Letter N is for New York on 9/11.
A to Z entries: My post for each letter of the alphabet will be anecdotes or musings based on an element from the previous letter’s post. Names always changed, events always real.
~ Letter M was for a definable Moment, and now a devastating moment in history known as…nine eleven. ~
Following my move from New York to Los Angeles in 1999, I managed to be bicoastal for three years. I kept an apartment in New York and spent months at a time there. I was already an Iranian-American New Yorker, and it didn’t take long for my new West Coast lifestyle to further amalgamate my cultural identity.
In September of 2001, I had been visiting New York for a month or two. By the 10th of that month, I was ready to get back to Los Angeles, and back to the brand new relationship I had begun with Freezer.
On the morning of the 11th, I was sleeping on my father’s pullout couch. Even with my midtown apartment, I still spent several nights a week with my father, stepmother and four-year-old half-brother. My little brother was the draw.
He and I shared an otherworldly co-worship that lasted throughout his childhood. He had enormous, intelligent eyes, and a knowing smile. His skin was the color of caramel.
He used to hide in my suitcase so that I could “pack” him and “bring back to California” with me.
I was a late sleeper. When I slept on their couch, early mornings, my little brother would bring his toys into the living room and play quietly on the floor next to me. He would become progressively louder according to the lateness of the hour, patiently but systematically waking me up.
But on the morning of the 11th, my whole family was in the living room with the television on. I had the covers over my head; I was very adept at sleeping through activity and noise.
“H, H,” my father said. “Wake up. You need to see this. The news.” I figured he was going on about yet another annoying political event in my home country of Iran, ruined at the hands of the mullahs.
“That’s okay, I don’t need to know,” I said in a hoarse, sleepy voice from under the covers.
“H!” Yelped my little brother. “An airplane flew into a building!”
I pulled the covers off my face and sat straight up. My stepmother had her hand over her mouth.
One of the twin towers was smoking at the top. Another plane was in view and looked to be flying towards the second tower. I was groggy and confused – was there some sort of malfunction at the airport tower? How could the pilot not see the building?
And then…the plane crashed right into the second tower as we were watching live.
Even then, we looked at the TV like there was some way, some chance for it to end up okay. I was thinking of the earlier World Trade Center bombing in the 90s, after which they fixed the damage and everything was back to normal.
The point of impact, even with the thick obscuring smoke, looked small compared to the height of the building. We kept watching to make sense of it. Then, the unspeakable happened without warning.
The first tower crumbled in front of our eyes as if it were made of sand.
Shortly after, the second tower followed the same path to the ground.
It was and is still, the most unreal sight I’ve ever beheld. There is a part of me that to this day, looks for the twin towers at the tip of Manhattan each time I’m riding in a car from JFK to the city.
On September 13, I put on a dust mask, faked two grocery bags so I looked like a below Canal St. resident, and crossed the barricades. I got to where smoke, dust and small debris still swirled in the air. It was a deserted world layered in beige. Parked and abandoned cars were covered in the beige dust as if it had snowed, and water from my eyes turned into mud.
But I needed to be close to it. I could no longer suffer daylong third-party accounts out of the hateful television.
The TV had affected my little brother too; he kept running to turn it off. At one point, we all decided to take him for a ride. In the car, he sat on my lap looking out the window, transfixed by the passing buildings. Finally he said, very thoughtfully:
“I’ve been thinking, these buildings are too tall. I’ve noticed that planes often crash into them. I want to live in a short building.”
* * *
During that time, I exchanged emails with various people in Los Angeles, including Freezer. They were firsthand accounts of the 9/11 aftermath from the perspective of an Iranian-American New Yorker. Some are included below and range from mundane to poignant, whether about the phone lines being down, or my stepmother living in Teheran through bombings during the Iran-Iraq war and now experiencing panic attacks.
[Back then, everyone emailed without capitalization, which I’ve remedied for the purpose of this post. But as tempting as it was to clean and tighten up the excerpts, leaving their form and style intact seems truer to the experience. I haven’t included return replies because they were redundant or out of context.]
Subj: Re: No Subject
Date: 9/11/01 (Excerpts from several emails throughout the day)
The lines are still busy. My family and friends are all safe in their homes. They’re shutting down lower Manhattan. My mother was stuck in Brooklyn until 4, but even she made it home on the subway. I have major cabin fever. I only went out briefly to buy my stepmom flowers for her birthday.
[‘Lil Bro] has been driving us crazy all day, getting fed up with the TV news being on the whole time, running around, making loud noises, shouting, “I’m crazy, I’m crazy, I’m crazy from all this nonsense you guys keep watching!!”
They said that any non-resident or emergency personnel who tries to get south of 14th Street tomorrow will be arrested on a Class B misdemeanor. They also need blood donors, and people have been lining up by the hundreds only to be turned away because the hospitals are out of plasma bags.
[A.] got caught in a stampede as he was walking by Bryant Park to go be with his dad who saw the whole thing collapse from his terrace and was freaking out. It’s Fashion Week, so tents were set up in that park, and as [A.] walked by, they announced on the loudspeaker that everyone should evacuate. So all the models and designers and staff — thousands of them — stampeded the street running north.
The truck with explosives on the George Washington Bridge report is unconfirmed. Peter Jennings gave an excellent report earlier. He was very adamant about differentiating between extreme Islam and Islam. He seems appalled by the amount of people who are ready to go to war, with no worries about collateral damage…
Relatives told me that in Iran, they are broadcasting live via satellite and saying 200,000 New Yorkers are dead. But the Iranians know about media propaganda.
The leaders in the Middle East are urging their people not to celebrate this deed.
My poor stepmother keeps leaping out of bed and running into the living room asking me if I just heard an aircraft overhead — you see, she spent fifteen years in Iran during the war, going to bed every night with missiles landing all around her. I feel so bad.
They closed ALL airports in the country today — 2 million passengers. There are 30k – 40k flights a day on a normal day. I think it’s going to take days and days for me to get back, [Freezer]. With the new panic and security, I’m glad I travel with an American passport now. I used to have to deal with my Iranian one, which made for complicated immigration even under normal circumstances. Of course, I may never get to leave New York at this point…
Well, that’s my news.
Subj: Re: vision of hell
Date: 9/12/01 2:35:55 AM Eastern Daylight Time
Yes, my family and friends are all fine. I think I’ve watched fifteen hours of coverage, nonstop. I just want to get back to LA, but frankly I don’t see how. Not any time soon. I’ve been dying to for a while though. Burgeoning relationship and all waiting on the West Coast. But my frustration abates in the perspective of these events…
Date: 9/15/01 8:11:40 PM Eastern Daylight Time
I don’t have much to say, but I can’t wait to get back to LA. I got as far down as Chambers Street on Thursday when they still had blocks up. Beige dust and papers and soldiers and FBI and wrecked cars and relief vans of juice and soda. Chambers is about ten blocks away from WTC, so there were no giant chunks of debris. The dust was an inch or two thick.
You should see the hole on the tip of island when you cross the bridge. I keep having nightmares. I never expected to live through a real war.
Subj: Re: No Subject
Date: 9/15/01 9:04:10 PM Eastern Daylight Time
I went all the way down to Chambers and Greenwhich two days ago while they still had the police blockage. Snuck in through little alleys and zigzagged through blocks for which they just didn’t have enough manpower. I needed to feel connected to the scene. It simply felt wrong to be in the city for it and not even go near.
Going down there with my dust mask was my equivalent of lighting a candle.
Here too, people lit candles all over the city last night. It was beautiful — and the weather was autumn-like, even chilly, so it sort of felt Christmassy with all that soft yellow glowing everywhere. What struck me was the fact that people continued to go about their business — walking to grocery stores, sitting at cafes, yet they brought their candles with them!
Subj: Re: (no subject)
Date: 9/22/01 5:33:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time
As far as bringing you rubble, that area is closed-off, and for me personally, that would be a tad morbid / disrespectful. I keep thinking about all that beige dust I saw down there. All that dust contains human remains, which I’m not prepared to carry in my bags among my clothes.
But that’s moot since the debris area is completely off-limits.
Anyway, see you next week. I hope.
If I can leave.
I was convinced I was stuck in New York, but this was a feeling I had begun experiencing days prior to September 11. My correspondence before, during and after that day is from the perspective of a girl concerned with the ordinary matters of her life in the midst of extraordinary events, and continued in the next post.
~ Part of the A to Z Challenge ~
A post a day except Sunday for the month of April to cover topics beginning with each letter of the alphabet.
Cathartic Monkeyism returns in May.
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Your descriptions are stunning. This is one of those posts that feels wrong to say I liked. After all, I think everyone would be glad if you didn’t have the tragic inspiration almost thirteen years ago. However, I do love your writing style and that you included the emails. It’s beautifully written and very poignant.
Wow. I’ve never known anyone who was there at the time.It must have been reality-bending.
This is an amazing, sobering, vivid, and beautiful post. You were right there, sis. Amazing. I was in bed in the Santa Cruz Mountains of northern California at the time and crying my eyes out the entire day like so many others. Truly, a life-changing moment in time that not one of us is ever going to forget. The loss, the horror, the heartbreak, and yet the human spirit that prevails over everything is remarkable.
My sister-in-law was supposed to be in training at the south tower that day, but chose to delay her training and did not get on the plane from Delaware. All of us, the entire family, felt such relief that she heeded her soul’s message and did not go, but heartbroken that so many suffered and died. I’ll never ever take life for granted as a result of this horror. I’m still gravely sad about it all and will likely always be. But, the human soul is above it all and we know that the only answer to any of this is love.
With that, I love you, my friend. Thank you for this thoughtful piece.
I remember thinking it was faked at first. I remember it was all anyone talked about for weeks.
I remember feeling removed from it – I know that at the time, there was too much misery and isolation in my own life to remotely begin to understand the burden of observing that event, and the loss which occurred.
I was numb to it.
I cannot imagine what it must have been like for you, not only being in NYC at the time it happened, but also being an Iranian American. I wrote a poem about what it was like for me, so removed from it. Shattering September
Kate at Daily discovery