9/11/01: A Memoir

by Eric J. Weiner

The chill in the early morning air hinted of autumn, yet the intensity of the rising sun promised summer heat. Black Tupelo and Red Maple leaves teased memories of fall with premature wisps of yellow and orange. The sky was a depthless cobalt blue, its crystallinity making everything and everyone shimmer. It makes sense that the stunning weather on that particular morning should become a shared referent for our collective dissonance, a common denominator of terror, mourning, and remembrance spanning two decades.

In the cool air and bright glare of the sun, our glass and steel towers gave evidence of our dominion over nature and, by extension, everything and everyone else. Our arrogance, brilliance, barbarism, and beauty, wrapped in the spectacular innovations and intoxicating aesthetic brutalism of modernity, stretched magnificently into the endless expanse of sky. In a reversal of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, the twin towers, like two fingers of iron and glass rising out of the mud, reached toward the heavens searching for the invisible hand of God. We were the kings and queens of the second millennium, 21st century global conquistadors of culture and finance, the immaculate children of Artemis, oblivious yet intuitively aware of our power as only the powerful can be. A comforting stillness cocooned us in the din of our urban hustle, told us that we were safe, to go about our business, to even pause for a few seconds to admire the tragedy and majesty of it all. Who could deny that we not only had the world by the balls, but Mother Nature on her knees?

It was my first semester as an assistant professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey and the first week of classes. From the highest point on campus, you could see New York City’s iconic skyline. Even though it’s a suburban New Jersey public university in the heart of Essex county, its proximity to New York City allowed me to imagine its ethos as more urbane than it actually was. By proximal association, I would claim New York City my spiritual home, even though I slept in Hoboken and worked in Montclair.

My first class that morning began at 9:15am in a run-down building called Chapin Hall. I arrived at the university at 8am. I loved the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture of the decrepit little building; its smooth white stucco exterior, red “S” tile roof, and rounded archways transported me to another time and place. Inside, Chapin Hall’s creaky stairs, peeling paint, stained walls, rattling air-conditioners, and small disheveled classrooms created in my mind a patina of working class history and the promise of public education that spoke to my romantic idealism.

My office, no more than a spacious walk-in closet with a proletarian wooden desk, chair and small book case was on the third floor, the same floor as my classroom and the faculty and staff lounge. The lounge was simply outfitted with a Mr. Coffee machine and a half-size refrigerator the color of dirt with a handle held on with Scotch tape. A few mismatched chairs that another department probably tried to throw out were strewn casually around a rickety coffee-stained, brown wooden table. A small, thread-worn red and gold sofa barely long enough for two people to sit on without becoming uncomfortably conscious of the closeness of their legs sat under two grimy windows that looked out onto a barren circle of dried grass intended, once upon a time, for students to relax, study and play. A copy machine, which was usually jammed or out of paper and/or ink sat idling next to an eighteen-inch television which was always turned on, turned down so as not to disrupt the classroom activities across the narrow hallway, and tuned into a local news channel.

I was scheduled to teach pre-service teachers how to think critically about teaching, curriculum, assessment and all the other sociological, cultural and political aspects of schooling that they would encounter as new teachers in the early part of the 21st century. As I nervously made last minute changes to my syllabus and looked over the course materials for the hundredth time, I looked up in response to a “breaking news story” to see the first plane embedded into several of the top floors of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

Befuddled and horrified television commentators grasped at threads of information. Comprehension slipped on meanings that struggled for footholds in experience. There were none. Secretaries and janitorial staff came running into the lounge. We all stared at the scene unfolding on the small screen in front of us. Fifteen miles away from where we stood, what we watched on television just happened to people–people a few minutes before who were breathing, talking, thinking, eating, and drinking coffee–some of whom we knew. Now they were dead or injured. No one moved to go see what could be seen from the campus vistas. Reporters on television struggled to understand what was happening and to communicate their muddled understanding to viewers. The size of the plane embedded and burning in the North Tower looked small on the screen and even smaller against the building. We thought that maybe it was a personal aircraft that had accidentally crashed into the building. It seemed at the time a possible explanation. In retrospect, I think the idea that someone would purposely fly a commercial passenger plane into the North Tower was beyond what our imaginations could handle.

As information streamed in and the narrative of terrorism started to crystalize, the second plane crashed into the South Tower. Live death in real time. The room was silent aside from quiet gasps, whispered Spanish idioms, and the occasional “Oh my God…” Dissonance reigned. We were safe. The sky outside Chapin Hall was still brilliant and shimmering with promise, while flumes of black smoke and flames coming from the planes and buildings defiled the sky over downtown New York City. Steel, glass, fire, smoke. Death. Fear. Terror. Slow panic gripped the room and we hustled onto our phones only to find the lines jammed with callers. I went into my classroom where my students, most of whom did not know what was happening in NYC, waited to begin the semester.

I told them what I knew, which wasn’t much. I think I was visibly shaking. The Towers had yet to fall and the news commentators were still trying to weave together a coherent story that might explain what had just happened. Several of my students’ parents worked at the Trade Center or in the immediate area. Some of them were still on subways heading downtown from Penn Station, the Port Authority bus terminal, or crossing the Hudson on ferries from Hoboken and Jersey City to the Financial District. There was fear on their lips and in their eyes. Hands searched empty pockets or reflexively twirled hair. Questions were asked that I could not answer. Panic began to rip through Chapin Hall. I canceled class and told students to call their friends and families and go somewhere that they felt would be a safe place in an emergency. The problem was that no one really knew what kind of emergency this was. Not having experienced war, acts of terrorism, or any other similar cataclysmic event, most of us just didn’t know what to do or where to go. Students scattered. Faculty awkwardly walk-ran to their cars. I got in my car and tried to get back to my apartment in Hoboken.

The South Tower collapses when I am in my car on Route 3 in Clifton, crawling east toward the Lincoln Tunnel. The North Tower collapses as I am stuck in gridlocked traffic on Route 3 in Secaucus, concrete barriers preventing anyone from turning around to go in the other direction. Our cars are both safe haven and steel cages; they are also the only source of information via our radios that we have about what is transpiring at what would come to be called Ground Zero. We are held hostage by our own biases as they converge with partial information and reactionary analyses. Which radio station you were listening to had a lot to do with what you believed about the unfolding events.

I look over to see a Sikh slowly, carefully unwrapping his dastār. I am listening intensely to multiple news reports on my car’s radio, flipping from station to station to see if I can glean any reliable information from the cacophony of frightened, sad, and angry commentators competing to write history. From the incinerated bodies, melted steel, burning rubber, hair and flesh, and crushed concrete and bone, smoke billows into the cobalt sky, and even this far from the epicenter, the stench, like burnt wire casings mixed with overheated brake pads, coats our tongues. The air hums and pops with static electricity. There was surely going to be hell to pay, but the fear circulating through the stalled traffic was generated in part from the realization that hell is what we were just paid, with most people not understanding the debt. The Sikh looked straight ahead, fear and knowing in his eyes, trying to remove any mark that could be misinterpreted as a sign of complicity with or compassion for whomever might have orchestrated such violence.

The hair bristled on the back of my neck and arms. I was terrified that people around me, scared and stuck like circus rats in a maze, looking for catharsis through revenge, would pull the man from his car and rip his arms from his body and smash his face into the asphalt. I was afraid I would be compelled to intervene and suffer a similar fate. I was afraid I would do nothing and impotently bear witness to mob rage and violence. With the unwrapping of his dastār complete, and his invisibility relatively secured (i.e., he was still marked by his brown skin and black, long beard), I relaxed my death grip on the steering wheel and got out of my car to wonder with the other stuck motorists, what next?

We all know what happened next. Endless wars, government incursions that lay bare the contingent reality of human rights, state-sponsored terrorism, drone attacks, demonization and criminalization of Muslims and the Arab world, white nationalistic fervor, and a return to a pre-modern mind-set that resurrects the imagined dichotomy of good and evil to the level of statecraft. When the Sikh unwrapped his dastār, he unveiled many of the threats to democracy, then and now: Irrational violence, willful ignorance, white nationalism, atomization, militarism, and a general suspicion of the “other.”

Many hours passed on Route 3, but I don’t recall any sense of community being established from our shared experience. Maybe the fear prevented feelings of solidarity from taking hold. Most conversations I had that morning on the highway flirted with hostility and the promise of violence, like having a casual conversation with someone who had a bit too much to drink and is looking for a fight. Sometimes you see people coming together under such circumstances. Masses of stuck cars littering a highway, while passengers mill about talking, sitting on roofs, sharing stories, commiserating about their fate. But on the road that day, shock displaced any sense of shared responsibility; anger and fear undermined our need to love and care for one another. We were together alone, ruminating over our private thoughts of loved ones who might have perished in the collapse of the Towers. Pacifists considered violence. Patriots turned nationalistic. Paraphrasing James Baldwin, people who were white turned into white people. As we stared hopelessly into the darkening cobalt sky, many of us turned inwards, looking for a space of solace amidst the cacophony of death.

I tried unsuccessfully to get back to my apartment in Hoboken. All exits were blocked and no amount of creative maneuvering mattered. I finally gave up and drove to my mother’s home in Willow Grove, a small town in Montgomery County, PA, about fifteen miles north of Philadelphia. My mother greeted me like I had been in the Towers and miraculously survived. It was close to 11pm. We stayed up late eating ice cream, watching the endless parade of terroristic images that accompanied every news station. Words were unable to fully capture what had happened that morning and continued to unfold in lower Manhattan. Calls were made and taken throughout the night in an effort to account for friends and loved-ones in the city. Stories of survival punctuated the crystallizing story of terror and death that would define the nation for the next twenty years.

Twenty-years after the attack, the process of remembrance, memorialization, and national mourning also signals a counter-discourse of erasure, forgetting, and revision. Toni Morrison, writing about the role of memory and the experiences of slavery in her novel Beloved, addresses the challenge of negotiating the tensions and contradictions between “History versus memory, and memory versus memorylessness…the pitched battle between remembering and forgetting.” The farther we get from the attacks the more intense and difficult this battle becomes. In the context of our memories of 9/11/01, we must be aware of how “memory is insistent yet [can] become the mutation of fact into fiction then folklore and then into nothing.” In honor of those who perished in the attacks, those that continue to die and suffer from cancer and other associated diseases from their exposure to the toxic air at Ground Zero, and the tens of thousands who have died as a consequence of our endless and often misguided pursuit of “justice” and revenge, we must avoid turning our memories of pain and terror into a folklorist discourse that forgets as much as it remembers and erases as much as it resurrects.