It is with a deep sense of fear that I’m sending this to you. I don’t know if it is the memory of the fear from that day, or a fear of sending this because I don’t have a hero story or even a courage story. I was terrified that day, 9/11/2001. I spent it inside my apartment being very afraid. I didn’t lose a loved one, unless you count the scar on my city, which was a kind of loved entity, much bigger than me. I share this with respect for the ones who lived through it, the ones who were lost, the ones who were injured, the ones left behind to grieve forever. And also out of a need to finally, after 11 years, to write publicly about what I can remember experiencing on that day. So, it isn’t a fancy story, or a hero story, or a survivor story. It is just what I remember. And here, a poem from the days after, which I posted last year. This is because thousands of people died in my city, in our country, and my heart aches. I don’t know what else to do with my sadness, but write.
This is the day I wish to return to: The day before.
On Monday, September 10, 2001, I was working as the audience warm up / stand up comic for Emeril Live on Food Network for a standard week of taping. The studio was in walking distance to my apartment. We had a regular day, then I went home. I barely remember that day, it was so ordinary.
On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, my husband, who was already at work, left a message on our answering machine. I didn’t have to be at the studio until around 11am, so I was still in bed. There was urgency in his voice. Something happened… Something is happening. Turn on the TV.
I jumped up and turned on the TV. My first thought, after the initial shock and utter confusion: There are people in there. And then a speeded up frenzy of memory fragments of every time I’d ever been in or near those buildings, in or near or up in the World Trade Towers. I fell to my knees.
At some point, my boss called me or I called her. I was told the day was cancelled. Stay home. I found out later, the whole week was cancelled (we usually taped once a month). Shortly after that, it became impossible to make or receive phone calls.
From the south facing window in my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, on West 49th Street, I couldn’t see anything, being so many blocks north. But, there was that smoke cloud and smell. It lingered for a long time. The smoke cloud. That smell.
In the evening, we ventured out confused and hungry, looking for food. I remember that it’s astonishing to feel hunger in the midst of chaos and destruction, but the fact is, people get hungry in every situation there is. People walking the streets were dazed, walking slowly, holding each other. I noticed that everyone looked directly into each others eyes. Our favorite Chinese food place was open. We brought the food home. I couldn’t taste anything. The endless images on TV which we couldn’t believe were real. Being afraid to fall asleep. The sound of sirens. Not being able to sleep. Being too afraid to sleep.
That night, and in the middle of the night when some phone lines became free again, I got calls from friends and relatives. One call from my friend in Israel sticks out, as it had usually been me being the one worried about her every time there was a terrorist attack there. Things had changed.
I was a new immigrant in Israel, around ten or 11 when I knew first hand a friend who had lost her twelve year old brother in a terrorist attack. I only remember crying and asking my parents, How does this happen? Why do people do this to each other?
I grew up in a place that knows the terrible, ongoing grief of terrorism and war. A place where it was routine to lose loved ones in the most barbaric of ways. At a pizza place, a café, a bus, in schools, and even in homes. The only thing I understood from all that is that what we do in our life while we are here must matter and be directed to working towards peace and love. Towards fixing what is broken. To loving. The only thing it taught me is that life can be taken in an instant, at any time, in any place and nothing is promised us. The next day is not promised us.
The only thing it taught me is that some people survive and recover (and recovery manifests in different ways for different people), and some do not. I learned to never judge those who cannot “recover” or “move on” or “heal” according to random standards — for no one knows the pain of losing a loved one in this manner, than those who have. I learned that the holes people leave behind are never filled, and the pain of losing a loved one stays with you for the rest of your life. I learned that some people are able to create something meaningful out of their loss and are able to honor their loved one’s memory, by doing things that help others. Others are able to express in some way what their experience has taught them, or how it has impacted their lives, and if they share it with the rest of us, then we can learn from them, and take some lessons into our own lives. Or we can simply understand, just a little bit more, what it means to be human.
I’ve learned to respect grief, and other people’s feelings more, and I learned to at least always try hard to put myself in someone else’s shoes. I learned that we’re all connected, and that our grief and loss and joys are usually the same; no matter what we look like, no matter what language we speak, or where we’re from.
The next day, Food Network kitchens mobilized to make food to bring downtown. I went to help. Like so many others, I desperately needed to do something. I felt entirely helpess, until I was put to work chopping. It was a tremendous relief. Of all the food prepared that day, I only remember the roasted acorn squash. Cut it in half, sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake. I was happy someone was telling me what to do. Do this, then this. It was comforting to be with other people. I didn’t want to leave.
Because the whole thing was epic and staggering, I needed to focus on people that I knew. Once I could, I made calls, or others called me. Where are you? Are you OK? And with each one, all but one call, the relief.
Our family’s near misses: a cousin of Andy’s who emerged from a subway station there that morning with falling debris overhead. He was knocked to the ground. A stranger helped him to safety.
I remember one of the daily papers in the days after. One image was of a woman who had escaped from a high floor of one of the towers. I learned she was the sister of my cousin’s ex-wife.
There was my Emeril buddy, Maggie, who was a volunteer firefighter. So was her husband. I remember she told me that he drove down there right away. I remember thinking how extraordinary these people are, but they’re not asking to be heroes. They’re doing their job. Still, I think the ones that went down there to save, to rescue, to salvage, to recover—they were remarkable. I wonder how these heroes are now, all these years later.
There was a friend on the phone, who told me that her cousin was missing and her family was searching for him. He worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. His name was Michael and he was 27. Some of his remains were found eventually. I attended his memorial. I didn’t know what to say to my friend. I was helpless. Wordless.
I went to my local fire department in the days after. Engine Company 54/Ladder Company 4/Battalion 9 on 8th Avenue lost 15 brave firefighters that day. I stood, speechless at the fire station staring at a growing mountain of flowers. People brought them food. One firefighter and I hugged. I wondered if any of them had been the ones who came to my building after I called 9-1-1 one time because I saw and smelled smoke coming from my neighbors’ apartment right next to mine. They had come quickly, and they put out a fire that had just started. They told me that if I hadn’t called, the whole building could have gone up super fast. I’d thanked them way back then. I still wonder if they were the ones who were taken on 9/11. I think firefighters are amazing every day. I think what they do needs to be acknowledged and respected always.
I saw the piles of flowers, candles, the handmade missing persons fliers plastered everywhere. Everywhere in the city, there were shrines, vigils, people shaking their heads, crying in the streets. There were the people who lined the West Side Highway going downtown, cheering at the trucks and workers and rescue people and their amazing rescue dogs, bringing equipment to dig, to find, to recover. What all those people did was restore a sense that humanity had not completely been lost, but that there were good people left in the world and it was clear that the cooperation needed to get through what happened would have to go on for a very long time.
The grief was overwhelming. It was on every street. It was in the air. It was also there for a long, long time. I remember when I stopped seeing the missing person fliers and posters; when they were so battered from the elements, when they got torn and peeled off. When so many days and months and years passed and posters got covered up with new posters about things that had nothing to do with all those many people. Because the city kept going and that is how it was. All the memorials, living in people’s hearts and built from materials. Stone, rock, granite, water.
I was grateful that my husband, who up until a few months prior, had worked briefly at a company in one of the towers, but was no longer working there, and instead was safely at his new job near our apartment. Not there. Not there. Are you OK?
I remember a friend and her class who walked from downtown all the way uptown. How she got the kids to safety, walking.
Today, a day like it was 11 years ago. A day with perfect blue skies. Back then, before it happened, it was an ordinary Tuesday. Until it became one of those days we can’t hide from.
I think of 9/11, not just on 9/11, or on the days leading up to it, or after. It comes to me when I see a perfect blue sky, or see an airplane flying low, or both. It comes to me when I think of my friend’s family and the loss which they live with every day, and they go on, but it never leaves them. There is a 9/11 memorial not far from my home now, which has his name there along with all the other names. I have gone and touched his name, and thought of my friend. I realize that probably does absolutely nothing in the end, but maybe that is not the point. Of all the names, I remember his. I think of her and how strong she is. How I wish this didn’t ever happen.
I wonder about people who got out and survived and how this has forever changed their lives but their experience will always be a mystery to me and how I want to understand what happened to everyone that day and in the days afterwards. And if it is so painful for me to think of, but I only watched it unfold on TV, how must it be for the families?
Today, I have an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. I can’t bear to watch the news footage or even look at still images. My son doesn’t know too much about 9/11 yet. That’s fine with me. Because as he gets older, he’ll have plenty of time to learn about the horrors people inflict on each other. But yesterday when he got off the school bus, he told me, “I need to wear red, white and blue tomorrow. It’s a special day.” He told me, “You need to wear red, white and blue, too, Mommy.” I wonder what they will tell them today at Kindergarten. I hope they teach them something about kindness, as I hear some schools do that.
The birds are singing on this beautiful sad day. My body remembers 9/11. It has to go through the anniversary with the involuntary remembering, alternating with shutting it out, and then remembering again. I am not able to not remember. Forgetting seems impossible. I was only a witness to the reality broadcast on TV that day, in my city. I watched in real time as one building came down and then another. I didn’t lose anyone in my immediate family, but thousands of others did, and my heart still breaks for them. I was just a New Yorker that day and my city was attacked when men flew planes into the tallest buildings and thousands of people were murdered. I am sad today because there is nothing that will ever bring them back. I want to go back to the day before and have this not have happened.
I think we returned to taping a month later. I felt dread as my first performance post 9/11 came close. I felt inadequate. I wasn’t a first responder, firefighter, or EMT. I questioned the validity of the work that I was doing. What does it mean to be a writer/artist/comedian in the face of death and destruction? I had no answers.
On a blue sky day, bright and sunny, with a little chill, with children going to school and people working. On a day like any another. Like today. Like tomorrow.
Last week, Max said this to me:
“Girls aren’t better than boys. Boys aren’t better than girls.
Nobody’s better than anyone else. All people are better.
All people are the best. It’s not that one family is better
than another. That’s regular people. But cops are better
than the bad guys.”
With love and peace,