I’d just spent a month back in Kentucky, trying it on like an old outfit to see if it still fit. I was unemployed, unattached, poor, frustrated, and I wanted to make sure living in the most complicated, and challenging, city in the world was still worth it.
I contemplated this as the plane bisected the isle of Manhattan. For the first and only time in my life, the airplane went on a daring and gorgeous deviation from her normal path to LaGuardia, flying so close to the Twin Towers I felt I could reach out and answer a buzzing phone in one of the offices.
To be honest, I felt uneasy about being so close to the buildings. I felt like we were tempting fate. I felt like we could crash.
This was one week before 9/11. In the movie of my life, this was foreshadowing.
In my unemployed haze, I’d fallen into the bad habit of sleeping late. This was true that fateful morning when I, once again, smacked my alarm clock into submission over and over: September 11th, 2001. I was supposed to walk the ¾ mile down to the base of the Twin Towers where one of the city’s unemployment offices was located. I had a 9:00 a.m. appointment to scour their databases for a job that might work for a French/Drama double major who’d been laid off from a cushy internet job, and blew all her money doing theater. That morning, though, bed was calling, and I figured I’d move back to Kentucky within a couple of weeks anyway. Who needed this crazy, expensive city? Who needed a job? Not when I could stay under my comforter, the first rays of sunlight raining down on me.
I heard a huge bang, and found myself annoyed at the delivery trucks. How could they constantly forget where the potholes were, day after day?
I heard a barrage of sirens screaming down the street. New York City living up to its noisy, dangerous stereotype.
I heard my cell phone ring and ring. Probably someone from the unemployment office, wondering where I was, dying to give me grief for my lack of motivation.
But then I heard my landline AND my cell phone ring – simultaneously. Something was wrong.
“THANK GOD YOU’RE OK! YOU ARE OK, RIGHT? ARE YOU OK? WHERE ARE YOU?” Mom was hysterical.
“Mom, what’s going on?”
“You haven’t been watching the news? A plane flew into the Twin Towers. Turn on the TV.”
I turned on the TV just in time to see the second plane hit. My knees gave out on me. Suddenly, my debate about whether or not to live in New York City was moot. I was going to die here.
I sat down on the dirty, hardwood floor, sandwiched between the tiny, street-found couch and our Ikea kitchen isle. Two planes within moments of each other? My brain couldn’t make sense of it. All the rules of our universe were suspended.
The word “terrorism” floated in the air, spoken from an immaculate newscaster. I definitely wasn’t surprised to hear the word. But it was the final stone in my sinking stomach.
I didn’t know what to do. My mother was saying something in the phone, but I didn’t hear her. Less than a mile from me, people were dying. People were burning. Less than a mile from me the world was ending.
I walked to my roommate’s door, and knocked. When there was no answer, I opened it to a neatly made bed. Not home. I had hated her guts and dreamed up any number of evil plots against her, yet, at the moment, I found myself praying to God she was alive.
The TV screamed at me that more planes were down, the Pentagon, Pennsylvania. This was just the beginning. What was going to explode next?
Mom was still on the phone. “What are you going to do? You can’t stay there. Where are you going to go?”
I didn’t know. I didn’t want to leave my apartment. I figured more planes would fly overhead, bombs obliterating everyone in their path. How could any plan matter now?
I told my mom I had to let her go to check on my friends and figure out what to do. She didn’t want to sever the connection. Now that I’m a mom, I get it. That was, literally, her lifeline. She made me swear to call her as often as possible.
My hands shook so drastically I couldn’t shut off the phone until the third try. I started to pray, but I didn’t know what to say. How could I ask God to spare me when any number of people were already dead? I simply prayed that I make the right decisions.
But that was the problem. I felt underwater, struggling for air. I had no clue what decisions to make.
I called my best friend, Alex. Somehow, she sounded normal.
“Randi, it’s going to be okay. We’re going to get out of the city. I’ll figure something out. I’ll walk to you from work and we’ll go from there. Do you want to buy some food? It’s probably a good idea for us to stock up on canned goods.”
Yes. Go to the store, and buy food. It would mean walking outside, but at least I would be doing something, rather than just sitting here, shaking and barely breathing.
I stepped outside to one of the most truly perfect autumn days I’d ever witnessed. The sky was a bright azure, not a cloud to be found. The temperature was perfect – eighty degrees – the kind of day that used to make me feel optimistic.
I looked up and saw the Towers – high and gray and enflamed. Around me, New Yorkers simply stood and stared. To my right was the local laundromat owner, a notoriously cranky and disgruntled Chinese woman who was the bane of my existence. She sobbed. “This is…this is…I can’t believe it,” she said, as her body shook.
“Yes,” was all I could manage.
I walked two blocks to the local store and traveled the aisles. Other people walked beside me in similarly confused dazes. I picked up a few items and got in line. A woman ran up behind me and asked to go ahead. She had on an FDNY uniform and was purchasing first aid items.
“Of course,” I said. This was the first time since moving to New York that I let someone go ahead of me in line. New Yorkers do not do that sort of thing.
I walked home, my eyes glued to the Towers. I couldn’t shake the feeling of watching a movie. I could not accept this was real life.
At home I pulled out a knapsack and threw in some clothes. When I started to pack the food I realized I’d bought ten cans of chickpeas and little else.
And that’s when the building shook. I flipped on the TV to see one of the Towers collapsing, debris exploding into the air.
Newscasters were screaming, people outside were screaming. I crouched, holding my head, certain my old, decrepit building would also collapse. When it didn’t, I stood up and went to my window. My tiny, expensive West Village apartment literally had a view of a building five feet away, but I figured if I couldn’t see that building, things were bad. I could see the building, so that was something.
I went back downstairs and opened the door to the impossible sight of one Tower, standing alone on the horizon, still burning. A black cloud floated up around it and the air smelled like singed hair.
And that’s when I saw them. Walking slowly, somberly, a brigade of soldiers in three-piece suits, covered head-to-toe in ash. Silence, heavy and sickening, engulfed us all. Looking back at this moment, I feel disgusted at myself. I should have brought down a jug of water and some mugs. I should have offered them a drink or a shower or some food. Instead, I stood and gawked.
Alex arrived, the opposite of me – a woman of action, competent and energetic. “Honey,” she said, looking at me as if she were looking at a child, “you’re still in your pajamas.”
I hadn’t realized it until that moment, but she was right. We hugged – hard – and I changed clothes. Alex guided me to pack my cell phone and even took a few moments to laugh at my purchase of chickpeas.
“I found out there are some ferries running to New Jersey. I’m not sure where they land, but when we get there, we can call Don and he can take us to Hoboken.” Don was her boyfriend. Hoboken was the location of her apartment. Alex was my angel.
As we walked up 6th Avenue, Alex said we should take pictures. I’m not great at remembering to take pictures on a good day, but it certainly never occurs to me when times are bad. “Randi, this is a day we’ll never forget. And who knows how long THAT Tower will stand? We should document this.”
It never occurred to me that the second Tower could fall. New York City with no Twin Towers? It just seemed so disturbing. I snapped a couple of pictures of the single, burning tower, then turned away from it, for the last time.
We passed a church and Alex asked if we should go in. I said yes. We settled into a pew and prayed together, out loud, for the first and only time. We held hands so tightly our knuckles were white.
We walked onto the ferry and I called Mom. She was so relieved that I was getting out of New York that the change in her voice was palpable. I paced up and down the aisles of the ferry, thinking about how expensive a boat ride like this could be under different circumstances.
Don was waiting at the dock, and he and Alex held each other tenderly. I realized then I had a built a nearly solitary life, no person to call home, no foundation. I was always so afraid of rejection. Now that fear seemed so small, so needless.
We went back to Alex’s apartment. Her roommates, people we knew from the theater world, sat chain-smoking. We hugged and repeated endlessly, “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it.”
I assume we ate, I’m sure we did, but I couldn’t tell you what it was. The TV remained on, a constant influx of horrible news. The second Tower fell, and all we could do was cry. I kept praying for survivors, somehow survivors.
I slept in the living room, tried to ignore the persistent clouds of smoke and refused to turn off the TV. I drifted off to a newscaster repeating, “It’s just incredulous, totally incredulous,” and cursed her bad English, before realizing how silly I was.
The next day, Alex and I traveled back into the city via the PATH train to give blood. I expected the train to explode at any moment, but I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit in Hoboken while people lay buried under ash.
We went to a few different Red Cross centers, but nobody needed our blood. None of the bodies they rescued were alive.
All available spaces – lampposts, sides of buildings, trees, parked cars – were covered with homemade signs. Pictures of husbands, wives, fiancés, mothers, fathers, adult children accompanied desperate pleas for any information about their whereabouts. I couldn’t shake the thought that had I gone to my meeting, my picture would be up there, too.
I tried to go back to my apartment to pack up more things, but that section of Manhattan was closed, a barricade of silent, frowning cops blocking the way. I had no idea what condition my apartment would be in when I could return.
We returned to Hoboken and I called every person I’d ever cared about who lived in the city – my selfish roommate, the ex-coworker on whom I had an unrequited crush, the boy with whom I’d had one failed date, college friends who lived in the city whom I hadn’t seen in too long. I sighed deeper with each living, breathing voice who answered the phone.
My mother begged me to come home to Kentucky and I relented. Flights were impossible, of course, so I took a Greyhound from Newark. It was an epic, two-day hell-hole of a ride, of which all I can really remember is sleeping on my sweatshirt and buying junk food at rest stops.
My mom looked at me like I was a corpse. She ordered me to strip off my clothes so she could wash them. I hadn’t noticed, but she said they were ashy.
We attended a memorial service in a small, rural town. The people were sweet and sad, but I felt I didn’t belong. They were mourning something they saw on TV. They hadn’t breathed in the ash of burning buildings and bodies. They hadn’t heard the screaming. They didn’t have to live with the fact that it could have been them. I resented them.
My sister and her boyfriend took me to a haunted forest attraction in the woods outside of Louisville to lift my spirits. I’ve always loved horror movies and Halloween-themed events, but this night felt uncomfortable and inappropriate. Looking at actors bathed in corn-syrup blood and being chased by men with chain-less chainsaws felt cartoonish and silly. I’d seen actual death. This could not scare me.
I broke my mother’s heart a few days later when I told her I had to return. Watching the footage of New Yorkers pulling together settled the argument in my heart – I was a part of all that. I belonged there. I had to help rebuild.
I repeated the Greyhound trip in reverse, feeling better this time, less like a run-away. The debate in my head was settled. For the time being, at least, New York was worth the expense and the craziness. New York needed me.
In the year that followed, I found the man that would be my husband and father of our daughter. I became a public school teacher and found the career that would fulfill me and possibly change the world. I learned not to fear life because death could be lurking around the corner. And I learned that we can heal from almost anything.