It was yesterday. It was a lifetime ago.
It’s Tuesday, seven years ago. I’m at Rutgers. I wake up like any other day and turn on the computer. An out of touch best friend from childhood IM’s me. Had I heard? What– that Jordan was coming back? NO. A plane has hit the Towers.
I watch the TV in my room wondering what the hell is going on. Eventually my roommate comes back, and a few others drift in once news spreads. The second plane hits. The talking stops. Out the window I can hear people yelling frantically on the phone. They are trying to reach their parents, siblings, etc working in the city…in the towers, and can’t get through.
We are close enough that if you are in one of the taller dorms you can see the smoke. But, despite our proximity, we are too far away. There is nothing we can do. So like thousands of others, we go to give blood. We spend the entire day at Robert Wood with hundreds of others waiting in line and watching events unfold.
There has to be thousands if not hundreds of survivors, we think. They’ll need our help. They’ll be hurt, they’ll need blood. As the days progress, this doesn’t hold up. There are candle light vigils and silent walks. I don’t remember if classes are canceled that week or not. I remember not going. I remember sitting there feeling empty. Feeling a sheltered life being peeled away from me.
I have to do something, I felt. Anything. September 14, the day NJ Transit resumed service, my roommate, Manny, and I go into Manhattan. I’ll never forget. Walking out of Penn Station and New York was still. Silent. There are soldiers, assault rifles across their chest, in the middle of Times Square. We make our way to a volunteer area and the words still stick. You guys welders, electricians, or construction workers? one of the relief workers asks. I look at him, so hesitant that we will be turned away once I answer no. I say that we’re just guys. We just want to help. He looks at us. A couple of twenty-somethings with blank expressions, and the same aghast sadness that everyone seems to share. He holds out his hand and introduces himself. Manny and I up stay with FEMA all-night and leave after breakfast the next morning. The stories from this night will be with me forever.
I sleep for hours the next day. But before drifting off, I think, for the first time since that Tuesday, that we’ll get through it. That, based on what I saw that night of everyone pulling together, I– we– America– the world, would find a way to continue– to be OK.
For the next few weeks, I can’t completely put it behind me. Despite the inspiring acts of selflessness I witness, I felt empty. I think about a lot of things. I sit in Stats class and seriously contemplate leaving school. Even if temporarily to go and do something that actually matters. I mean what the hell am I doing with my life sitting here learning about differential equations (or whatever the hell I was supposed to be learning) when there are so many people suffering in the world. I read om The Star Ledger about the thousands of stories of Jerseyans who have died or lost loved ones. About parents who don’t live to see their kids grow up. About parents who suffer the tragedy of outliving their kids. Orphans. New marriages severed. And with each story I read, the emptiness grew.
The death of irony the media proclaims (or asks?). Yes, I thought, it probably is. Nothing is the same. Nothing matters more than what has just happened. How can everything be taken away so quickly? How fleeting life is. The thought burns in mind that the world is truly unsafe and there are horrific elements within it.
On that Tuesday, I call all my friends who live in NYC. One of them, a very good friend from high school, finally answers late that day. He is fine. But within thirty seconds, he starts talking about how he wants to see them destroyed. How he doesn’t give a shit about asymmetrical response. That he wants blood. That he wants revenge even though he knows this means civilians will die. He doesn’t care he says. They must pay. I want to hang up the phone that second. Not because I don’t agree with what he is saying, but because I am disgusted that we are already moving on. That we are ready to forget them, the ones who just died, so quickly. That this has already turned this into something about him. That we are already making it about us.
It returns. Slowly, but normalcy returns. A day goes by. Then two without thinking about that Tuesday. Each time I hear the phrase 911 though, I cringe. It’s visceral. It’s thrown about everywhere: TV, radio, news. It was turning into the kind of catchy marketing slogan, that in a few months I might work on developing at P&G.
We go to war with Afghanistan. This is hazy for me. I’m still having a hard time with it all, and still can’t recall much beyond numbness. We agree going into the caves is a good idea. Bin Laden’s there– let’s go get him. I listen to Bush just days after that Tuesday and hear him tell those rescue workers at ground zero that soon the world will hear both them and America. This will be one of the few times in his Presidency that cynical, mocking thoughts don’t immediately jump to mind. We have bigger issues than quibbles about our leader’s leanings. Or so we thought.
I start a tradition on that Tuesday. After giving blood at the hospital, we walk to the Church. Not surprisingly, they have a service. We sink to the back. I’m overcome with all that has happened. How fortunate I am. How much I am squandering. The tragedy that so many are going through at that moment. Every year, when possible, I go and sit in a church, synagogue, temple, or any other place of worship on September 11th and pray. And think about what to do with this gift of a year. And be thankful. If I can’t make it on the 11th, I go the next day. I will continue this tradition as long as I’m alive.
It’s amazing how we go from here to there. I look back at my life. From the first day of kindergarten to graduating high school. I don’t understand how that happened. From arriving at college, to how I left it. From then to who I am now. Some things just mystify. And, now, I find September 11, 2001 to be one of those things. It’s all so viscerally real. Yet, when I look at what came out of that event. At what was justified by it, at what forces were awoken by it, I can’t fathom that it’s all connected. We’re all American’s today, read the paper in Paris on September 12. Paris of all places. Today it seems to be easier to find nations that don’t want to talk to each other than those that do.
A few years before that Tuesday, I wrote an opinion piece. Like most of my work, it wasn’t published. I ask what my generation’s defining moment is. We don’t have one. The fall of the Berlin Wall doesn’t count. We didn’t actually live through the Cold War, so it was more symbolic and meaningful to our parents and those a decade older . Maybe we are unremarkable because we were never shaped, I wonder. Then it came. Our event. I was sure this was it. And sure enough, when I would give my graduation speech and reference that Tuesday and how it changed us it will, of all the lines in my speech, feel the most resonant with my classmates. We all remember exactly where we were. What we were doing. It’s that moment.
But what now? Seven years later. I find myself constantly awash with a wave of gloom for what is still to come. But it’s not just terrorism or violence. It’s an arrogance and unwillingness to believe that we must earn, everyday, this amazing life and country that we’ve found ourselves fortunate to be born into. And everyday, I find mounting evidence that we feel its a right, and not a privilege that must be earned through sacrifice, investment, and wise choices.
I think back to that Tuesday. To the peeling away of innocence. And I wonder if it will ever end.