I was living on Long Island on September 11, 2001. Like everybody else, I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard about the first plane hitting the Twin Towers. I was in the car with my best friend. She'd forced me to get up at the crack of dawn because there was an early bird sale going on at a store and she wanted me to go with her. We were listening to Howard Stern on the radio when it was announced that a plane had just flown into the Twin Towers. We sat in the parking lot and knew it wasn't an accident when the second plane struck.
We raced home. My ex-husband, who'd moved back to the Midwest the year before, was in the City and I knew he'd said he was going to the Twin Towers. I'd actually been mad at him because our son Leland hadn't seen him for a year and he'd made plans to go into Manhattan by himself. I'd wanted him to take Leland, spend time with him. Now I was happy that he'd been so selfish.
I went to Leland's high school and demanded that he be brought out of class. I didn't want him to hear any secondhand bad news about his father if anything had happened to Peter. I also just wanted my son near me. I was in full blown protection mode. The office worker tried to tell me that they wanted to keep everything normal but I simply looked at her and said, "Get my son. Now."
As I sat and waited, I saw how crowded the office was. Nervous teenagers with barely contained tears sat shaking in their seats while others milled about, murmuring quietly. The whole room seethed. A woman with a baby on her hip came in, and an adolescent girl jumped up and wailed, "He's dead! He's dead!" The woman held her hand out and yelled across the space, "No, baby. No. He got out. He's okay. Daddy's okay." Then I saw my son and everybody else vanished. He hadn't skipped school. He was there...and pissed off at me for getting him out of class. I didn't care. We went home and put the news on. It stayed on for the next five weeks.
I called my friend Danny. He's a jack-of-all-trades, and I knew he was working near the Towers. I knew him, knew he'd run straight there the second the first plane hit. So I called his cell, which of course couldn't get through, and just kept hitting redial, redial, redial, my eyes glued to the TV the whole time. As the first tower began to collapse, I got through. There was nothing but a huge roaring sound, a grinding, tumbling killer wave of noise on the other end.
"Danny?" I screamed at the top of my voice. "Danny, are you there?"
"Yeah," he yelled back, out of breath.
"Were you in the Towers?"
"Where are you now?"
"I'M FUCKING RUNNING!!!"
I started screaming, "Go, go, go!!!"
I shouted as he ran, hearing the roar catch up to him, listening to a sound I'd never experienced, something terrible and huge and fast. Finally he got around the corner of a building and could hear me again. We shouted back and forth to each other but it was so loud, I could tell he didn't know who he was talking to. When I asked, he admitted he had no idea who I was.
I'd dialed the wrong number. It was a total stranger. I told him I'd call his family, let them know he was okay, that there was no way he'd be able to get through on his cell. He thanked me but refused, then said, "I'm going to hang up now. Thank you." I blurted out that I loved him. I don't remember if he answered back. Then the phone went dead. After we hung up, I realized I'd never even asked his name.
Danny had run there but he wasn't in the Towers when they went down. He spent the next two weeks working twenty-one hour days, stringing emergency phone lines at Ground Zero. My ex was in Washington Park and saw it all. He was part of the crowd that walked across the bridge back to Long Island. I walked all over my town, peeking into the shops and calling friends, making sure everybody was safe. Many weren't.
A year later, I was in an Italian restaurant with my best friend and her husband. We were in the bar, waiting for our table. There was a rowdy old drunk who was yelling about something. He looked to be around sixty, sixty-five years old. My friends drifted to the other end of the bar but I sat on my stool, watching the waves of pain that were radiating off this old dude. He wasn't just a self-indulgent drunk; something was very wrong. I thought of the date and wondered if it had anything to do with his rants. He came over to me, blue-eyed and bleary, and thumped me on the back like an old comrade. I smiled and he began to rant again, yelling about loss, sorrow, anger and hatred but with no specifics: just noise about "how they should all die, everybody, everybody." He started gripping handfuls of my hair, running his fingers through it. I let him; I could tell it was helping. He started crying and admitted that he'd lost not only his son, but his grandson and his brother in the Twin Towers. "I'm not hitting on you, sweetheart. I swear I'm not hitting on you," he mumbled, hands in my hair.
"I know you're not."
My friend came over and told me our table was ready. Glaring at the old man and his inappropriate fingers in my hair, she then looked at me like I was crazy, letting him touch me like that. I got off the stool and the man's hands dropped to his sides, his chin quivering with all the emotion he was trying to bottle up. I went over and put both my hands on the back of his neck, pulling him forward until our foreheads touched.
"You can grieve like this a bit longer, but you're almost done, okay?" I whispered. "Almost done."
He grabbed the back of my head, tight, then nodded. He sighed, and his face crumpled. "Yeah. Okay."
Every time I watch a movie that's set in New York, one that was made before 911, I feel this visceral rage when I see the skyline that was stolen from us. When I think of all the men, women and children lost on that terrible day and the gutless cowards who murdered them so gleefully. Everyone was going to funerals for months afterward. Every week, firemen stood at stop signs with boots in their hands, in which drivers stuffed any money they could spare. It was all donations for the families of the lost. I think about my friend from Iran, a woman who'd fled the country when they tried to kill her for teaching girls how to read, and how people here spit on her as she walked down the sidewalk after 911. Or my pal from Libya, who was sitting at a bar a week later when a man came up and punched him in the back of the head for no reason, knocking him unconscious and giving him a concussion. Of their kids being targeted at school because they looked Middle Eastern. It made me think of Woodie Guthrie, and how he stopped an angry mob from attacking a Japanese family in their store, right after Pearl Harbor. Guthrie jumped on top of something, can't remember what, and began to sing, "We shall overcome." Music soothed the beast and the mob changed into a united front of concerned people. I'd love to see a Woodie Guthrie right now, strumming a song of unity and love instead of fame-obsessed sociopaths fanning hatred on 24 Hour propaganda channels.
But in all that chaos, all that strife and justifiable grief, I also saw something beautiful. Something hopeful. A nation coming together to mourn and help each other recover. Celebrities gave their time and money, individuals volunteered anything and everything they could, students did fund drives and grade schoolers drew cards. It was the same during World War II, when everybody did their part, coming together under a common and despicable attack. Sure, we have the whackadoodles and their slobbery rhetoric, but the big-hearted and generous far outweigh them. I love this country. I love the diversity of people in it. I love the freedom that allows even the most idiotic morons imaginable their freedom of speech and expression, even as I abhor their actions. I know that we can come together in bad times and good because we've done it before. Many times. As long as there are people to check prejudice and illiteracy and stupidity, we always will come together. Like Gandhi said, good always triumphs in the end. Always. And even when it doesn't feel that way, even when we're in a valley instead of on top of a hill, that is still true. We just have to believe it, then roll up our sleeves and make it happen. With a little work, good will always triumph in the end. We can unite and keep ourselves strong. Take care of yourselves and be well.