I woke up this morning wanting to write. And I had taken a ton of notes yesterday on what I wanted to write about and it isn’t at all what I’m about to say.
I felt like it wouldn’t be appropriate, not today, to write about anything but what happened to our country 15 years ago.
I don’t talk with anybody about what I’m about to share with you, except to my husband, who knows where I was and why I always cry over breakfast on this date, as I expect many of us do. When people ask where I was, I answer simply, “on the train” and go no further. I guess I’ve always felt like my story wasn’t valid, that because I didn’t lose anybody (thankfully) that it didn’t matter as much as those that did.
But perhaps that’s part of a bigger problem: People don’t share enough or at all because they deny the validity of their stories and feelings. And when we don’t share, we don’t connect.
I believe that all our stories are legitimate simply because they are our own, as individual and unique as we each are to one another. And who has the right to judge the ways we are each of us affected by those stories and changed by them? No one. Not even myself.
So here’s my story…
I remember waking up late. I remember I was a sophomore at NYU and I was rushing to get to a class that I didn’t really care about but needed to take because it was a requirement. I remember I was on the train and the train kept stopping and starting and like any New Yorker I was cursing the MTA in my head.
And then just before the train was going to cross the Manhattan Bridge it stopped again and the conductor came on and it was really scratchy and he said something about a plane crash. I remember not thinking anything of it and still being frustrated that I was going to be late for class again. I hate remembering that I thought this way.
Then someone started preaching about the end of days and shit got scary. I became uneasy because I had watched too many horror movies to know that when people start quoting the Bible in public it’s because they think it really is the end of days.
Now I wanted to get off the train really badly but it wasn’t moving so I started to think about ways I could get off. I thought maybe I would have to walk through the train tunnels back to the last stop in Brooklyn and then, shit, I was really going to be late because it was already a little after 9am.
And then the train started to move, very slowly.
We started to creep onto the bridge. The train stopped, my car right in the center of the bridge. Silently, every person on the train turned to look out the window and we all watched as a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, which already had another plane in flames inside of it.
I remember going numb. I remember thinking it wasn’t real, that it couldn’t possibly be. And I didn’t realize it at the time but the skyline I knew so well, the one I took for granted, would never be the same.
The train started to move and people prayed aloud. Someone was singing. My heart started to race and I lost my hearing for a bit (something that used to happen a lot).
We got to West 4th street and as soon as I got out of the station, I started walking to class not even thinking it would be cancelled. I got to the middle of Washington Square Park and people were screaming and there was another perfect view of the towers. I remember thinking, “Poor Freshman. They’ve only just started.”
I picked up my phone and called my mom. I started to have a full blown panic attack. I heard her tell her co-workers that I was having a panic attack and she tried to calm me down but it was hard over the phone and it took a while. My mom finally snapped me out of it and said that my dad was stuck in New Jersey so to not go to the store we had on Bleecker Street but rather to where I worked at the time around the corner, the restaurant Da Silvano.
So that’s where I went. It was on Sixth Avenue. Another perfect view. There were droves and droves of people walking up the avenue from downtown. It looked like the zombie apocalypse.
We started to hand out water. Strangers exchanged cell phones thinking that it was the phone or their particular service that was a problem, but barely anyone could get through to anyone. I couldn’t get through to my sister. And I was scared to all hell that I had lost the most important person in my life, even though she worked nowhere near there. It was hard to think with any rationale that day.
And then I heard about the plane that hit the Pentagon, where my uncle worked at the time, and I called my cousin and couldn’t get through. I had this fear that everyone I knew was dead.
My co-workers and I stood in the middle of Sixth Avenue and watched the flames and hugged and cried. I hugged and cried with strangers. We all needed to hug and cry and watch because this was our city and it really didn’t matter who knew whom, because on that day we were all related.
I don’t remember too much of what happened next. I know that I somehow got in touch with my sister and my Aunt Maria who worked near her. I remember them walking down to get me and then taking the train up to my Uncle Carlos’s job in midtown and driving to New Jersey to my sister’s place. I remember sleeping on her couch and wearing her clothes to bed and I remember waking up the next day and finding out my Uncle was safe because he was on the other side of the Pentagon.
The city was eerie for a long time after that. Quiet. I remember going back to class a few days later not because I had to but because I just wanted to be around people. We just sat there in silence. We tried to talk about what happened but didn’t know how.
It was so inexplicable and no one could make sense of it. If I didn’t see it happen, I don’t know if I could ever fully believe it did, even today, when year after year people post about it on Facebook, and there are memorials, and it’s everywhere on the news.
It’s been 15 years and it’s still feels like one of those dreams you have that you can’t tell if it’s real or not. But it’s real.
New York has resumed its fast busy pace and we’ve started not looking at each other again, not because we are terrible people but because that’s just the way this city works: it’s a living, breathing organism that evolves at a quick pace and we have to keep up. It vibrates with energy and I’m almost positive I’ve heard it breathe.
But on that day and for many days after, New York slowed down, not to a halt, but just enough so that strangers could hug and cry and connect.
That I remember, that I will never forget.