Like the rest of the country I watched and listened to the events unfold in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania ten years ago this weekend. As I recall, I was teaching then and cancelled all of my classes. I sat by the television (and the radio - for some odd reason I had them both on) and tried to make sense of the information crowding my brain.
I had already moved to Chicago by then and a couple of days after the attack I was on Michigan Avenue, near the huge, now defunct, Border's Bookstore across from the old Water Tower. A television reporter stopped me on the sidewalk and did a quick 'man on the street' interview. They wanted to know if the incidents in the previous few days would effect my Christmas shopping; if I thought the economy would suffer because of the devastation. I said I hoped not and kept walking.
I lived in New York City from 1985 until 2000. I was not that long gone from the city when it happened. While I can't exactly say the WTC was on my beaten path, I had certainly been there a few times, once even eating in the restaurant there, Windows On The World, I think it was called. And many years ago, shortly after moving to NYC, I had waited tables at a place very near the towers, can't even remember the name of it, and took the subway there everyday. I didn't like the financial district in NYC, especially on rainy days. This was the eighties and 'power unbrellas' were big then. These were huge umbrellas that yuppies carried around. They were a constant source of irritation to people who were not carrying one because they were so big and they tended to poke people in the face while walking on the street. It was purely a yuppie thing in NYC and mostly the young, dumb and rich carried them. Hence their presence in the financial district.
I remember Chicago, of course, always envious of New York and constantly in comparison (every business in Chicago used the tag line 'Better Than New York!' it seemed), was reporting for awhile that the fourth plane, the one that fell into a muddy field in Pennsylvania, had been heading for some target in Chicago. Of course that wasn't true, but they repeated it quite a bit for a week or so on the local news. Turns out that plane had already turned around and was heading for one of two sites in D.C., one quite possibly The White House.
Like nearly everyone else in the nation I remember wanting swift and violent retribution for the people responsible. The American public, for the most part, didn't know anything about Osama Bin Laden or AL-Qa'ida. I had been in NYC for the first attack on The World Trade Center in 1993 and had no doubt heard the name then, but, like the rest of the country, assumed we had qualified people working on that and the name didn't register or stick with me in any concrete sense.
At that period in my life I was living a very insular existence, self-exiled and reclusive. So I didn't discuss my feelings about the attacks with anyone else for a long time. But I watched almost compulsively as the talking heads replayed it over and over during the next few weeks. I watched to see if I could recognize anyone I knew in the dust and panic of that day, anyone fleeing the towers covered with white soot. I didn't see anyone.
And like most extraordinary events in my life, I experienced a delayed reaction to it all. In fact, it wasn't until the first anniversary of the attacks that I really began to get a grasp on the import of that day. And finally the oft-repeated phrase, 'everything changed,' began to make sense to me. Everything had changed. I did everything alone in those days, I ate in restaurants alone, I drank alone, I spent my evenings alone. I would teach during the day and spend comfortable nights by myself in my darkened apartment. It was a phase that was to last many years. But something had been taken from me, from us, that day. A sense of detachment had been yanked away. Our false sense of isolation had been removed - for me, both personally and as an American, whatever that might mean.
Now, ten years later and 1750 miles away from Chicago, my wife and I have watched three or four specials on the event over the last few nights. It somehow seems more real to me now than it did ten years ago. And the thing that keeps occuring to me is that the horror of that day for so many was also the beginning of the end for my own period of forced isolation. It is almost allegorical in its timing. Like many, I suppose, who can mark the moment in their lives when they heard that Kennedy had been shot, or when the astronauts landed on the moon, or the chaos and panic of Pearl Harbor, the images of Nine One One take me back to a stretch of time that marked an apathetic loneliness in my own life, an era of quiet, personal anarchy. And, almost against my will, I found myself being forced to think of the tragedy of other people, other lives, distant pain. It became impossible to consider the idea that I was the center of my own little universe. The images from the television screen, leaping out and clawing at me, simply wouldn't allow my self-inflicted compartmentalization to continue, try as I might to let it be so.
In the final analysis, this is what I remember about that anonymous and explosive day in September. The first glimpses of a life outside myself, of casting off a firmly embedded sense of isolation. I ached for the families that lost husbands and wives and fathers and mothers that day. And surprisingly, I began to feel connected again. Connected to a whole nation of grieving, imperfect people.
Today, when I watch the same images again, the atrocity of people being forced out of the upper floors of the towers, leaping to their certain deaths, I am filled with a moral outrage. Ten years ago I was filled with something else, a numb anger, perhaps. And again, I begin to understand the oft-repeated cry, Everything Has Changed. Because Everything Had.
See you tomorrow.