A Deep and Abiding Allegiance
It seems hard to believe it is almost September again, a month filled with unpacking from summer holidays, back to school shopping, orientation to new routines, and, for those of us who lived through a very violent 11 September ten years ago this year, haunting memories that some prefer to avoid. But memory still is a powerful catalyst for growth, so in light of this anniversary (and in general) it feels important to remember the events of what happened, and their impact on our lives. What I most remember of that day can best be described as a sense of total disorientation that I had never felt in my twenty-five years.
I had just started a Master’s program in journalism at Columbia, and woke up that morning to turn on NPR — something I felt compelled to do as a journalism student — to listen before heading to East Harlem for an assignment (I had no television that day, having just moved apartments to be closer to Columbia).
Ten minutes before I walked out the door, something strange happened: NPR announced that one plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. “What?” I retorted, incredulously. “Remote controls would make better pilots than these small aviators!” I dialed a few friends to see if they knew what was going on. Trouble getting through did not alarm me yet; I finally reached a friend, a New Yorker, who asked if I had seen the television and warned me against going anywhere. By this point, a second plane hit, and though my suspicion had heightened the reality of terrorist attacks remained remote at best. Even after the second plane had hit, I trekked to East Harlem for the primary elections as following the plan of the day was the only thing I could do (the elections, I later learned had been called off). I distinctly remember an uneasy, eerie vibe on the crosstown 96th Street bus, jam-packed with people trying to figure out what was going on. Swarms of hurried people on foot headed uptown. Though I had had little information, it was clear that those two planes would have killed hundreds at minimum.
It was not until after 10 a.m., that I saw a television after walking into a small, dark restaurant and bar that I had visited often, on Lexington Avenue in the 90s, when exploring East Harlem. Seeing the Twin Towers turned into flaming, smoking Q-tips was something that obliterated any sense of safety I had ever felt. I crumbled into tears first, then sobs, sipping an iced tea and dialing, once again, furiously, to see if those I knew who worked in the Trade Center were okay, and to my family, and to my friends to find out where they were.
From there I wandered downtown, finally reaching college friends in whose apartment I sought refuge until night fell. One of them had been in, and escaped from, one of the towers, and recounted his tale of rushing down the stairs and running as fast as he could, heading North until he reached his apartment in the East 20s (how he managed to do this with humor will forever remain a mystery to me, but he did). I remember another friend of ours leaving to look for a friend of his in the nearby hospitals. That friend was never found.
I remember feeling huge guilt that I had no interest in reporting on Ground Zero, and saying to my journalism professor, “I wanted to report on Arts and Culture!” I said, “Not War!” I also felt tremendous guilt that I felt so deeply affected, emotionally, by this attack that had not harmed me personally, nor any of my close family members or friends. “What right do I have to be crying all the time over this”, I remember saying to a friend.
Amidst all the horror and disappointment of 11 September, I have a very clear and palpable memory of feeling an intense allegiance to New York and to New Yorkers; the camaraderie that made me grateful to live in this city that is, in the words of the great E.B. White, “peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along”. Two days before the attacks, I had returned from London, and as awful as it was to be in New York, I would not have wanted to be anywhere else — either then or now.
Caroline Callahan Janson is a freelance writer and editor living in New York. This article was originally written for The Uptown Chronicle.
11 September 2011
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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