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I happen to have woken up in New York City today, and eighteen years is a significant personal anniversary in my society, so I may as well write down my memories now. I don’t expect them to contain any great objective significance or insight; it just feels right to share them today, here, where I have not before.
Not a habitual TV watcher, I believe I learned of the attacks while listening to WBUR as I got ready for work, in my little Somerville apartment. By the time I’d switched to my car’s radio, driving down Highland Avenue, I recall Tom Ashbrook’s calm public-radio voice bluntly stating “America is under attack.” I recall the skies through my windshield as cloudlessly blue, just as they were 200 miles away in New York.
The office presented a surreal, dreamlike scene. I worked in the Boston branch of a significant publishing house, with as many New York connections as any other worldwide business, and the people there didn’t know what to do or how to act. A general sense of confused paralysis had taken over. The company’s president in California, not a cruel person, sent us an all-hands email early in the morning that he did expect us to work as usual.
I don’t remember getting any work done, but I certainly did stay tuned to boston.com, which continued to work unlike all the utterly clogged national news websites. Through the company’s internal mailing list I also learned of a text-transcription news feed about the ongoing situation, and kept a window open to that. Local news websites in 2001 did not typically feature multimedia, so I did not see or hear any video of the disaster, and I think I benefitted from this. I would successfully avoid video exposure for many years thereafter, until enough time had passed for clips to start showing up in unrelated movies and such, used for the same sort scene-setting shorthand as the Zapruder film.
The company mailing list remained lit up all day, as were other lists I belonged to, in those pre-Facebook days: multiple lists used by different Boston-area friend-circles, and another for fans of an obscure board-game company. Everyone just reaching out, however they could. Checking in and telling uncertain jokes. I recall the first post on the day’s news to that board-game list, subject line “The bombs”, reflecting how much misinformation spread, so quickly. The message’s author making an effort to stay on-topic by sharing their plans to bring some games with them if they had to relocate to a shelter.
My best friend in the office, Erik, maintained a hopeful mood on the mailing list all morning, insisting that the towers still stood. It did not take long for the truth became clear and undeniable, and he sank into a profound sadness, and said he was going home, and he went home. I think we all did. I don’t quite remember how I felt; not sad, but just carried along.
That evening I had to go out on some errand. On my route home I walked past a throng of high school kids by the Davis Square subway stop, having an impromptu rally. A smiling girl wearing sparkling eye-makeup waved large American flag with both hands and I will remember her forever, she my mental anchor for the whole day. The boys in the group yelped at shouted for passing traffic to holler back at them. One called me out as I trudged past them: “You, in the Open Source backpack!” I raised my arms and went “wooo”.
Another boy in the group shouted “Raghead!” at a car. I also heard a young guy say “Let’s go kill some Arabs!” to his friend, out by the Star Market. Finally, as I got home, some very young kids took their excess of uncomfortable energy out on strangers. One pointed to the sky and shouted “Hey look!”, then with his other hand threw a paper twist of cap-gun powder at my feet, where it snapped loudly. They laughed as I flinched and kept walking.
I had not been hassled like that by the local kids before, and it would not happen again. We were all breathing strange air and I gave them a pass. (And do they even sell those little novelty bang-powder packets any more? I recall them as somewhat common when I was a kid, and this was the last time I’d ever encountered one. How bizarre they seem in retrospect.)
My parents called before I went to bed. They never approved of my living in what they considered a big, dangerous city like Boston, and the day’s events made them more worried than ever for my safety. I did my best to reassure them that I was fine, that everything was normal. My mother asked if I knew about the jet fighters that she heard were deployed in the city’s defense. “Can you see the planes?” she asked. I looked out over the skyline, and said I didn’t see any planes at all.
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