“It’s too safe, rewrite it,” my sister responded to the draft I had sent her to simply spell check. It was one month before the ten year anniversary of 9/11 and my hometown paper in California had asked for readers to write in with what they remembered from that horrible day, where they were, how they felt. A few of my family members and friends had asked me to write in about what it had been like for me to be a college student in NYC that day and my mom had said to me, “Write it, even if you don’t send it in, write it. It might be good for you.” The final draft was the hardest thing I’ve ever written. It took almost another month, many tearful and sleepless nights, and finally two days before the anniversary I sent my five page essay in to the editor. I knew it was too long for a newspaper to print but it was exactly what I needed to say, there was nothing to be left out. The editor thanked me for my submission and wrote, “hopefully we will be able to pull a quote or two.” On the morning of September 11th, 2011 my dad called to tell me that the piece had been printed almost in entirety. Then an interesting thing happened.
People in my hometown started to thank me for sharing my experience, for helping them gain a better understanding of what it was like for New Yorkers during that time. More interestingly, I started to feel an anger I didn’t even know I held onto start to release. For ten years I would always get angry if people asked me about 9/11 or if my mom started to talk about. I was never angry at the people around me, I was simply angry. I was angry at the loss of thousands of lives, I was angry at the loss of my innocence, I was angry at the fear that was instilled in me and in so many of my classmates, friends, fellow citizens. I’m still angry and I think I may always be. But the anger is no longer bottled up inside of me.
Three months ago I landed a dream job –
From my fist visit to the new WTC, in front of the South Memorial Pool – January 2012. In the background the new 1 WTC aka “Freedom Tower” is under construction.
working as an NYC tour guide. As someone who loves to travel and to share my travel knowledge, the job was a perfect fit. The company then asked me if I would be able to handle 9/11 tours and I agreed. My mom asked if I would really be able to handle that I said, “One thing I’ve learned in the past five years is that 9/11 affected not only those of us who were in New York or were connected to the Pentagon attack or the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, but that our entire nation was affected. People just want a better understanding of what happened.” And so I started giving tours of Ground Zero and almost every day this summer have shared my story, have listened to people from all over the world share their stories, and have shared a few tears. I’ve also held discussions with folks who have their own theories on 9/11 and with folks who have let what they know and don’t know lead them to harboring a hatred for all Muslims. These conversations have perhaps been the most interesting. I find that I finally have a better understanding myself of how much the 9/11 attacks affected everyone who was old enough to understand what was going on. I also am beginning to understand just how little New Yorkers knew in the moment compared with the rest of the world and how different everyone’s experience was.
’Tis a Gift – written September, 2011
His legs are shaking. From my vantage point sitting behind him I think he is going to collapse to the ground in the next second. There is no way he can stay on his feet. As they give out, he grips the podium until his hands turn white and continues on. I wonder if those he is speaking to can feel his distress. The CEO of a major electronics company is slowly working his way through a eulogy while also sharing his guilt for being late to a morning meeting with many of his employees at Windows on the World when the Twin Towers were hit. The plane spliced the building just below their feet. I’m up next, to sing the American folk tune, “Simple Gifts.” If I can find my voice.
There are two cities I call home: Davis, where I was born, passed my childhood days, and where I have always found endless love and support from family, friends and strangers; and New York City, where I lived out my college days and beyond, grew up, and found a home in the life and the vibrancy of the city and its people. As a young child, I had been the annoying kid who would not stop singing throughout the grocery store and around the time I began at Emerson Jr. High began to realize that my love of music would play a role in the rest of my life. I decided that the big, bad apple was the place I belonged and dedicated myself to doing all I could to move there as soon as possible. I even wrote my Hart Bill essay on the subject of why I belonged in NYC and included that I loved to watch the beginning of 20/20 as it showed an arial view of the city, specifically of the Twin Towers rising high into the sky. At what I thought was the very mature age of seventeen, I succeeded in making my move. The city took me in its arms the moment I arrived. I loved every moment of my new life. I had a freshman dorm room on the edge of Washington Square Park, was regularly seeing shows on Broadway, Off-Broadway, at the Met, taking my daily runs through cobble stoned streets, eating new foods, meeting amazing folks of an endless variety of race, religion and background. With each passing day I fell more in love with the City, its people, its culture, its groove. There were some challenges in adjusting to life in the city, one of them being finding my way when coming up from the subway. No matter how hard I tried to play it cool, I would often find myself disoriented in that first year. So I would turn in a circle like a dork until I found the eminent Twin Towers and could therefore find my bearings. The towers were southwest from almost every exit. They became my North Star.
The only shot I have from my first visit to the World Trade Center, also my first visit to NYC. It was a blustery cold Sunday morning but my mom wanted to see the Twin Towers before catching our flight home from my NYU audition. This was taken in Liberty Plaza Park.
In the aftermath of 9/11, my mom asked what happened to the statue (“Double Check”) we took a photo with during our visit to the WTC. This has become an iconic photo.
On the first Monday night of my junior year at NYU my cousin Katherine arrived in the city to begin a semester in town. I was living by Union Square at the time, specifically on the corner of 3rdAvenue and 14th St., a location I loved. It was right on the boundary corner of Union Square Park, Stuyvesant Town and the East Village. A variety of characters graced our corner: bohemians, the posh, homeless, drag queens, the drunken gentleman who during Yankee games would scream “Fuck the Yankees” all night long, and of course fellow students. I took my cousin for drinks at one of my favorite local places, the Heartland Brewery, before tucking in early as I had my first 8am class the next day. The T.A. didn’t show up after fifteen minutes so we all signed our names and I went to the 7th floor of the music building in hopes of catching one of my professors during office hours. He wasn’t in yet so I figured I’d head up the practice rooms on the 9th floor to catch a few minutes of singing before going to my work-study job in the library computer lab at 9:30. On my way to the staircase, I passed two classmates, one saying to the other, “Did you hear that a building near Water Street (the name for the then largest NYU dorm) is on fire?” The gals then stopped me to say that they were heading up to the “Loft,” the top floor where the jazz dudes rehearsed, and to ask if I’d like to join. I thought, whatever, I’ve got some free time. The moment we stepped off the elevator we heard a voice say, “I just saw the second plane hit.” There was a lone sax player starring out the southern window.
We joined him at the window and silently watched flames rush down the northeast corner of both Towers. One of the gals said something along the lines of, “It’s bad enough that airport control made one mistake, but two?” Then an intensely disgusted second male voice surprised us from behind in a thick accent I can’t remember well enough to place though his words will never leave me: “This is no accident, this is terrorism.”
“This is no accident, this is terrorism.” His words will repeat and repeat in my mind for months to come. I remember not knowing what to make of all that was happening so I said, “I guess I’ll go to work now,” and took the elevator down.
Upon leaving the building I saw that the illegal street booksellers who usually keep their radios on such a low volume that even they can barely hear the music were blasting the news channels and taxis had stopped in the middle of the street with their doors open and their radios also blaring. Students were silently gathering around whatever radio was closest. A silent mob. At that moment I realized that something really big was happening and thought perhaps I should call my mom. But she was in California and it was barely 6am there so she probably wouldn’t be up yet. Waking her and my dad up would not make me a good daughter. I dialed. I told her that Katherine and I were okay and then lost the connection. I was standing on a block I often chatted with her from but my phone would refuse to work. Giving up on the call, I then went into work and with the latest gossip in my mouth – “Have you heard that the World Trade Center is on fire?” Soon after we received word that since our basement lab is considered a bomb shelter that we were not to leave its protection. We essentially became cut-off from the rest of the city. Why was there a sudden worry over a fire? Because a plane had just hit the Pentagon and the WTC crashes were not an accident. Soon another plane would go down in Pennsylvania. Slowly, the pieces started to come together for me.
I look back on that day and can’t help but wonder why at the moment I saw the Towers on fire I did not realize that something substantial was happening. Perhaps I’d grown too used to the craziness and unpredictableness of NYC, perhaps it was too much information mixed with too much unknown, or perhaps I was just in shock. I spent the rest of the day in a daze. I remember feeling a panic begin when we were locked in the basement, our communications cut off from the rest of the world. After about twenty minutes, security decided to let us leave if we deemed it necessary with a strong warning that they believed we should stay. I busted out of the library onto a street I did not recognize. Washington Square Park. The very same place I spent my freshman year, along which my classes were still being held, where I studied and I jogged almost daily, was a mystery to me. The debris, the people like zombies, all was wrong. Where was the chaos of the city? Didn’t we all have places to go, things to do? This was not my New York City. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. Suddenly chaos erupted behind us and we turned around to see a huge cloud filling the sky above Lower Manhattan. We didn’t know it, but the South Touwer had just collapsed. A fellow Davisite – a familiar face! – crossed my path with a disposable camera he’d had the clear thinking to buy from a corner bodega in order to shoot a record of what was going on. He was running downtown, the rest of us were running uptown. I stumbled up the suddenly unfamiliar route of University Street, Union Square South to my apartment. The streets and the sidewalks were clogged. Folks were patiently waiting their turn to board busses and the enter subway stations. I had never and have never seen lines so long. Nor such calm. Lines for phone booths were around the corner. Never before had I thought that those public phones actually worked. We were in the growing age of cell phones – who had need for a land line?? The answer: No need, until the antenna goes down.
I don’t remember arriving at my apartment building but I do remember walking into my apartment to find a roommate being ill. She kept saying, “Those are bodies, those are bodies.” Not understanding what she meant, I walked to the window and saw what she was talking about. Figures unrecognizable as human forms tumbling down through the air with the bright orange of a brilliant fire as their background. I had been feeling frenzied to make sure my cousin was actually okay, that she hadn’t woken early and taken herself on a self tour of the city, but almost forgot to check on her. She was there in the apartment, sitting with her knees tucked up to her face and arms securely holding them, taking in her first day in New York City. None of us knew what to do with ourselves though the remainder of the day. Communications were down, we’d never experienced that before. Endless streams of rugged pedestrians in dusty business suits were streaming past our building on a path uptown. Rarely had we seen business folks pass our little corner of the city. At some point in the day we decided to go across the street to the corner deli that regularly provided us with a Ben & Jerry’s fix for a six pack of beer. We didn’t have to use our fakes and payment was optional. Later in the day my cousin and I decided to take her first stroll through the Village… All I remember are the makeshift flyers for missing persons already covering the windows of one of my favorite pizzerias.
For the rest of the week we still couldn’t figure out what to do with ourselves. Many of my classmates made their way home, some walking for hours just to cross a bridge to reach some form of working transportation. In my apartment, we watched the military take over the streets below as NYC was shut down starting at 14th St. They came in with their uniforms, guns, bullet belts and big, scary fuck-off vehicles. They didn’t belong. Where were all the colorful characters? The main NYU campus was a few blocks below the blockade so NYU students were some of the few folks allowed through. All that was required was a thorough check of our I.D.s. Our once vibrant location had become a ghost town. We wandered through the empty streets of the East Village until we found one of our soon-to-be favorite restaurants, a Polish pancake place. It was open and was serving more than just the neighborhood that day. For once in our crazy, busy lives, the long wait to be sat didn’t matter. NYU tried to resume classes that Friday and a minimal amount of students showed up. We just hung out.
In the weeks and months that followed I found that the best I could do was to support my friends and my community. So many people had lost so much. Thousands of NYU students had run from the dust cloud in their pajamas and were unable to return home for many weeks. The university put them up in hotels and gave cash to each student but it wasn’t enough to cover what had been left behind. Some of my closest friends who were from the tri-state area had lost half of their home communities. It was a time of grieving. Corporations were looking for folks to sing at their memorial service. So we did. Everyone wanted to help and everyone wanted to mourn. All that I had to offer was my music.
So I sang. “’Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free.” A melody I’d always enjoyed when listening to Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring” but had never paid attention to the lyrics. To this day, they now haunt me. A classmate composed an haunting Requiem in record time to dedicate to those affected by 9/11. In early 2002, us University Singers began rehearsing the drafts and soon after were joined by a chamber orchestra composed of NYC musicians for a memorial concert. Regular candlelight services were held in Union Square, many of which I attended despite being nonreligious and prayed for whatever came to mind that day. We were all in this together, this time of mourning, of uncertainty, and a time when love across boundaries came together.
The first Friday night after the attacks I was suddenly awoken by a loud boom. A flash of light followed it, than another boom. My phone rang. It was a friend who for days had been trying to convince me to stay with her across the river in Hoboken, NJ while I stubbornly had been saying, “I can’t leave, then they win.” (I don’t think I knew what I meant by that phase but that was the best way for me to describe how I felt. It became my mantra.) We quickly realized that the city was not again under attack but that it was simply being visited by a powerful thunderstorm. She said to me, “My first thought was that I was the last person to talk to Alison.” More scariness would follow: the anthrax scare; bioterrorism scares that led many of my friends to buy bottled water and to duct tape their windows; various subway threats paired with men in fatigues touting huge guns and bullet belts replacing the usual musicians, beggars and crazies. And a number of my friends who appear to have Middle Eastern heritage were targets of racial slurs and sometimes scared for their physical well-being. I remember one friend saying to me, “But my family’s from India, I’m an American and a Christian. But what should it matter if I wasn’t? I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
Mixed in there were also beautiful
The new World Trade Center, taken from Liberty Park
moments I will never forget. That first Saturday, I decided I should try to get back into my routine and set off on my regular weekend 10 mile jog across town and up the Riverwalk along the West Side Highway, a jog that provided a breathtaking view of the city, the Hudson and New Jersey in the distance. When I reached the WSH I was stopped by the sight of an endless line of emergency vehicles from across the nation replacing the cabs usually parked at Chelsea Piers. They had driven hundreds of miles to help us. New York City… The city that was suddenly stricken down. They were there to help those who had fallen. To help us in our time of need. Looking back, I realize that in all those collective moments I became not a New Yorker and not a Californian but an American.