I was unsure if I was going to be able to write about this. As I’m sitting here starting, I’m still a little unsure that I’ll be able to do it. I tried to talk myself out of it. Terrorist attacks are not a social work issue, why do I need to write about 9/11 on my social work blog? But social workers deal with trauma, and that day was nothing if not traumatic. I practice social work in New York, where life is divided into before and after 9/11. I was born, raised, and continue to live in New York, so this is where my mind is. Not writing about it seems disingenuous.
Aside from that, a lot of social work practice is about helping people to tell and redefine their stories. We talk about their lives, their childhoods, their current situation. We reframe what they’ve been through and where they are, learn from it, use it to inform the future. I listen to people’s stories every day.
9/11 has become a day of stories. As much as we don’t like to talk about it, when the topic comes up, it isn’t put to rest until everyone at the table has shared theirs–where they were, how they heard, when they managed to get home. Everyone has one.
This is my attempt to share mine.
I was 17 years old on September 11th, 2001. I had just started my freshman year of college and was living outside of Brooklyn for the first time. I had made it all the way to Westchester, almost forty minutes away. Quite an inspiring tale. I was struggling to adjust to school, thanks to a boyfriend back home and a general lack of direction.
I woke up that morning to the roommate I barely knew, telling me, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”
We gathered in our common room and watched the news with our suitemates. (Yes, smart kids on scholarships get suites as freshmen. Study hard and dream big, kids.) We watched the towers fall. I didn’t really believe what was happening. It was surreal, but I was also naive. Those planes flew into the twin towers, on purpose? That doesn’t even make sense.
Terrorism was not part of my thought process then.
In those surreal moments, immediately after the second tower collapsed, I jumped up, remembering I had an appointment to meet with my professor at ten. I ran out of the room and to the academic building. I was all ready to apologize for being late when I, almost literally, ran into a secretary. She told me no one was meeting anybody, and to go back to my room.
On the way back, I made my first of many phone calls that day. It was to wish my godson a happy sixth birthday. I don’t really remember the conversation. But I do remember him happily announcing his birthday to people for months and years after that, as little children do, only to meet with a mildly horrified, sympathetic response. “Oh…really?” My aunt and uncle tossed around the idea of changing it. The kid wouldn’t really care. And who would ever be able to wish anybody a happy anything on that day ever again?
We had a school-wide meeting early in the afternoon. They mostly covered logistics–what roads were closed, what public transportation was running, and the fact that the school would be closed for the next week.
I didn’t really care. I stopped listening when we were told that there was no way to get to the city. You could go north, further into Westchester (um, thanks) but you absolutely could not travel south. They had no idea when we would be able to. I was a wreck. I very seriously contemplated walking to the city along the highways, but was talked out of it by a roommate who convinced me I’d be picked up as an accomplice.
This is one thing I think I can’t get across to people who weren’t there. That I will never truly be able to express to my kids. When I say, “we thought the world was ending,” I’m not exaggerating. I’m not kidding. I was very much considering the possibility that this was it. That I was never going to see my friends and family again. I had no idea what was happening. All I knew was that I was 17, was surrounded by people I had known for about ten days, my country, my city, was being attacked, and I had no way to get home to it.
We didn’t turn the TV off for the next 24 hours. We were desperate for news. At one point, I flipped the channel to Nickelodeon, because I couldn’t believe that cartoons could even exist on a day like that. I was right–the screen was blank, except for a message indicating that programming had been pulled, due to mourning.
News stations kept showing a map of cities that were connected to the attacks. Boston, where my brother lived, was highlighted, because the planes took off from there. Pittsburgh, where my cousin attended college, was also starred, because flight 93 had crashed just outside of the city. And of course, New York. Where my parents lived and worked. Where my aunts and uncles, friends, and boyfriend, all were. My entire life seemed to be up there.
I barely got off the phone for the rest of the day. It would have been comforting if I could have actually talked to people. The combination of the towers falling and everyone in the country trying to call their loved ones led to phones not working. My parents, and most of my friends, did not yet have cell phones. My parents were both at work, both in the city, but nowhere near each other. They had to walk to each other, and back to Brooklyn, but tried calling to let me know they were all right. My mother was not yet accustomed to voicemail.
“Oh…hello? SJ? Are you there? It’s ma. What’s going on at school? Hello? Oh, is this her answering machine? I don’t know what it’s doing. Is this recording? I don’t even know if it went through. What do I do…”
I spent a lot of the day thinking that this ridiculousness might be the last time I would hear from my mother.
I did manage to speak with my older brother. As we were hanging up, he told me, “We’ll be OK. I love you.”
Big brother told me he loves me. We are definitely about to die.
I dozed on the couch for about two hours that night, with a suitemate I barely knew, not willing to part from the news. I went downstairs early that morning, trying to find anything out about getting back home. Taped to the front door of the dorm was a sign informing me that MetroNorth trains were running to Grand Central. I ran upstairs, grabbed a bag, and got myself on a train immediately. Other students again tried to talk me out of it, saying that Grand Central was “a target.”
That’s another thing everyone was doing–trying desperately to figure out what would happen next. Because surely that wouldn’t be it. It led to a lot of frightening rumors about bioterrorism, and urban myths spreading like wildfire.
I spent the next week at home. Much of that time was spent crying and watching the news, because it seemed that there was nothing else to be done. I also got together with my friends, and boyfriend. The boyfriend had a lot of free time, as he worked directly across the street from the World Trade Center, and was therefore out of work. We couldn’t talk about anything else. People talked about wanting to hunt down whoever had done it, but at the same time we were terrified. This was a room of 18-22 year old boys, and we were pretty convinced there was going to be a draft.
It was hard to figure out how to react. When could we start watching comedies again? When was it OK to hang out with friends and not discuss it? When could they play baseball again?
I grew up a lifelong, diehard Mets fan, which explains a lot of my cynical outlook. My friends and I happened to have tickets for the first baseball game to be played in New York, a Mets-Braves game, following 9/11. It wasn’t until September 21st. It felt wrong to play before, in addition to the fact that they were using Shea Stadium as a staging area for supplies for Ground Zero.
But being there when Mike Piazza hit that home run, giving the Mets the lead, and cheering and crying with 57,000 other New Yorkers, was an indescribable moment. It felt historic and triumphant, and like too much of a movie moment to even be real.
A lot of things changed. Mayor Giuliani was greeted with thunderous applause, by Mets fans. My parents hung up an American flag, something my family had never done. My dad said he never saw himself doing this when he was protesting the Vietnam War. A woman I had never met sat across from me on the Metro North during one of my weekly trips back home from college, asked about my FDNY t-shirt, that I had gotten from my uncle, and shared her jelly beans with me. (Yes, I took candy from a stranger.)
I also almost caused a riot at Grand Central. A man proposed to his girlfriend, loudly and publicly, and their audience let out a collective shriek. I instantly thought it was another attack, and dove to the ground. That was when I realized how much my way of thinking had changed.
It’s true that there’s no good way to react to what happened. But there were plenty of bad ways. A lot of kids at my college liked to out-liberal one another. They immediately started talking about how America had brought this on itself, with its capitalism and general meany-ness. (That was the level of sophistication of these arguments.)
The “why” conversations needed to take place. But they didn’t need to take place on September 18th, less than an hour from Ground Zero.
My cousin told me about some of her friends who went out dancing the night of September 11th. Hey, they didn’t have classes the next day! When she said she absolutely wasn’t going, they gave her the age old excuse–everyone copes in different ways. This is how we’re dealing.
Really, by going out clubbing? The way you cope with terrorism looks remarkable similar to the way you cope with Thursdays.
I’m not saying there’s a right and a wrong way to mourn. But there is a way to behave appropriately, no matter how you’re feeling. It’s called being a part of society.
At the same time, we want to avoid the misery Olympics. Who lost the most, who suffered the worst, who knew the most people who died. Even when you win, you lose. It’s the opposite of a drinking game.
I recognize that I was fortunate. For all the terror and uncertainty, my family and friends came out alive. Growing up Irish Catholic in Brooklyn, you tend to know a lot of cops and firefighters. So yes, people in my life died. Neighbors, people from church, friends of my aunt, my good friend’s mother. No one remarkably close to me. And yet, I was traumatized, and panic and cry every time I see a memorial, a commercial for a special or documentary, or get into a conversation about the day.
That’s why I struggled so much to write this, and why making it public terrifies me. But it’s my story, and I thought I should share it. It’s what I always ask of my clients. And I do believe that it helps us to heal.