Sunday, September 11, 2016

September 11, 2001

Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I woke up, ate two untoasted strawberry-flavored Pop Tarts at my dorm room desk, showered and went to my 9:55 sociology class. In that class, we watched a video that captured people protesting economic inequalities outside the World Trade Center in New York.

I had ten minutes between classes to traverse the main quad and get to my first-year writing seminar--one themed around Shakespeare and how lessons from the plays could be applied to contemporary social issues. A pretty girl named Marie who I’d hung out with in groups back in the dorm came into the room and asked no one in particular, “Do you believe this shit?”

The other girl in class and I must have looked puzzled, because Marie clarified, “The shit at the World Trade Center.”

I hadn’t remembered Marie being in sociology class, but it was, by my standards, an early morning class, held in a large room in which it would have been easy enough to miss someone, particularly in my first month at college, when I wasn’t yet acclimated to much of anything. So, I made like I did on most occasions when a pretty girl saw fit to talk to me. I nodded. I said, “Yeah.”

The classroom filled in at a slow trickle before the professor showed up. From what I had gathered about Dr. Easton up to that point, she was an unflappable woman. All business. High expectations for her students. But this morning, she came in with her decorative scarf untidily wrapped around her, no handouts to administer, none of the textbooks pinned between her arm and chest. She told us all, “I can’t expect for you to pay attention to class today. Please go home.”

I learned about the terrorist attacks in bits and pieces along the walk home, snippets of overheard conversation. When I got back to my dorm, my roommate had, for the first time, hooked up his seventeen-inch cathode-ray tube TV, which aired footage on repeat of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers.

I had family in New York. No one working at the Towers, but one uncle who worked in Midtown. No one I knew passed away that day, but on a campus where thirty percent of the students came from The Big Apple, it was little surprise that plenty of other people did suffer losses.

The attacks would color my college experience. Critical essays would take new forms, questioning why the terrorist attacks had happened, whether they could have been justified, whether the United States could justify going to war, not against another nation, but rather an amorphous, ill-defined enemy hidden among less certain foes and allies. I succumbed to patriotic fervor, adding Lee Greenwald’s “Proud to Be an American” to the uneven collection of MP3s I listened to. By the spring, I had come to question rhetoric of war. I wrote my first attempts at political poetry and traveled to protests in Washington DC and New York City. I wrote a senior thesis--a novella set in the Vietnam War era that clumsily winked at, reflected, and referred to the commonalities between that time and that war and the period I was living in.

Like members of my parents’ generation could speak to memories of where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, the time and place of your life on September 11, 2001 has become the definitive marker for my own. I remember the high school friend who spoke of his willingness to fight if it turned out another country were formally responsible for the attacks. A friend of mine told me about breaking up with her boyfriend the night of the attacks--feeling the weight of the attacks, and a need to live her life to the fullest and only hold people close who she really wanted to hold close. Another friend told me about the steal of a deal that car rental companies had going--that with airports shut down, they waived the additional fees that come with one-way rentals to help folks get home, and he saved a bundle on a trip he had planned to take anyway.

I didn’t lose any family or friends. I didn’t go to war. At that point, I’d only taken one trip that required airplane travel, when I was twelve years old and my parents did all of the airport navigation for me. Thus, when I entered a time in my life when I did fly a great deal, seven years later, it was less a matter of growing accustomed to something different than learning a new procedure altogether.

Just the same, I remember being eighteen years old. Sitting in a crowd of people I didn’t really know, trying to digest what would turn out to be the defining cultural touchstone of my lifetime. I didn’t have any sense of what it would all mean or what might come next. Just the inescapable sensation that nothing would ever be quite the same.

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