I slept through the September 11 attacks.
Ten years ago I worked as a sports copy editor at The Forum in Fargo and finished work each night around 1 a.m. A trip to an all-night diner with a co-worker or two often followed, with a Cinemax movie serving as a nightcap. I only woke up early if my elderly neighbor screamed at his adult daughter or when I had to move my car to the other side of the street to avoid a ticket.
That morning, I stayed in bed as the phone rang three or four times. That’s when the telemarketers usually called so I had a policy of not answering the phone before noon. I had voicemail instead of an answering machine and didn’t check to see if anyone left a message. At about 1 p.m. I wandered out of my downtown apartment, climbed into my car and drove to an appointment. When I turned on the radio, the voice of Ed Schultz, broadcasting live from Washington D.C., where he had covered an event, greeted me, as he exclaimed, “This is the day everything changed!”
This was years before Schultz became one of the most famous progressive TV hosts in all the land. At the time he was a conservative radio talk-show host who was perhaps best known for going into the stands to confront a fan after someone in the crowd fired a whiskey bottle into the broadcasting booth as Schultz called a game for the North Dakota State University Bison football team. What changed, Ed?
I flicked the dial to the FM side. Instead of hearing Zeppelin or the Stones or a deep-voiced DJ, I listened to…what? It sounded like a press conference from an airline representative. A tour of the FM side revealed no one was playing music, everyone had the news. By the time I arrived at my appointment I had figured out some attacks had occurred in New York and Washington and, perhaps, somewhere in Pennsylvania. But I didn’t see the terrible images that soon became seared into everyone’s mind until I watched a TV in an office lobby. There I finally saw the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, followed by their collapse. I saw it three or four hours after most people, but I now knew what everyone else did: Ed was right, everything had changed.
At work the sports department finished early in the evening, as the horrific events of that day canceled all events and put sports “in perspective,” a well-meaning sentiment that nonetheless remains one of my least-favorite phrases, as it seems to imply that the death of a high school basketball player or a pro football player or 3,000 Americans is practically required for us to realize sports are not the most important thing in the world.
Like everyone else in the office I spent much of the day watching TV, reading the AP wire and looking at the heartbreaking pictures that came in. The planes, the collapses, the firemen, the police officers, the office workers, all that paper, the Pentagon, the jumpers.
When I returned home – to watch TV and see the images of the planes, the collapses, the firemen, the police officers, the office workers, all that paper and the Pentagon – I finally listened to my messages. My dad had called a couple of times telling me to turn on the TV. My sister called with the same message. I didn’t turn the TV on in the morning but like so many I couldn’t turn it off in the evening, not until it all became too much to bear. My night ended with Cinemax.
I was 1,500 miles away from Ground Zero on September 11 but will be in New York City on the 10th anniversary. Even though I’ll be in the city on that day, the real 9-11 experience remains something I can’t truly understand or comprehend.
Watching it unfold on TV – whether live or hours after it took place – was an unreal, haunting time for tens of millions. It felt like everyone experienced it in the same way. But that certainly didn’t compare to what it was like to be in New York or Washington, when people witnessed everything taking place in front of them, and not on a screen. The events of September 11 brought everyone together for a day or a week or a month, but in Fargo and elsewhere we were still distanced from the event. In Fargo, for a brief time, I thought, “It feels like terrorists could maybe strike here,” but in New York they knew what it was like because terrorists had struck there.
Eventually, after those first few days, weeks and months, September 11 drifted into the background for those outside of NYC and D.C. That day still influenced so much that did directly impact our lives – whether it was vague threats that included directions about duct tape, more flags out on porches, skyrocketing gas prices or local soldiers killed in the wars that followed. But I didn’t know anyone who died in the Towers or who watched the planes or worried about anthrax or lost a loved one. It became another chapter – the most brutal chapter of them all – in our long history of tragedies, filed away and remembered on the anniversary, like Pearl Harbor, Kennedy’s assassination, the Challenger explosion or the Oklahoma City bombing. Maybe everything hadn’t changed. Maybe nothing had.
Things aren’t completely different here in New York today. There’s no one way or right way for people to remember or commemorate that day, whether they do it on the anniversary or every day of the year. Many people have long ago moved on and wish others would as well, annoyed at the constant coverage that rolls around the first week of September. History porn, some have called it. Many others can’t believe anyone would ever forget what happened. They mourn and rehash the day’s horrors at every possible opportunity. Some still want to know, “Why, God?” while others proclaim that they know exactly why and you would too if you only opened your eyes and saw the government conspiracy at the heart of the whole affair.
I’m like countless others and in some ways the feelings I have and the way I go through my life would be the same if I still lived in Fargo. The events of September 11 aren’t a part of my daily life, or at least that’s what I tell myself. I don’t dwell on the events but will watch some of the documentaries on the History Channel that pop up in the days before the anniversary. I’ll read the newspaper stories and magazine profiles on the train or between meals.
But there are differences, which are unique to life in New York. I didn’t know anyone who died, but I now know people who did lose friends and loved ones. I didn’t see the planes hit but my wife was here and saw the second one. I don’t have any fear of terrorism but read more closely the annual stories that tout the latest terror threat, those “credible but unconfirmed” reports, like the type we had Thursday, which simultaneously frighten and bewilder people who wonder or worry about possible attacks.
And now, unlike life anywhere else, there are daily reminders of that day’s horrors, reminders I walk past every day, even if they don’t always register. The Good Shepherd church sits about four blocks from our Inwood apartment. Good Shepherd is home to a 9-11 memorial. It’s a garden that features a cross made from steel from the World Trade Center. There are memorials to 22 people with Inwood connections who died that day. It will soon be home to 24, as the families of two people who died did not know about the memorial.
It’s an almost unfathomable loss for a neighborhood, yet there are dozens of neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey with similar stories. Life goes on, but the lives of those who lived here on September 11, 2001 did change forever; it wasn’t just a phrase or a short-term belief. My neighborhood – my home – is now dramatically different because of what happened on that sunny day a decade ago. When I look at that garden and those memorials, I can feel the loss to the community, even though I didn’t know any of the victims. There’s surely a hole in our neighborhood, even if it’s an invisible one lodged in the hearts of the family and friends left behind.
America was attacked on September 11. The United States suffered. But here, in New York, is where the most suffering took place. I can see the effects every day, it’s not just something to read or hear about.
There was a line shortly after September 11 that’s been repeated many times in the years since, especially on the anniversary – “We are all New Yorkers now.” It’s a great sentiment, a signal of solidarity, of shared grief and resolve.
But I also realize that even now, seven years after I moved here, when it comes to September 11, I’m still the guy who slept through the attacks and watched their replays half a country away, safely tucked away in my Fargo office and apartment.
Yes, I’m a New Yorker now. But it’s still impossible – and will always be impossible – for me to truly fathom what it was like to be a New Yorker then.