Archive for September, 2010

Tribute, Part 6: 9/11/10

The weather today was spot-on the same as 9/11/01—cloudless blue skies, gorgeous warm autumn day. I heard people say it was weird that the weather was so similar. Honestly, it was just beautiful. It was a beautiful day nine years ago, too. Even a tragedy of such epic scale can’t fully overshadow nature.

I spent the anniversary as I have for the last several years: doing very little out of the ordinary. I did take the time to walk down to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade to look at the revised skyline of Lower Manhattan. I started my day watching a few minutes of the memorial ceremony on NY1. I wept at the moment of silence marking the impact of the second plane, then turned off the television.

Life goes on. Life goes on.

My aunt commented here that she was born 6 months before Pearl Harbor, an event that went on to define her generation. Are we the generation defined by 9/11? And if so, what does that mean?

My cohort certainly is first in line to be the folks most affected by event: I was 22 on 9/11, just starting my career—starting my life—right here in New York City. But if 9/11 has defined me, defined us, I really don’t know how.

I think we’re too close to it all to see something like that yet with any sort of insight. I suspect the conventional assumption would be that September 11th has made us a people governed by fear and suspicion. I don’t think that’s the case. I hope not. In my community, I see a group of people who are resilient, who bounce back from adversity and can easily shake off unexpected events; a group of people who fight for each other in the midst of difficulty.

We’re not only the post-9/11 generation; we’re those whose careers were meant to be coming of age as the bottom dropped out of the economy. We made less money. We moved into smaller homes. We blogged about our frustration. We got roommates. We took off for Europe. We mourned the past and began to recreate our futures. For the most part, we rolled with it—Flight 93 reference intentional.

These are interesting times, indeed. True, this is my first time being in my 30s, but I have to assume that this whole, “third-life crisis” complete career shift trend is a new and present phenomenon? Grant-writers becoming caterers, business owners becoming pastors, caterers becoming baristas—in some cases, shifts dictated by lay-offs but continued by choice.

Nine years. I think I’m as confused as I was then. But I’m a whole lot more confident, because now I know that what little I do have is built on a rock-solid foundation of that which really matters. I didn’t have that foundation in 2001. I was just trying to create a pretty facade on a shaky cornerstone. One big huff and puff of global terrorism, and my house was thoroughly blown to the ground.

While I don’t have everything figured out, I now know that I know that it’s all going to wind up OK—even when it’s not. If I can make it here, so they say… if I can make it through that?

Anything is possible. I’ll keep choosing to believe.

Tribute, Part 5: Aftermath

No one’s 9/11 story ends on the 11th.

The streets of Manhattan always feel like something out of a movie. Because they are. Cue Gershwin. Fade to black, look for Woody Allen in the background. But when I first went back to the island after the attack, Manhattan streets felt like the set of a black and white post-apocalyptic art house film examining its own existential crisis.

Madison Avenue’s poshest shops were shuttered, displaying hastily handwritten signs that declared in Sharpie marker, “Tuesday, 9/11: Closed at 1PM due to World Trade Center accident.” Half of the city was shut off, citizens only allowed downtown with proof of address. I was too scared to head downtown, anyway. My only memories of the Union Square tribute come from TV.

My subway ride in on September 13 ended early. The train was put out of service due to “an investigation.” This happened nearly every day in the weeks that followed. Like cattle, we treaded out of the train, across the platform, up the stairs and down the avenue. We moved through the city in a state of mild posttraumatic shock, frightened eyes searching for compassionate support in the faces of the strangers we passed.

Starbucks played host to my most striking image of that day. Pre-caffeinated New Yorkers are not a pretty scene. Gothamites aren’t known for their kindness and charity to begin with, but before 9 a.m.? Please. But at the condiment bar at the Sony Plaza Starbucks that morning, I noticed a woman looking lost and fumbling for something. I was holding the whole milk and offered it to her. “Are you looking for this?” I smiled.

She reached across, taking the carafe in one hand and my arm in the other. “Thank you,” she said: emphatic. Touched. Broken. Desperate. She looked me straight in the eye as she did so, holding both my gaze and my wrist. And then we went our separate ways.

New Yorkers can be so alone; a city of eight million where you can see thousands of people before 9, but easily hide in a sea of anonymous humanity. I often thought about those people who were alone in those days following the attacks. I had my friends, fledgling new relationships I was establishing in New York, and the long-held connections back home. But what about that woman at Starbucks? Who did she talk to when her office was evacuated at noon because of a bomb scare? Who did she call before she walked home again? Did she have anyone with whom to drink cheap wine, watch the news, and cry?

By Saturday, my roommates and I were exhausted by the broadcast news, could read no more of the New York Times. We decided to unplug by renting a movie. We were so bruised by that stage that everything felt as if it would trigger a relapse of fear; all action movies rejected. Nothing with a deeper overall philosophical thesis permitted. We settled on the most banal thing we could find at Blockbuster: Meet the Parents with Ben Stiller. The film ends with Stiller’s character making a stupid joke about bombing an airplane and being interrogated by the FBI. Another night of bad dreams.

I had the unique experience of flying just 15 days after 9/11. I’d booked tickets in August for a friend’s wedding back in Iowa. There were maybe 15 of us on a 737. The flight attendants walked around and took our orders like cocktail waitresses.

I’d gotten into such a routine in the days following the attacks that I’d forgotten to feel: get up, evacuate the subway for a mysterious investigation, walk to work, drink with friends, watch news, try to sleep. Being out of town, seeing friends I missed and who didn’t understand, shook me up. On a three-hour drive from my college town to my parents’ house, I lost cell phone service long enough that my only option was silence. I was forced to connect with myself and with God, both of whom I’d been avoiding. I wept so intensely for the rest of the drive I nearly lost sight of the road.

A paradox of parallel processes happened that weekend in Iowa: part of my heart broke open and melted into a pained puddle, and another part solidified into something as tough as a diamond. At the wedding, I remember a classmate’s mother coming up to me and saying, “Oh, good, you’ve come to your senses and moved back home.” I peered above my sunglasses and said, “I fly back into LaGuardia tomorrow.” I’m sure I was wearing black. I made a point of always wearing black on those first few visits back.

There’s a big debate around these parts about when someone becomes a New Yorker. All of us are immigrants to the Big Apple, but how long does it take to become a “real New Yorker?” In my case, three months and nine days. I lived through hell in New York City; walked through it day after day. I decided that merits expedited membership into this club.

I had a really difficult weekend in Iowa: dealing with unresolved friendships, realizing the depths of emotion I’d left behind, deciding to fall in love with a man I found out 12 hours later was gay, all while I avoided processing the stories I was returning to in New York. My printer from Saks had lost his son, a firefighter. My roommate had a colleague assign him the grunt work of dubbing an answering machine microcassette to a CD. It turned out to be a voicemail from a friend who who went down with one of the Towers.

My personal drama was inconsequential, but it gave me something else to think about.

By the time I got to the airport to fly back to New York, I was ready to fall apart. I bought the Sunday Times and just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t read more speculation on the why, the who, or the what’s next. Recent serious journalism grad though I was, I flipped to the Sunday Styles section, hoping for some relief. The banner headline of the September 30 section? “Being Single in New York is a Little Lonelier Now.” A reminder I hadn’t needed.

Personally, I’m less interested in the geopolitical aftermath of something like 9/11. It’s important, I get that. But I just care a lot more about what it means for people. And what I felt in those days was a constant reexamination. The events of 9/11 served like a magnifying glass that was being held over each of our lives, asking us what we were doing. Did it really matter?

Listen, my life was barely touched by 9/11. I didn’t lose anyone I knew, I wasn’t physically harmed. I did lose a full-time job prospect, but it all worked out in due time. I was lucky, if you believe in luck, which I don’t. I am grateful.

But, dear God, it was still such a mess. I still felt so alone, so confused. Angry. Heartbroken. I stared out of the plane from my window seat vantage point, thankful for the dark empty plane to hide my tears as we flew up the Hudson, over the well-lit site.

And then we deplaned at LGA. Taxi to Astoria. N train to Midtown East. A routine resumed. Numbness serves in times like these. Sunglasses back in place. Black pashmina draped for dramatic effect.

Life, they say, goes on. And it did.

I’ll write more tomorrow about what I think that’s meant—how this one defining day has affected the last nine years.

Tribute, Part 4: The Rest of the 11th

When I finally left my desk, things started happening a bit more quickly. Though I was intimidated as hell by my glamorous fashionista boss, I headed to her office for its TV. We were gathered there, looking downtown from her 15th story windows (though taller buildings blocked our view of the towers, we could see the smoke), when the first tower collapsed.

There were probably 20 of us in her office, watching WNBC. The reporter was interviewing someone who’d seen the plane hit when the girl-on-the-street started screaming and the camera whipped up.

All morning, I had been carefully and cautiously putting together pieces of the puzzle, constructing a version of events that I could handle. A plane hit the WTC. Ok, fine. It must have been an amateur. An accident. There were two? Proceed to the next logical step of reasoning. Perhaps this was an attack. I was digesting this all one step at a time. Piece by piece.

Watching a 103-story building fall to the ground in a moment doesn’t allow for time to process. It just all clicked into place. With a painful thud.

My department consisted of 35 people: 32 women, two gay men, and a straight guy called Ken. When it comes to matters of personal safety and nurturing instinct in a crisis, I’ll put my money on female leaders any day. Within minutes, we had arranged the department into teams, ensuring that no one journeyed home alone. I was partnered up with Rebekkah and Maria, fellow residents of Queens. (The Queens contingent at Saks Fifth Avenue, as you may have imagined, was relatively small.)

Some of the most profound images from that day came from that walk home. As soon as we crossed onto Madison Avenue and were able to see downtown, we could see the smoke. Sensory overload: sirens piercing the ears, the acrid smoke that would hover over the city for days burning the nose. We’d only been walking for a few minutes when I saw a girl on her cell phone, looking downtown as we and everyone else walked north, screaming, crying, pleading. Who was on the other end of that call? I remember walking by a big post office, and one of my colleagues thinking it might be a target. Though I rolled my eyes at the idea in that moment, I think of it every time I walk by that post office. I walked past it just Saturday.

As Rebekkah, Maria, and I got far enough out on the bridge to see downtown, Maria asked, “Where’s the other tower? Where’s the other tower?” She was panicky; what we didn’t know at the time was that she had just found out she was pregnant. We convinced her, and ourselves, briefly, that we couldn’t see it for the smoke. But we knew. I knew.

The walk across the 59th Street bridge was eerie, the only inbound traffic construction workers, trucks coming to help with the recovery effort. None of our mobile phones worked; we were desperate for news and besought with misinformation. I remember hearing at some stage there was a plane headed for Chicago, and another for L.A. I stopped to listen to Spanish radio at one stage, pulling in as much information as my scared mind could translate.

I arrived home in Astoria by noon, hours before my roommates. I’d spoken to Rachel earlier; she was at work, waiting to leave with a colleague. I couldn’t get Aaron on the phone. I had no idea where he was until he rolled in around 3 p.m. with a couple bags of potato chips. It’s funny how we turn to junk food in times of crisis. I remember the girls from upstairs offering us a platter of pizza rolls.

What is there to say about the rest of the day? We sat and watched television nonstop. We were horrified by what we saw. You saw the same images. Except… you didn’t see the local news anchor interviewing her colleague, the network engineer, who’d gotten out of the tower alive. Nor did you see the shock on the local newscasters’ faces when the first images of people jumping out of the buildings appeared on the screen. Your news talked a lot about those images. Ours did not. Not for a couple of days. I listened to stories from back home, about how difficult the day had been for people in Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska. I tried not to scream back at them as I smelled the smoke from the still-smoldering towers through my bedroom window.

September 11, 2001, ended for me around 1 a.m. We were all exhausted but unwilling to leave the television. Or one another.

I remember so vividly how my roommates and I trailed off to bed that night… all leaving our doors open, hesitant to face the dark alone in this scary new world in which we now lived.

Tribute, Part 3: 9/11/01

My day started early, to compensate for the time I’d lost on Monday at the office. I had a frantically apologetic voicemail from the landlord, apologizing for waking me, a quantity of emails that far exceeded my pay grade, and a growing cynicism for the fashion industry. In addition to being my third week on the job, 9/11/01 was day two of my first Fashion Week. For those who have experienced it, you already know what I mean. For those who haven’t, watch Devil Wears Prada. It’s not exaggerated. Most people laughed at that movie; I cried a little. Sometimes the truth hurts.

So it was that I missed the first cue that day that something significant was happening. One of my colleagues paraded into the office and announced, to no one in particular and everyone all at once, “Oh my God, did you hear what happened?” I assumed a tent had collapsed or Tyra had broken a heel and continued working on the charity auction that was my lot in life at Saks.

After a few minutes, my curiosity got the best of me. I tried to pull up CNN.com. No luck. MSNBC, the same. Local WNBC … nope. All the news sites were down due to too much traffic. I had been volleying emails back and forth with a friend back home in Iowa, and sent a quick one-liner, “Hey, think something’s going on in New York. Can you see if there’s anything on TV and call me?” I can’t remember if he did. I do know he was the first person I finally was able to get through to once I got home. The only person who was “with” me as I saw those first images on the news. He played such a huge role in that day for me, yet I haven’t spoken to him for more than seven years. Funny, life.

Through all this, I was never motivated enough to leave my desk. I didn’t know anyone I was working with, I was determined to stay focused on the task at hand, and I was already working hard at my jaded New Yorker act. It didn’t really matter what it was. I’d like to be in the know, but it’s just another day in the city. Right?

A few minutes later – it seems like all of this took a lifetime, but I know it was all less than an hour – I called my dad’s office to ask if he’d seen anything. His secretary told me he was out of town fishing, but asked immediately if I was OK and if I’d called my mom.

Throughout this whole morning, as events moved quickly but time stood still, it was like a canopy was being slowly inched over my head; a black cape that darkened the situation, that increasingly but ever-so-slowly threatened me. My mind said, “No big deal,” but my intuition kept trying to tell me that something significant had just occurred. It took a while for the two to catch up, for so many of us that day.

When I called the school where my mom worked, they ran to the parking lot to get her. She didn’t have my cell phone number with her at work, and was driving home so she could call me. While I was on the phone telling her that I was far, far away from the Towers (three miles, but hey… a little re-imagining of geography never hurt anyone) and that it would be no big deal, she said, “They’re just saying another plane hit the Pentagon. It’s on the news right now.”

And then the black cape was finally pulled around me. It was tight, dark, and frightening. But more than anything, it was real. Unavoidable.

I told my mom I had to go, I had to figure out what we were doing. I hung up, and finally got up from my desk.

It was barely 10 a.m.

To be continued…

Link: Chronology of Events on September 11, 2001

Tribute Part 2: 9/10/01

This is one of thousands of stories of September 11, 2001. This one is true. And mine. Please share yours in the comments. I’ll repost some of them in the blog. I’m going to post my story of that day, and the subsequent days that are part of my 9/11 story, in pieces this week. What qualifies my story as a “tribute”? I’m not sure that anything does. But I believe in the power of telling stories to remember the past. In that, I hope, there’s an element of honor to those who were lost.

My 9/11 story starts on 9/10. I collapsed into bed that night declaring, definitively, “This has been the worst day ever.”

Monday, September 10 started with a gushing pipe in the bathroom of my newly rented apartment in Astoria. Our Greek mafia landlord’s wife instructed us to turn off the water and wait, as the landlord was out fishing.

This was the moment I learned about New York landlord-tenant advocacy etiquette. (Read: I yelled at her and bandied about comments about my fictional “lawyer” until she agreed to either pay for a plumber or get her husband off the freaking lake.) To put it all in context, my roommates and I had spent all weekend assembling Ikea furniture and moving boxes. We were tired, we were stressed out, and we all needed hot showers.

A few hours into my annoying day, juggling phone calls to the landlord with emails to overdramatic fashion designers at my still very new job at Saks Fifth Avenue, I got a migraine. I pushed through until I could no longer see my computer screen, then finally told my boss I needed to leave. By this stage, I was nearly blind, ready to vomit, and praying for death. (Don’t judge. Have you ever had a migraine?) I tried to hail a cab to speed my journey home. Rain + Park Avenue = Jen took the subway home. I finally collapsed into bed, suffering, exhausted and desperate for complete silence.

Ten minutes later my landlord and his sister (the “broker”) walked in. Take every stereotype of Queens accents you’ve seen on TV, triple them, and you have my landlord’s family. (He required we pay the deposit for our apartment in cash. We handed him nearly $6,000 in $20 bills, and he stuffed it down his pants.) The sister walked into my room and screamed at seeing me. I grumbled something, got up and locked the door. Heavily medicated, I finally fell asleep.

Enter the 11th

To be continued…

Tribute, Part 1

tribute test, originally uploaded by xpressbus.

It’s funny how the most profound moments in life sneak up on you.

I expect to be moved to tears when I go to see, say, Hotel Rwanda. But as I was walking last night from Point A (dinner with a friend at ‘wichcraft in the Flatiron) to Point B (another friend’s gig at Arlene’s Grocery), I didn’t expect to be confronted with the brevity of life, the passing of time, and reflections on what really matters in life.

But it’s 9/11 anniversary time. And those lights are back.

The first time I saw the Tribute in Lights was from the top of the Empire State Building, on the six-month anniversary of the Towers’ collapse. By all counts, the perfect vantage point. But they mean so much more to me when I’m just walking through the East Village, and they peek above the skyline, shooting up into nowhere.

So many memories came flooding back as I walked downtown last night, staring at the lights the whole way. I moved to New York in June 2001 and lived four blocks from the WTC. I’d moved to Astoria on September 1, but my memories of downtown were plenty fresh as I walked across the 59th Street Bridge that day.

I remember being overwhelmed with a sense that things would never be the same—this was before we had any clue about the loss of life, before I’d seen any newscasts, and well before we had any clue who was responsible and what that meant. I just looked down at the plume of smoke that had replaced those tall buildings and thought, “One of the world’s most iconic skylines has been changed forever.”

It sounds so shockingly selfish now. I felt it in the moment, too. The buildings that dominated that skyline held thousands of people. But on another level, the iconicism is what makes New York… well, New York. A city unlike any other. Without a doubt, people matter so much more, but the skyline is still significant because it matters to people. It represents something: something different to everyone who’s made the move here, but for so many of us, the fulfillment of some sort of dream. So to see those two big chunks taken out on 9/11, to see holes torn in the tapestry of the hopes and dreams the citizens of this city have woven together—it was profound to me. It was heartbreaking.

So when I’m walking around the city, just doing my thing, and those towers of light confront me… I don’t even know how to put it into words. A failure for a writer, but one I suspect many others share. They are the perfect tribute to me. They illuminate—giving light to the city left behind. They point up—reminding us that there is more than the earth on which we rebuild. And they are present—able to be seen from any point in the city, like a compass point; an anchor that helps us get our bearings as we chase after the dreams that brought us here in the first place.

I’ve been thinking for a couple of weeks that I want to transition into telling more stories here, to practice the art of fiction with some inspiration from the truth. I was planning to write about experiences from my travels, but I’m going to start at home. In this week, where I can gaze across the bridge at the lights, I’ll tell stories from those moments that still resonate so deeply with me, nine years later.

More to come.

Things I Saw Today

Just a normal day in New York City, going about my normal business: work, errands, phone calls, a little walk for pleasure. The scenery, as usual, has been anything but ordinary. Between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., I saw the following:

  • The fruit (vegetable?) pictured above, unknown to me
  • A 50,000 square-foot Italian market, complete with a tour by a guy who had his picture on the wall (and in the middle of this WSJ shot),  a friendly and informed looking gent, who I happened to ask for directions
  • Thousands upon thousands of dollars of gorgeous clothes worn by gorgeous Italians in said market
  • $6,000 handbags
  • $6 handbags
  • A statue of a deer with antlers in someone’s front yard in Brooklyn
  • Statues of the Virgin Mary and Buddha
  • The personification of Jesus Christ
  • Authentic mobsters
  • The way a city reinvents itself, over and over, block by block, neighborhood to neighborhood
  • The Wing Fat Mansion
  • A pint of beer disappear quickly in the heat
  • Grace and gentleness
  • A baby laughing
  • A small miracle that had a big impact on my faith
  • A whole part of Manhattan in which I’ve never set foot
  • The reflection of my own smile in a window as I took it all in

And that was all under cover of daylight. Who knows what the night will bring?


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