A Country Divided

I debated as to whether I should share this story and my feelings about what’s happening in our country right now.  But, as much as I prefer to keep this space light, I think the state of our great nation is on everyone’s minds these days.  So, I decided to share my personal experience on 9/11 and how the days, weeks and months after that terrible day re-shaped my identity as an American: 

On the morning of September 11, 2001, my husband and I were trying to iron out our plans for that evening as we got ready for work. He was in his third year of law school and was interning downtown in the Woolworth building and I was working as an assistant buyer for Calypso, St. Barth in their main office on Lafayette Street.  We were just married that June and had recently discovered that I was pregnant with our daughter.  After the initial shock wore off, we were beginning to come around to the idea of becoming first time parents.  I was finally past the first trimester nausea and fatigue and we had told our family and close friends.  Things were looking up.  It was a beautiful, crisp September morning and we had plans to go to the Yankee game after work.  My husband left our one bedroom apartment in Forest Hills, Queens at around 7:30 and I left about a half hour later.  That morning, I decided to take the R train to Canal Street because there was more of a guarantee of securing a seat on the local train as opposed to the express which felt claustrophobic during rush hour.

About an hour later, the train stopped right before we got to Canal Street and remained in the tunnel for what seemed like an awfully long time.  I remember stressing thinking about being late for work and wondering what the hold up was all about.  Finally, an announcement came over the loud speaker saying that Canal Street would be the last stop because of “an accident at the World Center.” As a New Yorker, I didn’t think much of that announcement.  Things happened in New York everyday.  In fact, I remember the first attack on the Worl Trade Center when I was a senior in high school.  We never had a snow day in my four years attending school on the upper east side but I do recall being sent home early that day in February of 1993.  The train eventually lurched forward and came to a stop at Canal.  I exited the train quickly and walked north on Broadway when I suddenly noticed people crying and looking up at the sky.  Instead of turning around to see what the commotion was all about, I put blinders on and hurried along to work.  A few blocks later, as I rounded the corner turning onto Lafayette, I spotted my husband waiting for me in front of my office.  He said a plane had flown into the World Trade Center and my first thought was that it was a small plane and that it was an accident.  He kept saying no but the reality wasn’t sinking in for me and I still didn’t understand why he was there at my office and not at work.  New York City never shuts down and in that moment, I didn’t think it was about to that day.  As we entered my office which was an open loft space, everyone was silently gathered around the radio listening with somber faces.   I remember setting my bag down at my desk and the next thing I heard was that the Pentagon had been attacked.  In that instance, a sick feeling washed over me and I realized our country was in danger.  We were in danger.  I kind of froze not knowing what to do next.  I think everyone did.  We didn’t know where to go.  Manhattan was shut down.  All the trains and buses were no longer operating.

My husband kept urging me to leave with him to go meet our college friend who was in the city that day for a business meeting.  He had a breakfast scheduled that morning at Windows on the World in the Trade Center and was on his way from the airport when he heard the news.  But something kept me at the office with my colleagues.  To this day, I’m not sure why that was.  I just couldn’t leave.  We made plans to meet up at my high school friend’s apartment on 81st Street later on.  After he left, I continued to listen to the reports on the radio with my work friends.  At one point, we stepped outside and watched the North Tower, it’s top floors ablaze.  It’s an image that will forever be etched in my mind.  That gaping hole on fire against a brilliant blue sky.  I don’t have a clear sense of time from that day but I do know what finally compelled me to grab my bag and head uptown.  After the buildings collapsed, I saw people running north on Lafayette Street from my office window.  They were covered from head to toe in white dust.  I felt an immediate need to be with my husband and our good friends.  I was scared and downtown Manhattan was the last place I wanted to be.

I left the office with two other women, the in-house childrenswear designer and our director of Calypso perfumes.  We walked with a throng of scared New Yorkers in the middle of the street.  It was like something out of a movie.  No one seemed to be talking.  In fact, it seemed eerily quiet as we all walked in an orderly fashion.  The only sounds were those of sirens and then an emergency vehicle would whiz by.  I’m not sure how or why we got separated but I found myself alone by the time I got to Grand Central.  I remember that I decided to walk up Lexington Avenue at that point and I noted that as I inched my way uptown, I felt a sense of relief as I got further and further away from downtown Manhattan.  The corner of 81st and Lexington sits atop a bit of an incline so when I finally reached my friend’s block, I turned around for the first time that day.  All I could see was a huge gray cloud as I glanced south.  I didn’t realize the extent or the enormity of what happened until I arrived at my friend’s apartment and we turned on the news.  We stayed there all day, my husband and I and our two friends, glued to the television trying to comprehend what had happened.

The subway finally opened back up in the evening and we exited my friend’s apartment around 9 pm.  The streets of New York, usually bustling and vibrant, especially on a beautiful September evening, were vacant.  No one was out.  We were the only passengers in our subway car riding back to Queens.  It was incredibly unsettling and surreal.  Once we arrived back home in Forest Hills, we climbed up our fire escape to our building’s rooftop where we had an expansive view of the New York skyline. But on that evening, all we could see was a dark cloud hovering over the southern tip of Manhattan and two iconic buildings forever gone.  It felt like a horrible dream.

In the days, weeks and months after, the one feeling I remember was that I was so proud to be a New Yorker, to be a part of this tough, resilient, diverse city.  The mayor, the police, the firemen, the emergency workers, and countless civilians came together and helped in any way they could.  I still weep thinking about the selfless and heroic acts I read about.  It was also the first time that I can remember really feeling pride in my country.  To stand tall and call myself an American.  We were that shining city on a hill, that beacon of hope for so many.  We represented all that was good and just.  Despite our differences in political ideology, we were the one country that could engage in civil discourse.  We were the prime example of a successful democracy.  I can still picture members of Congress and the House singing God Bless America on the evening of September 11th and feeling comforted by the site of two sides coming together for one cause: love of our country.

So, I ask myself fifteen years later, what has happened?  Where is that unity?  Where is that common love of country?  Have we erased that memory from our minds?  Over 3,000 Americans died that September day here on our soil. But despite such a horrific tragedy, our nation came together because we all want the same thing: to preserve, protect and defend everything we stand for.  And what do we stand for? Freedom, justice, equality, and most of all, goodness.  We need to remember that. We are good to the core.  I’m disgusted by the perpetual cycle of self-destruction I see on tv, in the papers and all over social media.  We must find common ground again and try our best to compromise and work together.  If we don’t, we will no longer be united and this great country will cease to exist.  Do any of us truly want that?  Isn’t that what those terrorists wanted on 9/11?  We cannot let that happen.  Ever. I will always remember that famous photo of the three firefighters holding up the American flag in the midst of chaos, darkness, sadness and death and I think that photo is representative of what this great country is all about.  We are hopeful.  We are optimistic.  We never give up.  We are one. And we will never forget.