Three years ago I moved from my childhood town in Long Island to Jersey City where I would take the PATH train to the WTC, a constant reminder that New York would never be the same. About four months ago I took the train to the World Trade Center stop, knowing that it would be a while before I would pass by these remains again.
On September 11, 2001 the 3rd period bell had just rung. My best friend and I were barely settling down when the announcement came over the P.A. system. At first it didn’t hit us. We were, after all, a pair of 12 year-olds. A moment later we realized that our dads both worked in lower Manhattan, mine in the lower East side, and hers in the financial district, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. I remember my history teacher crying because her husband was a firefighter. After school I went home with my best friend after my dad hadn’t shown up to pick me up from school at the usual time. I was never one to panic, but deep down I was worried. When we got to her house we turned the T.V. on to news we could barely comprehend. We couldn’t think of anything else to do.
That morning, my dad, a pharmaceutical salesman, was still driving on his way to work at St. Vincent’s Hospital when he saw people running out of diners and cafés, some with camcorders and cameras. He recalled glancing at his side mirror and seeing smoke coming from the window of the first building. Assuming the cause was an electrical fire, thoughts of a terrorist attack never crossed his mind until he turned on the radio. Minutes later, dark smoke was billowing from both towers. Fire trucks and police sirens were blaring when he called the head nurse at St. Vincent’s to ask how to help. After being told that masks, rubber gloves, and ointments for burns would definitely be needed my dad called up a partner to have them delivered to the emergency room. To him this was the type of thing that could only happen in movies.
My mom remembers smelling the smoke all the way from her pharmacy in Brooklyn, saying that the odor smelt of burnt rubber. Days later when the smoke was still in the air, they were required to wear masks. Years later, after taking a picture of the World Trade Center cross, I remember thinking how post-apocalyptic it all seemed. In a small way that’s how it was. Shortly after the attacks you could still smell the burning metal and plastic all the way up to SoHo. Downtown Manhattan was deserted and the stores near the twin towers were closed. For at least two weeks only authorized vehicles were allowed into the city before noon. My summer camp once had a field trip to the towers and my dad had gone there for a company Christmas party the year before. Now they were no more.
While living in Long Island seemed to shelter me from the immediate effects of 9/11, my fiancé was not immune to them. Living minutes from a cemetery meant weeks of seeing cars upon cars on their way to funerals. 9/11 didn’t leave him alone at home. Three years later while visiting friends in Queens he was physically and verbally assaulted for looking a little bit Middle Eastern. This attitude towards him didn’t stop when he moved to North Carolina his junior year of high school. Tired of being judged for something that wasn’t even predominantly in his blood, he yearned for the day that he could travel and avoid such prejudice. For whatever reason, I could never understand why people were grouped into categories they didn’t belong in. After 9/11, I didn’t see anyone who looked Muslim as evil. In my mind evil was evil. Just like goodness has no one color or place that it hides, evil can be anywhere as well. One of my best friends was Muslim and she didn’t share the beliefs of the terrorists, yet she and other friends of mine were bullied by those who didn’t care to get to know them. If I’ve learned anything these past few years it’s that many people judge too quickly or without good enough reason and that many others never get a chance to have their voice heard. I cannot stress how important it is to surround yourself with people that give you strength so that you can be brave when others show hatred or indifference to you.
Over the years my dad became more protective and paranoid that another 9/11 could happen in the city. A few years later I had gone to the city to meet my friend for his birthday when I checked a voicemail from my dad on what actions to take in case of another 9/11. I thought he was being insanely overdramatic, but it was easy for me to forget that he’d seen it happen with his own eyes. Nine years later I’ve moved to my fiancés home in North Carolina, where I feel safer, calmer, and more hopeful, not solely because we’re hesitant about building a family where such scares are still present, but also so we can save up money to travel like we always wanted.