I wasn't in New York City on September 11, 2001.
But only by the grace of God. Because I very nearly was.
Everyone has their 9/11 stories, their "Where were you?" recollections, like our elder generations had with Kennedy's assassination or Pearl Harbor. I've told my story frequently, but the lesson I learned from it never gets old — rather, it gets truer and truer all the time.
It's not that it's particularly interesting where I was or what I was doing at the time — I was attending college in Philadelphia, enjoying a day off from classes by sleeping in; my friend called to wake me up and have me turn on the TV — but rather, it's about what I'd done about a week before, and what I'd do a couple weeks after.
As part of our senior year course requirements in my writing program at the University of the Arts, we had to do a semester-long internship with some business related to our creative media field. I'd originally tried to get on with Conan O'Brien's show, but didn't get a call back; a friend gave me a tip that led me to MTV Animation instead.
I'll never forget the day I interviewed for that job. I took the train from Philly to Trenton, NJ, and from there on into Manhattan. Little ol' southern Kentucky boy, ready to take the Big Apple by storm. It was exciting, and what I had always dreamed of, growing up in small rural communities like McKee and Louisa and Somerset but more fascinated by the world beyond which I saw on my TV screen.
As I looked out the window of the train, ready to make its approach into Penn Station but still outside so that I could see the New York landscape, one famous site caught my attention — the Twin Towers. The World Trade Center. I grinned as I watched the magnificent structures go by. These were some of mankind's greatest architectural achievements, a testament to our creative vision and ambition. Just being a part of the environment where these symbols of greatness stood made me feel like maybe, just maybe, I'd really made it.
My interview went fine — I dressed to impress in a suit and tie; my soon-to-be boss, not much older than myself, dressed casually with a desk full of action figures, told me I was way overdressed — and afterward I went to change into something more comfortable at a nearby McDonalds, stuffing my suit into my trusty backpack, then went wandering through the city to enjoy a beautiful, warm September day. I found myself at Bryant Park, where I found a bench to just sit and people watch and soak in sun. I remember the fountain there, how gorgeous it was, and the sight of a pretty young woman in a flowy azure dress dancing behind it, as if auditioning for the ballet. Everything in New York City was perfect that day. Absolutely idyllic.
Things wouldn't stay that way long.
Within about a week or so, the city would be blanketed in smoke. The sky was dark, the shapes of the city covered in soot. The sounds of screaming and sirens formed a nightmarish symphony. Everywhere, there was panic. Stress. Pain.
I only know this because I saw it on TV, from the comfort of my Center City Philly apartment. I got my share of calls asking if I was okay, from people who knew I was living in the Northeast, but while Philadelphia was in the middle of it all — to our north, New York; to our west, United Airlines Flight 93 went down in Somerset County, Pennsylvania; to our south, the Pentagon was hit — we were spared any attack. I would always joke that we had no landmarks of note for the terrorists to target except for the Liberty Bell, and it already has a big crack in it. Nevertheless, the city was as quiet that day as I'd ever seen it. Normally, a Tuesday in Center City is full of hustle and bustle; that day, you could have seen tumbleweeds rolling down Broad Street.
However, I had to wait to hear back on my MTV Animation internship. I eventually got it, but they didn't offer it to me immediately. If I'd been accepted on the spot, I'd have started work that day — September 11, 2001 — in New York City. I shudder to think how that might have gone, how I would have handled that.
A friend of mine was set to start her internship at HBO that day. She never made it to work. She found herself stuck in Penn Station all day, unable to leave the transportation hub either to go outside or to take a train back home. Eventually she did make it back to Philly, late that night. Nothing bad happened to her, other than being surrounded by stress and chaos all day, but that was enough. It was a horrific, exhausting experience just to be in the same city that day.
A couple of weeks later, I found myself back on the train, headed into Manhattan, same as before. I was finally set to start my internship, but I knew this was not the same New York I'd been to not long before. That feeling was made real when I looked out the window, same spot as the first time — except the Twin Towers were missing. The structures that made such an impression on me only about a month earlier were no longer there. Intellectually, I knew to expect it ... but it was such a weird feeling to actually see it for myself from behind a plate of glass.
The city itself was different. The mood was different. The Times Square area, to which I stuck, was a long way from where the towers fell, but the impact of that loss was felt in every interaction with another person, on ever face, on every city block. The mood was somber. Angry. Devastated. Paranoid. All of those negative vibes mixed together in one awful stew. The last time I entered the Paramount Plaza, a bit north of Times Square, I entered the building freely, and went straight to my floor for the interview; this time, there were guards at the door, checking my ID and making sure I wasn't a threat.
That was the bizarre thing about it all — how we reacted. The damage was done. The attacks were over. The odds that terrorists would come back and target the Paramount Plaza were virtually nil, as was the likelihood that they'd bother with Independence Hall back in Philly. Yet there were the guards in New York ... and there was a big fence around Independence Hall that wasn't there before. In the past, I could sit in the park outside of the building in which our nation was born at any time of night, and even wander through the archway carved in the building to reach the next street; now, the symbol of liberty and freedom itself was caged. A sad irony if ever there was one.
We let fear get the better of us. Our politicians and community leaders said big words like, "If we change the way we live our life, the terrorists win" ... and then we went and changed how we lived our lives, in many ways. I could make this a much more political column, but it's the small things, the personal things, that really stung the most. The little changes that may not seem like such a big deal but themselves, but added together, created an uneasy feeling of change that one might worry we'd never come back from.
One thing I was glad didn't change was in how Philly's street cart owners were treated. The vast majority of them were of Middle Eastern descent, many proud Muslims; you'd see little decorations in their carts praising Allah as casually as Jesus is referenced in businesses here in southeastern Kentucky with decor or K-Love playing on the radio. These carts were a part of daily life in the city; everyone from businessmen in fancy suits to art school students in bohemian dresses would line up for a smoked sausage or a cheesesteak or a breakfast sandwich coming off of a greasy grill. They were quick, convenient, and delicious. They were also suddenly extremely vulnerable.
The truth is, most of these business owners were the epitome of the American Dream. They worked hard to make their money and provide for their families, and loathed the terrorists behind 9/11 every bit as much as any other American. But because they looked the same as the bad guys, and had the same religion, there was a very really chance their regular customers would make them pay the price. A chance that people would stop coming, stop buying from them, and worse, even harass or threaten them. But I didn't see that happen. Maybe it did — I'd be surprised if it didn't at all — but it warmed my heart every time I saw people line up at the "roach coach" just as always. Where there could have been prejudice, there was normalcy. The love of a good greasy sausage won out over fear and anger. Just as it always should.
We live in a world where every day in the news, there's something upsetting. This year has been worse for that than most. There has been a lot of fear. There has been a lot of frustration. There has been a lot of anger and uncertainty and confusion. These are the situations that lead to us often indulging the worst sides of ourselves, giving in to those dark instincts and trying to drag down others with us. It's easy to do. It's human nature. But it leads nowhere good.
Fear — the kind of fear that changes us, that changes our society — was the real enemy on 9/11. The "terror" in the term "terrorists" sown and watered and sprouted. However you experienced fear in those dark days nearly two decades ago, remember that. Hold onto that. Resolve not to be victim to fear again, or to let it change you. To let it change us.
Even if we weren't in New York on 9/11, it is, in fact, in all of us who remember that day. Let us be inspired by that, to make sure fear never wins.
Christopher Harris is a writer for the Commonwealth Journal. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org