Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight Years On: 9/11 in Two Parts

Where were you on September 11th, 2001?

It's one of those questions you've no doubt heard several times in your life -- regardless of who you are or where you live. It's because the attacks of 9/11 stand as the defining moment of this American generation. I remember where I was all too well, and I remember the days and months that followed because it changed me incalculably, as it did so many people. The events of 9/11 became the focal point of the book I wrote, Dead Star Twilight, and in a way that even now seems utterly surreal and ironic, saved me from absolute self-destruction.

Three years ago, I wrote two pieces to mark the anniversary of the single most epochal event in modern American history. Looking back on them now, it's shocking to see how much has changed even since then -- in our country and in my own life. But as is tradition on this day, I'm reposting those pieces -- back to back.

Part I: The Best of Times. The Worst of Times.

I miss the days and months immediately following September 11th, 2001.

Although it may seem incomprehensible to make such a statement, it's a fact that I have no choice but to own up to. In spite of my belief in man's unparalleled ability to consistently make bad situations worse, I honestly never thought that I'd look back on the initial aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in history and quietly pine for that time. Years later however -- as we mark the anniversary of 9/11 -- I realize with more certainty than ever before that the violence which claimed so many lives on that day, unwittingly and for a short time, created a city, country and world of which I could say that I was proud to be a part.

I admit that I had an often overwhelming front-row seat for the constant display of pain and perseverance by being in New York City following the attack. Covering the story from the area which would in short order become universally known as "Ground Zero," and from the Armory at 25th and Lexington -- the area where families of the victims were sent in an often futile and heartbreaking search for answers about their lost loved ones -- gave me a perspective not everyone else may have had. Still, I'm certain that you didn't need to wade knee-deep in the indescribable human suffering to see that an equally indescribable human spirit was also asserting itself -- and proving to be far more powerful than many believed possible.

In those first months after the attack, a wounded America found its heart and its soul.

We put aside the trivial concerns that divided us -- the inane distractions that casually connected us. We were shown in an excruciating way the true meaning and value of words which up until that point had only been used as disposable ad-campaign hyperbole: heroism, compassion, sacrifice, family, strength, unity -- even love. We saw constant displays of these because after all that we witnessed on that day -- after the hideous destruction caused by a few, and the selfless response of so many -- after the bar for human emotion was raised so high, it was almost as if it was our responsibilty to act in kind. To follow the example set by those who were no longer with us.

We were stripped down to our raw nerve, and in spite of the chaos and terror that caused it, what we found there was beautiful.

The world seemed to follow suit. On September 12th, 2001 -- the morning after the attack -- the headline of France's Le Monde newspaper read "We Are All Americans Now." The crew of a German ship manned the rails when it came alongside an American destroyer -- a show of respect and solidarity. Billions across the planet felt our anguish, believed in the dream that was America, and stood with us.

When we struck back with a mighty fury at those who killed our innocents, our indignation was indeed righteous. Our cause truly was just. We stood together as a country -- political affiliations and personal concerns be damned -- and understood with one mind that this was the way it had to be. We shouted with one voice, "You have unleashed this."

We felt lost, but were comforted in holding on to each other. We were both terrified and fearless. We were powerful in our vulnerability.

It's true that all things are relative, and if the current condition of our country and our world is the yardstick by which we measure the past, then maybe my effusion is somewhat prejudiced. Maybe the past has an unfair advantage. Maybe any past would.

I'm not sure that's the case though.

Years ago on this day, the world changed -- not forever, as was first forecast, but for a short time.

It's that short time that continues to give me faith in us.

It was during that time, when things were at their worst -- that we were at our best.

Part II: The Revelation Will Be Televised

At 8:46:40am, 87 people are killed instantly.

They are the passengers and crew of American Airlines Flight 11, which departed out of Boston's Logan International Airport a little more than an hour ago -- at 7:59am to be exact -- only to be hijacked and turned into a flying bomb.

An unknown number of people in the North Tower of the World Trade Center likely die as well, at that same moment -- 8:46:40 -- as they would be unlucky enough to find themselves at the point of impact of this flying bomb.

At 8:46:40am, almost no one outside of the affected area has any idea that the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history has just come to fruition in New York City, and that it's only the beginning.

At that same moment, in a small two-bedroom condo fifteen-hundred miles away, I'm sitting up in bed, thinking about -- well, nothing really.

I stare quietly at the TV set in the corner of my parents' guest bedroom -- maybe not at it so much as through it -- while the Today show drones on and on. This is in no way an endorsement of that program, as anything on the television would provide the same focal-point of worthless distraction, and in fact has for most of the early morning and previous night. MTV2 has supplied me with enough colors and sounds to hold my attention and replace the sleep I've desperately desired, but which has refused to come.

I watched videos throughout the night, while taking in none of them. I listened to the occasional passing car or two outside my window slowly multiply until becoming the steady din of morning traffic. I saw the curtain over that same tiny window begin to glow as the sun came up.

I did anything but sleep.

Heroin addicts fresh out of rehab don't sleep. They can't sleep.

Where I am at 8:46:40am on the morning of September 11th, 2001, is the culmination of a ten-month-long spiral into oblivion. It began in Los Angeles, where I lived with my wife in an impressive two-story apartment on the edge of Beverly Hills. I worked as a television executive. I made six figures. I drove a fast car. I had a life few could complain about -- which made it all the more sadly ironic that in truth, I was frightened, insecure and more than likely clinically depressed. At some point, I began to feel my wife pulling away from me. I began to feel my life ripping apart, even though no one could see the straining in the fabric or the tearing at the seams.

I felt like I was being abanoned by her -- like I was being left behind. I felt completely alone.

So I found something to help me feel warm, comfortable and safe from harm.

What began as an occasional means of self-medication quickly turned into a constant hallucinatory nightmare of homemade pipes, scorched tin-foil, lies, cover-ups, broken promises and the terrified realization that I couldn't wake up, no matter how hard I tried. It drained me of every penny I had. It crushed my already tenuous relationship with my wife. It ate my soul alive.

Finally, at the beginning of August, 2001 -- realizing that I had almost nowhere left to turn, and no one left to turn to -- I asked my wife to drive me to the airport, allowed one last painful kiss between us, and got on a plane and came home to Miami. When I arrived, my heartbroken parents picked up their damaged and dying son and drove him to a public rehab facility.

I spent four days in gut-wrenching detox, having my insides liquify and try to escape my body through any and every possible route -- like rats abandoning a sinking ship.

I spent the next month trying to recover from what I'd spent the past nine months doing to my body, mind and soul.

During that time, my wife moved out of our apartment -- leaving me without so much as a glance over her shoulder. During that time I gave up my job -- accepting a small buy-out if I'd agree to let them fill my position.

The day after I left rehab, my father and I flew back to a haunted Los Angeles. We packed up what little was left of my life, put it into storage and drove my car back to Miami -- back to my parents' small two-bedroom condo.

We arrived five days ago.

I haven't moved since.

Five days ago marked the first day of the rest of my life -- the rest of my life doing absolutely nothing.

I don't eat. I don't sleep. I don't speak. I exist only within the tiny confines of this guest bedroom. I watch TV. I walk a few steps to the bathroom. I don't even think about what to do next. I don't even know where to begin. It's as if I'm nothing but empty space.

I'm not even aware of what Matt Lauer is talking about at 8:46:40am, because I'm not paying the least bit of attention. It's four minutes later though, at 8:50am, that something breaks my reverie. I blink -- my brain finally seeming to activate as if cued by some outside force. Lauer says something about a very big story; he says something about an accident at the World Trade Center. The Today show goes to commercial. In a daze I pick up the remote and switch over one channel to ABC. That's when I see for the first time what happened at 8:46:40am, fifteen-hundred miles away.

I slowly get out of bed and stand -- my jaw going slack. I'm moving before I know it -- throwing open the bedroom door and storming out into the living room. There my mother is staring at the TV; her face is a mask of awe and horror. We begin talking about what's happened; my voice is dry and scratchy from not having been used in days. There's confusion and fascination -- a sense of amazement at what's surely a tragic accident. This thought is still firmly entrenched in my brain when a jet -- United Flight 175 out of Boston -- screams into the live picture for only the briefest moment before disappearing into the second tower. For a split-second there's nothing -- then a massive fireball erupts which splits the building in half in a blossom of orange and black, and a shower of debris.

My brain can't process the image fast enough, and my first thought is, "How could that kind of mistake happen twice?"

After only one more breath -- one more second to allow it all to sink in -- do I realize what's happened.

The next few hours are spent as one with millions across the nation and around the world. I watch in absolute horror as my country is attacked, as people are killed, and as indescribable chaos reigns. I pace maniacally back and forth in front of the TV. I feel like a caged animal. I want to do something. I feel utterly helpless and I want to do something. I want to work. I want to help. I want to get the hell out of here. I want to live. People are dying, and I'm wasting away here. I want to live. I want to make a difference somehow. My life isn't over.

And that's when it hits me.

I have no job. I have no wife. I have nothing.

I have nothing holding me back.

If I stay here, I'll be worse than dead. I'll watch the world fall apart on television. I'll watch the destruction and the sadness -- the heroism and heartbreak -- and I'll feel sorry for myself for my pathetic little losses while so many others try to fight their way back from losses greater than I can ever imagine. I'll sit quietly and helplessly by while an entire country mourns.

It's at that moment that I walk to the phone and place one call -- to a friend of mine who's now an executive producer for NBC in New York. I let him know that I'm going to be in New York and that I'll be available to work if he needs extra help, which I'm almost certain he will. Then I run back to the guest room and begin packing a suitcase.

I'll work if they'll let me. I'll hand out water and food if not. I'll do something. I have no idea where I'm going to stay or how I'll pay for anything, but I have to go. I have to see this for myself.

The next morning I leave before dawn, driving across the new America -- a land eerily quiet, where the shock of what's happened seems to show on the face of each person I meet. I drive through sun and rain, into the night -- occasionally scanning the empty skies with the realization that at no point in my life have I lived in a country where all public air travel was prohibited.

Years ago, I read a book from Clive Barker called The Great and Secret Show. In it, the forces of good and evil battle for supremacy as they always seem to do in fantasy novels. However, one moment in the story now comes back to me and seems to have an astonishing relevance. When the character of Jaffe finally masters the ability to control time and space -- what Barker calls "The Art" -- he grabs reality and literally tears a hole in it. At the moment this happens, Barker explains that all around the world people stop; they get out of their cars or they wake up or they generally freeze in their tracks. They do this because, no matter where they are, they know that something has changed. They know that something is wrong, even if they can't explain what it is.

This is what it feels like in the days following September 11th, 2001: Something is wrong. Everything is wrong.

A hole has been torn in the fabric of reality.

That hole -- the largest of three anyway -- is in New York City.

At some point, as I speed up the highway to this destination, my cell phone rings. I answer it and am told by the woman on the other end of the line that she's from NBC, and that my friend needs me to report to work as quickly as possible.

She explains where I need to go. She sets me up with a hotel room. She wishes me luck and says goodbye.

I pull over and close my eyes -- taking deep breaths.

I made a leap of faith, and found a place to land.

There isn't a writer or a poet alive who could properly describe or explain the next few months. I lived out of a hotel. I worked inhuman hours at the center of the most agonizing single event in American history. I held a woman in my arms as she realized her husband was dead -- and I cried with her because although my own marriage was over and I missed my wife terribly, I couldn't even begin to imagine her suffering -- and through that I was helped to heal. I was reborn as a person I didn't even recognize -- a stranger in a strange land, in a larger world which seemed alien to everyone. I shook my head at the utterly surreal and tragic series of events that led me to be at the one place I never expected or intended to be -- but through unbelievable circumstances became the one place I was supposed to be. I found strength in those who were stronger than I could ever have hoped to be. In the shadow of death, I learned to live again.

And in time I fell in love again -- with a girl named Jayne.

I met her through a friend of mine. He was supposed to be working at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, but called in sick at the last minute.

But that's his story.


Tabitha said...

I've read this story on 9/11 for three years now. It strikes a chord in me every time. Thanks for leaping Chez.

Jeremy said...

On that morning I was on my way to cover a Scioto County Commissioners meeting at the courthouse in Portsmouth, Ohio for my employer at the time, the Scioto Voice newspaper. My radio wasn't working in my car at the time, but when I stopped at the Speedway in South Shore, KY to get gas, I could hear on the radio in the car next to me that the WTC had been "bombed".
By the time I got to the courthouse the story had been clarified to "planes crashed into", although reports were still coming in that the Pentagon had been bombed.
The actual commissioner's meeting being the furthest thing from everyone's mind, we gathered in the basement of the courthouse, huddling in the tiny commissioner's offices (instead of the airy, well-lit, first-floor conference room where meetings took place) and stared into a small, staticy television screen while Commissioner Reiser began trying the phones to see if he could reach his daughter, who had flown into New Jersey that morning.
That morning, we weren't just adversarial Democrats and Republicans, officials and reporters; we were all Americans and were all worried for our families, the families of our friends and colleagues, and for folks we would never know personally. This would, naturally, dissolve later as Commissioners, Democrat and Republican, would take opposite stances on the Iraq war, on whether to enact racists lip-service public proclamations of "Patriotism" borne out of fear of Muslim "others", and the vitriol of partisanship and prejudice reared their ugly heads. But there, for just a moment, Democratic commissioners, Republican commissioner, and Independent (and granted, at times, annoying) journalists forgot their separate roles, their labels, their prejudice, and came together as humans to provide each other some measure of comfort and reassurance.
Months later Commissioner Spears would yell at me to "take off my rose colored glasses" when I politely questioned the reason for and effectiveness of public proclamations in support of the Iraq War. Later I would be spit upon, literally, by "good business people" for being "un-American" and daring to give the small group of war protesters (which, granted, included a number of my friends and acquaintances) equal voice in my coverage of their protests. But there, for just a second, in the ugliest of situations, something beautiful about the human spirit flared up for just a second, before allowing itself to be snuffed out by the breathe of ignorance, hate, and prejudice.
That's what I remember about that morning.

tracy said...

i'm normally not one to comment, but this takes my breath away. thank you!

Anonymous said...

As always, you leave me stunned.


Make Me My Sandwich, Bitch! said...

It's been a couple of times I have read this... every time is as powerful as the first.

Liz said...

Chez, like you, I watched the events of 9/11/01 unfold on live television, with nearly the same reaction. I was at work when an employee mentioned the first crash. I turned on the TV near my desk and stood there with the other supervisors in my group for our little "morning huddle." You can only imagine how that huddle changed when the second plane hit, and then later when the buildings collapsed.

See, I work in the financial services industry, and at that time my job was accounting for mutual funds. What was most frustrating was that the flurry of activity that ensued in my department over the following two weeks seemed so meaningless compared to the activities going on just a few hours north. Even if it was important to our investors to know that their money was safe, it still felt unimportant in the greater scheme of things.

My children are 6 and 3, and I am not ready to explain to them how this day makes me feel and why I look so sad today. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and posts, and letting me share my feelings as well.

Milton said...

Chez, it's a nice piece and i usualy agree with most of what you say, but one thing in the first part doesn't fit: "When we struck back with a mighty fury at those who killed our innocents, our indignation was indeed righteous. Our cause truly was just." you mean Afghanistan? your indignation might have been righteous and your cause just... but what did the Afghani people ever do to the US? sure they hated you, but so did the rest the middle east (with the exception of Israel). and they didn't hate you because of your "freedom" - as Bush loved to say again and again. they hated you - and still do - because Americans are arrogant, stupid and throw bombs at people! (and i'm generalizing the arrogant and stupid part.) middle eastern peoples, mostly of late, but America has been at almost constant war for the last 100 years with one nation or other (be they south or central american, european, oriental, you name it - hell America waged war on Hawaii!). so yes, as usual America struck down it's mighty fist and as in most cases missed. 8 years on and America is still in Afghanistan, fighting a useless war and Bin Laden was never captured. but as you rightly state in your story, a lot has changed since then. but with Obama as president things should have changed more by now, don't you think?

mike m said...

good job, your parents had to be freaked out, but you didnt let em down. I hope i can do that for my kids.