I debated internally whether to write this post. I am not a New Yorker. I hadn’t yet moved to DC. I didn’t lose a loved one or knew someone that perished on September 11th. But to say my life—all of our lives—was not touched or changed by the events of September 11th would be remiss. Although this is a blog focused on food, I attempt to give readers a glimpse into my life and the person that I am through stories that accompany the recipes.
On September 11, 2001 I was a junior at Austin College in Texas. I was living off campus and being a poor college student, I had to decide between cable television or dial-up Internet. My roommate and I decided on Internet because I had to login to web boards for some of my classes. I didn’t have class that morning so by the time I woke up (just before 9 am) the north tower had been struck. As I was logging on to check my email before driving to campus to go to my work-study job, the south tower was being hit. The images immediately after logging on to my AOL account were of the Twin Towers burning. I was dumbfounded. I was in shock. I could not believe the images before me. I was breathless. I was heart broken.
I immediately got dressed and drove to campus and went to work, which was at the new student center. Since I worked for the Vice-President of Student Affairs I thought I might be able to get more information but honestly I just wanted to be around people.
The new student center had plasma televisions along the walls. Students were crowded around the televisions—eyes fixated on the screens, mouths wide open, some people leaning against each other, and the usually loud and buzzing student center was eerily quiet. I ran up the stairs to the office and the VP’s assistant explained to me that two planes had crashed into the towers and another had just struck the Pentagon. More shock and confusion entered my mind. I could hear the words she was saying but I could not make the connection of what was happening. I asked if I could go downstairs to the televisions and as I worked my way down to the TVs just after the first tower collapsed. My eyes remained glued to the television and shortly after the second tower fell. Those images: the flames perturbing from the buildings, the clouds of smoke billowing down and out from the collapse, the people screaming and running away from the buildings will be ingrained in my mind forever.
I can’t remember most of the events preceding those first few hours because that day I felt removed from my body. I was walking and talking, going through the motions but I truly felt numb. I felt crippled. I could not understand hating a country so much to commit an attack that would take the lives of so many people. That type of hatred could never consume my heart. At some point I remember talking to my parents and being indicated that the son of my aunt’s husband was working at the Pentagon (he was a JAG) and they had not heard from him. Now the events had immediately impacted me. Although I wasn’t particularly close to him or his wife, someone I knew was missing. There was a face. There was a name. Someone I knew could have lost his life. Luckily, later that day he made contact with his father and we learned that he was okay.
I didn’t go to class that day and most were cancelled or students were encouraged to attend class to talk about the events of the day. I made my way to the Duplex because my former roommate and friend was celebrating her 21st birthday that day and most of my friends were gathering. We decided to celebrate life instead of dwell on the events of the day. But despite the celebration, the television remained on and what happened that day was on the minds of everyone.
In the following weeks, I am ashamed to say that after finding out that the attackers were of Middle Eastern descent and Muslim, there were threats on the lives of some students who were believed to be Arab or Muslim. Most of those students were in fact Indian and many were not Muslim. But because of their dark skin and the ignorance of others, they were targeted. Again, I could not understand the reaction. I could not understand the hatred. And even if these fellow students were Arab or Muslim, how could they be held accountable to the unforgivable acts of an isolated group of people?
Also in question was whether the JanTerm (a month long program at my college) that I had signed up for: Art, Architecture and Music in New York City would happen. I was looking forward to the class and trip because I had never been to NYC and as a theater nerd, I had always dreamed of going to a Broadway show. I have always been fascinated by New York City. The school decided to not cancel the trip and in January 2002, four months after the attacks I went on my first trip to New York City. I remember looking out my window as our flight made the decent into the city and I took a picture of lower Manhattan without the Twin Towers. That picture has remains in my apartment today.
One of the assignments for the class was to attend and take a pictures of yourself at different New York landmarks to study the architecture, included in the list was what was now called Ground Zero. I had major problems with this because I felt that it was too soon and somehow exploiting the events of September 11th. I voiced my opposition to my professor and that I did not feel comfortable going to the site so soon after the attacks. He told me there would not be any marks held against me if I refused to visit the site but he strongly encouraged me to keep my mind open and visit.
After a week in the city my best friend who was also on the trip finally convinced me to go to Ground Zero. I was still hesitant to go and realized my hesitation wasn’t fear of exploitation or feeling unsafe. It was the grief and tears I could not fight back. That numbness and breathlessness that I felt on September 11th consumed my body again. Walking around the fences and gates surrounding the area with the memorials, the flowers, the pictures, the missing posters, the fireman’s hats tugged at my heart. As I walked towards the observation deck, a group of firefighters came out of a church just finishing a shift of working through debris. Their faces were sullen and covered with soot. The entire area was still covered with soot, ash, paper, and debris for several blocks. I couldn’t help but think of the lives of the fallen surrounding me.
As I reached the deck, I could not look down. I looked up and out to the vast emptiness where the towers once stood. Like months before I felt out of my body. I barely spoke. I stood there and still could not grasp what I was witnessing and I doubt I ever will. Despite my initial objections, I am glad that I went to Ground Zero to get a glimpse of the lives of the people we lost. I am glad I got see the firefighters changing shifts and thank them for their hard work. I am glad I got to bare witness to the strength of New York.
All throughout the city there are free postcards at bodegas and restaurants that you can take with you that are often advertisement for restaurants or events in the city. There was a plain blue card a little bigger than the others with white letters that read: New York Needs Us Strong. I took that card as a memory of the trip…a memory of the events. Like the picture I took of lower Manhattan, that postcard has remained framed and hanging in every place I have lived since that trip.
Although I am not a New Yorker, I feel a connection and have always felt a connection to the city. There is a toughness and resolve about New Yorkers. They take pride in their city, to a New Yorker there is no better place on earth. I often get annoyed by my friends that move from New York to DC and their endless comparisons of the two cities and chatter about how much better NYC is than DC. But I understand where they are coming from. There is an indescribable magic about NYC—an aura and glow that surrounds the city. I am not a New Yorker, but I love New York.
Today I remember the lives lost, the faces of the firefighters I saw on my trip, what makes New York City great, what makes our country great. The resilience and decency of people. And most of all to never to fill my heart with hate. To fill it with love, to never forget, and to always be strong in the face of adversity.