On a roll now...

And another thing about September 2001. The acting studio we went to was on 27th and Broadway. Some of the classroom windows faced north, and over the low-slung brick post-war apartment building that harbored some kind of porn operation (judging by the sign that read, "Hot Girls Paid Good," and the naked guy who wandered by the window one day, and just... hung out), our widows afforded the most idyllic view of the Empire State Building.

We all shared the feeling (literally - verbally shared it, later, at lunch) that we'd better keep an eye on the now-tallest New York landmark while we could see it, just in case a plane plowed into it, and we had to scramble downtown.

Obviously, that didn't happen, but most of us spent at least the rest of that semester glancing up and out of the windows when we ought to have been paying attention to the emotionally abusive scene study teacher who taught us in that room. Of course, you couldn't help but feel that she was human when she said, in her guttural tone, "It was a very different experience uptown." You could hear her helplessness, her pity, her realization that we were just kids, and we were hurting.

But downtown or uptown, afterward, the feeling was the same. (We're talking, of course, about the two weeks following, before anyone was allowed back into Lower Manhattan. After that, I self-censor any editorial, since I don't know the experience of going back "home," to a ghost town.) For two weeks afterward, the feeling all over, from Battery Park to Indian Point - and probably all over the country - was vulnerability. Exhaustion. Rolling anger. Tiptoeing fear. I remember worrying about a high school friend in Pittsburgh whose (Catholic) parents were born in India. How many stares would she get, from ignorant and paranoid assholes, and how would she defend herself? I remember being drained of any energy well before 4 p.m., and not being able to fall asleep until well past midnight. I'd lie in bed, probably reading Shakespeare, Euripides, or Racine, wondering why the hell I wasn't asleep yet? I remember the idea of rage, but the dearth of it. I should be angry, I always thought, and I am, but at whom? If I hold my breath as I walk through this subway tunnel, maybe they won't get me. Maybe nothing will happen to me here.

Meanwhile, the smoke and ash hung around for I don't remember how long. About a week after the actual day, a high school friend at the University of Georgia asked if it was "true that you can smell the bodies?" I said no, and after that one word, I haven't talked to her again. What kind of person doesn't know not to ask that?

But it was a strange time, for everyone, I'm sure. Whether you were in L.A., wondering if you would be hit next; or Georgia, wondering what the firsthand experience was like; or in the Midwest, earnestly telling the reporter from New York City how the Terrorists could certainly slip anthrax into the cheese supply at your local grocery store and that everyone was a target, meanwhile having no idea that an entire city of 12 million people hated your guts as the story got aired again and again... for everyone, not matter where, I'm sure it was strange. But it was probably a little stranger, seeing the smoke plumes and smelling the burning asbestos months after the fact.

"Yeah, we got out of class that day," my best friend told me a few months later. "You're in Kennesaw," I thought, "Why?"

"Can you imagine what it would be like if those buildings," my fiance gestured to a couple of modest skyscrapers on East 52nd Street, "just... toppled down on you?" I stopped walking. I stopped being glad we were on our way to dinner. This was nearly four years later. And I wasn't even that far downtown when the whole business occurred. "Oh
stop," he said, during the late summer of 2005, staring up at the mercifully standing East 52nd office towers, "Stop being so dramatic."

"So," my mom introduced her cheeriest of cheery tones, "How are you doing with... the whole... September the 11th thing?" It was the five year anniversary.

"Wow," my lungs and mouth simultaneously and inadvertently wooshed, "That was subtle." I paused for a second. "Fine," I answered, in all honesty, "I've been working all day, and completely ignoring it."

"Oh!" She sounded relieved. "Okay. Good!" She didn't feel like getting into it anymore than I did. Awesome.

Anyway, September 12th rolled around pretty much as predicted. Everyone stopped talking about
It. The newspaper headlines were about... something else, I have no idea what, because I forget, which is always nice. There weren't quite so many deadly serious, reflective local news bumpers at 5 and 6 o'clock. On the 12th, it was back to busted brothels, or something. The "n" key just broke off of my keyboard, and that can occupy my mind now. Seriously, you have no idea how annoying it was to just type that last sentence. And that last word - "sentence," that is. The "n" key is just a nubby little rubber thing right now. I wonder, if I just leave the plastic key cover off, if I'll get used to the feeling?

I guess you get used to a lot of feelings, and you feel them, and you accept them, or you ignore them, and eventually they go away, or at least just slink into the corner. You hope that you don't get used to feelings like love, and happiness, and gratefulness, and... let's say love again. You hope that the same rules don't apply to those happy feelings as apply to anxiety, and hopelessness, and anger, and fear. Looking at this whole September 11th business five years later, though, and also paying attention to the little human interaction I also had on September 12th, I'm inclined to say that you get used to, or at any rate, dismiss the positive emotional associations as much as you do the scarring ones. "If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work," or something. I guess. Also, if you don't know what that quotation is from, Google it, because you suck.

Whatever. I'm just glad it's September 13th. Three hundred sixty-something days to go.


I don’t like September 11th.

Five years later, I remember the major parts of my 11th in jolts and gasps. I remember how I woke up: Sarah burst in through my and Catherine’s bedroom door. Catherine was already at the gym; it was 8:50, and I was still asleep, dammit. My first class wasn’t until 10:30. Anyway, Sarah burst through my door, which was her bad habit: She wasn’t big on knocking. I was about to yell at her, but she was already yelling: "Turn on the TV! The World Trade Center is on fire! A plane hit the World Trade Center!" I immediately forgot about my invaded privacy, and the fact that it was fully 70 minutes before I had intended to wake up, and fumbled for the remote. Found it. Turned on the tv. Comedy Central - damn. Zero-zero-two. CBS. There we go. She wasn’t kidding, or even exaggerating, which is something never out of the question with Drama majors like us. Black, cement-thick smoke was billowing out of a gaping hole in the right-hand tower.

Then, my memory gaps forward. I think Catherine got back from the gym, after gaping on University Street with the other motivated people who were at Crunch before 9 a.m. I remember sitting on my bed, with Sarah and Catherine in the room, watching the second plane zoom in a sickening loop toward the left-hand tower. We were all screaming, "No! No," whether in disbelief or in horror or in shock and nausea, who knows now?

After that, my mind - five years later - jumps to watching the first tower collapse. Then, I think, I took a shower. After that, the second tower collapsed. I remember the male announcer gasping, "There is no more World Trade Center. The New York skyline is forever changed." Or something like that. Then, I got dressed and went to class. Because? What else was I going to do? On the way down, people were gathered outside of restaurants - doors open - and vans. Any radio in public earshot was on and up. The stories have circulated long ago now about free water being passed out, strangers cradling each other on the curb, unprecedented care being taken to be kind.

I reached my classroom to meet one other classmate; she lived downtown, and had made the trip uptown around 7:30, for another class. Her dorm was now covered in a blanket of ash, concrete, and people. I headed right back up to Union Square, and I don’t really remember the rest of the morning. At some point, Catherine and I wandered straight down the middle lane of Fifth Avenue (I have a great picture) to Washington Square Park. Hordes of people - only about half NYU students, which is fewer than usual - gathered around the fountain, staring dumbly at the columns of fat, bloated smoke billowing up from where the towers used to be clearly visible over Thompson Street. Or maybe Sullivan. I don’t remember anymore. Maybe we ate lunch and dinner (and breakfast?), maybe not. I’m pretty sure the impromptu memorial had already sprung up in Union Square just outside our door, and we probably went down. None of us had really cried yet. That came two nights later, when we all went to the Union Square memorial together. 

For now, numbness, shock, all the stereotypical first emotional reactions to grief. I think our R.A. called a floor meeting, to make sure everyone was there, and okay. There was an acrid, stinging smell in the air. Now we know it was burning metal, asbestos, and organic material that used to be people. We were all told not to turn on our air conditioners, and to take in the students whose dorms were below 14th Street, since the city below 14th Street would soon become like a refrigerator in a power outage: Dark, dank, slowly spoiling, with everyone crowding around it, wondering whether to open the damn door already, or to just leave it closed, because maybe, just maybe, nothing would spoil if you left everything be that was already in there.

The next day, we fled up to Central Park, and played Ultimate Frisbee on Sheep’s Meadow, or whatever it’s called. It was great: Sarah’s friend who was from Iowa, and in town to audition for a soap opera, was stuck in town, since his flight out that day had, of course, been cancelled. But he was the only reminder that everything wasn’t normal. That - and the fact that we were up at Central Park in the first place. We were lazy college kids. We didn’t really go above 34th Street if we didn’t have to. But we did. Everything was a world apart, until a seaside breeze - Manhattan is an island, after all - blew up north-northeast, and brought that metal-meets-fire smell with it. "Mmmmmm, World Trade Center," someone said.

Later that night, Catherine and I, along with two guys we knew at that time, wandered down to Houston Street. There we saw military tanks and garbage trucks lined up in some sinister can-can line, whether to haul trash or to set a army blockade, we didn’t know. But the only light was thrown from floodlights powered by huge generators, and it was creepy as all hell. Earlier that night, the movie theatre at Union Square was showing films for free, so we had gone to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch. We ran into Leah, and I hugged her just maybe harder than I’d ever hugged anyone, since she lived at Water Street, and we hadn’t yet heard the confirmations that no NYU students were hurt. By the time we got out and strolled down to Houston, not only the smell of burning steel had reached the air above Canal Street, but the smoke that pushed the smell forward had come out in full force. Everything looked foggy, like some scene from a Jack the Ripper movie. We went straight back up to 14th Street, walking a little faster than on the way down.

The next day, we threw our energies into making sandwiches for Ground Zero rescue workers in one of the NYU dining halls. We got really drunk. We got tattoos. We still maybe didn’t eat much. We go the official word that classes were on for Friday. We cried some more. We went to sleep, and woke up, and nothing else had gotten flown into, for the second full day in a row, and it was a school day, and it was a studio day (read: cathartic movement class), and boy did we all have some shit to work through, some of it more universal, some of it from further downtown, and some of it a bit more personal.

And now, it’s five years later, September 11th, 2006, I’m watching Monday Night Football, and a stadium of fat bastards in I’m not sure which city is waving a sea of probably plastic American flags, a good third of which will probably end up on the concrete floor. Some woman singing along has an indian logo painted on her face, so what city does that make it? I have no idea. I couldn’t give a shit less. Nice singing by the all-military, though. Now, people are chanting "U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" Oh, okay. The Minnesota Vikings at the Washington Redskins. Thanks, sports announcer guys whose names I don’t know.

So I don’t like September 11th.

By which I mean, I much prefer September 12th. The 11th, by default, now means ersatz solemnity, manufactured emotion, and a few million, haunted people who may or may not be glaring daggers at the rest of the country when they talk about flying American flags, and patriotism, and protecting the country, and supporting the troops. Some of us feel - ignorantly, maybe - that we know better, and that the rest of you should shut the hell up. But everything, where the 11th is concerned, is relative. Leah might say, "Shut the hell up, CN. I lived at Water Street. I had to run away from a huge ball of fire and ash when the buildings collapsed. I could see people jumping to their deaths. My mom told me not to look, because she didn’t feel like paying for therapy when I realized I was traumatized." And my aunt might say, "I don’t think it matters whether you lived in New York or D.C. or not. Those attacks struck all of us; they affected all of us. September the 11th wasn’t an attack on New York City and Washington, D.C. - it was an attack on America." The 11th means shock, prejudice, fear, closed-mindedness and numbness to reality today just as much as it did five years ago. The 12th, to me, at least, means the ultimate human experience in honesty and kindness - at the same time, which can’t be said too often. The difference is that tomorrow (or today, or yesterday, whatever, the 12th of September) people will move on and watch House (I love House) and go to therapy and go to the grocery store and not remember to call their mothers (except for me - it’s my mom’s birthday), whereas five years ago, they hugged, and they said hi to strangers, and they made sandwiches for rescue workers whose lungs were being irrevocably damaged, and they prayed, and they wandered down to Houston Street, in the middle of the smoke and asbestos, to pay some kind of weird, silent tribute to about 3,000 people who died on one day, and to thousands more who would die in the years to come.