"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

9.11.2006

then I feel you coming, but I don't know how, september

The Philosopher called the other night. We hadn't talked in ages, more than a year at least. He went to Korea and finished his master's and I've been to the Congo and he's moved back east and so it was a long conversation.

The Philosopher is one of my friends from college. We're friends not because we moved in the same circles for most of our college years, but because we had Ann Miller's class together one year and then ended up with adjacent study carrels a year later while working on our respective theses. Then I moved to Connecticut and a year later he moved to New Jersey and so we were relatively close by, for two Southerners trying to survive the cold winters.

We talked about all that's happened, and how things look on the other side of the world, how much we love teaching our own classes for the first time, how much longer we'll each be in graduate school, about the inappropriately young date one of our old professors brought to the funeral, and how neither of us ever thought we'd miss living on the east coast.

And somehow through all those memories, today came up. Today being 9/11, of course. It has been five years. Sometimes it seems like just a few months ago.

My 9/11/01 started really early. It was the day of the Democratic primaries in Connecticut, which is essentially the election for most offices, including mayor of New Haven, which was the contentious race that day. Someone had dared to challenge the Democratic party machine in the city, and the factions were fighting and tense. Someone decided this would be a good opportunity for graduate students who were likely to one day be observers in much more contentious elections overseas, so there we were, out at a precinct on the east side before 7am. And there are funny stories about what happened that morning, but it's inappropriate to tell them, and besides, the thing I remember, and the thing everyone seems to remember, is that it was an absolutely gorgeous day. The sky was so blue, the chill of fall was coming in, and the leaves would be changing soon. It was gorgeous, but I had to leave to TA the 9:30 African politics class.

We came out of that class and the world had changed. A tv was in the lounge outside the classroom, and most of my colleagues were standing there, staring in disbelief. Someone had told me that a plane had hit the trade center; I assumed it was a Cessna until my friend Jean-Paul said, "Do you know what the World Trade Center is?" (That sounds really arrogant, but it wasn't. Jean-Paul's a New Yorker who may have thought that I was the epitome of Southern ignorance about the ways of the world. He's a good guy and was concerned that I'd understand.), and I said, "Yes," and he said, "Half of it is gone."

And then we watched the other tower fall.

Words cannot describe the feeling, the mood on the Yale campus at that moment. People were in hysterics. I think people all over America, all over the world, were totally shocked by what happened, but where we were, people didn't just recognize the World Trade Center as an icon or a tourist destination - it was where their parents, siblings, and friends worked. When we heard about the Pentagon later that day or later that week, I don't really remember, my advisor made a comment about my thesis. "You should interview so-and-so," he said, then added, "If she's still alive."

People were screaming and crying and fainting and living exactly as you would if you were among those who had no hope. I did what I could to help; Malie and I took our friend A downstairs, away from the television, to try to calm her down and get some information, which we did, from a New Zealand website. That was Malie's idea: "It's the middle of the night there. Their site won't be overloaded." And then I had to leave. It was just too awful. I told my Swahili teacher I couldn't stay, he had no choice but to agree, and I left for home, ran into Adrian, a friend from Baylor, on the way, picked him up and told him what was going on while I drove him to the lab, got home, and started trying to call my family to tell them I was safe, to tell them I hadn't gone into the city for the day, to tell them that if another plane went down in Boston or anywhere else near my apartment, that I was driving home.

I couldn't call. I dialed and dialed and dialed and dialed for two and a half hours and I couldn't get through. All of our phone lines went through New York. A lot of them went to the top of the World Trade Center. Finally, finally AT&T started routing calls through Canada and I got through to my sister's answering machine and a little bit later I talked to my mom, finally. Finally.

And then I had to go to class.

It is one of the great coincidences of my life that in the one semester in which the United States experienced one of its greatest security crises in forty years, I happened to be enrolled in the courses of two of the most influential scholars of grand strategy in America. At 2 that afternoon, I sat down in a small seminar room on Hillhouse Avenue with fourteen colleagues and friends for John Lewis Gaddis's graduate Cold War seminar. "This is no time to have class," he said, and sent us on our way, so three friends and I decided we'd better go give blood. They'd been lining up stretchers outside Yale-New Haven Hospital all morning and the news said that casualties would be brought this far up the shoreline, so we figured they'd really need as much blood as they could get. We finally found a Red Cross drive in Branford and waited in line for three hours and chatted with people in line about what we'd learned about international relations and war and terrorism and survival rates of major disasters. None of it made us hopeful.

By the time we headed home, it was rush hour. Or it should've been rush hour. One of my most important rules in New Haven was never, ever, ever get on I-95 between 3-7pm. The traffic on 95 would often back up all the way to the Bronx, and it was always bad. Every day, and also on summer and winter weekends when people would head to their houses on the Cape or to the ski slopes in Vermont.

On 9/11, I-95 was empty. The electronic traffic signs that would normally be alerting us about an accident in Stanford or a lane closure in Greenwich all flashed the same message, over and over again: "NYC: All bridges and tunnels closed. Avoid area."

I don't know why, and after five years, I still haven't figured out why that was the thing that made it real for me. Something as ordinary, as mundane, as downright annoying as traffic? Of all the horrible things I had seen and heard that day, from emails from my church listing who was missing (Everyone, thank goodness, eventually turned up, including one of our members who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, a firm that lost almost all of its employees when the collapse happened. The town was not so lucky. 46 of its citizens lost their lives that day.) to friends collapsing in hysterics because they had no idea whether their parents were alive, why was it the total lack of traffic that got me?

I think it was precisely because of its ordinariness. No matter what happens in the world, or in your private life, some things are always there. To see that there wasn't any traffic was tangible evidence that nothing about that day was normal. It was awful.

And then we had to go to class again. That evening, we had class with a very eminent scholar of diplomatic history. He liked to hold his graduate seminar at his home, because that way he had easy access to his private, third-floor library of international history. But on 9/11, we didn't go to the library. He seated us in his living room, passed around a bottle of scotch, and told us that he'd been predicting this would happen for ten years. Apparently, the world media believed it, because he never really got class going due to all the phone calls from news outlets in Hong Kong and Edinburgh and who knows where else. We watched our Congressmen and Senators sing "God Bless America" from the steps of the capitol and went home.

Except I didn't go home. My best friends Allison and Lindsey wanted to be together that night, and goodness knows I didn't want to go sit in an empty apartment. We just sat there in stunned surprise and grief and gratefulness that none of us had gone into the city for the day. The next morning, our local news got really grim. See, we had 2 of every network channel: one from Hartford and one from Manhattan. Every station was playing nothing but news by then, but the New York stations switched off the national programming. Instead, they ran picture after picture of missing people, along with the home phone numbers of their families. Here is someone's sister, someone's fiance, someone's son. It also meant that New Yorkers, privacy-obsessed New Yorkers, were giving out their personal contact information on television. It was heartbreaking, and terrifying, and all too real.

And nothing was the same. It was surreal. Being at Yale that year was a fascinating experience. The university celebrated its Tercentennial a few weeks later, and Bill Clinton came to campus. A group of Sierra Leonian law students came to learn about running legal clinics as soon as flights resumed, so one of them was sleeping on my sofa and reminding me that other places have experienced tragedies far worse than ours. I wrote an op-ed piece for the Yale Daily News, the first essay I ever wrote for publication (for some reason, it's no longer available online. This is probably a good thing.). A week later, Professor Gaddis brought former Senator Gary Hart to class. Hart co-chaired the Hart-Rudman commission that had predicted the possibility of a major terrorist attack on American soil. That year, I would hear Salman Rushdie and John Negroponte and Donald Kagan and Stanley Fish and many other experts and writers speak on what had happened, what it meant, and where we'd go from here. (Scott and I and the director of the speaker series and somebody else I can't remember had Thai for dinner with Fish after his talk. He talked about literary theory and terrorism in the speech and John Wayne westerns at dinner. The whole year was surreal.) In November, Charlie Hill passed out an article about the Bush Administration filling up the Strategic Petroleum Reserves in the class I TA-ed for, and said, "This means they'll go to war in Iraq."

Nothing these brilliant people had to say was more important than the stories of those who died, though. The New York Times ran short pieces about every single person's life. The stories ran for weeks and weeks. They were about normal people, who lived and worked and loved and died. These obituaries-as-stories are better memorials than anything they'll build out of stone or glass.

A month after the attacks, the Philosopher took the train from Princeton and I took the train from New Haven, and we met at Grand Central Station. Here is something else that was surreal: Grand Central was almost empty. I'd never seen that before and don't expect I ever will again. But posted in the tunnels and halls were picture after picture after picture of people who were missing, who were obviously dead after that long, who would never see their families again. The silence and the pictures.

I was glad to see someone who'd known me before all this madness. There's something about old friends that makes all the difference, especially when you can't be near your family when something terrible happens. We decided to get it over with and go downtown first. On the way, we talked about his first month of seminary and my conversation with Ambassador Hill about maybe getting a PhD instead of being a Foreign Service officer and what was happening with our college friends. And suddenly we were there.

The thing about lower Manhattan in those first few weeks after is that it was nothing like what you saw on television. There was no memorial in October 2001. You couldn't get within ten blocks of the site, couldn't look at the pit, or lay flowers, or do any of the other things you can now do. You could go stand outside Trinity Church, but you couldn't go inside unless you were involved in the clean-up. You could stand and stare at all the pictures slipped in the fence and at banners from community groups all over America.

And you could look at the dust. The dust from the towers was everywhere - on the sidewalks, on the walls, on the street. You stepped in it and around it and probably breathed it in and tried your best to not think about what it was. Dust. It was so quiet.

Silence. Pictures. Dust. We didn't want to get back on the subway there, so we just walked. I don't remember where we went - we had dinner in Little Italy and caught trains back to our idyllic campuses and I haven't been back to lower Manhattan since. And I don't really care about seeing a memorial or going back to remember again, not at this point. A sunny day one October was enough.

A month after that, I was in Washington, doing interviews for my thesis and staying at Skip's parents' house in Arlington. We were hanging out one morning, the phone rang, and Skip, who'd answered, said, "Oh, my God, not again," hung up, and turned on CNN. A plane had crashed on takeoff at LaGuardia. It turned out to be mechanical problem. Skip had watched the Pentagon on 9/11 from an overlook down the street from his parents' house, and, since he worked for a Big Fancy News Organization, had seen more than enough footage of 9/11.

Washington was so strange that fall. Adrian and I had been there the weekend before 9/11 and the city was hot and fun and pretty much its usual self. After, though, security was high, and unpredictable. I'd had dinner that November weekend with Steve the Lawyer and The Diplomat, who pointed out the random searches of all delivery trucks on Connecticut Avenue, and we saw Richard Armitage at our favorite Virginia bbq joint, which now that I think about it was really strange given that it was ... after. Why would our government officials be eating dinner out like normal people? It was such a normal Washington thing, even after what happened.

After Skip and I figured out that our country was not under attack again, I left to go back to New Haven and drove by the Pentagon exactly at the moment that the local radio station played a song Alan Jackson had sung on some awards show a night or two before: "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?" It was yet another surreal moment in a surreal time.

A few days after that, I would tell my Sunday School class of kindergarten and first-graders that I was flying home for Thanksgiving. "You can't," said Kelsey. "Why not?" I asked. "It's not safe to get on a plane," she said with wide, brown, six-year-old eyes. Her daddy, it turned out, had been flying the day of the LaGuardia crash, and his flight had been delayed, and her mommy had to explain that sometimes planes crash, not because people are cruel, but because bad things sometimes just happen. Our pastor had preached a series of sermons that said all that could be said, but words couldn't calm a little girl's fears.

When I moved to Austin, I didn't really think about 9/11, or about how different the experience of that day was for people here as it was for those of us living on the east coast. On the one-year anniversary, I didn't have a church yet, so there was nowhere to go to mourn. I sat in my living room and cried for a little while that morning, then went to work. I was shocked to walk across the UT campus and see that no one seemed to really notice what day it was.

I have a really hard time listening to people talk about 9/11, especially people who weren't there. I can't watch movies about it - the Philosopher said he can't believe Oliver Stone even made a movie - and I can't stand to hear people talk about it. I don't like that politicians use the attacks to justify all kinds of policies. Hearing someone say, "Let's roll" makes me feel sick.

It's strange that I have these feelings. I wasn't in the city that day, but I lived very close by and people I cared about were missing and we could see the smoke. My experience was not direct - I did not have to walk home to Virginia like the Intrepid Lobbyist. I did not have to wonder if my husband was alive like a friend from camp did.

But that's how it is. The Sunday after the attacks, my pastor gave a sermon on five big questions. One of them was, "Where was God?" "Suffering with us," said Bob. Another was, "How will we ever get over this?" His answer was, we won't.

We won't. That's maybe, paradoxically, the most comforting thing anyone has said. Wars will be fought, memorials will be built, elections will be held, our civil liberties will be limited, and life will go on. It's gone on for five years. Millions more people have died all over the world, at the hands of terrorists, natural disasters, war, disease, povety, and old age. But this day changed me, changed all of us, profoundly. You don't just get over something like that.

2 Comments:

Blogger Mac McFatter said...

Lady L,
These may be the best words I have read expressing thoughts and feelings about 9/11/2001. Your last paragraph is quotable.
Mac McFatter

Monday, September 11, 2006 9:11:00 AM

 
Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks for your kind words, Mac.

Monday, September 11, 2006 11:39:00 AM

 

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