11am by Edward Hopper
Instead of the post I had planned for today, I decided to honor this date, which has so much significance for so many people, by sharing my own 9/11 story.
Nine years ago this morning, I was sitting facing a whitewashed brick wall, in a one-room shoebox of an apartment on the bad side of 106th Street in Manhattan, drinking coffee and noisily writing a letter on my manual typewriter. I was in my second year of a low residency graduate program for creative writing, and while I only had to appear on campus in Vermont twice a year, I had assignments and reports to mail to my advisor every month. Of course, I had waited until the last minute and in order to meet deadline, I got up very early and had already been working for hours before the sun rose.
This writing program had shaken apart everything I believed about myself as a writer, and the pieces had yet to come back together. I was living alone, unhappy in a low level job at the library of the college I had attended 15 years earlier and barely escaped from both sane and alive, and the most reliable, healthy and satisfying relationships I had were with my two cats, Dante and Marlowe.
I was trying to explain to my advisor, a tremulous beam of brilliance named Mary Ruefle, the barren state of my creative soul. I felt lost, I told her, as if I were walking around in a devastated city with all the landmarks gone. I had no idea that while I wrote these words, planes were headed towards the World Trade Center, and everything, everything would change.
Just as this tragedy was occurring miles away downtown, I walked my usual ten blocks along Broadway, north to campus and my job. I was late, depressed, distracted and exhausted , and didn’t register that people had already gathered on the street in front of whatever televisions were available, in the doorways of bars and restaurants, near radios at the counters of shops. In my sleep-deprived brain, I wondered if there were some important international sporting event happening in another time zone that people would be so keen on following news at such an hour. By the time I arrived at work, the mood was grim and anxious, and I learned what was really going on.
The rest of the day was a nightmare of witnessing and processing the unthinkable. Even miles away uptown, our phone and internet service in the library was lost in the communications chaos that ensued in the city that morning. Ironically, I became the main source of news through the radio of my old Sony Walkman. “Pentagon hit too?” “Second Tower down!” We were sent home early and given the next day off. As I walked south, retracing my morning steps feeling utterly disoriented, already the smell of burning was traveling north up the Hudson River, unlike anything I have ever experienced, and hope never to experience again.
Lives were lost, stories were ending by the hundreds and thousands, but the next day, my story began, and my life was, in a way, saved. As I lay in bed, windows firmly shut, but still sick to my stomach and sick at heart, I received a phone call from Boston, a job offer, and an invitation to an interview the following week. I had sent out an application the previous week, in a desperate attempt to affect some kind of change in my life, which I could see was heading in the wrong direction. I had forgotten completely about it and certainly didn’t expect a reply or have any real plan for how exactly to uproot and transplant my existence. But here was the reply – and I said yes, still not knowing if I would even be able physically and psychologically to leave my apartment and descend into a crowded underground station to board a train. Something in me knew this was my future life calling to me, and I had better answer and figure out the details later.
The week that intervened was surreal. Everyone on the streets was nervous and scared not knowing what to expect next, if there would be more. There were two shootings on the street below my window, drug deals gone bad, with both criminals and police especially on edge. The sound of the shots sent me under the bedcovers with my hands over my ears, shaking uncontrollably. What next? What next? One afternoon, I summoned my courage and went downtown to Ground Zero, wearing a scarf over my face to be able to breathe, and while they were not allowing anyone closer than a few blocks to the site, I saw exhausted dust-blackened firemen riding by on their trucks, like escapees from Hell. We all spontaneously and unanimously applauded as they passed. There was a strange stillness, and I could feel in the air, rushing right through me, that there was still human energy lingering in that place, and it was full of sorrow, fear, confusion and a little anger.
But slowly, everything calmed down, people got on with their lives, only there was a wound in the side of the city that would never heal, and never be forgotten. And I got the job at the Fine Arts Library at Harvard, relocated and started a new life here which has brought me new struggles, but ultimately led me to a rare and cherished period of happiness, unlike any I have ever had the good fortune to know, and for which I am, every single day, so, so grateful.
After I publish this post, I will again watch the television coverage broadcast from Ground Zero, as I have done every anniversary of this date, and as they ring the bell and stand silent at the exact moment the Towers fell, and read from the list of names of the dead, I will again cry for my city, for all it lost, for all it means to me, and wish I could be there. For me, the losses of that day will always be inseparable from one of the great positive turning points of my life. But I will always be mindful of those less fortunate.
This post is dedicated to the lives of all the victims of 9/11, their surviving loved ones, and their stories. May they all rest in peace.