I have often felt like my experience on September 11, 2011 and the subsequent days were different than others. I still called friends in New York to be sure they were okay. I still was saddened and confused and eventually, strengthened in my resolve to believe in the ideals of the United States of America.
But when the attacks came the morning of 9/11, I was sleeping in my new apartment in St. Louis, Missouri. I had only moved there a week ago, and I didn’t have television. No cable. No antenna. My TV was only good for it’s ability to play VHS.
This small fact, not having television, changed everything around 9/11. I wouldn’t have known it even happened had I not received a phone call making sure that I was okay. I had September plans to be in Boston and one of the planes had departed from Boston. But I was not scheduled to travel until the end of the month and ended up flying in the space between the lifting of the air restriction and the strictest airline security. When only ten of us dared to fly and airports were quiet tombs at every hour. But I wasn’t afraid to fly. Because I had seen only the briefest of photos, and I had never seen the footage of the planes crashing in the towers.
Most September 11 stories, unless the writer was at the Pentagon or near the Twin Towers, include: “I immediately turned on CNN.” “I was glued to the television for days.” “I watched the towers fall.” “I wanted them to stop playing the footage of the World Trade Center because I couldn’t watch it one more time.” Television linked all Americans to the experience of 9/11. We watched the towers fall over and over and over again. We were all New Yorkers. Except me. I knew the tragedy, but I didn’t witness it. It was terrible but accidentally removed.
I was 23-years-old and without a television or sense of community in my new city. On September 11, 2001, I was just happy to arrive at work on time. And when I left work at 11 p.m., our boss gave each of us a thank you note for showing up on such a difficult day. For being there for these children in the group home when so many were afraid to go anywhere.
But I would have never thought to stay home. Not because I was strong or loyal. I was not the best employee. I just wasn’t able to share the fear that gripped our nation. I had no friends in St. Louis to sit next to and grieve with in front of CNN. Once my few phone calls of reassurance were made, I went back to my tiny life only taking in bits and pieces of 9/11 on my dial-up modem and the occasional newspaper. I didn’t understand at the time that I should be more engrossed. I didn’t understand how easily television does that for Americans.
I finally sought out the footage the following year. To try and make up for this lack. To be a part of this country. But I can never watch it in the same way as everyone else did the first days and weeks. I know too much of the aftermath. The wars and lies, confusion and bravery, loss and faith.
Not to say that I have not felt the inherent tragedy. I cried for the firefighters and rescue workers who lost their lives. I cried for the victims in the planes and the towers and the Pentagon. But I was not apart of the collective experience. I have grieved in bits and pieces. As I read the yearly stories. As I watched the annual 9/11 TV specials. As I visited Ground Zero. Perhaps, I have almost caught up to those who were able to tune in for first hours and days of coverage in 2001. Perhaps, I never will.
Where were you on 9/11? What did you think when you saw the towers fall?
I was sleeping. I didn’t see the towers fall for a year. I’m sorry. I didn’t know how television changed things. I didn’t know how far away from America I had been.
My heart and prayers go out to all those affected by 9/11. As our country continues to find its bearings, I invite you (again) to read an amazing piece from 2007 by David Foster Wallace, Just Asking.