Our 9/11 Stories: Who Should Care?

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

As somebody who unfortunately decided to label herself as a “Writer” at way too early of an age (big mistake, guys), for 10 years I have felt compelled — not entirely self-righteously, I hope — to record for the world my personal, proper “September 11th story.” It has been something that I’ve been insisting on “getting to” since the damn day it happened.  And now with the 10-year anniversary approaching,  I still do have that need to share, in any sort of literary way, my September 11th, my coming-of-age through these bumpy post-years that are now being called “a decade.”

But listen — I’m not oblivious, and I’m also not stupid. I do realize that, if this were the other way around — if it were you trying to tell me your 9/11 story — I’d tune you out immediately. I sure as hell don’t want to hear your “9/11 story.” And, truthfully, unless we turn back time to 2004 and have a sleepover together in your parents’ basement, why on earth would you ever want to hear mine?

In the weeks following the attacks, as the entire Tri-state area frantically tried to find ways not to hurt, not-quite-13-year-old me bought a Mead notebook from my middle school’s after-school store. I decorated its cover with colored pencils, turning the white name-face into an American flag with all 50 stars, writing boldly over it with a Sharpie in cursive, “THAT TUESDAY: MY 9/11 STORY.”

I had a plan to fill that entire notebook with my story. I was going to write a book: my 9/11 story. Mine.

I guess the idea felt like a great one at the time. I’m sure I thought I was doing the country a service, or something — I’m sure I thought that, once I finished recording my story, they’d put it in a canon of other 9/11 stories, that I’d be the youngest person to submit this nonexistent canon, and thus be commended for it.

The first sentence in that marble notebook reads,“Anna Z. broke the news to Gabrielle and I first, during passing time between Health and R.E.A.C.H. class.”

In the second sentence, I quote Anna Z:

“Did you hear? The Pentagon’s on fire, and the World Trade Center crumbled!”

It’s a quote I can still hear in my head. It is a quote that, to this day, still irks me. It is a strange way to put it: there’s a fire in DC, she mentions, and a building in New York has also collapsed? What could these two things possibly have to do with one another? That’s what I remember thinking.

I didn’t get much further in “my book” than that. In the next five wide-line pages, I recount the rest of my and Gabrielle’s walk to R.E.A.C.H. class, which is essentially us laughing over the absurdity of what Anna had just said. (We were laughing, yes. We were laughing hard.) But by the time my character and Gabrielle’s character get to R.E.A.C.H. class, there are no more words. My story ends. I never get to the part in the story where Gabrielle and me get to R.E.A.C.H. class and Mrs. Tolep isn’t there because she’s gone to try to contact her son, who works in the North Tower. I never get to the part where an auxiliary teacher — a heavily made-up woman Courtney and I called “Maybelline” — comes in to supervise us, shaking and wringing her hands over and over for 40 minutes but never speaking, her permanently tattooed eyelids puffy from holding back tears when I go up to her halfway through class and ask, “Could you please tell me if Port Authority is close to the World Trade Center? My dad takes the bus home.”

That year, I won a couple certificates for a poetry collection about roller coasters I’d submitted to some county-wide contest. I wrote my ass off about roller coasters, and at that point I think I’d been on one roller coaster in my life. But I had given up so quickly on trying to tell my 9/11 story. Why is this? I was struggling with the same problem as a 13-year-old as I am now: who am I to tell this story? What gives me the right? How do you record something like that properly, and honorably? And how can someone like me — a non-New Yorker, non-family member of a missing or deceased person — reflect on the hurt it caused?

Early this week I stumbled (er, Tumbld) across the above photograph of volunteers in Alphabet City dissembling commemorative ceramic tiles from a fence the day before Irene hit New York. Last year, during my senior year of college, I lived out there on 11th and C and would often pass these tiles while walking back from Tisch on 8th and Broadway. I can guarantee I never once stopped to check out what sentiment every single tile had to offer, but every time I’d pass the fence, I was reminded of my middle school assembling the same sort of thing on a wall near the school’s front entrance. Each of us painted our little message to America on these ceramic tiles, and Mrs. Sandler, the art teacher, put them in the kiln and tacked them up on the wall for posterity. On these tiles we painted a lot of bald eagles, a lot of Twin Towers, a lot of hearts with the “NYPD” or “FDNY” acronyms scrawled in the center. Individually, these commissioned tiles were particularly underwhelming, with the exception of the few decorated by kids who could paint. However, up on the wall all together, the tiles looked impressive. It looked like something bigger than a mosaic of middle school artwork. It looked like a collage made by kids who had actually been touched by something.

I find the 9/11 coverage this year to be grim in a deeper, more severe way than usual.  Yes, the list of the victims will be played on television, as it is every year, and they’ll show the cursed footage like they always do, and people will lap up the sensationalism the way I used to lap up books about the Holocaust as a kid. But this year, if you notice, there are less people looking back sadly than there are people looking forward sadly. (Frank Rich writes a horrifying article in New York Magazine about an America that, as an idea and as a country, is on the decline; an article on AP.com talks about the trademark positivity of American ideology, that has, in the past 10 years, whittled away.) Americans seem to be long-finished with these “Where were you” stories of 9/11 — what’s on our conscience now is the future of our country, the future of the American morale.

One can watch the news clips and think about 9/11 as a mere catastrophe suspended in air, a catastrophe that has not affected the past 10 years of history save the two or so years it took to clean up the physical mess. I’m not asking people to linger on the sad circumstances of 2001, but I am asking for people to remember those “Where were you” stories. You don’t have to listen to all of them, but remember them. Remember where you were. Remember how you reacted. Remember how a terrorist attack on the United States had a middle school girl from New Jersey feeling like it was her duty to carry the burden of this day on her shoulders.

(I was not far away when the towers fell that Tuesday. I was not in California, or Chicago. I did not “have family living in the New York area” or “a friend who was supposed to fly that day.” I am not a native New Yorker, but I was 15 minutes west of the GWB and my father, like many of my classmates’ fathers, was working in Manhattan.

Mr. Arts, our 26-year-old geography teacher who had just returned from a 50-state road trip, was furious. He didn’t call it a “terrorist attack on the United States,” nor did he say politely, “The World Trade Center has collapsed.” To relay the information to us, Mr. Arts used his hands and arms to mimic the planes and the towers, and urged us to call our parents if we needed more information. When he threw his hands up in the air and shouted “Boom, no more twin towers,” half my class heaved into tears.

All phone lines were down, as the story goes. For the majority of the day I thought my father was dead. When I started crying in the nurse’s office after I couldn’t get in touch with him on the school’s coil-cord phone, the nurse left the room and sent in the child psychologist: I was so hysterical that these women, too, believed my father was dead.

My pops was able to take a train from Hoboken that evening, arriving in Fair Lawn at about eight PM. My whole street was waiting for him on our front lawns: it was like that. There was a little ash at the hem of his dress pants. I cried of happiness for the first time, and I haven’t done that since.

That night, a newscaster estimated a total number of 30,000 deaths “at the end of all this.” An exaggeration, absolutely, but the sound of that number made me cower in a corner and shut the door. On the phone with Courtney, she asked me if I thought there was a correlation between today’s date, “9/11,” and the emergency number “911.”

I took the front page of that day’s extra of The Record and actually stuck it under my mattress. In the year that followed, I’d wonder to myself if there would ever be a day where it wouldn’t cross my mind.)

Remember that first year, those Flag Fridays. Remember how we were patriots. -Christina Drill

  • TT V.

    Very well written, and such a young person. Remember we will.

  • A father who was there

    Reading it brought tears to my eyes, not just for the tragedy, but for how it affected the psyche of all who were not only actors in the event, but people on the periphery. superb writing and so poignantly told.