September 11th

Sorry to be unoriginal, but it really was a day like any other, when it started. As per tradition, I missed the train I should have gotten, in order to get to work at the time that, despite all evidence to the contrary, really was not just a *suggestion.*

But it was fine; at 8:48, I still had 12 minutes to walk to work after arriving in Penn Station, only first I had to go to Amtrak to get a gift for someone that day. It was there that I heard excited tones.

“Hey whoa, a small plane lost its signal and flew into one of the Twin Towers.”

“Actually, a second small plane flew into the other one, and now they’re saying it might not be an accident. But I’m guessing it probably was just a signal mumbo jumbo in that area. People always jump to the worst possible conclusion.”

I gave them my money, went upstairs and outside, and started to walk crosstown to my job that was on Park Avenue. When I arrived at Sixth Avenue, just like any other weekday, I saw people stopped, staring, pointing to the right.

When I looked towards my right, there they were. The Twin Towers, just as they’d ever been, only today, they had little black holes in them at the top, and smoke was coming out from said holes.

How awful for the pilots, I thought, knowing there was no way a small plane would have survived such a crash. My brain didn’t know how to process just how big those little black holes were, when you weren’t across town from them. And it certainly didn’t know how to process the idea that people in the Towers were hurt. Maybe a few, but surely it was under control, and everything would be fine, save for those poor pilots.

I kept walking to work, because that’s what you did at nine in the morning, when you were late. But as minutes passed after the two crashes, the energy in Manhattan was growing increasingly sinister and anxious. Though my brain wasn’t processing the enormity, my gut was screaming at me. To turn around, to get right back on the train and go home.

Yet I kept walking to work, until I couldn’t take it anymore. From my new cell phone, I called my boss who had also been my friend for five years, on his office line. He didn’t answer, so I left a message. “I know I’m already late, and I know I’m a flaky person, but for some reason, I just know I have to go home. This is bad. I don’t know what the bad means, but it is bad, and I need to go home. Honestly, I think you should too. I really hope you’ll understand, and that I won’t get fired.”

I turned around, and walked back to Penn Station. I was on the Babylon line, and there wasn’t another train going back that way for awhile. There were, however, trains leaving in the next ten minutes or so, on the Ronkonkoma and IIRC another line that would get me out of Manhattan, but would drop me off far from my home in Baldwin. My gut yelled at me to get on one of them and call my mom for a ride, but my brain told me that I was overreacting, and that I shouldn’t inconvenience my mother over my paranoia.

So I waited until the next green Babylon train was ready to leave. This was just another day, just another day. Everything would be fine. This was an accident, a misunderstanding…

While I waited on the platform downstairs as the train rolled in just like normal, people around me were talking: The Pentagon had been hit. The train doors opened; I found a seat, and started crying. I was finally, truly, officially, scared. A woman from a seat behind me came up to me and silently offered me tissues, and hugged me. It was all setting in, what we were leaving, what we were escaping.

I shuddered sobs, and waited for the train to bring me out of the tunnel, and back to the sunlight of the rest of the world. To bring me back home.

Staticky conductor speak has never sounded so chilling as it did in the next moment, as we were told to leave the train. All trains were being evacuated, you see. No more trains were leaving Penn Station that day.

As I walked back onto the platform, then upstairs into Penn Station, we were hearing that Penn Station was soon to be evacuated, as well. In the meantime, there were long lines forming at the pay phones, as cell phone signals were few and far between.

I got at the back of the line, and waited my turn. People before me ranged from sobbing to matter-of-fact, and everything in between, as they contacted their loved ones, or their business contacts. When it was my turn at the pay phone, my hand shook as I dialed my parents collect. None of it felt real.

And it certainly didn’t feel any more real, or any better, when my mother informed me that my father was home from work. My father was never home from work, when work was happening. He led his team, and his team did important things…

…yet there he was in the kitchen, at home on a Tuesday. As I cried to my mother that I felt like I was trapped in the city, my father told her to tell me to go to a church, because that was traditionally the last place attacked, as far as these things go.

So I wandered outside, with a bit of urgency, as I was terrified that Penn Station was evacuating for a reason darker than simple precaution. And two blocks away, I found a church: St. Francis.

I’d noticed this church before, as it had my favorite Catholic statue out in front – Saint Francis, with his constant bluebird companion. All right, then, I thought, as I entered what would become my September 11th sanctuary.

I’d never seen St. Francis more packed, than it was on that day. People filled the courtyard, surrounded the statue. Most were trying to find in equal parts, community and a cell phone signal. A lucky few had working laptops, and gave updates, as the day went on.

But even those updates were spotty, so when someone piped up a little bit louder with: “One of the Towers is falling,” the rest of us listened, and cried, and hugged, and prayed.

Some of us stumbled into the side outdoor area, the place with the candles, where you can donate, and light one, and kneel, and pray some more. I will never forget doing that, and staring up into the sky. Half of me was waiting for an ominous plane to drop a bomb or thereabouts, and that would be it. The other half was thinking about my family. My brothers, especially. There in the city, trapped by transportation and terrorists, I felt like a sitting duck. That at any moment, some asshole would see to it that I would never see my brothers again.

So I guess that both my halves were thinking the same thing, only from different angles. Basically, I’ve never felt quite so helpless in my entire life, for such an extended period of time.

And it wasn’t even that long of a time, as far as these things go. But it felt like “Buffy” S3 “Anne” time. Every minute felt like a hellish eternity. And speaking of hellish eternities, during my terror in the candle area, there was a woman next to me. Only she seemed to be doing a lot more praying than I was.

And she seemed peaceful, albeit passionate about her prayers for those around her. When I finally came back to Earth after all of the crying and praying, mostly crying, she looked at me with the utmost of compassion, even more than the awesome lady on the train with the tissues.

“Why are you crying?” she asked me, and told me her name was Elisa.

My innate response was “Well, duh,” but this woman was way too nice to deserve such snark, on such a day. So I just told her the basic truth, that I was terrified I was going to die. And that I felt incredibly selfish, because people were dying, and all I could feel was my own fear.

Then another woman popped out of the ether. She was a marathon runner, and kept saying that she’d ran way more than the distance it would take to get back to Long Island. And although I still hadn’t lost the 30 pounds I’d gained the year before, I’d been running on the treadmill, and was like, yeah!

Elisa, though older than both me and the marathoner, was also like, yeah! But first, she wanted to go downstairs, where a priest was hearing confessions. And honestly, I’m not sure which part of me was more won over – the part that had been raised Catholic, or the part that admired the people on the Titanic who went down with the ship, if it meant preserving their life’s calling, and overall good. “Gentlemen, it’s been an honor…”

So I told the marathon runner that I’d be up shortly; Elisa and I both would, but first, we had to go to confession.

Down in the basement of St. Francis, it was dark and scary because of what was going on, but beyond that, it was everything I’d ever loved about religion, church, community, et al. Elisa and I knelt, and sang, and prayed, and waited our turn. When I confessed to the priest, there was no part of me that felt Alanis’s “Forgiven” pain. This dude, this priest, this person – he was here for the long haul, to serve his God and fellow people, when all I wanted to do was run away.

So I confessed the worst of my soul, while my feet were getting itchy in the figurative sense. True to her word, Elisa said her own confession and bolted upstairs with me, ready to join the marathon runner and jog home to Long Island from Sixth and 32nd.

The marathon runner had already started jogging apparently, because she was nowhere to be found. And I totally understood; I’d have done the same.

As luck or fate or fortune or God’s saints would have it, busses were starting to pull up around town, to take people to the bridges that you could walk across. Elisa and I didn’t have to jog to a bridge; a bus would take us.

Filled with the gloriousness of religion and faith when it touches you the hardest, I joined Elisa, in signing the cross as we passed churches and other assorted NYC landmarks. Why was I so afraid to be so bold in my faith before? I wondered.

The bus let us out, and Elisa and I were in front of the 59th Street Bridge. We walked across it together, hand in hand. Sometimes we walked, but mostly, we jogged. Neither of us could shake the fear that at any minute, a plane or some other missile of harm, would come and take out the bridge. At one point, Elisa got really urgent. “Don’t look, Judi – DON’T LOOK.” I was positive that something evil was coming for us. Another explosion, of some nature. Death, for certain.

She was just not wanting me to look behind us – at the now-famous shot of our beautiful and glorious city burning.

When we left the bridge, and arrived in Queens, I literally cheered and kissed the ground. Then a politician gave us water, endearing me to politics forever, while also cynicizing me to politics forever.

We were still not home, though. I was energized, fueled with adrenaline. I think Elisa was too, but she got tripped up by an especially aggressive subway turnstile. It was time to GO HOME, but I realized in that moment that I’d wait forever, for my September 11th partner. It was in that moment that I fully realized I’d had a September 11th partner.

“I will pray for you, and we will keep in touch,” Elisa and I both said to each other, as we rode the blessed LIRR home to our various destinations.

The former is true, but the latter was not. It was for a little while, but then life got away from us. Which in a way is kind of awesome. That so much life could happen, after such a day of the opposite. In the meantime, on our train back from Queens, a dude stood up on the train, all RILED.

“They hit the Kremlin! And it’s bad enough they hit New York, but mess with Russia??? You got a foot up your ass!”

Game of Telephone, September 11th was, back in good old NYC.

I can’t believe it’s been 11 years since the 11th. I can’t believe it’s Tuesday, September 11th again.

God bless New York.

The best essay I’ve ever read on September 11th ❤

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