Sunday, September 11, 2005

9/11 Remembered

I'm not sure where to begin. This was the first year that I've been out of touch with all the September 11th memorial stuff broadcast on TV and radio because I spent the weekend at the farm, yet the day is no less meaningful. A little background perhaps.

I'd spent much of my adult life in New York City - I arrived at 19 and left at 34. It is the place that I grew up. My first trip there was when I was 12 (I think). I lived in Minnesota and my father had finally allowed me and my sister to visit my mother at her home in Staten Island. My memories are scattered about the trip. I remember eating Chinese food made by real Chinese people. Taking the 2 line uptown instead of downtown and ending up in the South Bronx when I should have been at the South Ferry. Seeing cockroaches (bleh) scatter when turning on the bathroom light at night. Making out with a boy in the school yard. Drinking alcohol for the first time (anyone remember Pink Champale?). Getting drunk for the first time. Seeing the World Trade Center.

My mother worked in the financial district and I was mesmerized by all the people in their suits and briefcases bustling through the narrow streets. It was so lively. When I listened, I heard voices from a hundred different countries. There were vendors crowding every corner selling hotdogs, pretzels, Jamaican food, vegetarian food, sunglasses or umbrellas, newspapers, watches, handbags, caps, t-shirts, anything you could imagine. I looked up Broadway, Hero's Canyon, and felt as small as a cockroach making my way through a crack in the sidewalk.

Then we made it to the Trade Center and the claustrophobic walls of buildings seemed to open up. From the spacious plaza the two elegant towers shot up to the sky. I was lost in the sky and the reflection of sky on the towers of glass and steel. "Oh my God," I thought, "they are so huge, how will they ever take them down?"

I moved to New York when I was nineteen. I wasn't exactly running away from home, because at 19 you're too old for that. But I was running away from something. I'd just dropped out of college at Brigham Young University and had no plan for my future. My mother bought me a ticket to New York to come live with her until I got my head straight. We shared a small apartment in Brooklyn with another roommate and immediately I began to work in Manhattan. Nearly everyday I commuted to the city through or near the Trade Center. I could never get lost in New York because wherever I was, all I had to do was look up and find the twin towers. With those towers in site, I could always find myself.

Later I took a job downtown and became one of those briefcase toting suits that I marveled at when I was young. Even with my plebian job in a cubicle in some big corporation, I felt I was on top of the world. While I never worked at the Trade Center, many of my clients had offices there. I loved going there for appointments and taking the elevator up to the high floors. On windy days, the buildings swayed, the elevators creaked and moaned, but up they zoomed - faster to the top than it took to get to the 7th floor of my apartment building. While other people looked alarm, their faces tightened with concern, I was exhilarated.

One day in '96 I had taken an extended lunch hour to shop around the village. My pager was buried deep in my purse and I couldn't hear the beeps above the buzz of Friday afternoon consumers. After two hours, I returned to my office with my manager jumping all over me with concern. "Oh shit, I'm in for it," I thought. He was freaked out because there was a large BOOM, and then fire engines and helicopters were all over downtown. Everyone was crowded in front of a small television. There was an explosion at the Trade Center and the area was being evacuated. My coworkers all thought I was there visiting my client (my cover for my shopping spree). At first, it was believed there was an explosion at a ConEd facility, but soon we learned, someone had bombed the World Trade Center. It was unimaginable. My body went cold with the realization that I'd been riding in the R train underneath the towers at about the same time. There was a loud noise, the train stopped and then resumed again. No one thought anything of it - loud noises, delays - common in the subway. We spend the rest of the day managing disaster recovery for all our clients' data and phone services. I worked late into the evening while people at the Trade Center had to be evacuated through dark, smoky stairwells down hundreds of flights of stairs.

In spite of having just been attacked by a terrorist, life resumed downtown as normal. Well, there were a few small changes. Concrete barricades (large, beautiful planters) were placed in front of important buildings frustrating the livelihood of many vendors. Buildings placed security guards at their entrances and required identification to enter. For most places that lasted for a few short months. However to gain entrance to the twin towers forever after, one had to wait in a long line, speak with a security guard while they rummaged through your belongings, and call up to your client to confirm that you're allowed in. It was just as tedious as going through the airport.

I dated my husband at the Trade Center. He had his office on the 104th floor facing south. Our first date was lunch at the Hudson River Club. I nearly skipped back to my office where my coworkers teased me relentlessly because I couldn't hide my pleasure. He lived in Chelsea, I in Brooklyn, so we met in the middle. After work we'd meet at the base of the North Tower and then find a quiet restaurant to eat and talk. Some nights we walked along the promenade, watching the sun set over Jersey before returning to our homes. We soon married (so soon that my catty coworkers assumed that I'd been knocked up) and he moved in with me in Brooklyn. We rode the train in together, getting off at the Trade Center, and meeting there before riding home together. The first home we bought was a funky penthouse loft in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. From our upper terrace, we had the most incredible view of New York harbor, downtown Manhattan, and the twin towers. My daughter was born in Brooklyn about a year later (what is it they say about new homes?). I thought I'd reached Nirvana and I never wanted to leave New York. My life was perfect.

Soon afterwards George left his company, Cantor Fitzgerald. He jumped on the rise, and suffered the fall of the dot com frenzy. His new job was spared, but without all those sexy options, he looked for work elsewhere. Our daughter turned 1 and we celebrated her birthday with a going away party and then moved to Chicago.

About three months later, I was anticipating a call from my real estate broker. It was the morning of September 11th, 2001 and we had a scheduled closing on our Brooklyn loft. Our buyer had weaseled out of two closing dates already and I sat nervously by the phone praying it would close. The phone rang. It was Barbara. She sounded concerned when she greeted me. Before I let her talk I blurted, "don't tell me Barbara that this thing isn't going to happen."

"Turn on your TV, Dominique," her shaky voice replied. Huh? I did. What I saw couldn't be real. Both towers of the World Trade Center were ablaze. There was clouds of black smoke pouring out of a gaping hole where my husband's office used to be.

You all know the rest.

I don't think that I've been able to effectively describe my emotions that day. After crying (and screaming) all morning, I tried to break away and took my daughter down to the coffee shop just to be by people. Everyone looked normal. There was a lot of chatter, but where was the crying, the moaning, the rage? The garbage men were picking up garbage. Guys were watering the flowers that decorate our street. People were making coffee. I took Chloe to the playground because I couldn't stay at home. She was grateful to be outside and play with the other kids while I sat on the park bench and cried alone. I didn't know anyone in Chicago. My home had collapsed and I didn't know anyone around me.

Later downtown Chicago was evacuated in case there would be more attacks. George appeared in the door with steady concern, "this is going to bad, very bad" he said, and then proceeded to watch non-stop news coverage for the next several months. In one day, almost everyone he had worked with in his first professional job had died. Oddly enough, Cantor had recently had a round of layoffs. Some people survived because they had the privilege of receiving a pink slip a few days earlier. George's best friend had left the company soon after he did. Bill had planned to return that day to reconsider employment. Luckily he was detracted by some contract work. The president of the company survived because he was late that morning from taking his daughter (son?) to her first day of Kindergarten. His brother did not. I'd heard from my friends in my old apartment building, they'd all stood on a terrace together, holding each other until they had to rush inside. The cloud from the debris overtook Brooklyn and everything was dark for several hours. Papers littered the terraces, many had letterhead from Cantor Fitzgerald.

I didn't have any friends that died that day. I am lucky. I knew one man, G, a client. He didn't like the company I worked with. The account was dumped on me because I've always been able to manage the "difficult" customers. People in my office trashed G. They'd all assumed he was alone in life. They made fun of his mannerisms, called him lecherous and teased that he must have a crush on me because I could actually get appointments. While I never sold anything significant, I always looked forward to our meetings. While a little gruff, he was polite and treated me with respect. After he'd died, I'd read in his obituary that he had been married for over 25 years, had children and grandchildren, and his children described him as a devoted father and a good neighbor. His life was rich with family and friends. He was loved and desperately missed. These guys in my office had him so wrong.

In spite of a great deal of anxiety of large, public places - especially airplanes - George and I returned to NY to put our loft back on the market. Our buyer worked in the Trade Center and he'd lost all his down payment. The cashiers checks and paperwork were all locked in his office and destroyed. When he finally returned to our loft, he went to the terrace and cried. He then told the broker that he couldn't possibly live there and see the gaping hole the buildings left in the skyline. When we saw downtown from our loft, smoke was still rising from the rubble.

Like many Americans, I lived in ongoing anxiety and fear. Anxious to understand some of the history of Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden, I'd read much on terrorism. It didn't help. I'd blocked the windows in my daughter's bedroom with a wardrobe closet and a dresser. If a bomb went off in downtown Chicago, I didn't want a window to shatter on her. I stopped shopping at malls or even department stores, and as soon as a park became crowded, I would leave.

Eventually my life returned to normal. It is strange to return to New York - I can't identify downtown so easily without the towers soaring above the skyline. I still love the city, but I miss it less and less with each passing year. Chicago is becoming my home, now.

September 11th is a day of sadness to me. I think of all that bustling life coming in and out of the World Trade Center: all the young talent, the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, the police officers, the firemen, the cooks and the cleaners, the masters of the universe, the worker bees, the ideas, the incredible art that adorned its walls... I can't name all that was lost that day. I think of all this and I am sad.


  1. Wow!!! Dominique, wow! I really don't have the words to express how I feel about what I just read. Living in a small town in the middle of no where land in the middle of Canada, I absolutely can not fathom anything you just said. My imagination can take me to how I might feel but, wow. I was drawn to the tragedy of 9/11 just as I am to Katrina. It hurts me and 9/11 hurt me to the very core. I felt so connected to those people who were hurting because of the terrible, terrible tragedy. I don't know why. My husband says it is because I am a very sensitive person...movies effect me terribly...real life almost destroys me.

    Again, to you, I say wow. This was a very powerful post.

  2. I can't imagine feeling that connected to a place or people who were caught in such a diaster.

    It must just kill you inside, knowing that your home was destroyed by such senseless devestation.

    I won't even attempt to try and make you feel better with just words, only time can do that.


  3. I have a link for you to check out, Dominique. My step son sent it to me. Our friend down in Kansas City, Mo wrote and is singing this song for Hurricane Katrina victims. I have his email on my website explaining it a bit more.