Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nine Eleven

 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.


  1. My thoughts are with them and all their loved ones too today.

  2. thank you for sharing your story. i do believe that for every door that closes, another one opens. i'm so glad you walked through the open door.

  3. Renilde - this is a sad day for so many, an event that touched a city, and also the world. Thank you for stopping by!

    Barbara - it's taken many years to get into the habit of trying to recognize and grasp an opportunity even in the worst of circumstances. Too many people simply submit and must later live with the regrets of what might have been. I intend not to have any of those! Many thanks for stopping by and have a great weekend!

  4. ... this date change our lives, today I sow in television the remember in memory to the victim... on a Italian TV, well I cried thinking on the human beast, I think that human race has inside the bad... but my fede in peace is still devote...

  5. Cara Laura, there is so much evil in the world, but every once in a while I encounter someone good and true and beautiful like you and my faith is restored! Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

  6. Gabriella, Powerful and beautiful words. I am truly sorry you were that close to that horrific event. Life sometimes does not always appear to be fair and just... but I believe, and as your words told me you believe, life is about balance. As I will never forget the story of 911 I also will never forget your story. Thank you and best of luck in the future.

  7. your story is beautiful gabriella, the memory of a time entwined with tragedy and a new beginning. now forever linked. thank you.


  8. Thank you Scott - yes, it is all about balance. Perhaps the perspective of age teaches us that patience and faith. I'm just lucky that for me things do tend to swing back the opposite way after the bad times! Eventually.

    Good as always to see you here, T! This is just one example of an ending connected to a beginning for me, unfortunately it had such tragic implications for so many and that is a cause for deep sorrow...usually the tragedies that are linked to my life's turning points are quite private and small and largely go unnoticed!

  9. Gabriella,
    the whole world will never forget these tragic
    moments. Your story is bringing us so close to
    remember all again. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Thank you, Monika - your words always mean so much to me. I'm glad my story touched you. Enjoy your week, my dear!

  11. G., this is a story beautifully told! Reminds us of the magnitude of experience happening simultaneously across the earth. Thanks, P.

  12. Gabriella,
    your story brought me emotions that I had never experienced. I realy sorry for everything ...

    however, I am immensely happy to know your private history, a new chance and a big change in your life ...
    greetings and a big hug!

    ps: your blog is very cool,
    must be savored slowly ....

  13. Patti, I'm glad to know you appreciated my story. 9/11 belongs to everyone in a way, so large and so personal at the same time.

    Denise, many thanks for your kind words about my blog! I try to put a lot of time and thought into every post and let the flavors simmer and blend for a while, like a good sauce or soup, so I'm happy that you savor them slowly! A big hug from me to you too!

  14. Thank you so much for this story, your story Gabriella.
    That day is etched in my mind, i think in all people's mind. I saw this year the documentary again, and i still cried for seeing the unbelievable.

    Your story is heartfelt and i find it tender somehow. And i'm happy that there was a road to a happy life for you. As you commented to Laura; i also am glad to meet beautiful, good people that safes the trust in mankind. Good people like you and Brian and all my blogfriends and friends in real lfe.

    Sweet greetz!

  15. Those images from the documentary, and from the old news footage are etched in my mind. You cannot see them without crying. I try to stay away from the tv news on the anniversary because I can't watch it all again! This year I found they stream the coverage of the ceremony at ground zero online with NO commentary (none needed!) and NO cutting back and forth to old film of the event. Watching the families and seeing the site today in real time is all I need to see.

    I am so glad, M, to count you among my blogfriends! You are one of the good, true and beautiful souls out there. Best to you!