A plane hit the tower.
Must have been an accident, I figured; something just went catastrophically wrong. I remembered previous plane crashes–the jet that went into Boston Harbor when I was four years old, the USAir flight that crashed at the beginning of senior year, TWA Flight 800–and I figured this was no different. Just as tragic, but no different.
Then another plane hit.
We were under attack.
I remember the nasty odor in the air as all of us who were told to leave for the day walked the streets of downtown Boston; the stench of death could not have wafted that far from New York City, could it? I saw a friend of high school and college who I hadn’t seen in two years. She waved hi, saying nothing, too shocked. I waved back.
I didn’t want to take the train home. What if they decided to strike the subway system next? I decided to stick to buses–they would get me home in a longer period of time, but they would be safer. Then my mind flashed to the scene from The Siege where terrorists attack a bus. Oy.
I remembered seeing that movie at the old Loews Fresh Pond theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the first weekend of November in 1998. I thought The Siege was great entertainment, but the premise was a bit too far-fetched.
I felt hungry. I wanted to get something to eat–but what if they had poisoned the food supply, too? What if this was my last meal?
I went to the Wendy’s in Copley Square and ordered a chicken sandwich, fries and a Coke. I felt so bad for the employees–all of them young, all of them wanting to get back home to their families, all of them presumably ordered to keep working through the world’s mayhem. I felt guilty. I felt hungry.
I got on the Route 39 bus. I had a portable AM/FM radio–please God, I thought, don’t let some cop think it’s a bomb–and I turned it to WBZ-AM, the all-news station. Gary LaPierre and Jay McQuaide reported on the chaos, with updates from CBS Radio News. I keep looking out the window. I didn’t want to see anybody else’s horror.
I thought back to the weekend before, how quiet and calm it was. That weekend, I went to see The Musketeer, a patently awful film with Mena Suvari from American Beauty. I was one of only five people in the theatre. I missed that moment of peace.
I got off the 39 bus at the final stop, Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain. I was getting depressed, angry, sick. I couldn’t bear to hear the news anymore. I turned the radio to WZLX-FM, the classic rock station. They were playing David Bowie’s “Suffragette City.” Then dead silence.
Oh God. Was it another attack?
I finally made it home. They kept replaying the footage of the plane hitting the second tower. I couldn’t bear to watch.
I cried that night, just as I had cried six years earlier after the Oklahoma City bombing. I didn’t want to get up again.
Next Sunday will mark the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Paul Krugman wasn’t wrong five years ago when he observed:
What happened after 9/11 — and I think even people on the right know this, whether they admit it or not — was deeply shameful. The atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons.
A lot of other people behaved badly. How many of our professional pundits — people who should have understood very well what was happening — took the easy way out, turning a blind eye to the corruption and lending their support to the hijacking of the atrocity?
The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it.
Five years later, I would only add this: in light of what an incompetent president did in the aftermath of 9/11, I cannot understand why people would look at another obvious incompetent and see that person as being of presidential timber. I have to wonder whether Donald Trump’s supporters have remembered the lessons of 9/11, whether they have truly learned from history.
Having said that, there is one memory from those horrid days that has not been poisoned.
Four days later, I sat in another quiet movie theatre, the now-closed Showcase Circle in Brookline, Massachusetts. I went to see Hardball with Keanu Reeves. Another subpar film, but one that was a joy nonetheless, a brief relief from madness.
Before I left that theatre, I thought of those who had perished the previous Tuesday–the movies they enjoyed, the jobs they loved, the family members they cherished. I thought of their struggles, their pain, their disappointments, as well as their triumphs and glories. I thought of the cruelty of their passing.
And then I thought of that old cliche about the gift of life, something I once thought was the corniest phrase ever created. As the final credits rolled, as the closing Paramount logo flashed on the screen before the lights came up, it occurred to me that it wasn’t a cliche at all, that life really was a gift. One not to waste. One not to squander.
Are we honoring those who died that day with the way we lead our lives? Are we cherishing the gift we have?