Listening to 9/11: My Experience of the Attacks from Brooklyn

In September of 2001, I had just decided not to go back to school. I had been agonizing over whether to return to the Actors Studio Drama School (then at the New School University) for my second year of training toward a master’s degree in acting. I had just moved from Edgewater, NJ to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn (about 45 minutes by subway from Midtown), and for a couple of weeks since this fateful decision, I had been hitting the pavement, searching for jobs — both relevant to my career and not — and learning what it meant to be a working (read: starving) actor in New York City, really for the first time. Looking back on it, I am sometimes surprised at the initiative I showed and the effort I put forth. I don’t know that I’ve matched it since.

I had interviews and auditions every day, sometimes several in one day. I would traverse the island of Manhattan, dressed for interviews, clutching a binder and notebook with my resumes (both theatrical and “professional”), making use of my new device, this cellular phone thing that all the kids were talking about, setting up new appointments. I was determined not to be a disappointment after having made this huge decision not to continue at the Actors Studio.

In the middle of the next month, on a Tuesday, I for once had nothing yet lined up. I had fully intended to make my way back into the city to resume my hunt for employment, but as of Monday night, I didn’t have any appointments. And as They Might Be Giants have said, “If I didn’t have disappointments, I wouldn’t have any appointments.” I could afford to sleep in on Tuesday, September 11.

I was 23 years old. In some ways, I was older than my years, but in so many more I was so much younger.

The next morning, no one woke me up. I’d straggled out of bed at about 9 AM and crept into the living room to find one of my four roommates (all female then) looking somewhat agog with the radio playing.

“An airplane just flew into the World Trade Center!”

What an awful accident. How could something like that have happened? It must have been some kind of terrible mechanical problem for something so destructive and tragic. The collision had disrupted the broadcasts coming through the towers, and we had no cable, so we could get no television coverage of the event. Phone lines were tied up, including our dial-up connection to the Internet. All of our information was coming over the radio. We were closer than almost anyone to the event, but we could see none of it. So we listened.

Then another plane hit, and it obviously wasn’t an accident anymore. Then one tower came down. Then the other. We never saw any of it. We could only listen as the terrible news was spoken over the radio. Like Pearl Harbor or the Hindenburg disaster. The madness, the death, the devastation had to be conjured in our imaginations.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when I would eventually see the images and footage, it was worse than I had imagined. Reality had outdone me.

I remember sitting on our couch, listening to the news as it unfolded, my brain went to the more abstract, and I found myself trying to think of what could possibly be a more important human event after this. A handful of Bronze Age religious zealots had forcibly knocked down the Twin Towers, and killed hundreds others almost slamming a plane into either the White House or U.S. Capitol; the fortress of mainland America had not only been invaded, but brought to its knees. What could ever occur to overshadow this event? Aliens was the only thing I could come up with. It would have to be humanity’s first encounter with aliens from another planet. That’d be it.

Later that day, another of my roommates and her boyfriend had made their way back to our apartment. It had taken her hours, as the entirety of the city was in the throes of panic and gridlock. All of us mired in a kind of morose shock, the boyfriend and I decided to make our way to the local hospital and give some blood. It would almost certainly be needed. This was a bigger deal than most for me, as even when I am simply having blood drawn in a doctor’s office, I always have a severe reaction in which I seize up, go into a kind of unstoppable panic, and then usually lose consciousness. I know, I’m a mess. But anyway, it seemed like something I could deal with given the circumstances. But much to our surprise, the hospital was full. Not with victims, but with people with the same idea, to give their blood. We waited for quite some time, and were eventually sent away. They had more donors than they could handle.

I never turned the radio off. That night, when everyone else was in bed, I was still sitting and listening to the news station, taking in every drop of information, every press statement, every ounce of the tragedy. Eventually, the news subsided, and stations changed from talk to emotion. One station out of nowhere played a gorgeously sung rendition of “America the Beautiful,” and of course it brought tears.

I was not in Manhattan at the time of the attack, so I was in no immediate danger, and I didn’t know anyone who was killed for injured, not that any of this was clear at the time. My mother, who lives in South Jersey, was in Ohio on business at the time. When the news came down, and she was unable to reach me, she simply rented a car and drove back toward New Jersey. Over the course of the next couple of days, as lines of communication were restored, a flurry of “are you alright” messages would be sent to and fro — after all, how could anyone be sure?

Days later, President Bush would address Congress. We would eventually get broadcast television reception on at least one network, and we gathered to listen to our new untested president. I don’t recall being impressed, but feeling like we had to trust him as something of a father figure for the time being, whether he was up to it or not. He wasn’t, of course, but he was all we had at the time. And it was something of a pity, looking back on it, that at such a momentous and heart-rending period, we did not have a leader who seemed to match the times.

I knew life had to proceed. I still had not seen any pictures, witnessed no footage. I didn’t know whether one could go into the city at all, or if so, where one could go. I had interviews still lined up for jobs, and even a major audition coming up for what would become my home for five years, Shenandoah Shakespeare. On Wednesday morning, September 12, I was scheduled to interview for an office job in Midtown, so I called the company’s number to see if the interview was still on, or whether it might be best to postpone.

“Thank you for calling,” the prerecorded message said. “Our offices are located at One World Trade Center…”

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