When The Towers Fell

How do I remember 9/11?

I was a freshman in high school. Sitting in history class. The teacher had left the room while we chatted amongst ourselves, taking advantage of her absence. When she returned, she mentioned that something had happened, maybe a bombing in the city, and that we were to sit tight. This was before the advent of smartphones; I didn’t even have my first Motorola flip handset yet. Laptops were barely a thing, and Facebook hadn’t been conceived so no one was rushing to check social media for news. Word of mouth was our link to the world.

More time passed and she returned and informed us that we were all being dismissed, released on our own pending parental permission. I found it a bit strange that our mommies had to call in to say it was okay for us to leave, after all, we were high schoolers now! But my mom was on the ball and had done so. Her job was only about 10 blocks away, so I made my way there to meet her with a group of downtown-bound students. All public transportation had been suspended, and the streets were teeming with pedestrians, even more so than normal New York standards, as if we were walking a marathon.

I met up with my mom at her job and we continued from 14th Street, down to Grand Street. I couldn’t see the smoke from where we walked. But at that point I’m not even sure I knew planes had crashed into the towers. The word currently going around was that the World Trade Center had been bombed. Again. I didn’t remember the first one, but that one hadn’t been SO crazy, right? The mood was cautious, yet spirited. With trains and buses halted, and an unknown looming threat to the city, New Yorkers stepped up in solidarity. As we walked through the streets I love, store owners offered bottled water to those journeying home. Apartment building doormen held their doors open, inviting folks to use their restroom facilities. Strangers exchanged friendly words of encouragement. I saw a long queue of bodies crossing each bridge in the distance. I felt for them, since I only had to walk to the bottom of Manhattan.

When we finally made it back home, we beelined for the television and the clarity it would bring. We didn’t even have to specifically turn to a news station. Every channel was broadcasting live and looping raw footage of the morning’s events. Two planes had flown into the Twin Towers, and our beloved buildings had crumbled.

We had just been there the weekend before. Stage Door Delicatessen had been across the street, with their confection-like pancakes. We’d discovered there was a little shopping center in one of the towers. In New York, you are always making new discoveries; you never truly know all the nooks and crannies of the entire city. I couldn’t believe those two towers, the icons of Manhattan that appeared in countless movies and that I’d always used as a directional compass, like the North Star, looking up in their direction to navigate, were gone.

Everything broadcasted was uncensored. The frustration, rife with profanity, the terror, the shock, the desperation, it was all there, unscripted. We watched as those trapped in the tower and resigned to their fate, soared from the windows to a guaranteed demise that was the lesser of two evils in their heads. The sticky web of stifling human emotion wrapped heavily around us, connecting the souls of all who watched. That day, we were all the same. We all felt the same things.

Back then, I was a chat room nerd, who went online every night at the same time to hang out with my Internet friends. That night, the mood was equal parts solemn and anger. There were no jokes and no discussing the latest episode of Gundam Wing.

“If they take the Empire State Building next, I swear to God…” someone typed.

It felt good to make empty threats against unknown (at the time) assailants as powerless teenagers. It felt good to simply expel the emotion we were feeling. Anyone who tried any troll-worthy comments that downplayed the massacre were punted out to the harshest degree. Methodus Toolz could do that.

The next day was a little less raw, but likely only for those like me who were less affected and less in the line of fire. I hadn’t lost a loved one or listened to a voicemail they left about how much they loved me and how they wouldn’t make it home tonight. I hadn’t thrown on my gear and dodged a barrage of concrete on foot to save anyone like the first responders did. My apartment building was far enough away from the debris and soot to affect me no more than some eye sensitivity for a few days after. But I still felt a deep bond with the people of my city, who had so often garnered a reputation for being rude, nasty and uncaring, who were embracing each other and offering helping hands or shoulders to cry on in the true spirit of support. For awhile after, we didn’t just pass each other in the streets. We checked on each other, gave smiles of encouragement and eye contacts of acknowledgement. We gave each other strength.

For months, even years after, I had the wildest dreams. Dreams of warmongers coming to assault our country on ships with motion-tracking explosive cannonballs. Dreams of terrorists hiding in plain view in bodegas launching rocket-launchers at my window. Dreams of an unknown threat eating away at our moon, threatening to plunge our world into eternal darkness because we didn’t have the resources to stop the source or save it. They prompted me to begin a dream journal to explore my subconscious. I hadn’t expected such an aftermath of rippling currents, expanding out to reach me with its tickling tremors.

When they first showed preview pictures of how they were going to turn the sites of the Twin Towers into deep waterfall reflection pools, I thought, “No way!” For some reason I didn’t think it was possible. But they did. They came through and I’ve visited the memorial multiple times and they are beautiful. When I go, I slowly meander through the site and never lose sight of the reason these pools are here in the first place. I touch a few names, gaze over the railings, and reflect. It’s important that I pay mental tribute when I visit, because I remember the collective trauma. Whatever the surrounding reasons behind it, so much human life was needlessly extinguished. I hope that fact remains respected, even over the passage of time.

My city is strong.

~Tael

That New York Bubble

At the time of this post, I can still say that I’ve never had an overtly racist encounter. Strange, isn’t it? I’m a 30-year-old African American woman with about 12 years worth of dreadlocks. I have never once been called a “nigger” to my face or over the internet. I have never had a backhanded compliment such as “Oh she’s blahblahblah, for a Black girl.” I’ve never had trouble landing a job either because of my race. The only questionable situation I had with a recruiter was when she tried to low-key tell me that the positions she recruited for would likely have a problem with my hair (And well, the hair stays). And as far as I know, I’ve never been passed over for anything because of the color of my skin.

I grew up in New York City, which I consider to be the greatest city in America. I may not have an overwhelming “patriotic” pride, but I sure am loyal as hell to New York. And growing up here, there’s a whole different lifestyle and an entirely unique state of mind. There is no physical divide between rich and poor and race here. Sure, certain neighborhoods are more LIKELY to have a certain demographic (South Williamsburg, Sheepshead Bay, Brownsville) but gentrification runs rampant through the city, low-income/lottery housing exists in the most luxurious buildings (my friend was lucky enough to bag one) and you’ll find everyone in Times Square from the businessmen to the tourists to the teenagers to the hood squad.

There is a certain kind of acceptance that comes with being a New York native. If you went to school here, you were exposed to a mixing bowl of race and culture at a very early age. I grew up brushing elbows with project kids, families who had enough money to treat a group of kids to dinner and the movies for their child’s birthday (an impressive feat in the 90s), immigrant children who spoke little English, young girls wearing hijabs and a boy brought up as Jehovah’s Witness who wasn’t allowed to participate in any of the holiday activities. We had class luncheons where everyone would bring in family dishes, Dance Festivals where we’d learn choreography from different origins, and Spanish class was a requirement for 5 years of my public school life.

The fact that a Confederate flag was recently found displayed in the window of an LES apartment was definitely a surprise, considering I grew up in LES. Because in the New York Bubble, racism is something that happens somewhere else. Growing up here did not instill the fear of cops in me and getting pulled over was never a stressful or scary event. In the New York Bubble, a racist establishment will get slammed and shamed on social media or Yelp; a racist incident in the street will be recorded on a camera phone and make the Gothamist for the city to snub; a Good Samaritan will call someone out publicly for displaying prejudice. Growing up in NYC, I was not taught to see race, traipsing through Chinatown, the only Black person in a swarm of Chinese friends, their parents thrilled with my knowledge of Mah-Jongg without the English characters on the pieces. In the New York Bubble, racism is a shocking and disgusting thing we’ve mostly evolved past, while small towns in Middle America remain ignorant without progress. In my mom’s building, our conservative Jewish neighbor, a mother of 2, has offered my two cousins to come wait inside her house when we weren’t home, and they can look like hoodlums sometimes.

I just had a conversation with my boyfriend the other night about how different my high school experience was from the ones you see portrayed in teen movies. No one was ever singled out for being poor, for being overweight, or for struggling in English class. Those with bad grades or bigger pants sizes or suspicious odors weren’t really treated differently than anyone else. What kind of alternate universe did we exist in? Were we just on a different level of maturity?

Even when I leave New York, I find that the Bubble still follows me. As much as I’ve traveled to visit my family in South Carolina, no one has ever tossed a racial comment my way down the dirt roads, surrounded by deep forests and trailer parks. When I moved to Boston for 2 years, I was met with friendliness abounds, as if the whole New York vs Boston rivalry didn’t exist. When I went to D.C. for Otakon a week ago, nada. Likewise, Baltimore, Virginia and down the East Coast, nothing.

One might see this as a strong sign that our country is progressing. Until you look at your Facebook feed and the news stories, the viral videos of police encounters and personal accounts from across the country of cultural headscarves getting snatched and sneers to “go back to your country.” And you dejectedly realize it is very much still there. And sometimes…it comes into our Bubble and it’s here too. And while I hold my NYC upbringing like a talisman, how far can that Bubble extend? The outer membrane is so thin…

~Tael