We have a weekly calendar that hangs at kid-eye-level so instead of asking me “What do we have today?” 183 times each morning, the kids can just check themselves. This affords me a few extra seconds which I, in turn, use to reheat the same cup of coffee over and over again.
Since school began, I’ve been asking the Nibbit to figure out the day’s date and then check the school lunch menu himself. (No, he can’t really read it yet, but he knows important things like “pizza has two z’s.”)
“Today is September 11th, Mom!”
I just paused for a second because it was so strange to hear that date come out my five-year-old’s mouth… obviously, without any weight.
On one hand, thank God their little heads aren’t aware of the depth of evil in this world. In their world “bad guys” are still the comic book villains of Batman and Lotso, the mean teddy bear in Toy Story 3.
Just the other day, we had this conversation:
Nibbit: Happy Dude, that guy is Dark Vader. He’s from a Star Wars movie. You didn’t see that movie yet.
Me: You haven’t seen that movie yet either, Nib. And his name is DARTH Vader.
Nibbit: No, it’s Dark Vader. I’m sure.
Me: Hmm. Well, I’m sure you’re wrong. But if you want to call him that, go ahead.
Nib: He’s DARK Vader because he’s a really bad guy. And because he wears a black coat and mask.
HD: Bad guys are just in the movies and books, right Mom?
<heart. breaking. a. tiny. bit.>
On the other hand, this date is important. Monumentally important.
I want them to know what happened, because it’s an important date in our history, and I want to be the one who tells them because I want them to hear about the HEROS. The firefighters and police officers who rushed INTO those burning buildings to save people. The everyday people who sacrificed their lives to help strangers. The heroic acts of bravery on Flight 93 that saved thousands of lives. The helpers.
I want them to learn to look for the helpers.
So, when do we tell them? Certainly the boys are too young, but the Loud One is eight years old… is now the time?
There’s no way around it; the story of 9/11 will absolutely shatter the illusion that bad guys are only in movies and books. I want to get to them before some kid on the playground explains September 11th in a different way that I will.
Because someday, all-too-soon, my response to “Today is September 11th, Mom!” will be…
“You know honey, we should talk about this date. There are some heroes I want to tell you about.”
This is my 9/11 story. It is not tragic or unique and I am eternally grateful for that.
You don’t have to read it – it’s long and it may be boring to you. Especially if you have a real story. But we all have our memories of that day… I’m just writing mine down as best as I can remember them so someday when my kids ask, “Where were you on 9/11?” I can just have them read this.
I was living in Greenwich Village and working in Tribeca at the time but that morning, I had an appointment to bring my car in for an oil change and was heading into midtown to the car dealership. I had told my boss that I would be a little late to work that morning.
At 8:46am, instead of sitting at my desk on Worth Street (btw W. Broadway and Church… about 8 blocks from the World Trade Center towers), I was pulling into the Lexus dealership on 47th and Eleventh when I heard the news of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.
At that point, nobody really knew what happened. The reporter was speculating that it had been some kind of accident with a prop plane. I ran into the dealership and yelled, “Do you guys have a TV somewhere? There’s been a plane crash downtown.” The news was confusing; there were conflicting reports about what happened.
I decided to forget about the oil change and drive down to the office to see what was going on. I’m not sure why I thought heading downtown would be a good idea, but luckily, I was able to connect with my boss right away (later it would become very difficult to make a phone call), who told me to stay put.
I said, “Hey Bob, what’s going on down there… I’m heading down now…” and he interrupted me by yelling, “Kris! Carolyn saw the plane hit!! She said it was NOT a small plane, but a huge passenger jet! We can’t see anything out the windows, people are going crazy, they’ve put us on lockdown, DO NOT COME DOWN HERE!! Go home and I will call you as soon as I can!!”
As soon as I hung up, I heard the news on the car radio that a second plane had flown into the second tower. I was still pulled over trying to figure out what to do when my cell phone rang … it was my Mom and she was FREAKING OUT.
“Kris! Oh my God, are you OK? Are you at the office? What’s going on?”
I told her I was fine, sitting in my car in midtown.
She said, “PLEASE COME HOME! KRIS, PLEASE COME HOME!!!!”
Home was her house, in Montville, NJ, of course. I decided that I would do that… we still didn’t really know what was going on, but I figured, “Well, I probably won’t go to work today (ha!), so I may as well go see Mom.” I drove south to head to the Lincoln Tunnel and the traffic was already backed up like crazy… people were fleeing the city. I slowly inched forward and was about three cars away from the entrance when they shut it down. All bridges and tunnels into and out of Manhattan were CLOSED.
My Mom, who had refused to hang up the phone with me in fear of not being able to connect again (she was smart like that!), was not happy. I assured her that I was going to drive STRAIGHT to my apartment and stay there until further notice. I finally convinced her to hang up with me (and she was right, it took hours to reconnect).
So, I was driving south on Fifth Avenue to my apartment on Mercer Ave. and it’s that view that I’ll never forget.
It was like a scene from a movie: the towers straight ahead, on fire and the thickest, black smoke superimposed on the clearest, brightest blue sky. In some ways, I wish I had taken a picture; in other ways, I’m glad I didn’t.
When I lived in Colorado, my roommates and I used to joke that there was a “Scenery Guy” who would pull down the shade every morning with the image of the beautiful Flatirons printed on it – it was just that they were almost too beautiful to be true.
I kept thinking that in the car that morning – c’mon Scenery Guy, just pull up the shade… don’t let this be horror be real.
As I drove down Fifth Ave., I remember feeling comforted by the fact that the few cars on the road (aside from the many emergency vehicles) were still obeying traffic laws… stopping at red lights, using turn signals, etc. I kept thinking, “It can’t be THAT bad or everyone would be going crazy like in the movies.” I was wrong.
Every time I stopped at a red light, people would swarm my car to hear the news on the radio. “What are they saying now? What’s happening down there? Where should we go? How many people are dead? Are the rest of us safe?” Nobody knew anything.
Then we all heard the news of Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania and Flight 77 hitting the Pentagon. What would be next?
I eventually made it home to my apartment and like almost everyone else in the world, proceeded to watch the news for the next umpteen hours. It was very surreal to see the terrifying images of the towers falling and know that it was really happening only 25 blocks away. I kept looking out my window, but all I could see was that same clear, blue sky and dark, black smoke.
At this point, I couldn’t reach anyone by phone. My Dad and Paula lived in the city but they were traveling in Italy at the time. Some of my other family members were in the city but there was no way to connect with everyone. Phone lines were overloaded.
In a fortuitous plot twist, the very first phone call I received at home was actually from KJ, who was in Alabama at the time. We were just friends back then, but he knew my office was downtown and was worried. I assured him I was fine, although he claims I didn’t sound fine, and we hung up.
The hours went by. My friend Smitty came over and we watched in disbelief together. At some point, we tried to leave the apartment, but we only made it to the front of the building before deciding it didn’t feel right. We went back upstairs, back to the news.
At some point that night, they reopened the bridges and tunnels and my Mom called to tell me that my uncle and his son-in-law were stranded in the city and were desperately trying to get home to their families. Finally, there was something I could do.
I picked them up and we drove home to NJ together. Crossing the GW Bridge was eerie and terrifying. There were NO cars on the road. I kept imagining the two different scenes… people all huddled together in their homes, either thanking God for their safety or praying for the safe return of their missing loved ones.
I stayed with my Mom for one or two days and then decided to go back to the city. (As you can imagine she was NOT happy about this.)
At that point, the overwhelming emotion was just a desire to help. EVERYONE just wanted to do something. The expressions of compassion and support were everywhere, as ubiquitous as the “Missing” flyers that were being stapled all over downtown Manhattan.
My brother, Neil and I walked downtown to volunteer and were told they already had too many people.
Too many helpers!
My office was closed for many weeks so the company’s owners set up a makeshift work station at their apartment. When our office building finally reopened, I had to walk through two security checkpoints to get there – one at Houston and one at Canal Street. Soldiers with machine guns would check my ID and then let me pass.
I was extremely lucky to have not been in the office that day. While everyone in our building was safe, the horrors they witnessed were painful and haunting.
Nothing was normal for a long time. People were kinder, and also nervous. The air didn’t smell or feel right for a long time. We went to candlelight vigils in Union Square and Washington Square Park. And the flyers were everywhere. The personal stories of loss started coming out. The New York Times started printed what was later called, “Portraits of Grief.” Everyone talked about who they knew. For a while, it felt like everyone was tip-toeing around the city, out of respect.
But time went on. After a while, it felt OK to talk about something else. To smile and laugh without feeling guilty. To feel hopeful.
I’ll never forget the World Series that October where the energy was insane and the wanting was palpable. I still hate the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Similarly, at the U2 concert at Madison Square Garden that October, we all just cried as they played One and flashed the names of people who died just weeks earlier. But there was also a sense of resiliency and strength. And when the firefighters took the stage? Ugly cry.
Eventually, New Yorkers got their footing back, stopped tip-toeing and started stomping again. As it should be.
These are my memories of September 11th, 2001. #neverforget