Today marks the 6th anniversary of the most horrifying terrorist attack in American history, one that, unlike many of my countrymen, I am a bit disconnected from. In the past I have generally avoided writing about the subject, feeling like an outsider trying to offer solace to those who cannot find comfort in the empty spaces of what came to be called “Ground Zero,” but if for no other reason than posterity I will record my own experience here, lest memory ebb it away in time.
As September 2001 began I was just starting my freshman year at Rutgers University, Cook College, my primary concerns being making sure I got to class on time and finding out a way to solidify a relationship with a young woman that I had been introduced to during one of the orientation days. On the morning of September 11th, I woke up as per my usual custom; with just enough time to shower, throw on some clothes, and head out the door (with no breakfast) in order to make it to class on time. On my way out I stopped in the den to say goodbye to my parents, and I could overhear the news reports that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. All that was shown on the screen was a pillar of smoke coming from the one of the towers, and while tragic, I thought that perhaps a small Cessna or other such plane had hit the building. Anything larger than that just wouldn’t make sense; how could a large plane hit a skyscraper?
The drive between my former home and the Rutgers campus took about a half hour, and being that I was not in the habit of listening to the radio, I didn’t get any new input about what was happening. Arriving a few minutes early I found a seat and didn’t notice anything particularly odd going on. Someone behind me said that two planes had hit the WTC, but that couldn’t be true. Two planes? He probably misheard the news reports as he was getting up, still hung over from last night’s binge drinking. Despite the events of that morning, Anthropology 101 began as usual, at least until 15 minutes into the class when a woman ran into the lecture hall, crying hysterically. “The twin towers are gone!” she said, mentioning something about classes being canceled shortly before running to the next room to inform the rest of the students.
Activity on campus proceeded in a strange fashion that almost seemed to bend time as students either crept or ran out of the lecture halls. Some students seemed to be in a sort of daze, moving in slow motion, not sure where to go or what to do. Others ran towards their dorms or (if they were members of the ROTC) places to get instructions as to what to do. Some upperclassmen, in the tradition of Hudson from the film Aliens (“Game over, man!”) proceeded to speak to themselves about how they were going to be drafted, somehow under the impression that Dick Cheney was going to personally show up and press every one of the senior into military service.
No matter what the students were doing, however, everyone was was on their cells phones… only to find that they didn’t work. My mother had loaned me her phone for the first few days of school, a clunky grey phone with a little flip-cover that gave it the technical title of being a flip-phone without actually being any more convenient, and even in the best of times its signal was only so-so. Rather than fight for reception, I went over to a pay phone to try and call my mother, but that line didn’t work either. Becoming a little more frantic, I dialed my home phone over and over again, finally reaching my mother who told me that everything was fine and that my father was on his way to pick me up (even though I had a car of my own, he insisted on driving me to the book store in downtown New Brunswick, and was going to meet me anyway).
Things continued to be strange after I met up with my father. While I expressed my worries that the large oil distribution centers in Linden near our home might be targets, my father told me that there was nothing more to worry about and that there probably wouldn’t be any more attacks. I didn’t quite believe him, but I didn’t force the issue. Still a little jittery, he accompanied me to the book store where I picked up my Anthro 101 packet and he took me back to where my car was parked, telling me that he’d meet me back at home.
As if things weren’t strange enough, the girl whom I had been after for the last few days (and, in classic style, told me she couldn’t date me even though she had affections for me, too) had left a note on my car saying that she would date me after all. What possessed her to leave the note on this day, I don’t know, just as I don’t know why in the world I walked over to her dorm to make amends and ask her to be my girlfriend. She dumped me three weeks later for reasons that I will not disclose here (some dirty laundry is better burned than aired), but throughout the entire, albeit short, duration I always thought it strange that our relationship began on September 11th, 2001.
Once I arrived home I sat down to have lunch with my family in front of the TV, munching on a Wendy’s burger & fries while seeing images of explosions, twisted wreckage, and inconsolable people flit across the screen. The whole day had been so bizarre up to this point that I was simply numb to it all at this point, and tragedy not having much of an impact on me. I had no friends that worked in New York, no relatives, no friends with family in the city; I felt utterly disconnected from the anguish being poured out just a few miles away. Even in the following days, I turned on my headlights like thousands of others, but I can’t say I had anyone in mind as I rode around town at 3 P.M. with my lights on. The smoke and dust from the site of the attack were visible in the distance as I rode past the elementary school during the following week as I headed to the Garden State Parkway, but that and the seemingly looped video of the attack did not stir the same feelings of sadness and solidarity felt by others around me.
Certain events in the coming weeks and months would trigger nervous responses from me, like the report of a plane crash in New York later that fall semester, but my own little world continued to keep moving on like it had before, as if nothing had happened at all. The next year I watched some of the ceremony at Ground Zero on television, the year where the response to the tragedy was more fervent. Each year the emotion tied to the event seemed to diminish, to the point where I nearly forgot the significance of this day as I made my way to work this morning.
So I am left with little left to say, reflecting on an event that occurred nearly within sight of my home but did not have the impact on my life as it did on others. I don’t feel guilty or bad about this, or wish that I could share in the pain of others; I just feel helpless and divorced from what happened six years ago today, the events of September 11th, 2001 in my own life were rather discordant with what the rest of the world experienced.