On the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, I was in French class learning about how to craft stereotypes. No, really.
I might always have remembered that class even were it not for the world events that I knew nothing of at the time, because it was the hardest time I have ever had staying awake in a class. There was no good reason why this should be – I had gotten enough sleep, had even woken up early enough to say morning prayers (which I always tried to do but rarely managed) and have a civilized breakfast. I had also had a brisk, invigorating walk to class, because in spite of my early start, I had ended up on the verge of running late. I lived at the lowest point in the area, and my class was at the highest, and I had had to speed through the fifteen-to-twenty-minute uphill walk, while holding a pile of books and a watercolor painting I was desperately trying not to smudge. There was a shuttle service that I could have taken (and that probably would have had the radio on) but I had never used it before, so I went on foot and alone. Because I was cutting things so close, I checked my watch every few seconds to see what sort of time I was making. I didn't know that anything was happening at 8:46 and 9:02 am, but I know where I was.
My class ran from 9:10 to 10:30, and ran as usual; if anyone knew anything more than I did, there was no sign. It was early in the year and most people showed up on the early side, so they had probably all left their dorms before there was any news to hear. It wasn't a boring class, but for some reason I could barely keep my eyes open. It was torture, and I sat there, minute by minute, praying to stay awake. I wanted nothing more than to lay down on the table and sleep. On top of that, I knew had plans that afternoon to go into town with my roommate and buy proper ballet clothes. (We were taking a class together, and had had to go to the first session looking spectacularly ridiculous.) It had the potential to be a fun errand, but at the moment I could not imagine enjoying anything that would come between me and a pillow. Finally, we split up for group work, and it became a little easier to stay awake.
After class I was supposed to meet up with a friend who lived next to the humanities quad, whose scanner I was going to use to turn the painting I was carrying into the background for a web page. By this point, I was determined to ask her if I could catch a nap in her bed while I was at it. As I walked down the stairs to her quad I passed people talking about the Palestinians taking responsibility, and figured something had blown up in Israel again – almost 'as usual', I thought. It was weird, how these things could go on in the world, and here in the college bubble you'd never know unless you talked to someone or checked the news. You'd like to think that there was some sort of global telepathy where, if something of significance happened, you'd know. Passing the second floor of her dorm, I heard someone saying something about New York.
She lived on the third floor, my freshman hall. Every door was closed but hers – at 10:30 am in a college dorm, it wasn't weird to see people who didn't have class still asleep – and I could hear that she had the TV on. I was unreasonably annoyed at this, because it interfered with my nap plans (I wasn't about to ask her to turn it off) and because I really wasn't in the mood for the soap operas and talk shows that were all I could imagine being on at mid-morning.
"The World Trade Center just fell down," she said.
It took a minute or two before I could figure out what questions to even ask. I didn't know any of the things that pretty much everyone else in the world had learned in the previous two hours. I had no context at all.
Her TV was showing footage of what must have been the North Tower collapsing. The previous summer in Baltimore, the city had taken to disposing of old, run-down buildings by setting off structured explosions that sent them collapsing in on themselves. It was a spectator event, sort of like fireworks. All I could think was that this must be another such event, though why they were knocking down the World Trade Center, I couldn't imagine. But I had never had a particularly good sense of the New York skyline, or even of the difference between the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building, and I wouldn't necessarily have known if there had been a planned demolition in the works. Maybe they'd discovered a design flaw, and had decided to knock it down and replace it with something even bigger. It made as much sense as anything else.
I finally managed to ask something. She told me that the tower had been hit by a plane.
"On purpose?" I asked. I remembered the plane that had hit the Empire State Building during WWII, and momentarily forgot that air navigation had improved exponentially since the 40s, and that the Empire State Building and WTC were different buildings.
Something in the balance of her knowledge and my ignorance finally clicked, and she explained that these were commercial jets, and that they'd also hit the Pentagon. She, or the TV, may have mentioned that some Palestinian group had claimed responsibility, but that the two main suspects were Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. The TV visuals, meanwhile, were showing what was clearly action movie footage.
I finally began to understand. Sort of.
I tried to make phone calls, and got through to my parents' phone in Maryland, but not to my roommate down the street. My friend drove me back to my dorm, past the security guards stationed at the campus entrance. Our suite didn't have a television, but the radio was on; a voice that sounded like a cross between an NPR newscaster and a military air traffic controller was talking about the fourth missing plane, which was supposed to have hit Pittsburgh. This scared me most of all: attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon were terrifying, but if terrorists were targeting Pittsburgh, I felt, then nowhere was safe. (Later, when it was known that the fourth plane had crashed in rural Pennsylvania, I found myself in a knot of people from Baltimore, West Hartford, and Columbus, all quietly relieved to be from decidedly second-tier cities.)
I remember the university chaplain, asked to speak at the all-school service in front of the library, raising his hands in a powerless, wordless gesture. I remember the Orthodox Jewish chaplain, in lieu of trying to explain anything, blowing the shofar. I remember sitting by the open door of the Jewish chapel in case anyone felt the need to go in, talking with friends and trying to assure ourselves that everyone we knew from New York, and their families, were accounted for.
And the sky was so blue.
The next day, I went online and downloaded every photo I could find of the events, and of the World Trade Center, before and after. A while later I went through and deleted the photos that showed people falling, or the faces of people grieving – it didn't seem respectful to them to have them – but I still have the rest on my computer, in a file labeled 9-11. I don't know why I created it; I don't know why I still have it. They're not in any order, and they all still have their original file names. Most of them are small, pulled from online newspaper articles: Photos of people giving blood and of Bush on the phone (looking, come to think of it, really young), of candlelight vigils and circling fighter planes and worried people in airports and Clinton talking to the press (probably also looking young, but in my mind none of the people who were president when I was a kid ever get older). And the second plane flying past the burning North Tower, and the hole in the Pentagon, and the dust lying over Ground Zero like snow, disturbed only by marks from people's windshield-wipers. People on the subway reading headlines declaring "It's War," and the sign at Wrigley Field announcing the game cancelled, and someone carrying away a piece of airplane, with a fire truck in the background. And smoke billowing out from behind the Empire State Building, and the Washington Monument, and the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty, and a circle of rescue workers in Pennsylvania. And pedestrians in DC stepping their ways home amid a thicket of gridlocked cars that didn't move.
Reading the Metro this morning over breakfast, I saw that CNN.com was running a complete repetition of their 9/11 coverage, and thought that maybe I should try to catch some of it, to relive what I'd missed the first time. The rest of the Five Years Later articles didn't do much for me, for whatever reason. I leafed through the rest of the paper, the normal news of today, then glanced over at the daily cartoon. Two typically goofy-looking characters were walking and talking; one of them was saying "You know, it's been five years since September 11, but every time I see an airplane I still look up" – and a jet passes overhead and he does look up – "just to make sure that everything's okay."
I blinked at it for a moment, wondering where the punchline was.
Then I started to cry.