Tuesday, September 11, 2007

six years later

While driving Max to school this morning, the first time since early June, he turned to me and said, "Today's 9/11." Lost in my own thoughts I asked, "What?" "Today's 9/11." "I know," I said. I'm not sure he even knows where I was six years ago, an idealistic suburban 18-year-old, taking on New York City by storm. I'm not sure he realizes that today is the first "9/11" that again falls on a Tuesday.

After I dropped him off, I switched the radio to AM and listened to WGN. They pieced together an audio montage of their broadcast from that infamous day, beginning with, "Breaking news...we're being told a plane has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City..." I thought to myself how strange it was to hear this announcement sitting in a car, driving down Lake Shore Drive, with the Sears Tower in view...knowing it is 2007 and yet feeling like any second a plane is going to appear out of the cloudless blue and slam into Chicago's tallest skyscraper. Maybe this is how people back home felt as they heard the news, whereas I watched everything unfold from my dorm on Fifth Avenue.

Two years later (9.11.03) I was interviewed by Steve Cochran on this same radio station via phone, while I sat in my 21st-story apartment as a first-semester junior at NYU. Someone recently gave me back the tape I had lent to him three years ago, and the day he did I listened to it on my drive home. Listened to my 20-year-old self recounting my morning of what should have been my fourth day of college classes. My voice sounded so young and naive.

When I switched off WGN this morning, I blindly hit the preset buttons, not sure if I wanted to hear more commemoration speeches or a suitable song. The DJ on WXRT was just finishing talking about the six-year-anniversary, and as she concluded her sentence, there was a moment of silence...followed by the familiar, haunting yet lovely piano intro of "Imagine." I found my voice, not the sugar-coated one from the taped interview, and sang along with Lennon. "You may say I'm a dreamer/But I'm not the only one/I hope some day you will join us/And the world will live as one..." (I recently watched The U.S. vs. John Lennon, and although I've been in love with the revolutionary Beatle for years, I am now borderline obsessed.)

[an accidental double exposure I shot at a Washington Square Park memorial]
I remember coming home from school for Thanksgiving a few months post-terrorism, and my friend Abbey had a party at her house for all different people from high school to reunite and share their college experiences thus far. There were a lot of words thrown around that I could not relate to—alpha, fraternity, beta, sorority, theta, sigma, I got so drunk at this one party...--so I laughed along thinking somehow it makes sense that I am not living a typical college life (as I never really led a typical high school life either). Suddenly, as though my thoughts had appeared on my forehead, people started asking. "So, Alyse, you sure had quite the college welcoming, huh?" "What was it like?" "Where were you?" "What did you see?" "Could you hear the explosions?" "Did you actually SEE the planes HIT the buildings?" "How scared WERE you?" "Were your parents like freaking out?" I felt like someone was stabbing me in the chest, the sharp pains making it hard for me to breathe. I tried to give some answers and then proceeded upstairs and outside, where I paced around to get some fresh air on the the front lawn. I'm still not sure if this physical reaction was purely coincidental or the result of some sort of panic attack. But I do know that other than having to recount "where I was" for a Writing Family History class the following year (Sept. '02), I pretty much pushed it out of my brain (well, besides recurring nightmares while I slept).

This is what I wrote/handed in for the aforementioned assignment:

When my parents first found out I wanted to attend New York University and that it was the only college I was going to apply to they were less than thrilled. My dad told me about a story he saw on 20/20 about a girl who was walking down a street in New York City and a man walking towards her smashed a brick in her face. Extended relatives of mine warned me by sharing their stories of seeing muggings in Times Square. I listened politely to people’s concerns but nothing anyone could say was going to change my mind. On August 26, 2001 I arrived at Samuel Rubin Residence Hall to begin my freshman year at my beloved NYU, and on August 28 I said goodbye to my family as they made the trek back to Hoffman Estates, Illinois. For the next week and a half I explored the city, got lost a few times and enjoyed it, and eagerly awaited the beginning of my first batch of college courses.

On Wednesday, September 5 classes began. Five nights later I answered an e-mail from a favorite high school teacher of mine, Mr. Romano, who had written commenting that it sounded like I was in love, if not with a person, than at least with my surroundings. At 8:46 p.m. I wrote him that yes I was in love with where I lived, how beautiful it was to walk outside and see such unique architecture (an appreciated difference coming from suburban Chicago) and that yes I felt as though I loved someone but did not want to curse it by saying so because technically to be “in love” it required a second person [to admit the same]. Exactly twelve hours later flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11. I woke up before my alarm that day at 8:10 a.m. Ten minutes later Sheryl Crow startled me by singing, “Run baby run baby run…”—8:20 my blaring CD alarm clock. My “to do” list for the day, which was on a yellow Post-It stuck to the side of my computer, read, “Dance 9:30-11, buy books for class, buy black and white film and photo paper, buy Bob Dylan’s new CD, Love and Theft, pick up three rolls of Central Park pictures, class 4:55-6:10, call the health center about getting the meningitis shot, buy Billy Collins’ new book, talk to John on the computer 8-10, return videos.” Around 8:40 Brianna, my roommate, asked if I wanted to join her for breakfast in the dining hall downstairs. I told her no, that if I ate before dance class my scrambled eggs and chocolate milk would be on the floor after one pirouette. A few minutes after she left I heard lots of sirens outside and thought to myself, “People really need to stop pulling fire alarms.” Then I began thinking about which leotard I was going to change into and where had I put my ripped black tights and if I walked to class with my ballet shoes on I might be happier.

Suddenly Brianna burst into the room yelling, “OH MY GOD YOU GUYS (her friend, Rebecca, from L.A. had been staying with us since the past Friday) YOU HAVE TO COME OUTSIDE!! A PLANE JUST CRASHED INTO THE WORLD TRADE CENTER AND YOU CAN SEE IT ALL FROM THE FRONT OF RUBIN!” I just stared at her in disbelief. All I could think was grab your camera. So in my sleepwear—an old tank top, Garfield boxer shorts, and glasses I shoved my telephoto lens onto my 1981 OM10 Olympus and loaded a 24 exposure roll of film. I ran to the elevator and took it down eight flights and out the door. The first photo I got back on the roll was a blurred, crooked image of the numbered buttons in the elevator as we descended. I looked to the left where Fifth Avenue ends at the Washington Arch and past that there were the Twin Towers—one of them with a gaping hole and smoke pouring out of it. SNAP-click-SNAP-click, all I could do was take pictures. Then I stopped. There were people all around—news cameras, a Spanish radio station, tons of NYU students—people stunned, people photographing, people frustrated with dysfunctional cell phones, and people in tears. I remember thinking, “This is such a horrible mistake…the sky is so unnaturally blue…”

So I decided to go back inside, I still had time to get to my dance class. The second plane, flight 93, crashed into the south tower the exact moment I set foot back in the lobby of my dorm. I got to my room as quick as I could and called home. My mom answered and I tried breathlessly to explain what was happening. Back in Illinois she had no idea. She was not an avid TV-watcher and did not just see the flames from the driveway of our cul-de-sac home. She said my dad was at work and my sister was at school. I could only imagine how scared she must have felt—she knew I was going to experience different things as a college student, especially a college student in New York City, but nothing like this. We hung up and I called four of my best friends, only one picked up. I was on the phone with Jenny when Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon—saw it on CNN while I sat on my bed cradling the familiar voice on my shoulder. I felt so afraid and told her I thought the world was ending and that more than anything I wanted to be home. I knew that when I hung up with her the phone lines would be dead, and unfortunately I was right. Then the unthinkable happened. The south tower, the second one struck, collapsed. I ran back downstairs and took photos of the one building—its twin reduced to billows of gray smoke. About a half hour after being back in my room again the TV said the second tower was falling. I started screaming. I went to a girl’s room down the hall whose window looked down onto Fifth Avenue, stood on her desk and stuck myself out the window to photograph the end of the collapse and capture aerial views of the spectators crowding the street. Sidewalks were invisible, people parked wherever possible. Then I went downstairs and photographed the giant smoke cloud from street level. It was so surreal—the buildings just weren’t there anymore. When I got back in the lobby the security guard was yelling to no one, “YOU LOOK AT A POSTCARD OF FROM NEW YORK CITY AND SEE THE WORLD TRADE CENTER—AND IT IS NO LONGER!”

I came back up to my room and signed online. I was immediately bombarded with instant messages from concerned family and friends. My mom updated me on phone calls from people (family, friends, neighbors, teachers…) worried about my location. Thank goodness for the internet or I think my family (and I!) would have been going crazy. I sat at my computer for about six hours, never moving, assuring everyone that—at least physically—I was ok. I talked to my mom for a long time before she had to go to work and then I got to talk to my dad. And amazingly I got to talk to my younger sister, Sheri, who apparently had called home from her high school hysterical. John, my senior-year guidance counselor, who was now Sheri’s counselor and a good friend of mine, took her out of class and let her talk to me on his computer. I typed to both of them with tears streaming down my face. It was the first time I cried, overwhelmed with people’s kindness. In the midst of this crazy mess there were wonderful people with comforting words. And I somehow got to talk on the phone one more time to Mr. Anderson, a wonderful teacher I had for three years in high school, another good friend.

Then I felt like I just couldn’t stay in there any longer and decided to go for a walk to return movies to Hollywood Video. I kept my eyes and ears open and my camera in hand. Each small group of people I passed was either talking about blood types or about family members out of state. The only sound was the methodical, solemn chiming of the church clock. It was an eerie silence. I had become immune to sirens but even those were absent. I stood in the middle of University Place, Broadway, and 4th Avenue to take pictures down the street of the smoke polluting the blue overhead (that’s how empty the streets were). On my way back a huge line of people crossed me, most with gas masks hanging around their necks. I shivered.

When I arrived back at the dorm I realized I hadn’t eaten all day so I went to the dining hall and inhaled my food. When I got back to my room American Beauty was almost ending. “It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world.” I thought about that and about how pretty the sky had been all day, but the only thing I could render beautiful were the people in my life who I could not be with at this time—the people who knew me, the people who had seen me cry, the people who I loved. I had a difficult time falling asleep that night, but eventually, curled in a fetal position, holding my stuffed animal dog, I closed my eyes and dreamt for about four hours about nothing

[Wallflowers Break:
I need a bed/That nobody’s slept in/I need some air/Nobody’s been breathing/I need a thought/That I can believe in/Is this fog/Or is the building really burning/I need you now/Much more than ever/I’m making new friends/But none of them matter/Maybe now /We don’t fit together/But you’ve got your arms around/No one but strangers]

The impact of my experiences surrounding these events didn't really affect me until several years later when I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 in the movie theater. I went with a few friends and we sat in the middle of one of the front rows. I wasn't sure what to expect, although I had mentally prepared myself to see the plane(s) shatter the towers once again. Instead the screen went black and terrifying audio reels replaced the expected fiery image and left me paralyzed, wide-eyed and panicky in my seat. I wanted to bolt out of the theater but I felt trapped, physically, but also metaphysically, surrounded by people who had no idea what it was like to have seen and heard and smelled and tasted what I had. Interestingly enough, I came across my friend (and incidentally my former freshman-year roommate), Brianna's, blog last year right around the 5th anniversary. My jaw dropped as I read the conclusion of her entry about Sept. 11. Although on the actual day we had polar opposite reactions (i.e. she already had friends and drank the day away, whereas I sat by myself and wrote in my journal for several hours), eight hundred miles apart (i was home for summer break) and almost three years later, we apparently had the same turning point--that one "scene."

Despite my unexpected reaction, I soon after became drawn to the subject. Last year I saw United 93 by myself, World Trade Center with my friend, Shawna, and her boyfriend (neither of which were easy to sit through) and read one of my favorite books to date, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer. The story is told from the point of view of an overly-thoughtful, eccentric 9-year-old boy named Oskar, who loses his dad when the towers fall. I maintain that he is one of the best characters ever created.

"Mom said, 'His spirit is there,' and that made me really angry. I told her, 'Dad didn't have a spirit! He had cells!' 'His memory is there.''His memory is here,' I said, pointing at my head. 'Dad had a spirit,' she said, like she was rewinding a bit in our conversation. I told her, 'He had cells, and now they're on rooftops, and in the river, and in the lungs of millions of people around New York, who breathe him every time they speak!'"

A few months ago, I read Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic book, The Road, which although is not directly correlated with 9/11, I consistently made references to the event during a virtual book club I had with my friend Abbi. Here’s one of my comments I sent her:

page 190: What you put in your head is there forever? [this sentence (well, question) i kept coming back to....i think it's the second time he asks this so far too...i hope i'm not overbearing with the sept. 11 references...but i kept thinking of the time in my life when every time i closed my eyes, i saw a plane fly into a building and a subsequent explosion...i mean it's bad enough (well maybe not bad, but overwhelming) that i retain so many details, but when it's those kind of details, they really are in your head "forever"]

And just this morning I finished reading Don Delillo's new book, Falling Man, a novel about September 11, a man who survives the collapse and how he and his family interact with each other, the city and their own thoughts in the aftermath.
Here are some direct quotes I underlined:

"...he understood that they could talk about these things only with each other, in minute and dullest detail, but it would never be dull or too detailed because it was inside them now and because he needed to hear what he'd lost in the tracings of memory."

"He said, 'It still looks like an accident, the first one. Even from this distance, way outside the thing, how many days later, I'm standing here thinking it's an accident.'...'The second plane, by the time the second plane appears,' he said, 'we're all a little older and wiser.'"

"These are the days after. Everything now is measured by after."

"...but every time he boarded a flight he glanced at faces on both sides of the aisle, trying to spot the man or men who might be a danger to them all."

"Keith looked into the waterfall. This was better than closing his eyes. If he closed his eyes, he'd see something."

The following is a poem I wrote (counterpart titles almost) some time during the initial aftermath, following the removal of a controversial sculpture placed in public space:

Tumbling Woman

I am better off jumping you think
And you are falling
And you are somersaulting
The sky is blue
But you see flames
I see blue
And I see you
There goes an airplane
Here comes the explosion
And you are clawing
And you are crying
Wind drumming your ears
Your legs twist sideways
A man catches you naked in bronze
Just before
Your head strikes steel

But there are no towers
And your statue’s been removed
From public eyes
They say you are too graphic
So where are you
Oh tumbling woman?

Before we departed for Israel this past July, Abbey asked if I’d go visit Ground Zero with her during our brief stint in NYC. I purposely had not been down there since December, 2001, when two other friends, Amy and Carrie, visited me at school, and the three of us went down there on what happened to be the last night before they tore down the only remaining solid structure. Every visitor after that who asked to go see the destruction, I sent on their own with a subway map and apologetically refused to join them on their voyeuristic journeys.
This time, though, I decided to go. What I did in NYC those few days seemed to somehow matter to my upcoming Israel trip, and I can’t really explain why, but I said “Ok” to Abbey.
The space is a cavernous hole now with too many machines disruptively digging the mass grave. Commuters come and go through the busy MTA and PATH stations, most not stopping to look out past the grated barrier. I think it’s a bad idea that they’re building the Freedom Tower and think it’s overly patriotic and pompous to build the monstrosity 1,776 feet tall. What makes them think this one won’t be blown apart? I’m all for memorials, but to me a giant glass tower is not memorializing, it’s materializing.

One more poem. This one I wrote on the one-year anniversary, as I stared out the window of my high-rise apartment during the designated moment of silence at 8:46 a.m.

this is the day everyone looks up

one year later a woman stands
on her balcony
she doesn’t look at anything
but the roofs of buildings
around her
they are intact
so is the sky
the wind moves her hair slightly
and with a forgiving breath
she returns inside

[taken on bus upon arriving back in NYC after 11 days in Israel, 7.24.07]

I’m debating posting my week-long daily journal entries from that time period...maybe if I find time today.


Sharon said...

wow, alyse... thanks for this.

Abbi Togtman said...

I know it sucks how this has affected and haunted you over the years, but I'm grateful to you for helping me to remember throughout the past six years that this happened and it's not something that just affects us one day a year.

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