Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sept. 11th

I'm writing this selfishly, as a way to process what happened that day.

I was a senior in college, in Stern, attending a morning biochemistry class. We had some sort of inspection from other colleges present that day, they flew in to observe a class and then later to meet with some students. Our classroom was right on Lexington. First an ambulance whizzed by, a normal NY occurrence, Then another. Then, a whole choir of ambulances, loud. My professor stopped for a second and joked: are we on fire? She finished the class. Back in the day, there was no internet on the cellphone, not everyone had one, and it was rude for it to ring during class. So we sat there, with inspectors in the back, engrossed in reactions.

As the class dismissed, my friend Meryl met me at the door with eyes huge as saucers: "Did you hear? They flew planes into World Trade Center, and Pentagon is on fire!" Me, being a seasoned New Yorker: "What kind of crazy rumor is that? Let's go and check some news online." We walked to computer room. NYtimes server: would not load up. CNN: blank page. ABC: just waiting and waiting. It dawned that something really did happen. Finally, somebody got some website up, and it was clear that this is real, the towers are on fire, one already collapsed, Pentagon has been hit, there might be more planes missing.

I was supposed to have Spanish next. After 10 minutes, the teacher dismissed the class. Outside, if you looked towards lower Manhattan, you could see smoke billowing. I went to the dorm room to call my mother. I found messages from her, and from my father. All international circuits were overloaded, so I think I just reached one of them, possibly my mother in Moldova, and I was unable to connect to Canada. My future husband left me a message that he was supposed to take some sort of test, but it got cancelled.

The lounge in the dorm, everyone glued to CNN. The determination of girls to walk over to NYU, just down the street and to donate blood. Many casualties were expected, and we did not know that there will be no need for blood.

I remember going to that meeting with out-of-state inspectors. I do not remember whether any chemistry was discussed, I think nobody had stomach for that. I remember some teacher stubbornly trying to hold an afternoon class, but there was fog, and lack of clarity, and tremendous worry.

Who did this? Why did  they do this? Are there going to be more attacks? How do you process that a New York landmark is no more? How do you understand that thousands of people who just got up and went about their business as usual are no more? How do you wrap your head around evil of this scale?

I had GREs next day, to be taken in One Penn Plaza. It was also a skyscraper. I would have never thought about this fact before, and it would not have bothered me. I remember calling that morning, making sure that the center is still open...

Two days later, there was a bomb scare at Empire State building, this one literally a block away from the dorm. I was RA on duty in another dorm. We were called and told that the dorm is being evacuated, late at night, and all residents are running to East River. Then we were told to prepare dorm's lounge for the arrival of students. I was instructed to set out Shabbos snacks (nibs come to mind) and try to calm students down. I remember Moroccan foreign students, hysterical, crying that they are getting on the first plane back home out of this crazy America. I remember one of the dorm guards, saying that she is ready to abandon her post and run. I remember that the theme for RA training that year was supposed to be "balance", with a delicate helicopter toy being given out, its propeller daintily balancing on top. Nothing in RA training was preparing us for this level of emotion and chaos. The rest of the year, nobody mentioned balance.

And then, the smoke. The funky, acrid smell that reached all the way to midtown. The clean-up: watching from our dorm room, facing 34th street, as smashed cars were towed to Midtown Tunnel. Firefighter funerals, passing below. It lasted for weeks, and then it stopped. Maybe they found another way to remove debris. Maybe people complained and they started doing it late at night. I don't know, but it was hard to see. Maybe that was all that was easy to remove.

And then, a few months later, shopping in some tiny dusty Boropark shop for a hat. The older lady at the checkout, a photo in front of her of a man. Suddenly, she starts telling me how this is her son, and he died in the towers. Helplessness, sadness, loss, tears.

I got married and started grad school in NYU. Beside it was huge white tent where forensic teams were sorting out the remains...

A few months later, I stopped at one of those little shops which sell water and magazines. Inside, there was a customer already talking to a woman behind a counter, a Muslim, by her looks. I walked in in the middle of their conversation:
The man: "Then who do you think was behind the attacks on the towers?"
The woman : "The Jews..."

I could not deal, so I stormed out, without saying a word. Then, anger and regret set in: why didn't I say something? Why didn't I protest? Was I being a coward? Nowadays I know what to do: you tell people of the address on Facebook and they boycott the shop. Back then, it was private, my private shame of not standing up, not doing something...

When I was teaching middle school, it was shocking that all these kids were born so recently, that none of them remembered September 11th. All people my age do, and all are affected, yet these kids, who are too old to be my kids, not even a generation down, just have our recollections, our experiences, and our testimony to rely on.

A few days ago, 10 yo asked me what are we planning to do for Sept. 11th. I asked him what he had in mind. He wanted to look at the pictures of the towers. He faithfully did that today. 8 yo asked, what is so special about today? I gave him a brief summary, but I saw that it did not register. The evil on this scale cannot be reconciled in a child's mind. It reminds me of a more recent reaction to Holocaust that 10 yo expressed: he sort of knew what it was about, but he only realized how bad it is, and how evil, in the past year. "I still cannot believe it!"-

Back then we had Al-Qaeda, now we have ISIS. Back then we did not have connected intelligence, now we do. Yet we are still in denial that it can be that bad, again.

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