For my parents, is was "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?"
Now, for myself and my generation, it's "Where were you when the World Trade Center collapsed?"
My story does not start on the 11th, but two days earlier on the 9th. I was in the midst of driving home from a co-worker's wedding and decided to stop in Jersey City. I walked over to the pier to check out the view. Across the Hudson River was the downtown financial district and the World Trade Center. It was a bright, sunny day - achingly gorgeous. Boats lazily made their way down stream. It had been a fun weekend and I was feeling good.
Then my cell phone buzzed. It was my mother. She uttered the words that I had been expecting - but dreading - for awhile. "We lost grandma this morning."
We fragile human beings might come and go, I thought, but those towers will always be there. The thought was somehow comforting.
It was the last time I saw them standing.
Two days later, my immediate family gathered at the funeral home. There, we were to meet the hearse and drive to the cemetary on Long Island. The general mood was, as you'd expect, very somber. I was standing just outside with my aunt and cousin, talking quietly, when my uncle came out, ashen-faced.
"I'm going to tell you something that'll shiver your timbers," he said. Yes, he actually said this. He told us that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center.
I admit to not being very fazed at the time. It was a tragedy, but I was sure it was an accident. After all, it was bound to happen sometime. Surely someone wouldn't do something like that on PURPOSE, would they? But then the second plane hit, and we all knew it wasn't an accident. Something was horribly, horribly wrong.
But tragedy or no, my family still had a duty to perform. We piled into two cars - me and my immediate family in one car, my cousins, aunt and uncle in another - and started the slow drive toward the connecting bridge that would take us to Long Island, the cemetary, and our grandmother's final resting place. It was all too much to take in at once, and my father insisted that we not turn on the radio. "Right now, it's all about Grandma," he said. "Let's do our duty and we'll deal with this later." Sage advise. We drove in silence, and I somehow managed to shove the recent events to the back of my head.
Somehow, we got through the funeral. We did our duty. It was the most surreal moment of my life. I uttered a eulogy that I had prepared - it was heartfelt, honest and conveyed what my grandmother meant to me and all of us, but each word felt like ashes in my mouth. I felt guilty. I felt guilty feeling sorry for myself. Minna Gilbert, my grandmother, also known as "Gabby" to my sister and I, had lived a very long, very blessed life and died very peacefully with all of her children surrounding her. We should all hope to go that way. How could I feel sorry for MYSELF, when thousands of innocent lives had just been cut short in such a horrifying, brutal way?
I felt guilty and I felt angry. I also felt cheated. This was a day for US. It was a day for us to mourn and feel sad and sorry for ourselves. And it was taken away from us. Maybe that was a bit selfish - and I KNEW it was selfish - but I couldn't help myself. My emotions were a whirlwind, churning and spinning around like puree in a blender, and I didn't know what I should feel.
The government had ceased all traffic going in and out of the city, so we were unable to get back. Fortunately, my cousins had a home on the island so we all headed there. We spent the majority of the day camped out in their den, our eyes glues to CNN, listening to everything but understanding nothing. We glared at the screen, as if by the sheer power of our collected minds we could will the reporters into giving us answers. In retrospect, the timing of the events worked out well. Because of the funeral, we were all together. None of us were alone. We had just gone through hell together, and we bond as a family was strengthened as a result.
Trains into the city were running again the following morning, so we headed back. For the last 24 hours I had seen the NYC skyline on television, but I was extremely wary of seeing the sight for real. When we stepped out of the subway station, my mother looked up, gasped and shuddered. "I'll never find my way around this city again," she said. I knew exactly what that meant. The World Trade Center was the designated Compass of New York City. You just had to glance up, look for the towers, and you'll be able to tell what direction you were facing. No longer.
I walked my father, mother and sister home. They were living in an apartment just south of Canal street. Canal street was deemed the cut-off point for traffic. To walk south of Canal, you had to show ID that you belonged there. After we got there and settled in, I decided that I needed to get back to my own home. I needed to be alone for awhile. I wasn't feeling too well and I just wanted to sleep the rest of the day away. So I hugged my family goodbye and began the 13 block uptown walk to my own apartment in the east village.
It was the longest walk of my life.
In a city that was always teeming with life, one that was always filled with hustle and bustle and people jostling each other with lots of honking traffic and all-around NOISE, there was now silence. The sidewalk and streets were crowded with people, but the overpowering quiet smothered the city like a blanket. Everyone's face was downcast and haunted - much like mine, in fact. At one point, a metal door clanged shut with a bone-jarring clang. It was a sound that you hear every other minute in New York, but at that moment everyone reacted like they heard a gunshot. A few people screamed. Everyone was on edge.
A tired-looking man came up to me and, in a thick jamaican accent, asked me where the Queens train was. I told him the next one was on 8th street, but I didn't know if it was running. It turns out he was a security man and had been at the World Trade Center site for the last 30 hours. I don't know what came over me, but I was overflowing with emotion. I grabbed his hand, shook it mightily, and thanked him profusely. It was just one many examples of fellowship that broke out across the city after that time. New York has the reputation of being an unfriendly place, and maybe that's justified, but when a tragedy occurs we all pull together.
I got home, took the elevator to my apartment, and collapsed into bed. There I stayed for a week. I might have gone out for food, but I honestly can't remember.
It's been two years since that day, and the media has put forth many theories on What It All Means. One often hears the words "in these post-9/11 times" being tossed around like a badmitton birdie. In these post-9/11 times it takes longer to get through airport security. In these post-9/11 times we are no longer as innocent. In these post-9/11 times we must be vigilent. Regardless of how you feel about the politics, the aftermath or the wars that followed, you can't deny what a searing impact that day had. Much like any personal tragedy, our history is now marked. There was life before 9/11, and now there is life after.