Where were you on 9/11?

It’s been 15 years since 9/11 happened. I lived in New York at the time, so I still remember exactly where I was when the towers fell.

I had just graduated from college that May, and was still living in the neighborhood surrounding my alma mater, Fordham University, in The Bronx.

My living situation was a bit precarious. I had told my parents, back in Ohio, that I wanted to stay on in New York and look for a job after graduation, and they had agreed to pay my rent until I found something. It was great having this safety net that could support me while I looked for work, but unfortunately graduating with a philosophy degree meant I didn’t have much hope of finding anything directly related to my studies.

Still, I had hope, and I wasn’t too picky; I knew I could type and fax and file things, so I was looking for an office job that would pay the bills. It wouldn’t be the greatest thing ever, but at least it’d be something. I had recently gone to an interview at a film studio, where I was crossing my fingers that I could score a job as their receptionist – which would at least provide some interesting stories in between answering phones, faxing and filing.

I had also interviewed for a job at the World Trade Center, on the recommendation of a friend who thought I could get a job as an event planner for the New York Society of Security Analysts.

My visitor’s pass from the job interview, on the 44th floor of 1 World Trade Center. I’m still grateful I didn’t get this job!

Back to my living situation. To save money, I’d recently moved out of my basement studio apartment and into an above-ground two-bedroom place with a roommate – a guy who was a friend of a dude that had been in my tae kwon do group at Fordham. My new roommate, let’s call him Ted, had agreed to let a third roommate move into our place, temporarily. This guy didn’t get his own room, but our kitchen was unusually large, so he had cordoned off half the space with a sheet he’d hung from the ceiling, making our place look a bit like an upscale refugee camp.

The new guy, let’s call him Brad, was scheduled to start training for his new job on 9/11. This was the reason for his temporary residence in our kitchen, as the training would take about three months, and then he’d be shipped off to some corporate job. His job could land him anywhere in the world, he told us, so he didn’t want to sign a lease and then have to go to the trouble of subletting his place if he ended up moving to China or France or who knows where else.

Of course, when he got up that day and flipped on the news, he discovered he wouldn’t be starting his job that day after all. Nor any day thereafter.

“Hey, Laura,” Brad called to me.

I was back in bed, after grumpily getting up early to go move my car. New York has “alternate side rules” for street parking, which basically means that every day you can only park on one side of the street, during certain hours of the morning, as they bring the street sweepers by to clean up all the trash. I always seemed to be one of the unfortunate folks who hadn’t scored a spot on the “right” side of the street that day, and so in The Bronx it was considered acceptable for everyone on the “wrong” side to simply double-park their cars next to the cars on the “right” side until the sweepers passed, and then move back to our original spots after the whole procedure was over.

Basically, it was a regular, everyday annoyance. And I was simply irritated that I’d had to get up early, go outside, and move my car. I still didn’t have a job, and since it was September, this meant I only had a few more months to find something – anything – and start paying the rent before my parents would say, “Look, you gave it a shot, now quit wasting our money, come home and get a job here in Ohio.”

I did not want to move back to Ohio.

I hated Ohio. Nothing ever happened there. And their minimum wage was a pathetic $5.15 an hour! In New York I could earn twice that. And living in The Bronx, with two roommates, meant my rent wasn’t completely obscene.

I wanted to live in New York, where I at least had a shot at making it as a writer. Somehow. Someday.

So, I was lying in bed, stewing, wondering if anyone would ever hire me, so I could just feel like a decent member of society, pay my rent, and quit hanging around the apartment on my parents’ dime, feeling like a bum.

“What is it?” I called back, now rather annoyed with my new roommate, who was on his way to a well-paid job. At least his college degree was worth something.

“I think you need to come here and see this,” he replied.

I had no idea what on earth Brad was sure I needed to see. But he was standing there in the living room, iron in his hand, glued to the TV.

I put on my robe and headed out to the living room. He moved the ironing board aside, and we both sat down on the couch.

And then we watched a plane crash into the building where he was supposed to be headed for work.

Both of our mouths fell open.

“Is this for real?” we asked each other.

The news anchors were equally stunned. They were still trying to make sense of what we’d all just seen, when a second plane crashed into the second tower.

It was not an accident, as the anchors had originally posited. It was an act of terrorism. But perpetrated by whom?

We sat there in shock, watching the 24-hour coverage spool out before us. We saw the planes hit the towers, and the towers crumble to the ground, again and again and again.

It was like watching a movie. But it was right there, in Manhattan, just a bridge or tunnel away.

We finally got a call from Ted. He was okay. He worked in the financial district, too, and was trying to get back to the apartment. The whole city was shut down. The subway wasn’t running. The cabs were all full. He was walking, trying to figure out how to get all the way from downtown back to The Bronx, on foot.

He finally got home around 9 o’clock that night. I don’t think any of us had cell phones, at that point. He had called the house as soon as he could, just after it happened. We made space for him on the couch, and we all watched the news coverage together. We switched to The Daily Show at 11 PM, and watched Jon Stewart try to pull it together.

I’m pretty sure we were all crying with him. We just didn’t know what to do.

The anger came later.

But watching Jon Stewart fail to cope, just as we were failing to cope, helped. He told us that the view from his apartment had been the World Trade Center, and now it was gone. But the view now was even better, because now he could see the Statue of Liberty. “You can’t beat that,” he said.

9/11 was a day that everything changed in America. It’s one of those days you will never forget. It’s been compared to our generation’s Pearl Harbor, which is apt. Both were calculated for shock and awe, meant to terrorize us and destroy us with fear.

But you know what? New Yorkers are strong. And we won’t be bullied. And even though our first reaction might be terror, we will always come back stronger, harder, better.

I still believe that, even though I’m no longer living in New York. I’m still a New Yorker, at heart. And the way New Yorkers opened their arms to one another after this attack really restored my faith in humanity. In a city where everyone prides themselves on being tough, no-nonsense go-getters, it brought me to tears, again and again, seeing all the simple acts of kindness around me.

We refused to believe the terrorists had won. And even when the film studio called to say they had decided not to hire anyone, they were taking a hiatus instead, I still kept the faith. I kept on looking for a job in New York, because I wanted to live in a city where the people took care of each other in a crisis like this. Where the fire department was staffed with heroes. Where restaurant owners fed people for free in the days and weeks to come, because they just wanted to be of service.

I finally got hired as a receptionist. It was about a week after the attack. The girl who had held the position before me had freaked out.

She moved back to Ohio.

One Comment

  • Maggie McGarvey

    Thank you for sharing. I appreciate the humor you’ve woven in to this narrative. The honesty it adds makes the fear and relief that much more powerful.