“NOT SINCE PEARL HARBOR …” were the first words I heard as I flicked on the TV that brilliant, blue-skyed Tuesday. It was late morning.
My Dad had been at Pearl Harbor during the bombing. In fact, he’d had to dive for his life as an enemy plane sprayed bullets about him, interrupting his serene Sunday morning stroll to the mess hall.
He’d always reported that memory with fresh passion, as though it had happened yesterday.
I took the commentator’s words seriously but skeptically. What could possibly parallel the attack on Pearl Harbor?
As I focused on the screen horrifying, mesmerizing images began to appear. My mind protested what I was seeing.
A plane crashed into one of the mighty towers of the World Trade Center!
Then a second plane crashed into the other one!
Mountains of gray smoke billowed outward and upward, pierced by raging flames as each iconic tower easily collapsed.
I don’t know how long I stood in the middle of the living room gaping at the TV screen.
I don’t know how many repetitions of the plane crashes I watched. The incredible scenes kept looping over and over before me.
Every TV network either kept showing the video replay of the towers being struck or offered fast-talking eye-witness interviews and commentary.
The TV moderators were emotionally struggling themselves. Quite an anomaly for our “cool” TV medium
One reporter admitted how difficult it was for her to “gain control of the story.” Interesting word choice.
I suddenly thought of that old movie, “Being There.” Peter Seller’s character, Chauncey Gardener, a heretofore sheltered, emotionally challenged man, stumbles forth into the outside world only to be confronted by a mugger. Undaunted, Chauncey extends his arm with a remote control wand at the end of it and CLICKS. He is perplexed when it does not alter his inconvenient reality.
I had a similar desire to erase all this horror with a click of MY remote.
My mind or rather heart finally travelled to the human toll of what had happened.
I myself had often been part of that 9am population of a New York City office building. So many of us worker drones in our own little orbits of corporate servitude girding ourselves for the upcoming slings-and-arrows directives of outrageous executives.
Those dedicated souls had not been girded for a life-terminating, terrorism wrecking ball on this fateful and fatal day.
As for the World Trade Center, it was no mere NYC corporate high rise.
The size and scope awed.
I had worked there once as a temp. I had shopped there. I had treated a work friend to a celebratory birthday brunch in a classy restaurant on the ground floor. I had transferred subways beneath it.
The reporters had begun taking not very confident stabs at the staggering number of fatalities.
My phone wasn’t working. There was a bleeping noise when I picked up the receiver.
I logged on to my computer and managed to access my Aol e-mail.
An instant message popped onto the screen. My dear and concerned youngest brother had been sitting patiently in California hoping to verify my safety.
My fingers typed quickly and gratefully, disclosing I had just woken up and was okay.
It helped to express to him my dismay and to sense his gratitude for my wellbeing.
Once he had confirmed my physical safety he explained he must be off to pass the word on to other family members.
As he disappeared from the screen I let loose a single sob. I suddenly regretted having let our exchange end so quickly. Yes, I was physically safe but emotionally…
I jumped when my phone rang.
It was an invitation from my likable work supervisor to come in and help cover the evening word-processing shift at the law firm in mid-town.
Since I lived in Manhattan, she explained, I was closer than the scheduled coworkers who lived out of town and were not able to make it in due to traffic challenges from the events of the morning.
I found her matter-of-fact tone surreal, given the present circumstances.
She herself had gotten “stuck” at work doing the overnight shift and could not get home to New Jersey.
I was flabbergasted at the presumption I would be ready to travel to the office considering the sudden chaos of the City along with the idea of conducting “business as usual” in the law firm.
I explained I wasn’t inclined at all to go in, sorry as I was for her personal predicament.
“It’s not as if we are a hospital!” I blurted out with a touch of exasperation.
“But we are an ‘international’ law firm” she reminded me.
“Look, Linda, if this were reversed and I was calling you in New Jersey asking you to come in, given all that has just happened, what would you tell me?”
Then… “I’d tell you to ‘you-know-what off’, probably,” she admitted.
Our exchange ended amiably enough.
I knew I needed time to BEGIN to wrap my mind and heart around what was happening. I could feel my “jitters” beginning to multiply as some numbness was wearing off.
I’d logged too many years in therapy to minimize my own needs now in the face of trauma.
And this was big T trauma!
Big T for more than me!
Years ago I probably would have dutifully and automatically caved to the demands of any “authority”.
I could imagine going in on such a day as this and ending up at the mercy of a workaholic attorney emotionally disconnected from the direness of this situation. That would be crazymaking. Enduring such a personality was trying enough on a normal day.
One snowy night years ago I had to clamor down 30-plus flights to a lobby of a different law firm because a fire alarm had sounded. The lobby was filled with firemen as well as smoke.
A manic lawyer I had been working for had made his way down, too. Upon seeing me he ran over to grip my arm and tell me we had to go back to finish the project. A fireman, overhearing this, shouted over that no one was going back upstairs at least for the rest of the night. NO WAY.
I nodded to the fireman, but the attorney tightened his grip, ignored the fireman and repeated that we must hurry back upstairs.
“What’s wrong with this guy?” The bemused fireman appealed to me for an answer.
I could only demurely shake my head and shrug. My “be-a-nice-girl-always” upbringing more than the pragmatism of risking insubordination kept me from telling the fireman my honest thoughts.
Speaking of honest thoughts, I finally admitted to myself I was at that moment way too frightened to set my toe out of the shelter of my NY apartment!
Lili Tomlin once said, “We’re all in this alone.”
We were all collectively touched by the 9/11 crisis as a nation and as a city.
Each of us are survivors and have and had our own prescription for coping.
The dramatic symbol — scar — of our collective wounding was a seven-story pit in southern Manhattan in place of the Towers to remind us of its many massacred work residents along with their intrepid, lost rescuers.
Some of us were touched far more directly and tragically than others.
Most confusing and heartbreaking to me in those initial weeks after was the sight of numerous billboards that sprang up in places like Grand Central and Times Square, covered with smiling, lively faces of adults of working age. Under each picture a handwritten message with contact information to 9-11 victims’ loved ones “if found”.
This seemed evidence to me of a mass, delusional insistence by the victims’ survivors that their particular loved one had miraculously managed to survive.
The attractive and winning pictures of these beloved people made us New Yorkers streaming by on a daily basis acknowledge the victims as individuals, not just as a cold but staggering death toll statistic.
The anthrax threat seven days after the 9/11 attack brought new dimensions of anxiety and paranoia. Anonymous letters laced with deadly anthrax spores had been sent to congressional and media offices. At least five people had died from inhalation.
In a Dunkin Donuts one morning during those early weeks I noted white dust on a countertop. My mind conceived anthrax, not powdered sugar.
Opening the mail for a while was a conscious act of courage. My usually mellow and friendly mailman in his bright aquamarine latex gloves was noticeably (and justifiably) uptight and unhappy.
Having security guards pawing awkwardly through my pocketbook and knapsack before I entered malls, stores, movie theaters, school buildings or my workplace building was an odd sensation. Intrusive as the searches were, they often didn’t seem earnest enough to catch up with a halfway resourceful saboteur.
I opted not to take the subway for a brief period, having been spooked by speculation on a TV news show that this would be an effective way for anthrax dissemination. I soon discovered that it was too expensive and inconvenient a phobia to sustain. Cabs were costly. I often could not afford the time it took to travel above ground by bus or walking.
I watched myself in amazement, on some days when I was particularly exhausted from an overnight workshift, easily surrender my vow of self-protection. With a “what the hell,” I’d trot down the subway’s stairs, slide my metrocard through the turnstile slot, and defiantly hop onto the underground car. I began risking the gauntlet more and more often.
It wasn’t until the architecture of New York City began to don its familiar, celebratory winter finery that I felt we New Yorkers were emerging from that first serious stage of 9/11 trauma — we finally relaxed enough to collectively exhale.
Yet, now, 17 years later I can easily shake my head in bemusement and sorrow over 9/11.
How has having our sacred rights and privileges to privacy, assembly and speech so significantly reduced after 9/11 affected us?
Did our processing of the 9/11 tragedy mature us spiritually as a nation or did a critical mass of our citizens uncritically embrace a jingoistic sentimentalism for the sake of psychological security? This exposing the ferocious need of too many to sustain an undeserved trust in our corporate-captured national political leaders and major parties?
The Global War on Terror, supposedly launched because of the 9/11 attacks, actually proved to be a war “of” terror by the USA and its allies.
How many 9/11s and in how many countries across the globe has our US government, its allies and its clandestine proxy forces perpetrated after 9/11?
How many 9/11s and in how many countries across the globe had our US government, its allies and its clandestine proxy forces perpetrated before 9/11?
To paraphrase an old Broadway song, I know on this September 11, 2018 I am a “sadder but wiser (radicalized) girl!”