“I started doing chest compressions on him, outside St. Luke’s hospital, even though he was grey. His left leg was mutilated and grey, his clothes were grey, his teeth were grey. I could feel him slipping. I looked at his eyes and even they were grey. You know, I never really look anyone in the eyes. Not really. When he rolled his eyes up at me, those were the longest 5 seconds of my life.”
My God, where am I? What time is it? What day is it? Oh…right…it’s September 11, 2009. The eighth anniversary. As I slowly wake up, I wonder why my ears are wet. Then I realize that it’s because I’m crying with my eyes closed. Wiping the tears away, I can hear Dave and Carole on the radio talking about That Day, playing sound clips from survivors and films and from what they remember. For a little while, I don’t know what year it is.
I’m back in my car, driving to my old job working for corporate America. It’s a job I both hate and enjoy. I like the work enough, it’s busy work, and I can listen to an audiobook or the radio while I do it. At this point in my life, it’s enough that I make a livable wage after college and it’s not grunt work (well, not really). I like the people I work with and I hate them at the same time. They are so annoying! Everyone else has been working there since they were straight out of high school. Most everyone is in their 40’s and 50’s now. That many women together for that long is not necessarily a good thing. They know too much about each other and everything is a bitter excuse to bitch behind their back. This is what I walked in to when I took the job after a year of temping for them. Because I was fresh meat, or because I’m not a crabby person, every person there liked me. And talked to me. About everyone else. And if I had a nickel for every time someone said to me “How can you stand talking to her?”, I would be a very rich person right now. Very rich. With a daily start time of 7:30 I was “the late starter” and got endlessly teased for it. They all thought that I was lazy and couldn’t get out of bed at 4 to start my day at 6:30 like they all did. Seriously? Who wakes up at 4 am to sit in a cubicle and feel like shit all day? This job was not that important, and there was absolutely zero reason to start that early. We’re in Milwaukee, with only an hour difference from the great East Coast time zone that we all balance ourselves on because of New York City, even though no one in our company works there, or anywhere on the East Coast for that matter. It was ridiculous. So, since 7:30 was the latest I could start, I took it. If I’m going to loathe the day and my having to be there, there was no way in hell I was going to do it an hour earlier just because. So I put up with the sarcastic “Well, good morning”s and “Oh, are we tired today”s. Nice. Thanks a lot.
Aside from what I’ve just said about my former co-workers, I like them well enough individually. It’s just the pack mentality that I can’t stand. The lady who works on the other side of my cubicle wall from me is nice but incredibly annoying. She and her husband never had children, and instead had dogs. But they weren’t just pets, they were show dogs as well, and did their own breeding. Maybe it’s just me, but you should never have to hear about dog sperm more than once in your lifetime at the office. I heard about it every day, even through headphones, for six years. Certain phrases you can always pick out of conversations – sex, penis, oh-my-god, you’re-kidding – add dog sperm to that list. The other people that sat around me all had their quips and quoibles, but Dog Sperm took the cake. She also only listened to extreme conservative right-wing radio and had a pin on her cubicle wall that said “Hell is full of Liberals”. Nice. Believe what you want to, it really doesn’t offend me, but when you are the kind of person that does not listen when anyone is talking, instead spending your time of thinking what to say next, I’m really not a big fan of you. It’s so plainly written on her face that I want to shake her and say “Where are you? I’m trying to talk to you, and all you’re concerned about is trying to get some jibe in and “prove” that you’re smart! Please.” This is the kind of thing I had to deal with all day, every day.
I woke up on September 11, 2001 like any other day. Begrudgingly, slowly, talking myself into forward motion at all times. I wake up to my local classic rock station. I’ve been listening to them since I was in sixth grade. Dave & Carole were almost like family in a strange way, and they weren’t your typical annoying “shock jock” personalities, always trying to fit a joke in. They covered the news normally, had interesting guests in (musicians, comedians, local government officials) and while they always covered the right topics, you also got to know a little about what that person was really like. It’s like you’re watching a serious news channel, and then you get to watch as they all go grab a cup of coffee and chat afterwards.
I turned my alarm off, walked into the bathroom, turned the radio on, and did the usual (shower, shave, makeup, comb through my hair), got dressed and ran to the car, 2 minutes late as usual. On the drive to work, I could feel something that wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t explain it, but things just felt “off”. I’m fairly used to experiencing that, having seen spirits and things my whole life, but this was different. This was larger scale. As I was driving down Bluemound Road, I heard Carole say “reports are coming in that one of the Twin Towers in New York City is on fire.” My stomach dropped a few inches. For the next few minutes, I realized that I was never going to forget this day. By the time I whipped into the parking lot, we knew that a plane flew into the first tower. How is that possible? How could a plane accidentally fly into the biggest thing in the New York skyline? I keyed into the building, ran into my bosses’ office and sort of yelled “The twin towers are on fire, a plane flew into them”. I ran to my desk, sat down and put on my radio Walkman to keep listening. Half of the office came dribbling by, one by one, asking about what I had just said. Really? Is it true? Yes, put on 96.5, they’re covering it live from CNN. Dog Sperm didn’t believe me. They hadn’t said anything on Her radio station yet. Well, believe it, lady. The next hour or so is kind of a blur for me. I sat in my cubicle, eyes wide open, tears welling up as I listened to everything unfold. DS kept coming over to “report the latest” which was at least 5 minutes old. After 3 times of doing this, I finally snapped at her “would just PLEASE change stations already, I’m trying to listen”. She did, as did the rest of our office. Stunned silence and the quiet din of radio noise was all that could be heard. They wheeled a TV into our cafeteria so we could watch the news on our breaks. Yeah right. There was always at least one full table in there, with people watching in horror, open-mouthed, eyes glazed over, like a bunch of floating fish. All I wanted to do was get out of there. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I wanted to be alone with my thoughts. Nothing like this has ever happened in my lifetime. I always heard about things like this, with people asking “Where were you when x happened” and they always knew and remembered. It seemed like a nice thing to have, this universal tragedy memory bank, where if you said “it’s like when Kennedy was shot” everyone is silent and goes back to that memory bank and relives it a little. I never thought that I would ever be a member of that bank. After all, I was born in 1978. The world was not the same place it had been before. Growing up, there weren’t huge signposts of disasters, or hugely famous figures that passed on. I mean, I vaguely remember my parents crying and calling a few friends to talk about some John guy that was just shot, but I was 2 years old. I don’t remember much of that, but I remember that feeling, that far-away disaster feeling and not knowing what it was. And while the Gulf War and the War on Terror all happened in my lifetime, it wasn’t a large “We are now at War” kind of thing. They both happened and are happening on such a long-term scale that I can’t really put them in “remember when” terms because it’s hard to remember exactly when it was and wasn’t anymore. But it all came flooding back to me that morning. After noon, the company finally consented to letting us leave the office for the day, unpaid, if we wanted to go home and watch the news. Gee, thanks a lot. By that time, it was all over, the towers were no more and I had had my fill of news and crying for a little while. How long can you listen to people cry and scream? I could feel the confusion, sorrow, and anger halfway across the country. It was so overwhelming, and I was exhausted. I would normally go into the bathroom to cry, once every week or so , every day near the end of my time there, because I hated where my life was, but after crying at my desk all morning, I had to get out of there.
I didn’t really know anyone living in the city at that time. There was one friend of mine, whom I’ve known since kindergarten, but she was finishing her Masters degree at a psych hospital in Brooklyn, so I knew she was safe. I heard through the grapevine that she was in lockdown at her work and was okay, if extremely shaken. But not knowing anyone almost made it worse. How do you assign this horrible feeling, how do you remember your story? It doesn’t really qualify because someone else always knew someone and had a Very Personal Connection. My memory has no home, no one to talk to this about that understands.
On the drive home, everything seemed quieter. People seemed calm and less hurried. The few people who screamed past on the street didn’t know yet. They couldn’t know. There was no other explanation. At stoplights, people turned and looked around, making eye contact with strangers and saying “I know, I’m with you, we’re all here together”. It was a strange and wonderful thing. By the time I got home in a daze, it was all I could do to not run inside and put the news on. So I turned on CNN and watch the towers fall over and over again. I had had the radio on non-stop since I woke up, and I couldn’t seem to turn it off. Carole’s voice seemed to be the one focal point of calm throughout this disaster. It was the familiar and comfortable in a world that had been turned upside-down. It was my lifeline. Yes, this is what is happening. No, it won’t always be this way. No, we will never forget.
I tried to talk to a few of my friends that day, but no one seemed affected. It was sad, but it was all very removed for them. What was wrong with me? I thought. But then I realized, that it wasn’t me, it was them. How can you not be affected by this? How can you function normally, waiting for faxes, wondering where you’re going to have lunch? In the next few weeks, I tried again to talk to a few of them, but no one seemed to want to talk about it. So I didn’t. And I haven’t. But when I woke up today, and thought it was happening again, I wasn’t sure what to do. It was 2001 all over again. Crying was automatic. The anniversaries between now and then hadn’t hit me in the same way. I always lit a candle, said a prayer and shed a few tears, but that was pretty much it. Why is this so different today? I think it was all because I woke up to that nurses’ voice, talking about trying to save that fireman. It suddenly became personal to me in a very new way. In the same kind of way that I felt that morning eight years ago, I feel today. I don’t have the radio on now. I couldn’t function if I could hear Dave and Carole talking about it.
So instead, I’m sitting here in the morning quiet, listening to the traffic go by, and pausing every time I hear a plane overhead. Remember how quiet it was following the attack? You don’t realize how much something is a part of your life until it isn’t there, and then it’s all you can think about, how much it isn’t there. That silence was deafening, screaming out to the world “THINGS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN”. And they aren’t. Nor should they be. The events of September 11th changed this country and shaped how every single one of us now lives our lives. In big ways and small, we’re a different country now.
I’m not sure where this day will take me, who I will talk to, what will happen. But I do know that this day will not be like the other 9-11s. My memory bank account is wide open, and it’s coming with me today. I didn’t know what it would be like, personally, to have a “where were you when” moment. And I don’t think I can describe it now. The sun is shining through the window in front of me, basking me in its golden warmth. And while I’m sitting here in front of my computer, in front of this liquid light and silently crying, I can’t describe it, but this is what it feels like. This present, quiet moment is what it is like. Images and sounds rush through my head, but they’re all memory and no longer happening. But they’re all there. When I close my eyes, I can see people jumping out of the buildings and hear their bodies slam into the ground, thinking a death by choice is better than the unknown of what would happen to them otherwise. What a decision. And what a day. I think I’ll hold my pets a little longer than usual, call more friends “just because” and spend more time in quiet contemplative spaces. Because this is a different day from all the others. September 11th, 2001 was eight years ago, and now it’s also today. And when I close my computer down, and start my day, Dave and Carole will be with me, echoing in my memories, and the nurse and firefighter will be there too, covered in grey.
So let’s go guys. I could really use a cup of coffee.