Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11 Retrospect From Despair To Repair The Day In September That Changed Everything

It happened eleven years ago but is still a vivid memory, always remembered, never forgotten.

Born and raised in Manhattan, I was living on the West Coast, commuting between the two cities for work, a few weeks in New York, a few weeks in LA.  On that fateful Tuesday I was in Los Angeles on my way to the airport to catch an early morning flight back to New York.  I’m not a morning person
so I like quiet when I’m on the road, but that was broken by a phone call from a friend I had dinner with the night before.

“Are you on your way to the airport?” he asked.
“Yeah, what’s going on?”
“There was a plane that crashed into the World Trade Center and now another one did the same thing.”
I was stunned. “What?!?”
My friend fell silent for a moment so all I could hear were the muffled sounds of a TV.  ”Oh man. They’re saying they were hijacked.  I wouldn’t get on a plane today.  Turn around, head home.”

For a while I continued towards LAX but now with the radio on.  As the events started to unfold I went through a range of emotions, anger, confusion, frustration, trepidation. I was compelled to get back to my hometown even though I knew things had to be nightmarish there at that moment in time.  As I got close to the airport, there was news of another plane crashing into the Pentagon.  Then shortly after that the announcement that all US airspace had been shut down and all flights had been grounded.

As I drove back home, horrific images played out in my head as news came in about the South Tower collapsing, then the North Tower and just as I arrived home, the news of another plane going down in Pennsylvania.  It was hard to concentrate on the road, but I eventually made it back to my place.

I turned on the TV and spent the day on the sofa, watching video of the planes crashing and towers collapsing repeatedly.  I couldn’t get a call through to anyone is New York for a while, but when I did, I talked to my father who was on his way to work downtown and saw the plumes of smoke from the crashes just as he was coming out of the subway.  After the first tower collapse, he, along with a large number of New Yorkers, started walking uptown to head home.

It took me about two weeks to get another flight into New York City.  What was once an easy 6-hour commute that felt almost like hopping on a train became an eleven-hour ordeal with tight security.  I was thankful for the efforts to keep travel safe, but it severely changed the whole experience.  When I finally arrived, I couldn’t help but notice that the city, normally alive and buzzing with activity, was very quiet.  There was still an orange haze in the sky due to the residual smoke from the still smoldering site.  It was eerie.  At work, folks looked drained, I’m sure from the emotional rollercoaster of events and proximity to the towers.  Someone obtained an oversized American flag and hung it from the ceiling, a gesture that normally would feel out of place, but at that time felt right. 

All over the streets of New York were make shift memorials to love ones and safety personal that perished.  It was impossible to walk past a fire station without paying your respects, offering condolences and perusing the letters and artwork hanging on the walls.  I gave money, ate in downtown restaurants that badly needed the business just to stay open and tried to help in anyway I could to get the city to return to normal.

It might seem trivial to some, but the game of Baseball was a major component that lifted the city out of the doldrums.  The resumption of the regular baseball season ushered in the start of a return to normalcy.  You could feel the city responding.

Three weeks after the attacks, Saturday Night Live returned, opening with members of the New York City Fire Department standing silently, showing the face of the city’s resolve, as Paul Simon played “The Boxer.”  When Lorne Michaels, the producer of the show, asked Mayor Giuliani, "Can we be funny?" and received the reply "Why start now?” it was the first time I had laughed since the attacks.  There was a muted pain that went with that laughter but it was another part of the healing process.

Soon after that, the MLB playoffs began, with the Yankees making it past the wild card Oakland Athletics to face the Seattle Mariners in the ALCS.  The Mariners had won 116 games that season, setting the American League record for most wins. So it seemed obvious that they would go on to win their first AL pennant.  But the Yankees, carrying the weight of NYC on their shoulders, managed to defeat Seattle, 4 games to 1, moving on the World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

At this point you could feel a certain amount of excitement return to the city, even for Mets fans.  The city seemed to unite behind the team.  Most of my co-workers were Yankees fans so there was a definite buzz in the building.  I was able to secure, for a considerable amount of money, a ticket for Game 4, the second home game for the Yankees.  I knew I had to be at the Stadium to share this experience.

On October 30th, the night of Game 3, but the first home game at Yankee Stadium, most of the office left work early in the afternoon to ensure they would be home in time for the game.  Realizing I was one of the few people still in the building, I grabbed my stuff and headed out.  As I was leaving I bumped into another co-worker who asked me “Where are you going to watch the game?”  I still hadn’t decided if I was going to a local sports bar or heading home so I told him “I don’t know yet, how about you?”  He said, “I’m heading to the Stadium. Want to go? I’ve got an extra ticket, face value.”  I said yes having no idea where the tickets were, they could have been in the last row of the upper section in Left Field, it didn’t matter.

We hopped on the subway going uptown towards the stadium. That’s when he handed me this ticket.
The seats were located directly behind home plate, field level. It turned out my co-worker was friends with one of the secretaries who worked in the Yankees’ front office.  The ticket was a fraction of what I paid for the next night’s game. 

Arriving at the stadium, security was as tight, tighter than at the airport.  There were officers with automatic weapons drawn. I was just behind Donald Trump in a line that was thirty deep waiting to pass through metal detectors, hand held detectors, personal and bag searches.  There was no celebrity treatment here. 

Once inside, the atmosphere was electric.  My co-worker’s friend came to our seats to say hello.  She explained it was a busy day dealing with the security detail.  Bomb-sniffing dogs had been roaming everywhere, even in the offices.  I asked if this was just precautionary or had there been a threat.  That’s when she told us the President would be throwing out the first pitch.  She pointed to the rooftops of the buildings across the way behind center field and told us there was a sniper on every one.  At that point, I was awestruck, feeling secure and insecure at the same time.

We were each given a mini American flag and then Bob Sheppard announced, “To throw out the first pitch, the President of the United States.” Cheers went up along with chants of “USA, USA!”  Flags were waving as the President stood on the mound, seeming almost larger than life.  And then he gave a thumbs-up.
It was a small gesture, but it felt like a signal that we would be OK.  Then, from what appeared to be the rubber, he threw a strike.  Regardless of what you think about the man, good or bad, that was clutch.  The Yankees went on to win the game and all over Manhattan, the level of city noise seemed to rise.
I came back the next night to see Derek Jeter become “Mr. November” with his 10th inning walk-off home run. You know that expression “the stadium was rocking” well it literally was rocking.  I had NEVER attended a game were the energy in the stadium was that overwhelming and I haven’t since.  
I returned the following night without a ticket just to hang out near the stadium.  In a bar just across from the right field bleacher entrance, I watched as Scott Brosius hit a home run in the bottom of the 9th with 2 outs to tie the game.  You could feel the impact of that home run coming from the stadium inside the bar.  The Yankees won that game in the bottom of the 12th.  As the fans piled out of Yankee Stadium it was pure euphoria on the streets, something that did not seem possible a month prior.

That feeling spilled over into the city.  Even though the Yankees wound up losing the series, the city’s healing process had begun.  Hope had returned.

After commuting between Los Angeles and New York, it was clear I would have to pick one place to stay, that much traveling was just too rough. As it turns out, my boss was thinking along the same lines.  It was a tough decision, but it was clear that most of my work would come out of California so Los Angeles won out.  I stayed just past Thanksgiving, one of the best times to be in the city, and then headed back to the West Coast.

Looking back, the one amazing thing that was a product of 9/11 was a feeling in the city, and largely across the country, of oneness.  No matter what side of the political aisle you were on, we were banding together for a greater good, something that seems to be lacking now with our polarizing positions.  Hopefully we can return to that status of mutual respect and nationwide community without the intervention of a war.  Perhaps that should be the goal and purpose as we remember this day in history, now and in the future. 

No comments:

Post a Comment