Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11/01 ~ 9/11/11

When I take the train in to New York City, I still look for those two buildings out the righthand side of the train, and I suppose I always will.  I drive by the Pentagon often and in my mind, see the gouged wall, the wreckage of that immense fortress.  And living in this area, I am mindful that the torn field of Pennsylvania might have been D.C.

I wrote this piece for The Sun magazine’s special September 11 issue, which was published in November 2001.  They edited my piece a bit, but I’ll present my version.  I would say that, honestly, this still reflects perfectly how I feel about that too-real, unreal day. 

Sinking In

            I was visiting my aunt in New Jersey, riding the 8:50 a.m. train into New York City.  Three guys boarded and announced, "A plane hit the World Trade Center."  Heads snapped around to stare.  "My neighbor was watching TV news," one said, "I don't know nothing else."  The guys talked about the Giants and Jets and Vinny Testaverde in strong Jersey accents.  If there had been a cartoon bubble above our heads, it would have read, "Commute home now fucked."  "Which tower?" someone asked; no one knew.  Anyway, either tower would mean commute fucked.

            A stop or two later, more people boarded.  "A jet plane," someone said.  The cartoon bubble now read, "Impossible."

            We stopped at Summit where many of us changed trains.  I thought about calling my aunt--who worked at the World Trade Center--but the line was long at the pay phone and there was the train already.  And what would I say?--"Get off the phone; someone said an airplane--a REAL airplane--hit the building, possibly your building, possibly you."

            On the new train, a man said, "Two planes.  Two commercial jets."  I said, "That's no accident."  The man gazed out the window at the blue sky, as beautiful and crisp as a sky could be, and said, "Can't be weather-related."  He told a story about two planes that collided over Brooklyn sometime in the 1960s.  But he interrupted himself to touch one finger to the glass--there was a quick glimpse of the towers of the World Trade Center, white smoke billowing off the tops.  "Movie," I thought, even as I said, "Oh my God."  My aunt worked on a floor somewhere in the nineties, maybe the hundreds, of Two World Trade Center.  I'd been to her office on a previous visit; we'd joked about watching helicopters pass by the window during dull meetings in the conference room.

            The train stopped at Maplewood, and an announcement on the intercom told us no trains were going into the city today, that we should cross the tracks to get a train back home.  I waited in line at the pay phone as I watched people around me smack their cell phones into their palms, trying to force them to work.  Not that the pay phone was much better--though I was able to leave a message for my boyfriend back in the D.C. area.

            I studied the train schedule.  My aunt had taken the 7:00 a.m. train (her footsteps over the guest bedroom had awakened me).  That train put her in the World Trade Center at 8:40 or so.  I'd talked about going into the city with her--we'd ridden home together on the train the previous night, eating bad-for-you snacks and working on Monday's crossword puzzle.  But as I said to her, "I'm not really a morning person."  On that train platform, that seemed like a vacuous, stupid thing to have said.

            Redial, redial, redial--people punched buttons on their cell phones, something getting through.  "The Pentagon's been hit, the south building's collapsed, the north building's collapsed."  Was I supposed to believe any of that?

            An elderly woman standing near me stared at her train schedule.  "There's a westbound train arriving at Maplewood at 10:45," she announced to no one in particular.  I gently suggested the train may not stick to its printed schedule.  She didn't look at me, saying, "I hope my husband is watching the TV and thinks to call and cancel my doctor's appointment in the city."

            I would offer to take my aunt's two cats since my uncle (who was out-of-town) had never really liked them.

            The train arrived.  People pushed off.  We pushed on.  Some of these passengers had SEEN the World Trade Center getting hit from across the river at Hoboken.  They had seen it.  No longer was this about a neighbor's television or a staticky voice on a stranger's cell phone.

            No one talked much, except to answer a few direct questions.  No one cried--maybe one man who abruptly gasped out, "Thousands of people just died in the last few minutes!"  People read their books and magazines; regular commuters don't ride trains without something to read or do.  Even the people who had seen it were reading.

            When I got off the train, I spoke to the conductor:  "You're holding up well on a very stressful day."  He replied, "Oh, this is a day like the others.  There's always something."  I assume he'd forgotten saying that by the time he got home that night.

            At my aunt's house, there were nine messages on her answering machine.  One was from her father-in-law in California.  He said, "Rita called me and she woke me up and she's fine."

            I cried.  I believed it.  But I didn't really, really believe it until she got home that night and we stood in the kitchen, our arms around each other, crying, holding on.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.