It’s officially 10 years later, which is bizarre to think about. 9/11 is easily one of my most vivid memories of my young 20s, and it really feels like it happened yesterday. At the same time, it’s not really a subject I talk about a lot. New Yorkers who were there that day all have a story like mine, all of them mundane and uninteresting compared to the people who were actually downtown and working close by. It’s also such a violently unhappy subject that it’s never really discussed casually. New Yorkers pride themselves on their stoicism and resilience, so it’s de rigueur to be “sick of talking about it.” After all, we did live and breathe it (literally) for months afterwards.
But in the years since, a larger percentage of my friends were not in New York that day, and have been curious to hear about what it was like. Some are young enough to have been in school when it happened. So on today, I might as well add to the piles of remembrances. I can offer no tale of heroism or great tragedy, but rather some small details that might better fill in the blanks of what it was like.
I was on my way to work at Central Park Media, where I had a part-time job as a video editor while going to film school, where I was a sophomore. It was around 9:15. It was a gorgeous September morning after a big storm the day before; the air smelled clean and the sky was blue. But from my above-ground subway platform in Astoria, there was a huge, black plume of smoke coming from Lower Manhattan. A man who had seen the impacts told us what had happened: two planes had hit each tower. It was clearly not an accident. Chills ran down my spine, as they did for all of us on that crowded subway platform. The train in was as silent as I’d ever heard.
I got off the train and ran to work (I worked for Central Park Media at the time, near Columbus Circle). I met John O’Donnell, the colorful boss of the company, who greeted me with a hearty “Good morning!” Ashen faced, I asked if he had been watching the news. He hadn’t. I told him, and he disappeared, presumably to go home (a block away) and be with his wife before returning to the office. I entered the office and joined the large group of co-workers huddled in front of a TV (that was normally never used for actual TV watching and was fashioned with cheap rabbit ears, and getting a fuzzy image from WNBC). There was joking and snarking. After all, planes had flown into buildings in NYC before, and while this was a tragedy, it was more of an event at this point. As we heard about people jumping, things got slightly more serious.
And then the first tower fell. I let out a gasp. My friend Ronnie grabbed my hand. And as soon as that happened, something in me switched to survival mode. Manhattan was under siege. I had no idea if we’d be able to make it home. A co-worker and I immediately went across the street to the grocery store to buy water and ramen. By the time I got back, the second tower was gone. I had no interest in watching TV. The phone lines were jammed, but somehow I got a call through to my mother, who answered with a “Oh THANK GOD.” It was the last phone call I was able to successfully make that day.
There was a strong feeling of, “what happens next?” going through my mind. War of some kind seemed certain, but against who? Scenes from war films and anime played through my head. Would there be a draft? Nobody knew yet who was behind the hijackings, or even the extent of what was going on — we were hearing all sorts of terrifying information, both true and false. One report had the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial being bombed, another had several more aircraft being hijacked. And then there was the Pentagon. The world seemed to be ending. I went onto an IRC channel I frequented at the time, and let them know that me and my coworkers were fine and unaffected. To those who don’t live in NYC, the World Trade Center is RIGHT THERE, but to a New Yorker, those 2-3 miles mean that it’s on the far side of town.
It was a little bit after noon. After a few weak attempts at getting us to do some work (“we’re not going anywhere, might as well get stuff done!”), John relented and let us all go home. Many of us lived in New Jersey and were facing uncertain commutes, as most mass transit had been shut down by this point. As I lived across the river in Queens, I geared up for a long walk home across the Queensborough Bridge. Car traffic was slowed to a stop as people flooded into the streets on foot. I was joined by my buddy Frank, and we bantered as we crossed, trying to keep ourselves from going crazy. It was hard not to — as we looked down 5th Avenue we could see the street end in a large, all-encompassing dark cloud. From the bridge, we saw bomber planes circling Manhattan. It was nothing I ever could have imagined happening. As we got to the foot of the bridge, the offices in Queens, eager to help, were handing out water from their office water coolers to people. One of many small acts of kindness I saw on that day and the days hence.
I arrived home at my cramped little apartment in Astoria. I’d only moved out of the dorms a few months earlier, and was really grateful to have a place in a comparatively quiet and out-of-the-way neighborhood to which I could retreat. I stopped for some Chinese takeout and switched on the news. The true impact of what had happened didn’t really hit me until a few hours later. The news broadcast an ad-hoc interview with the daughter of a firefighter, who was praying for her dad’s safety. It was at that point that I lost it and started crying, knowing full well how this girl’s story was going to end.
After a while I switched off the news, and after a few attempts, managed to get through to my parents over a land line. I updated them on my situation, and sat down, trying to think of what to do next. I popped in the one movie I could think of that dealt realistically with a large city under siege after a major terrorist attack: Patlabor 2. I needed to get some sense of what was to come. Having that as a reference helped, though it was hardly reassuring.
The next day Mayor Giuliani asked all New Yorkers to stay home if we were at all able. I was. Initially I tried watching the news (there WAS no normal programming at this point), but the news team was so barren of subject matter that just about anybody could get on and say something if they deemed it appropriate. I watched, appalled, as 1st-year film students got to show off their “tribute video” to the whole city, which consisted of a few minutes of terrible amateur footage from around their neighborhood, sloppily slammed together in Final Cut Pro, with text screens rendered in the program’s default font. At that point my friend Ronnie called and asked if I wanted to hang out at a friends’ place in upper Manhattan. Thank god. I don’t remember much of that afternoon, other than the feeling of relief.
The next day I went back into work. Depending on which way the wind shifted, you could occasionally smell Ground Zero, a noxious and unusual odor that combined jet exhaust, musty old-building smell, and spray-on building insulation. It made your eyes water. Nobody could concentrate at all. I still hadn’t established contact with several friends. None of us really had grasped the enormity of the situation yet, but work seemed futile and pointless. By 3 or 4 pm we called it a day and headed over to the bar we frequented.
I wasn’t feeling much like drinking either, so I left the bar and went for a walk. I wandered down Broadway towards Times Square, which was more or less completely deserted. Every single glowing display and monitor in the entire intersection had been stripped of its usual advertisements, and were now displaying the EXACT SAME animated graphic of a waving American flag. It was one of the most unsettling moments of my life.
At first, nobody could go below 14th Street, and the next day nobody was allowed below Canal Street. Finally, on Friday the 14th they allowed pedestrian access to the rest of Lower Manhattan, albeit in a very controlled manner. I took my camcorder and, after stopping in Brooklyn Heights at my old college dorm to check on a few friends, made my way from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade (where, with its spectacular view of Lower Manhattan, some friends of mine endured the trauma of directly witnessing the impact), then into the subway.
Here is the video I took. Ground Zero was still smoldering. All of Lower Manhattan was covered in thick grey dust, which stuck to windows and awnings. Hastily made Missing Persons signs were stuck to every street post and public space. The air stank so strongly of Ground Zero smell that it was hard to breathe. Eventually I made my way through the controlled walkways to Canal Street, where the merchants of the cheap and tacky had already brought out enough American Flag crap to sink a battleship. They’d also already made WTC memorial T-shirts (some of which bore the incredibly tacky slogan, “I can’t believe I made it out!”). Vendors with photos of the twin towers were doing the most brisk business. As Chinatown had been dealt a huge blow by the closing of Lower Manhattan, I was somewhat understanding of their ceaseless opportunism.
I was going to college at the same time, but school was called off for the next two weeks, and some friends of mine refused to even go into the city. However, my job at the time was to help put on the first Big Apple Anime Fest, which was less than two months away. Guests were canceling (“Manhattan isn’t safe,” they said, which kind of pissed us off). Our big premiere feature film, Metropolis, featured a scene at the end with a skyscraper collapsing. One of our autograph venues, J&R Music World, was two blocks away from Ground Zero. The task before us was daunting, but that meant I had work to lose myself in. I was pretty grateful for that.
The next few months are something of a blur for me. There was a heavy, surreal feeling that one gets from large events that are hard to process. The songs I was listening to (mostly K-pop) became etched into my memory as all being a part of that one big shell-shocked mood. The resulting political spin didn’t surprise or offend me — I was simply numb to it.
By the time Big Apple Anime Fest rolled around, the rationale for the convention had been turned into an act of respite for fellow New Yorkers as well as an act of patriotism. It all seemed a little tacky to me, but I didn’t question it (much). We got a picture somehow of Rudy Giuliani holding up a BAAF T-shirt, and the bizarre jingoism that John espoused became the mood of the event. J&R Music World re-opened just in time for our autograph signings there (which were sparsely attended, and indeed you couldn’t stand outside the store without your eyes still watering from the smell).
9/11 became a way of life for us. NY1, the local all-news cable channel, was basically the 9/11 channel. Sob stories became part of the fabric of the day-to-day. Slowly, the event receded into our subconscious. We stopped thinking about it so much. By the time many of us went home for Christmas, relatives that were still shell-shocked about it asked us, “Are you all right?! What’s going on in New York!?” to which we replied, “HUH? What happened?!” (One relative of mine said, “Well, at least this proved to me that New Yorkers aren’t all jerks,” after which I barely resisted the urge to punch him in the face.)
I should mention here that, of everyone in NYC, I got off incredibly lucky. I was at least two degrees removed from knowing anyone that lost their lives, and the Financial District was not an area I frequented (although I did shop and wander around the mall under the World Trade Center on a few occasions, and once wandered into the hotel area by accident). My entire experience of 9/11 was as a part of the damaged city itself. Though I heard about a few acts of racism against Arab and Indian Americans, I never saw any. To me the whole city had just proven itself as having the highest quality human beings on the planet. It filled me with pride to be a New Yorker, and to be able to have a day to day life that, in a forced, juvenile way, could be thought of as a middle finger to the terrorists by simply continuing as normal.
And yet, things couldn’t really be called “normal.” American flags sprung up prominently everywhere (after president GW Bush suggested we all display it), each one an uneasy reminder of what had transpired. And every once in a while, during a quiet moment, maybe tipped off by an old photo of New York that still featured the towers, the memory of the day, pushed down deep, would spring right back into vivid reality. Just for a split second. It happens to me, still.