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.