A Former New Yorker Remembers When A Tuesday In September Became 9/11
Twenty years ago, I lived in New York City. I was five years into my 15-year residency, and New York was the first place I'd felt fully in control of my life. Like Truman Capote's unnamed narrator in Breakfast at Tiffany's, "my spirits heightened whenever I felt in my pocket the key" to my first New York apartment. It was one the Upper West Side, but I woke up on Tuesday, September 11 in my then-girlfriend's East Village apartment.
Her phone was ringing off the hook, but she didn't recognize the number on her caller ID. Turns out it was her mother, who'd just seen news of the first plane crashing into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. Cell phones weren't yet universal so her mother was calling from a payphone.
We ignored what we assumed was a telemarketer, which on most days is the worst outcome when you answer a call from a number you don't recognize. We left for work, stopping at the bagel shop across the street. There was a TV on behind the woman making my egg and cheese on a cinnamon raisin bagel (don't judge), and the news was already airing footage of the first plane crash. Because this was still just a Tuesday and not yet 9/11, no one immediately assumed a terrorist attack. Americans believed themselves forever safe, but as a nation, we were old enough that such innocence is indistinguishable from arrogance.
The start-up where I worked was in Chinatown or, as the CEO told investors, “South SoHo." As I walked to the office, it still felt like a pleasant late summer day, but that changed once I crossed Canal Street. That's when I was struck by the smell, an intense burning metal. Scientific American described the smell that would linger in the air for months as the "acrid miasma of 91,000 liters of jet fuel and the 10,000,000 tons of building materials and contents burning at temperatures above 1,000 degrees Celsius." I only remember it as the smell of lower Manhattan during the final months of 2001.
Coworkers stood outside the office, confused and shocked. By this point, the second plane, Flight 175, had struck the South Tower, just six minutes after the building-wide PA system announced: "The building is secure, please return to your desks." New York's WNYW was among the first to report that this was an intentional attack. This Tuesday in September was now 9/11.
My ex-girlfriend and I reunited at a coffee shop near her apartment. Although cell service was rapidly deteriorating, we were eventually able to leave messages with our parents. In the age of landlines, changing apartments usually meant a new phone number, so it was harder to keep in touch with people prior to Twitter or Facebook, and for all those platforms ills, we would've given anything at the time for the ability to instantly inform everyone we'd ever met that we were still alive.
New Yorkers are friendlier than the rightwing narratives suggest, and there was a reassuring, communal vibe on Second Avenue that day. We packed into bars and cafes, day drinking and stress eating, while reminding ourselves that the world had changed. It's a stark contrast to the early days of the pandemic when all the comforts of normality were suddenly snatched away.
That night, on my ex's apartment's rooftop, we watched smoke billow up from the wreckage just five miles away. Exactly a week earlier, we'd seen PJ Harvey during her tour behind the album, Stories from City, Stories from the Sea, her love letter to New York. We listened to that album until the morning.
The supposed “real" Americans outside the city briefly loved New York during the weeks after 9/11, but our tenuous citizenship wouldn't last long. I worked less than a mile from Ground Zero and would often walk past this open, festering wound in the city. I can clearly remember doing so the day that the Bush administration launched Operation Enduring Freedom, a juvenile name that would define the misguided yet predictable response to 9/11. The war in Afghanistan would endure for decades while freedom slowly rotted on the vine.
September 11 didn't make us a better nation or a more empathetic people. Nietzsche advised that we should “distrust all in whom the urge to punish is powerful," and that rapacious desire inspired 20 years of war and unthinking jingoism served with a side of freedom fries. Every year on this day, the worst people tend to speak the loudest, declaring “Never again!" without humility or self-awareness. They seize on legitimate grief to feed their own bigotry and hatred against Muslims or anyone who dares believe in non-violent resolutions to our differences.
Twenty years later, even against a viral threat that devastated our nation without destroying a single building, Americans turned on ourselves because that urge to punish remains so strong. Let's stop channeling our grief into greater destruction. During today's moment of silence, let's consider breaking the cycle of violence.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."