The first eight months of 2001 had not been great. My dad and brother had both gone into rehab, each for their own personal poison. In July, I’d abruptly been fired. One moment I was sitting in my quiet office at a national magazine, the next an HR woman was at the door with papers to sign. Five minutes later I was carrying a box of notebooks and photos through an empty hallway, my coworkers all intentionally clustered in a conference room far from the action.
That same night, after I’d arrived home, my oldest friend called to tell me her 30-year-old husband had cancer, and not just in one spot. In August, after surgeons cut most of it out, he developed a blood clot that traveled to his lungs and nearly killed him. In early September, he started chemo, the same week I learned that another good friend back in California had been found dead in her apartment from a heroin overdose. No one knew whether it was intentional.
That’s where things stood on Tuesday, September 11, in the small Pennsylvania town where I lived. I was awake but still groggy, having no job to get me up and going, when my husband called from his office in a Philadelphia high-rise.
“Turn on the TV,” he said, and for a few short weeks, we were no longer alone.
We are suddenly acting in unison: staring mute at the television, trying to make sense of an image of the World Trade Center sliced through by a plane. A mechanical malfunction. A drunk pilot. But no. Minutes later, another plane hits the second tower. Our minds race. Our mothers call.
“Turn on the TV,” he says, and for a few short weeks, we are no longer alone.
On a smaller inset screen, the Pentagon is burning. And then one of the towers does what it was never meant to do. It falls in on itself, going from skyscraper to dust in seconds. We gasp and put our hands to our mouths. Reflexively, we ache for the building itself, for the aspiration it represents. We know the Trade Center more as architectural symbol than office building.
But there are thousands of people inside. They are gathering at the windows. Debris is falling, and some of that debris may be bodies. We back up and sink into the couch or the chair. The second tower falls, dissolving to ash and smoke. People are crushed within and beneath it. A fourth plane crashes into a field in Pennsylvania.
We sit for hours, which will turn into days, watching Dan Rather’s face fixed indefinitely front and center while the great media machine feeds him facts. (Remember the reassuring nature of facts?) Dan Rather mustn’t go anywhere. He and his facts must stay planted in our living rooms 24/7. He must eat takeout during commercial breaks and keep reporting until there is nothing left to report.
He says the FAA has grounded all planes over American airspace. Bridges and tunnels are closed. Everyone stay put. He says the president is safe inside Air Force One. I don’t like the president, but safe inside Air Force One is exactly where I want him.
The government I normally take for granted reveals itself as an invisible but complex apparatus making modern life possible — controlling air traffic, communications, infrastructure, the economy. My personal identity easily slides away like a mask, and I am simplified down to the level of tribe: just another American.
As a liberal usually focused on what needs changing instead of on what needs preserving, I’ve assumed patriotism consists of critique and new ideas instead of appreciation and unity. In the days following 9/11, I cringe at my own naiveté, afforded by the luxurious freedom I’ve enjoyed thanks to my more practical fellow citizens, the ones who build the fort and hold it down so liberals like me can safely poke holes in it.
I start to notice them: my fellow citizens. Foremost, the ones describing last-minute phone calls from doomed airliners and burning towers. I cry with them. But also the ones close by. Loud news blares from my neighbor’s open window. I sit by my own window, listening to her TV instead of mine.
I start to notice them: my fellow citizens.
On the way to the grocery store, the local radio station plays Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up.” At red lights we turn and glance at each other. At green lights we motion for the other driver to go on ahead. We watch pedestrians cross in front of us, so vulnerable to injury. We must be careful not to ram their flesh with our steel machines.
For the next several days, the focus is on basic activities — cooking, cleaning, taking walks. Personal ambitions shrink to ethereal, nonessential details. The flags lining the street signify something larger running beneath each small, tenuous life.
I go to a prayer service in which the whole town crowds into the little stone church. There was a time when the town crowded into church once a week, but we gave that up because the words chanted within seemed hopelessly out of date, full of magical thinking laced through with hypocrisy. Post-disaster, these same words make much more sense, or perhaps what makes sense is the simple act of gathering in one place. I want to remain here with the neighbors I’ve never met. I don’t want them to file out when it’s over.
I don’t want the networks to return to their regularly scheduled programming. I don’t want us all to recede behind rolled-up car windows, honking as we pass the slower drivers, so full of ourselves, so alone.
I didn’t foresee the endless “war on terror” and domino-chain collapse of the Middle East that would result from this one act. I didn’t foresee us all retreating so far into our own virtual worlds that we’d stay glued to tiny screens even while on dates, even during holiday meals, even while eating cereal with our hands from high chairs.
I didn’t foresee a con man and reality TV star making the guy who rode Air Force One back in 2001 look like Thomas Jefferson. I didn’t predict neo-Nazis would ever make a comeback. I didn’t realize how quickly the weather would change.
I moved to New York City three weeks ago. On my first weekend here, I found myself down near the new Freedom Tower and instinctually walked toward it, looking for the reflecting pools I’d read of: fountains installed as memorials within the original footprints of Towers 1 and 2.
“Fountains” doesn’t quite describe it. The pools comprise the largest man-made waterfalls in the country, each an acre wide and 30 feet deep, outlined by a bronze perimeter bearing the names of the 2,977 people who died. Water cascades down their walls, then rushes toward a column cut into the floor of each pool, where it disappears down a dark chasm endlessly.
People from all over the world stare into the plunging water, snap photos, read names. They speak foreign languages in low tones. Their children frolic, not understanding where they are.
The Americans, for the most part, are silent. You can almost hear them wondering what kind of storm it would take to unite us again, or whether that September was the last glimpse we’ll ever get of us.