Most people of my Country and generation have a, “where I was when…” story. This is mine. No more, no less.
The primary thing I remember about that day is a pervasive feeling of being alone. It was a Tuesday, and I was at work. When things started happening in the morning I first found out about it from my boyfriend, Ted (who would in another month’s time become my fiancé). He called, sounding stunned, almost numb, to tell me there had been a terrible accident causing an airplane to crash into one of the buildings in New York City.
I assumed he was right, a terrible accident, a failure of aviation or unfortunate human error. I also assumed he was talking about a small vehicle, perhaps driven by one person or two.
Time passed. I remember I was listening to NPR radio, getting occasional updates but mostly still focusing on my job. Ted called again, with further news that another plane had crashed. This is when I discovered that the plane wasn’t small, and that there was no accident in progress.
It wasn’t until sometime later that I found out most of my friends were sent home from work that day. Ted stayed at his office, but shortly after the first crash he and all his co-workers had gathered around a television, glued to the news. This is why he kept calling as my primary source of information.
The company I worked for at the time sent down an official word to us on the situation: do not go home, do not watch the news – just keep working. It seems ghoulishly coldhearted now in retrospect, but at the time they must have thought it the wisest course. Two months later, the recession that resulted from this day would cause them to let go of 1,400 employees nationwide, myself included. The company I work for now sent home all of their employees to be with their families at around Noon.
At some point in the afternoon, one of our engineers called. He was crying, not quite hysterical but close, and trapped in New York City. He had a friend who worked in one of the towers and had just seen it collapse from a distance. Another engineer arrived at the office with rumors that planes would continue to fall throughout the day, as many as fifty in total, and since one had just done so nearby us in Pennsylvania, no one anywhere was safe.
I didn’t know what to do, so I did as I’d been told – I kept working.
Later in the afternoon my co-worker Carla and I went out into the parking lot for a few minutes. Looking up, we realized that we had never noticed how many planes pass over us at any given time until they were abruptly all gone. The sky was very blue and completely silent.
I went home from work at my usual time, and finally at around 6:00PM put on a television. Only then did I see for myself the full extent of what had happened. And only then did I start to cry.
That was the Fall I acted for the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, and that following Saturday I reported for work in full costume as expected, but I was numb with fear and grief – neither my heart nor head in the situation. I remember my friend and show partner, Jill, taking me aside and buying me a cookie. I remember she told me that my job was to make people smile, to comfort them and take their mind off of what was happening – so that’s what we did.
I’ve never really suffered under the delusion that my world was safe. As a small child, I worried constantly that someone was going to shoot a nuclear missile at us. So the events of that day didn’t really change my perception so much as clarify it a little. The world isn’t safe, it never was, and it’s populated by some people who will kill you because of who your parents are, what you look like, where you were born, what you believe, or simply because it’s what they want to do and what they want is worth more than your life.
Now, thirteen years later I’ve been struggling even more than usual with the pervasive darkness and how to respond to it. A friend of mine recently told me that the only positive response is to be the light. You may be small, you may be only one, but all you can do to change the world is treat it and the people in it the way you wish it could be.
My light may be small, and very dim at times, but I am trying. And at least I know I am not alone.
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