“Where were you?” Reflecting on 9/11, 20 years later

Like so many, I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts and find the words to process the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I was 17. It was the second day of my junior year of high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I was in the library with little to do as the semester had only started the day before. Around 9am, my friend and I noticed teachers run-walking one-by-one into the library’s AV room, the only place in school with a network television feed. Then the teachers started coming in pairs. Something was wrong. We heard a teacher whisper, “Apparently, a plane crashed into the World Trade Center!” Yeah, right. I thought. That’s ridiculous…

The next thing I remember is lining the hallway around 10:30, waiting with my sister for our mom to pick us up. Traffic was heavy. Cell phone service was spotty. And large parts of the city were on lockdown because no one knew what was happening. My mom ultimately had to park on the Upper West Side and traverse Central Park on foot. I remember walking back across Central Park around noon and having to leave the car in midtown, as the city was completely shutdown to traffic below 42nd Street. My dad met us and we walked the last mile home.

I can recall our kitchen television being on for more than 24 hours straight twice in my life: Election Day 2008 (Obama) and 9/11. We clung to every word and image on the news, trying desperately to make sense of the nonsensical. We watched the footage of the buildings burning and then collapsing like birthday candles blown out over and over again.

On the evening of the attacks, our neighborhood, about two miles north of the Twin Towers, was quiet except for the sound of sirens. The only vehicle we saw was an empty city bus driving up 10th avenue from ground zero around 6pm. It was almost unrecognizable under the caked white dust and debris covering every inch of the vehicle. That image will always stay with me. We could smell smoke wafting up the west side for almost a week.

The sadness and fear that day were overwhelming. But they were quickly coupled with pride and hope. In the week following the attack, the city came together. It’s impossible to describe, but I was so proud to be a native New Yorker in the months after the attack.

“Goodbye Bill,” Jennifer Bartlett, image from The New York Times

My account’s also superficial. It’s blurry, in bits and pieces. We knew one person who died that day. An elementary school friend’s father Bill Biggart, a photographer, who rushed downtown to document what was happening that morning. The last time he spoke to his wife, Wendy, he told her that he was ok, he was “with the firemen.”

For years afterwards, I would watch footage of the towers collapsing on YouTube every September 11. For some reason, engaging in this re-trauma was my way of remembering, of commemorating, of feeling the most intense and strangest combination of the small and big emotions felt on that day twenty years ago. I think it was because I was out-of-state for college and graduate school. It helped me to feel connected to New York in ways that (I felt) people around me couldn’t understand on that day every year (who knows how accurate this was). I stopped when I moved back to Manhattan for my doctoral program. Being back in the city, the re-traumatizing didn’t feel as necessary and it ultimately started to feel uncomfortable and problematic. What was I achieving by rewatching that footage? By triggering myself? How was that helping to heal? It wasn’t. I’m more critical of the ways the media remembers 9/11 each year. I try to pick and choose when and how I engage on the day. How I remember. And the fact that I have a choice is a privilege.

Source: The New York Times
Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There are so many people, so many families, whose lives and hearts will forever have empty spaces. There are so many individuals and groups of people who have been stereotyped, discriminated against, harmed, and threatened based on their ethnicity, country of origin, and religion. It’s essential that we bring greater nuance to the narratives, memories and conversations that we all have about 9/11, especially for those born after 9/11, who only have our stories, perspectives, and the media coverage of that day.

I’ve told this story so many times over the years, but I’ve never written it down. Thank you for reading.