Friday, September 10, 2010

Nine Years Ago Today

Nine years ago today, I wasn't a writer. Nine years ago today, I was in line in NYC waiting for an audition, complaining about getting up at the ass crack of dawn. Nine years ago today, I didn't lose anyone I loved. But, nine years ago today, my life changed.

Yours did too. No matter what state you live in. Or what country for that matter. My boss at the time lost her husband. Yes I knew him. Not well, but I will now remember every moment of those few meetings for the rest of my life.

I still can't look at pictures from that day without losing the ability to speak for a few moments. I remember when all the TV stations decided we'd had enough sadness and stopped showing them. But I read a few posts on Facebook today from parents saying their kids didn't know about 9/11. And I passed someone on a hike talking about it. I heard 'never forget.' So I'm writing this. Because I won't.

I woke up at 4:30 am to audition for some nameless musical. That's what I used to do back then. Probably surprising to most of you. I haven't been on stage in years. I still sing in the car, but part of my desire for that career disappeared after this particular attempt. I don't know how it works now, but back then, members of Actor's Equity had to line up super early for a choice audition spot. I brought my folding chair that looks like it belongs to an old person. (Doubles as a cane) I spent hours chatting with brand new bestest friends. It happens when you're forced together for hours like that. It was a beautiful late summer day. Not a cloud in the sky. Everyone always mentions that, don't they? We can never stop talking about the weather, no matter what happens to us.

We all started to file into the Citicorp building. You know, the one with the slanty top. There was a church with a stage in the basement and we all sat there in the audience, waiting for our turn. Someone gasped into the nervous silence...we were about to get our spots and once the nerves start, even gabby girls like me shut up. We all turned to hear someone turn up their Walkman, and a radio announcer said, '...massive loss of life expected.' We listened as the report told us about a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers.

Flashback...because I did have one. My late grandmother took me to see them when I was a little girl. I lived on Long Island and she took my sister and I in all the time. I remembered standing under them, looking up. They were so tall, it seemed like they were moving.

Second flashback...they were coming on fast as I waited, shell shocked like everyone else, for an audition time. My then boyfriend, now husband telling me that I could always find out which direction I was walking by looking for the towers. I remember thinking that was brilliant. And that I was a bit slow. I'd been in and out of the city since I was a baby and I'd never once thought of that.

Some part of me was still thinking that it had been a little plane. The word 'massive' still hadn't sunk in. I walked up the stairs to the street when it hit me that my dad was going to be working in the same building that day and he was meeting me for breakfast. I was grabbing my cell out to call him and tell him what he wouldn't have known...when I saw a woman run in, sobbing, to a pay phone. My hands started to shake a bit. You know that feeling when you walk into a room and you just know the people in it are about to tell you something horrible? As I walked up on to the midtown street, it was like a nuclear bomb had gone off. Every car was stopped on the street. Taxis had their doors open and their radios on. People were crowed around each of the zillion stores selling TV's and cell phones that every big city has. That's when I heard about the second plane.

As I walked in a daze to the Lexington Avenue stop to catch the N train home to Astoria, I left my dad a thousand messages, telling him not to come in. I called my boyfriend over and over to tell him to come home, but my phone had stopped working. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and it fell out of my hand. I couldn't remember where he was! He was supposed to be loading in a theater production on the upper west side. I'll never forget it. It was 'The Shape of Things' with Paul Rudd and Rachel Weicz. But that day, I thought he was supposed to be near the Empire State building, getting some sort of equipment.

I felt sick. I picked up the phone and started to run in that direction, but all of a sudden, a cop ran past me, saying 'Miss, don't go that way. We're going to shut it down. Get on a train and go home. Not sure how he knew I didn't live in that direction, but I ran back to the subway. I kept trying to call him. Over and over. Once or twice I got his voice mail, but mostly nothing. I actually remember trying to sound calm so I wouldn't upset him. I had no idea what was happening, but I'd heard the word 'terrorists' and landmarks just didn't seem like a good place to be. As I got to the station, I realized he was indeed uptown and finally started breathing again.

As I entered the subway, I heard an announcement declaring that this was the last train out of the station that day, but they apparently didn't mention it inside the train. Someone getting off saw my walking stick/chair and asked if I was a nurse, laughing. I kept saying to myself, 'You have no idea what just happened. You have no idea what just happened.' These people had no idea they were on the last train out of the city. And as the train emerged from the tunnel, I saw the towers standing for the last time. The smoke was incredible. I could already smell it. I tried calling everyone I knew. No one answered. No one on the street where I lived seemed to know anything. I got home and called everyone from my land line.

Finally, my mother answered. She told me my dad was in a car with two co-workers and they were heading home. She asked if I was going back in to the audition. 'What? Are you kidding me? We were just hit by a terrorist! I think the audition may be canceled, Ma.' The TV was on by this time. 'Oh my god, they just hit the Pentagon!' My mother said, 'No they didn't. Not on Channel 2.' I practically yelled, 'Well, on Channel 4, they did!' I hung up and tried Eric again.

And finally...FINALLY...I got through. He was on his way home, walking. From 76th Street in Manhattan to Astoria. (I did something similar, walking from downtown Manhattan to Astoria during the famous blackout a few years later, but that's a story for another day.) I think I may have dropped to the floor. I couldn't remember later, but I had a bruise on one knee and one hand. And while I waited, I did what we all did. I watched CNN. It would be months before I felt comfortable turning it off. I wandered around my apartment, wondering if the entire country would be attacked. Wondering if Eric would make it home alright. Wondering if anything would ever be the same. And every time I passed a mirror, I saw someone I didn't recognize. I kept repeating, 'This is what shock looks like. This is what fear looks like.' Strange, I know. But I was an actor. Some weird autopilot after years of training that tells you to step back when you feel something and remember it. Seems really bizarre and selfish to me now, but if you're going to remember, you remember it all.

And later, when I had spoken to everyone in my family and Eric had come home with stories of free ice cream and water from people on the street, I fell asleep. I spent the next days glued to the television. Then I got a phone call. A friend of mine who worked at the same makeup counter told me they couldn't find our boss's husband. There were only three of us who worked there. The manager was this man's cousin. The CFO was his sister. We all knew and loved our boss, who was only a few years older than I was. And so I went back to the city, to 23rd Street, to help pass out flyers with his picture. Maybe someone had seen him. Yeah. Maybe.

They made us get off the subway at Times Square and walk the rest of the way. It was a ghost town for the most part. Paper everywhere. And the smell. My god, the smell. The further down I went, the more smoke and paper there was. And finally, people, passing out flyers, asking me to keep my eyes open for their husband/daughter/friend/co-worker/son/wife/girlfriend...sobbing, red-eyed people begging me to look. And I did. I did. By the time I reached the apartment, I had a stack of them. And I looked at every single solitary one, memorizing the faces. And I looked all the way home. I saw no one.

Before I went inside, one of the girls told me that someone had seen my boss's husband in the second tower, helping people in an elevator. And then it fell. He wasn't coming back. We went upstairs, we sat in the living room, listening to her crying and screaming and calling his name. She never came out. But her family was there. We asked her mother if there was anything we could do, she yelled, 'Can you give me my son-in-law back? Then no.' Her sister told us that we should probably go home. Our boss was in no shape for us and we couldn't do anything. We left in silence.

When we finally went back to work, days later, no one was buying lipstick. (I worked at a makeup counter. I forgot to say that.) And if they did, they said things like, 'This is to help us get back.' Walking to work, I saw a tank driving down Fifth Avenue. I bought an American flag scarf from a street vendor. I wore it everywhere. As the days went by, I saw funeral after funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral. There was one when I went in, one at lunch, one as I left. It sucked the heart right out of me. I rarely cried, though people left work daily in tears. But I'm one of those people who look like icebergs at funerals. I don't cry in public. You know when it finally happened? Remember the pillars of light that they put up as a memorial? I went on my roof alone to see them and sobbed for hours.

I don't live in NYC anymore. I have to shut off old 'Friends' reruns when I see shots of the towers. I don't want to hear about any of it anymore. Even nine years later, I still feel sick when I think about that day. But we can't forget. We shouldn't. So here it is. My story. I didn't lose a loved one. I'll admit to getting pretty clingy with my poor husband for a few months, but he's still here. It's not a revelation. I've told people before. My story isn't going to give you a picture of a person who died that day or tell a tale of heroism or luck or horror. It's just one of thousands of stories about a New Yorker who was in the city that day. Thought I'd feel a little bit lighter after writing it. Funny, I don't.


  1. Thanks for a little perspective. Thanks also for being you.

  2. Thanks for sharing Jenna. Watching the memorial lights, or as I call them, the "Ghost Towers" this week and everytime in the past is what gets me as well. I also am amazed how everyones story from that day has relevance and importance. They bring me right back to that day and where I was and what I felt. It's not a good memory, but i will never forget it.

  3. thank you for sharing this
    I was born in New York City and I still live here so this was very important for me to read

  4. The telling of your story is a beautiful and fitting tribute to the courage, pain, love, grief, hope, determination, and spirit felt by all of us as we remember...

    Occasionally I feel panicked. Afraid that we are forgetting. Worried that this unfortunate war which continues to take lives is somehow sullying the memory of a day which must be remembered. Because on that day we saw selflessness and courage in action. We saw people taking care of one another. On that day we didn't see color or social standing or wealth. We saw the best shine forth in the every day person and it overcame the worst as demonstrated by those who planned and carried out those horrific acts of terror.

    Your story will help us remember...

  5. I'm seeing this a bit late, but I sent out a tweet on 9/11, asking everyone to think of all of those who lost someone, and to say a prayer for everyone affected by 9/11, and all the soldiers and their families (my husband was in the AF at the time and deployed 6 months later!). Then some crazy follower shot back his crazy conspiracy theory crap to me about our Govt. being behind it and I went back and forth with him for days. Still in disbelief myself, and that those people still exist, but I just wanted people to reflect and remember.

    I love your story, and appreciate you recounting it, and helping all of us to remember how senseless it was and how many were/are affected still. I know I am, and I was on the opposite coast that day, but watched it all happen on tv. I had friends on planes, friends who were pilots that day, the panic. One of the brave passengers from flight 93 was from my church. We as Americans were all affected that day, but I know for New Yorkers it was beyond anything we felt. I went to New York in 2007, and went to the site, and it choked me up, still does! Again thank you.