day. I had a 1st period class during my senior year of college, which is pretty much what happens when you don’t declare your major until the end of junior year but know you have to graduate within four years just the same. This class met Tuesday and Friday mornings. I’d take the bus off-campus to class and then hit the College Ave dining hall at Rutgers right after where I would dine on Cocoa Krispies and cheese eggs. Make that cheese sauce eggs. It was awesome. On this particular day I was glum, for lack of a better word. I had been dumped by a long-term boyfriend just a few days or weeks earlier and I was nursing a very rare broken heart. The dining hall was serving food with a French twist and with French names and this made me think of Montreal which was where my long-term ex and I had gone in the beginning of our relationship, to fall in love and slide down the slushy streets.
I was in a bad way. I sat down alone with my exquisitely prepared food and read the Daily Targum. I was tuning out life around me but I couldn’t tune out the sound of a guy sitting alone at a table next to me. He screamed. Right in the dining hall. Then screamed again. Then looked at me and asked, “Did you hear that?” I asked, “Hear what?” He bolted out the door and I never saw him again. In silence, the rest of us dining hall patrons listened to the radio on the dining hall speakers. The first tower had been hit. I ran out of the dining hall and reached for my phone. My recent ex (Montreal slushy streets guy) worked right next to the World Trade Center. I couldn’t call anyone. I got on the campus bus which was shockingly quiet. We all listened to more news. Classes were canceled indefinitely. We were told to go home, where I met my bleary-eyed roommate at the door and told him classes were canceled. He was thrilled until we turned on the news and saw it unfolding.
A lot of the rest is a blur. People came and went. People called when calls could go through and otherwise, life was eerily silent. I wasn’t far from NYC – maybe 35-40 minutes. Eventually long-term ex, let’s just call him “E”, got through on my phone. He was ok. Didn’t even make it to the financial district before his bus was turned around. He was one of the lucky ones who made it back to Jersey before public transportation shut down. He was disturbed beyond words. He needed me. I went to his house, a normally 25 minute drive, and it took hours. The roads were clogged. Even that early, people stood outside with American flags. Everyone looked lost. I arrived at E’s house and he melted into my arms. We got back together, as many did after September 11th. You just sorta started to see what was important at the time, even if it didn’t last.
We aimlessly drove, somehow, to the Atlantic Highlands. There were hundreds of large crabs washed up on shore. Hundreds. I was so busy staring at them I didn’t see what was behind them – two towers burning. That’s right. I could see the smoke and the fading outline. We heard from a close mutual friend who had seen people jump off buildings. He couldn’t talk about it for months. For years. I really couldn’t either. I was close. Not as close as my friend. Not as close as thousands of people. But close enough to see and smell the burning. Close enough to see the horror etched on every face I saw. For months.
The major I eventually chose was journalism. Months later we were told to do a meaningful interview for one of my newspaper writing classes. I interviewed a friend of E’s who had literally tripped over the red blurs of bodies while carrying other alive people in his arms in the lobby of one of the twin towers. He was somewhat of a hero but too disturbed to talk much about it, but he told me. I came into class the week after the interviews were handed in to see my normally loud teacher sitting in silence until everyone filed in and then she read my interview to the class. I got an A++++++. I finally wrote something that brought 30-40 people to tears and I wasn’t even happy. I was still disturbed by the story. The stories.
I didn’t know I was going to write about September 11th here until the last possible minute. I didn’t know if I deserved to, if that makes sense. I wasn’t there there. Yet, I was there. I didn’t know if I had anything to say. But I do. Everyone does.
I can’t talk about politics, anger or blame. Or tell you what it was like to lose someone directly. All I can do is tell my story.