Brief Memories of the WTC and 9/11

From the mid 1980s through the mid 90s  I worked in and around the World Trade Center.  In 1985-86, I worked on lower Broadway for a law firm. Then in 1987  I moved a few blocks away to work on the 105th floor of building 2 of the WTC: I was an assistant law librarian at Shearson Lehman for a grand total of 6 months.  It was a boring job: in fact, I was able to read, savor and finish both of Tolstoy’s big novels while at work since my daily chores were easily accomplished before noon.  It wasn’t all updating hard copies of Congressional Reports, however. Personal computers and useful software were just coming into the workplace, and, as a “trained” researcher on the then new database LexisNexis, I sometimes was asked to train new lawyers in how to do searches. Now that was fun. At the time, using LexisNexis cost firms something like $95/hour (I’m guessing there) so they were convinced that only “trained” professionals should use the thing.  One of those lawyers I trained was a kid I lived across the street from in elementary school, Kyle. I had a clear memory of him hugging himself, creating the trompe l’oeil of a couple embracing, kissing.  And at age 22, he kindly recreated that memory for me. 

I didn’t check for his name in 2001. I assumed he had left Shearson by then.

I left that job both out of boredom and also because I hated the palpable swaying of the building, which was most pronounced when sitting on the toilet in the ladies room.  A bit disconcerting. A year later, I worked at the community college down the street from the WTC, and often taught classes in the building that they rented even closer to the towers (a building effectively destroyed on 9/11). 

I was working there during the first WTC bombing in 1993, but except for some inconvenience getting back to Brooklyn, it didn’t affect me.  A few friends of friends, though, were greatly shook up, and we spent hours in a local pub that night listening to their stories.  Some left their jobs rather than stay.  

By the mid 90s, I left New York City for good, so I wasn’t there during 9/11.

Instead, I was recently divorced, living in this lovely western state many miles away, and getting dressed for our annual faculty retreat, held on the 2nd or 3rd Tuesday of September, before classes. I had to give a presentation on assessment of all things, so I was already a bit stressed (our faculty, like most, are not exactly thrilled with an enforced culture of assessment).  Because I was up so early, I saw the 2nd plane hit one of the towers, and was promptly physically sick.

But I was untenured and duty called, so I went to the retreat where it seemed no one was particularly concerned about the events of the morning: at least until ole Annie Em got up there to give her spiel and instead, in tears, told them stories about my time in that part of the city, and all of the friends I still hadn’t heard from.   That basically put an end to the “festivities”.  Eight years later and I’m probably still known as that New Yorker who cries easily. 

I went back to New York that December to visit family and friends.  The Promenade in Brooklyn Heights still had flowers (dried, fake) clinging to the iron fencing, and photos of friends and family members who were missing or dead.  There probably was no longer a smell in the air, but my friends were so vivid in their descriptions of the acrid smell that lasted for weeks that I could smell it, too, 3 months later.

Our faculty retreat this year is next Tuesday, right on schedule, but this year it will be held in a new building on campus.  Many of the faculty have retired or left, but most are still around. Each year, despite all my best intentions to enjoy myself, I force myself to attend, smile, talk about my and ask about their  productive and restful and fun summer activities, and count the hours till I can get the hell out of there. I’m fine by the next day’s round of meetings. But it’s now an inconvenient and stressful reaction that I hope I will exorcise by writing about it here.

4 responses to “Brief Memories of the WTC and 9/11

  1. I’ve often thought that 9/11 is our generations Kennedy Assassination: a moment you’ll always remember where you were.

    I, too, was living in a Western State in 01, but I grew up in the suburbs of NY. In fact, I remember when the towers went up: at the time, they were thought an eyesore by many. And I ate at Windows on the World, once, at the end of an intensive summer Latin program with CUNY.

    On 9/11, I was partially awake, when suddenly I realized that my husband had turned on the TV — something we don’t normally do in the morning. I heard some commentary about planes and fire, and struggled further awake just in time to see the second plane hit. I remember the smoke pouring out, and the flames, and eventually, people jumping.

    Then I suddenly, to my horror, recalled a conversation with my sister from the week before. She mentioned that her office had moved downtown and that WTC was her subway stop now. I frantically started calling her, to no avail — hours later I learned that she had spontaneously decided to take a long weekend.

    But the thing I remember most vividly was the sound when the first tower fell. There was a strange, animalistic wail of terror and pity that went up from the crowds, that was captured by the mics when the event was live. Though that moment was rebroadcast many times, within about an hour, they started editing down the sound so that that moan was far less perceptible. But at the time, it was one of the strangest, scariest noises I think I ever had heard. And I remember thinking, after the first tower feel, “Wow, there’s only going to be one tower now, instead of twins.” It hadn’t occurred to me that the second one likely would fall as well.

  2. Hi Squadro,

    Thank you so much for your thoughts. And stories like your sister’s (suddenly deciding to take a mental health day) I’ve heard before. It WAS a stunning day weather-wise, so it probably is no oddness that so many stories like that are out there, but still, such stories make me gasp lightly when I think of the lightness of being…(I’m not finding the right words here…).

    I don’t remember the sound: how haunting.

    (FYI: That intensive summer Latin program at CUNY: I almost did that, but chickened out and took the Spanish and French language exams instead (should have done the Latin after all, since I studied it in HS, and the prof grading the Spanish exam was VERY picky;-)

  3. I was teaching the first year of a new tenure-track job when 9/11 happened and, like you, I felt like I needed to “be professional” and “fulfill my duties” that day — going into campus, teaching my classes, trying to behave like it was a normal day. When I think back on it now, I’m amazed at myself. It was an absurd proposition to think that it could be a normal day.

    Thank you for a lovely reflection.

  4. I know my colleagues at the time were also struggling with that day, despite what I wrote above: but it did seem odd to me that we all showed up ready to “retreat” anyway. I suppose that’s human: what else would we have done? Collectively decided to stay in bed? Hit the pub?

    Thanks for commenting BSGirl…

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