Eleven years ago today I was a senior in high school. I sat down for Mrs. Bolton’s first period Spanish class. There were only three minutes in between the bells for class, so it was always this mad rush to get to your locker and then navigate your way to class with sixteen hundred other boys trying to do the same exact thing. I sat down and the kid in front of me, J.R. Hancock – every class had alphabetical seating so I always sat around the same few guys – leaned around and told me he had heard something about a terrorist attack.
It didn’t even register in my mind what he was really talking about. As a teenager I never went to bed before midnight. I had my own room and I’d stay up late watching WWF or Star Trek. Getting up at six in the morning was all but impossible. Every single morning my parents would have to scream me out of bed, and I felt like I was perpetually just making it to school at the very last second.
So I’m still half-asleep and J.R. drops this bomb, but, like I said, I didn’t really get what he was saying. I kind of looked at him and said something like, “What? Really?” and he, having no further information just kind of repeated himself again, but this happened within the course of maybe fifteen seconds, because the bell rang and class came to session almost immediately.
Mrs. Bolton started in on her Spanish lesson, no mention of anything that J.R. was talking about, and so that feeling that I had, that feeling that J.R. wasn’t really making sense, that this news he told me didn’t really connect with anything in my brain, this feeling persisted for about ten more minutes. And then the P.A. system came online and Fr. James, the school’s president, made his 9/11 speech.
It was maybe half a minute long. He told us that there had been an attack on the World Trade Center, but at this point the best thing to do was go about our day. As if there were no terrorist attacks. As if it were just a regular school day. Throughout the course of the day, this “let’s ignore it” approach got stronger, teachers encouraging us not to talk about it, forbidding us to turn on the TVs mounted on the walls of each classroom to watch the footage that by now everyone’s seen over and over again. It doesn’t need any more describing.
People always talk about how during moments of national importance, everybody can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing. When JFK and MLK got shot. When the Apollo crew landed on the moon. And yeah, I guess it’s a pretty accurate description. I can still vividly recall everything, but only what I wrote down above, the five minutes before and after the P.A. announcement. Everything after is kind this collection of memories, some are definitely mine, some are probably more of an amalgamation of actual experiences but also of popular stories.
For example, and I don’t know where I read this, or when, but it was in the Times, definitely years after the attacks, about how the author will forever associate the color of a clear fall sky as “9/11 blue.” For whatever reason, that’s part of my memory too, even though it’s not mine, it’s not my description. It’s not even my memory of that sky. My memory of the sky was what it looked like for the rest of the day. It was like this orange, this rust color. All of that explosion just kept exploding, kept burning up downtown, just half an hour without traffic from where I grew up.
I still kind of resent my high school for not letting us at least watch what was going on, participate in the day’s unfolding. You’d see later on TV, high schools around the country watching the news, students holding hands, having this shared mourning experience. For us it was just math problems and religion classes all while every once in a while some secretary from the principal’s office would come to the door, whisper something in the teacher’s ear, and the teacher would just kind of look at that one student who’s dad worked downtown somewhere, that kid who had been on the edge of his seat, already waiting for a call like this, and they’d slip him out of class. My dad worked in midtown, so I wasn’t worried. Or at least I don’t remember being worried. I wasn’t really feeling anything because it was this weird sort-of school day, nobody allowed to talk about anything.
And it just didn’t feel real. School let out and I drove home. And I walked inside. My mom didn’t really have anything to say. My little brothers and sisters didn’t know what to talk about. My friend Dan and I drove over to the hospital to see if we could donate some blood, but some nurse turned us away, told us there was nobody around to take any blood. Everybody with any type of actual medical credentials was already downtown.
It was either that day or the next day that I went to work waiting tables after school. Somebody that worked there had a sister that was a nurse or an EMT and she came in after volunteering downtown, sifting through all of that rubble. I think. Even that isn’t a vivid memory.
At the restaurant, I remember some lady came in and asked my boss to give her some food so she could drive it down to the volunteers. And my boss started packing up trays of meat and salad. Some other guy came with a giant sign, like a banner, with an American flag across it. It said something like God Bless the USA. But the guy handed it over with his business card on top, his sign-making business card. And I remember as soon as the guy left, my boss threw it in the garbage and let out a string of curses about such vulgar opportunism.
I wasn’t planning on writing anything about 9/11. I don’t feel like I should. I don’t feel like it’s my right. There are so many other people who were closer to it, more directly affected, people who helped out, people who made serious sacrifices. A big part of me still feels exactly the way I did in high school, the non-feelings. The kind of emotional vacancy. Like when I heard the news the first time, when J.R. turned around and started blabbing about some attack, like this core part of me just walled up and refused to accept it. Because it is ridiculous when you think about what happened. So out of synch with the rest of regular life.
I never planned on writing about 9/11, because I never write about anything seriously, and I thought it would across as forced, or worse, disingenuous. But I went for a run just now, and it’s nighttime already, and I after maybe ten minutes or so I turn the corner and I saw those 9/11 lights, the big giant memorial lights that they light up from ground zero every year, and I got this unexpected chill, not just down my spine, like every hair on my body tightened, a very rare sensation of goosebumps on every square inch of my body.
And I started thinking all about 9/11, all about what it was like that day, all about the days and the weeks and the months after. Everybody put their own spin on it. Every news network had graphics and stories and there were two major 9/11 motion pictures and Marvel Comics made a special 9/11 comic book, and it was bigger than all of the other comic books, and all of the comic book stores had a limit, like you can only buy two which, whenever there’s a “limit two” policy, what they’re really saying is, “Why buy just one? Buy two.”
Of course I bought two. You felt like less of an American if you only bought one. Buying zero was out of the question. You might as well have just given up on going to the comic store all together. And these comics were oversized, so the stores also sold special oversized bags and boards to store your 9/11 comic books in. And this was right after 9/11, so we were still a few years away from 9/11 collector’s coins and 9/11 commemorative kitchenware and last year’s 9/11 NFL Budweiser commercial.
And let’s not forget about the inconveniences of modern plane travel, of not being able to bring a bottle of water on a flight, of massive government wiretaps and an aggressive foreign policy, of torture and Guantanamo Bay, about radical Islam and ground zero mosques. Listen, I’m not trying to make any points here, I’m really not. I’m just observing. Everybody’s still dealing with this in one way or another.
But remember a couple of years ago when Glenn Beck started his whole “9/12 Project?” It was something about going back to how we all felt that day after 9/11. The national unity. The sense of shared loss, of communal mourning. Politicians coming together. America united.
But to me that’s the exact opposite of what I want to see. I want to see a 9/10 Project. I want it to be like it was before 9/11. We’ve been dealing with this for eleven years now. It’s been over a decade of 9/11. Sure we were all united after the attacks, but we were all united in fear, in being terrified, of everything, of everybody else. People took advantage of that fear. The government. That sign-making guy. Collectable coin companies. Hollywood, Marvel Comics, and Anheuser-Busch.
I’m not a huge fan of Mayor Bloomberg, but he made a lot of sense a year or two ago when he suggested that maybe sooner or later we’re going to have to stop with the elaborate memorial ceremonies every year. It’s not about forgetting. It’s about getting along and moving on from unspeakable tragedy. You can’t just keep reliving it, over and over again. It’s not healthy. It’s just this big collective case of PTSD.
Eleven years is a big deal. So was ten years. Every year is a milestone. I hope maybe we can at least start to turn the page. 9/11 is never going to go away, and it’s always going to be this stain on our national consciousness. But let’s just all hope and try to make sure that we can build even more decades of peace, of prosperity, of goodwill, and use these decades to distance ourselves from what happened on this day ten years ago. I think that it’s the very best that we can do, for ourselves, for the future, and for everybody involved in all of the senseless chaos and loss.