On September 11, 2001, I woke up like it was any other day. Little did I know the the entire world would change within the next few hours. I’ve never lived in New York City and have only visited the city a few dozen times in my lifetime. Growing up, my family was hesitant to visit the big scary city that was only a couple hours from where we lived in NJ. Even now, as an adult, my mother still warns me to keep my wallet in my front pocket when I go to the city.
In 2001, I was working at Toy Kingdom in Flemington, NJ. It was a job that required me to unload trucks, stock shelves, run a register, mop floors, wrap presents (I can still curl ribbon better than anyone else I know…), and other menial tasks. Basically your standard crappy part-time job. I was starting at 9AM that day, so when my older brother called me to tell me that the first plane had hit the World Trade Center, I was on my way out the door. I dashed back into our living room to see if it was on the news. I remember looking down at the TV and seeing the smoke rising from the North Tower. I still remember trying to wrap my head around the scope of what had happened as I looked down at the knotty, amber-colored hardwood floor beneath my feet.
I couldn’t be late for work, so after watching for a few moments, I ran out to my car and sped to work. When I arrived, I unlocked the door to the store, turned on the lights and rounded the store and storage basement as I quickly went through our opening routine. A few minutes later, I was back upstairs, behind the register counter. It was against the rules, but I switched our store’s TVs from the security video split-screen to CNN. When my manager arrived (late), she didn’t complain. We spent most of the morning watching as the events of the day unfolded.
I was surprised by each and every customer that came into the store that morning. Why was anyone buying toys on a day like that? For me, it felt like the beginning of the apocalypse; not a time to be shopping for overpriced junk. And something that I will never forget was the attitude of some of our customers. “Oh God, why is that on the TVs?” “Ugh, I’ve had enough of that already!” And other similar sentiments. It was the self-righteous attitude of the central NJ upper class housewife. I wonder if they felt the same way after so many people died that day. Their attitudes made me ashamed that we are the same species.
We closed the store that afternoon once the slow stream of customers became nonexistent. For something like the next 30 hours straight, I watched CNN and the other cable news networks. I shared a bedroom with my younger brother at the time, and when he went to sleep, I merely put on my headphones. I remember succumbing to my sorrow and exhaustion at some point during the night, and just quietly sobbing by myself. Sometime earlier in the day, I had popped in a VHS tape and hit record — ultimately filling about 5 tapes with news coverage. I still have those tapes, but I’ve never watched them. I don’t think I could.
I didn’t personally know anyone that died that day, but something changed inside me. I used to love violent thrillers and war movies. But since that day, I find it hard to watch people realistically ‘die’ on camera. When I drive near an airport, low planes flying overhead make me nervous; it’s no longer cool to seem them so close. And every time I see someone falling from a high building, bridge or airplane in a movie or television show, I remember seeing people jump from the upper floors of the towers in attempt to escape the smoke and their certain deaths. I suck in a quick breath, and just try (usually unsuccessfully) to force that awful image from my mind.
Years earlier, an English teacher had told my class to map out the significant things that had happened in our lifetime as part of a writing exercise. Births, deaths, divorces, happy moments. My life had always been pretty boring, and I didn’t have many marks on my personal time line. The September 11th attacks became the first major mark on my line. Even nine years later, I still have trouble wrapping my head around what happened.