I was upset, crying too much. Yes I cry a lot and I’d been crying a lot lately. But I could not stop the hysterical crying.
My best friend William and I had started that day talking about how we loved Mariah Carrey’s new song. We were excited that she was really singing again. No more slightly melodious whispering for her! But we ended the conversation with the painful choice to spend time away from each other. It seemed like 9 years was enough for him. I was sad and resistant, unwilling or able to understand.
So maybe that’s why I couldn’t stop crying. But it seemed like there was more to the story…
I woke up the next morning and, again, of course, I was late for class. If my class were in Warner or Rice I would have been on time. But they just HAD to have the Black Women’s Literature class all the way across the campus in a classroom in the administration building, I don’t remember it’s name. I remember getting half way across of Tappan Square when those bells started chiming. The “Dominique’s late bells….” It was 9am.
I think it was an emotional class. That class always was. I remember our discussion would always consist of the black women telling these really difficult stories about our lives and the white women crying about it.
I walked out of class with Imani. I guess we both had class in Warner after. I was the TA for Adenike’s Afro-form dance class. I can’t remember if Imani was in that class too. We walked together to Warner. We were laughing and giggling about something, probably the Black Women’s class. But as we approached the building, Mrs. Grier-Miller, Imani’s mother, my former advisor walked up to us. She said something like, “something’s happened that I have to tell you about.”
We were still sort of in giggle mode.
“A plane hit the World Trade Center”
I was still a little giggly. I thought it was funny. During that summer at man accidently flew a small plane into the statute of liberty. And it was something we all sort of laughed at. (Prophetic mistake I guess.)
“And then another plane hit the other tower.”
The giggling stopped….
“Basically the World Trade Center is gone…”
Mommy… all I could think about was Mommy. Under the rubble. She was riding on a train that went right under the World Trade Center. She can’t be dead. I need to call her… I went inside and used the phone in the office. The woman in the office said, “I’m sure the phones are down and everyone’s calling. You may not get through.” I know but I need to talk to Mommy. I have never not be able to get through to her… not in my 21 years… She was always there to answer the phone. I called home… but she wouldn’t be at home. But maybe she didn’t go to work. Why wouldn’t se have gone to work?
I went upstairs to class. It’s kind of a blur. But I remember Adenike yelling at us for being so upset. So many other countries deal with this sort of thing every day. There were so many people who lived through WWI and WWII. Why are we so upset? So we went on with class. So I went on to the warm up. I stood in front of that class… crying as I bent and flexed my arm.
Bend… flex “Are you ok?”
Bend… flex “I don’t know where my mother is…” I was dazed. I just kept crying and bending and flexing my arm until he chair of the dance department came in and forced Adenike to stop our class.
I went out of the studio and I remember crying and hugging this woman, this dance professor, that I hated and wouldn’t have spoken to let alone hug. But I needed to hold on to someone. And there was no one else there.
I got dressed and went over to the student union where everyone was gathered. I needed to find someone from NY. I need to find William who, was the driving force, the one who set this stage for me… The one who whose influence led me to be in Oberlin, OH… not the E. Village attending NYU… when those planes hit. But William and I had decided not to be as close the night before. Would he even talk to me? I saw him… and I didn’t care. I needed him. I couldn’t find my mother. He couldn’t find his family, who owned a store in Chinatown, very close to the world trade center. Maybe we needed each other.
For some reason in the midst of all of this I got really excited because I remembered: My computer had come! I got the slip in the mailbox! It was the one I had ordered to replace the one that my sister and her partner bought me… the same one that had burned up in a massive car fire a few months earlier… fire and loss… I felt stalked by the uncertainty of randomness. My since of protection was gone. But in that exact moment, I want to get my computer and get it home so it would not get lost in the mayhem. I asked my new friend Jill to give me and William rides home. We lived really far a way from each other (according to Oberlin standards) but Jill was willing to do “anything to help New Yorkers” in that moment. And I was ready to take that help.
But after that I need to be alone. The only voice I wanted to hear was my mother’s. I went to my dorm room and called my mother over and over. I called the training center where she was training for her new job for the Administration for Children’s Services. I left a desperate message. “I just want to know if my mother made it to work. If anyone can call me back and let me know that my mother is ok…” I called and called. I called my sisters who were both in Boston. They hadn’t heard from her. We joked about security at Logan airport. We talked about sociology… how the terrorist must have really studied American culture to know the exact times and cities to hit and how to hit them when they were the most vunerable. We talked about Mommy and hoped she was alright. We freaked out on the phone together… as we would do so many other times over the next few years… when my sister’s partner died in 2003, when our grandmother died in 2004, when our other grandmother died in 2005, when our father died in 2008…
I called my grandmother in Pennsylvania. I wanted to make sure she was ok… I knew she was ok. She didn’t live in Shanksville! I asked her if she had heard from my mother. I knew she hadn’t heard from my mother… my mother wouldn’t have called her mother before she called me! And I felt bad for scaring my grandmother by telling her my mother was missing. But I guess I just needed to feel mothered in that moment. I just needed to connect. I wanted to feel connected…I guess.
After trying to call for hours… I turned on the CNN and laid down…. I remember hearing some fool they were interviewing saying something like “If we took all that money we spent on education and put it into the military, stuff like this wouldn’t happen.” I remember realizing as they interviewed people involved that there was indeed a difference in regional accents. There was a distinct NY accent that I missed in that moment. There was a Boston accent and a Pennsylvania accent.
I fell asleep with tears in my eyes… as I had the night before. I woke up and the sun had gone down. And I could hear helicopters or military air crafts in the air. I got up called the Bronx.
She told me the craziest story. She went to her training and had no clue what was going on. She was in a training room and heard people screaming. But she thought maybe it was just loud laugher or people playing around. The man training her ignored his pager and phone. But eventually, similar to my situation, a supervisor came in and they were told what was happening. Everyone went outside… they could see the smoke from where they were…
My mother… my mother who got mugged on the way to church and chased mugger through the South Bronx trying to get her purse back… my mother decided that she was going to walk home… to the Bronx… from Brooklyn. She knew the city was about to shut down. She didn’t know how long. She didn’t want to get trapped in Brooklyn. She set off and approached the Brooklyn Bridge and was turned away by cops…
She described people coming across the bridge from the Manhattan side covered in ash… “walking like zombies”. But she still wanted to walk across… “I needed to get home…I needed to feel safe. I need to talk to y’all.”
Eventually she said the trains started running again. And she got on the D and came home. It blew my mind that NY kept moving even as this was going on. It never slept even when it needed to… even when the world was giving it permission to… But Mommy got home and alive. So I was grateful for the insomnia of my city.
Part II My City 10 Years Later.
10 years later. So much and so many have passed. So much has changed. William and I do much better now, mostly because we live on two separate coasts. I lost many of my friends and family members. But I also gained people and so many new people entered the world and entered my world. I went back and listened the call to be who I was pre-loss… pre-anxiety. I went to seminary. I went from being a college student in the Midwest struggling to figure out what it meant to be in her twenties to an ordained minister in the Midwest who is struggling to figure out what it means to be in her thirties.
But even as I stand at another turning point, trying to figure out how not to return to NY, I still miss miss my city, though. I miss what it was. People forget that NY is a place where people live. We’re not all characters. We are real even though our “Main Street” is called Broadway. It’s where I was born and raised. It’s where I spent 25 of the most literally and spiritually formative years of my life. And this huge community that is NY changed that Tuesday morning 10 years ago.
Yes, NY has always been a ball of energy and anxiety. So it seems like the heightened anxiety would be unnoticeable. And for the most part it has gone unnoticed. It’s been overshadowed by the rhetoric about Ground Zero being sacred ground, by non-NYers who protest the Muslim Community Center and then probably go buy some food from a Halal truck, by all the references to America in general, all of Giuliani’s and Bloomberg’s pushing to make America know that we were ok and open for business. (You wouldn’t want a lose the tourist dollar…) But no one looked back to make sure the residents of this “fake American” city were really recovering. So the New York I returned to in 2002 was not the NY I left in 1998. People coped how they could. And the result is a city filled with zombie-like people who are unable to deal with much of anything. Everyone is shut off… ears plugged, head down, going where they are going… unable to be aware of the person next to them… seemingly unwilling to connect… just needing to get where they are going as fast as possible. And outsiders may say this is the way it’s always been. NYers are just rude. We are. I’m not arguing with that point. But there is something new, symptomatic of something much larger. Culture can sometimes be born out of the unprocessed collective reaction to tragedy. I think NY has created this sort of culture post 9/11…
I hope it’s not to late to heal.