Last Saturday marked the ninth anniversary of 9/11. I lived in NYC on that day. I have never written, and barely talk, about it. After all, no one I personally knew passed away. More, it is enough to have lived through an event like that, one needn't dwell on it. But last Saturday I thought, there are children these days for whom 9/11 will only exist in books, and that is how history fades away. So here's my 9/11 story.
It was my first year of medical school at Columbia. I had gone to morning lecture: canceled. I returned to my apartment at W170th and Haven, a high rise for student housing. I rode the elevator to my apartment on the 20th floor. I was alone except for a middle aged man who said, a plane just crashed into the world trade center. Matter of factly, just like that. He didn't believe himself, nor I him. I returned to my bedrooom, a 10 x 15 foot converted space separated from the living room by a flimsy wall. A bay window that looked onto the Hudson and south to downtown dominated my bedroom. I had placed my bed in the space created by the bay window and each morning woke up to the twin towers. Even from so far away, they dominated the skyline. I loved to look at them twinkling at night before I went to sleep. On 9/11, I stood at that window looking south. One tower was still visible, the other obscured by thick, black smoke. My room-mate and I turned on CNN, needing to confirm what we were seeing. Within minutes, the second tower disappeared.
I forget what we did after that. The hours somehow passed. In the afternoon, I went to the Red Cross on the UWS to give blood, but was turned away. Too many people had already shown up. Nobody was at work, except some shop keepers who brought TVs out to the sidewalk, where people gathered round and watched together. The streets were full of people, wandering and not knowing what to do with themselves. Cell phone lines weren't working. The bridges were closed, trains were not running, and nobody could go in or out of the city. I was trapped but it didn't sink in until the next day. That night, I woke to a loud sound and thought we were being bombed. Then I thought it was thunder. No one else to whom I've talked has confirmed a thunder storm that night. I put it down to a nightmare and blame my father's influence, who was always preparing for another war when the rest of us naively said, it can't happen here.
My room mate tried to be a hero. She went down to the WTC, snuck beneath the barriers, finagled her way into a hard hat, and tried to save people. She did that for four days, leaving her dusty hard hat and clothes at the door of our apartment. She was strange after that. I closed the curtain in my south facing window. I couldn't sleep with the promise of the wreckage smoldering in front of me when I woke. It did so for more than a month. I wandered downtown, to the candlelit vigil in Union Square, past the black clad groups assembling outside of funeral homes. In mid-October, I wandered alone to the WTC site. It was barricaded and the place was desolate. The smoke still feebly escaped from the graveyard the site had become. I felt entirely alone. At that time, the world of medicine, that uncaring clinical world, confined me. That world felt cold, insensitive, sterile.
There are many events that have changed the world. 9/11 is not the biggest of them, but it changed the US, and it changed me. While the rest of the world played drama queen, and while some Americans used 9/11 as an excuse for biggotry, New Yorkers tried to get on with life. This year on 9/11, I looked southward through a very different window. I was at an event for young arists at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and was surrounded by young poets, singers, musicians, and dancers. The lights dimmed, and two beams of blue light lit up the sky from where the twin towers once stood. The room grew silent. The danger now past, and in the company of artists, I no longer felt alone. And that silence, filled with art's understanding, underlined the difference between my world nine years ago and my world of today.