Saturday, September 10, 2011

Jen's Story: Where were you on 9/11?

I had been out of grad school for just over a month and was working at my first “real” job, which moved me to Ithaca, New York, just a few hours outside NYC.  That morning, I got up very early (for a theatre person, anyway), grabbed the first t-shirt my hand hit when I opened the drawer, made a cup of coffee and headed to my car. I had an 8am design meeting for the production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I was working on at the time.  The meeting lasted longer than usual, about 2 hours.  Afterward, I got back into my car to go home and shower before heading back to my office for the day.  I turned on the radio when I got in the car and immediately changed the station when I heard talking instead of music.  I did this 6 times. Only then did I wonder “Why are none of the radio stations playing songs?” I paused. I heard. The news shook me to the core.  Just 2 weeks earlier, I’d visited New York and had coffee in the World Trade Center.  It was full of people. FULL. I couldn’t process this information. I ran into my apartment and turned on the television. The images I saw, two planes crashing into the WTC, will be forever burned into my memory.  I called my mother, who was frantically trying to get in touch with me. I called my grandmother, who thought at the time that the entire state of New York WAS NYC. She kept asking how far my apartment was from what was happening and I finally convinced her that I was a couple hundred miles away and perfectly safe.

I hung up the phone after checking in with my family and started making a mental checklist of my friends in the city.  I tried to remember where each of them worked, how close they lived to downtown, and whether or not I’d be able to get in touch with them any time soon.  I looked down and only then realized what I was wearing.  The first t-shirt my hand had hit that morning just happened to be my 4th of July Old Navy American Flag tee.  An eerie coincidence. 

I showered and went to my office where my boss, co-workers and I sat huddled around the radio.  I had only worked there for a few weeks and I already felt comfortable, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that THIS was the day I became a part of the theatre family at Cornell.  Students poured in and out of our office, some flabbergasted, others very quiet.  A couple were from NYC or DC and just needed a safe place to sit for a moment while they processed this information.  We counseled several of them over whether or not to go home.  A coworker’s fiancé lived 2 blocks from the WTC, so we helped him make arrangements to get to her as soon as possible to help salvage what was left of their apartment. (Their building was, ultimately, condemned, collapsing just a week after the attacks.)

My husband’s father, retired from Homeland Security, worked for a private security firm and spent at least one day a week in the Pentagon.  I remember getting an email from Marcus (we weren’t together at the time) asking everyone to pray for his father. His parents live just outside DC and he was not able to contact them for nearly 2 weeks.

Mostly, I remember the fear, the sadness, the anger, the desperation and the confusion.  Never had I had so much pride in my country or felt more American.  And never had I wanted to help so badly.  As soon as things calmed down a bit, my best friend and I grabbed a bus to NYC to do the best thing we could think to do as theatre professionals—we spent the weekend watching plays.  We’d read how Broadway shows were starting to suffer because people feared gathering in big public places. You could get tickets for next to nothing.  We took a Friday off work, headed to the city and poured as much money as we could afford into New York.  I’ll never forget Linda Lavin’s curtain speech after The Tale of The Allergist’s Wife thanking us for allowing them to tell us a story for two hours.  I was reminded what a great escape theatre can be, even when you’re at your lowest point.

As we stood at the top of the Empire State Building looking at the void that used to be the Twin Towers, my friend and I held hands and cried silently.  I think that was the moment I knew I needed to be an official New Yorker someday. (And I would become one, just 2 short years later.)  Hardly a day went by the entire time I lived in NYC that someone did not reference 9/11. Every time I met a new friend, it seemed we would soon reveal our own 9/11 story.  That day changed that city like nothing ever has or ever will.  New York will never be the same and neither will its inhabitants, old or new.

Jen blogs at Hey, Y'all and Food Lush.

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