Carpe Diem; or, Where I Was That Day

You hear it asked, every now and then when September rolls around, the simple question: Where were you? If you lived through this day in 2001, the question needs no further explanation. It was my generation’s Kennedy moment. My father still talks about that, remembering tiny details as if it were yesterday. I completely understand. I fully get it. I still remember everything about my day on September 11th, 2001.

Looking back on it, I feel foolish. I wandered around the whole day in blissful denial. I didn’t even see a television or listen to the radio until I got home after school had let out that afternoon. Then reality struck with the force of a freight train. I saw a replay of the towers falling, and nothing was the same after that.

I was sitting in my first period study hall when one of my classmates stuck her head into the room to tell us that “a plane crashed into a column of the World Trade Center.” When I heard “column,” I dismissed the event entirely. “Oh, it’s nothing,” thinking a little Cessna had crashed into one of the exterior columns at the base of one of the buildings.

In the hour that followed, panic began spreading throughout the school. The teachers set up a teacher in the common area, but since all of my classes that day were in the opposite direction of that area, I never saw it. Parents began calling their children and rushing to pick them up. Over head, F-16 fighter jets roared into the skies from the nearby joint reserve base.

At the time, I didn’t think much of it, probably something overblown. Looking back on it now, though, I really wonder why the hell didn’t anyone snap me out of this fog of stupidity sooner? Around noon, my sister poked her head into my math classroom to tell me our mom had come to pick her up and wondered if I’d like to go home as well. I remember thinking, “Why? It’s not like we’re going to be doing anything today anyway.”

I don’t remember everything about that day. I don’t remember which teachers were still actually trying to teach their classes. I just remember the complete stupidity in which I went about my day. I was sixteen years old, drove an old, oversized truck, and was a complete, self-absorbed idiot. I kept myself on the periphery of events that day. By the time I left school, there weren’t many students left around. I drove home and blasted whatever classic rock I was listening to that day.

The television was on CNN in the living room at home. I rounded the corner from the den, looked up, and everything changed for me. I saw the first tower fall, not in the horror of real time, but in a replay, and I could not believe my eyes. I hated myself for my attitude all day. My heart broke for what had happened to those people, to my fellow citizens, to my country. I fell, both inside and out. Maybe I was lucky, having spared myself that pain all day, delaying the inevitable. I feel like it’s all so selfish. For the rest of that night and into the following day, I was as everyone else: numb.

The following summer, I went with my church’s youth group on a mission trip to New York City. We worked in homeless shelters, soup kitchens, cleaning up avenue medians. One morning, we were invited to go up into the offices of an Episcopal bishop down near Battery Park. His windows overlooked Ground Zero. There had been a rumor swirling that this invitation had been extended to us, but no one either knew or would say so for sure. As we went to that part of the city, we were consumed by a nervous energy. We would finally be brought face-to-face with the horrors that had consumed us that day.

And it was…nothing. It was essentially a construction site, by that time, earth movers maneuvering around a massive crater where the towers once stood. If you hadn’t seen the news, it wouldn’t have seemed like anything at all. If you hadn’t known they had ever been there, it wouldn’t have been anything to you at all. But I had seen them standing, and I had seen them fall, and so it was something to me.

In an instant, I recalled my first trip to the City a few years prior. We were there with my sister’s dance company for a cultural trip. During a walking tour through Chinatown and SoHo, we stopped on a corner, waiting to cross the street. My dad looked up and said, “Oh, look, the Twin Towers!” I looked up for a moment as well. There they were in the distance, gleaming in the sun. “Oh, yeah. That’s cool,” I said and then crossed the street.

Isn’t that amazing? How can you take such incredible buildings for granted like that? In my time on this Earth, one lesson seems to keep returning to me: Nothing is guaranteed. Jobs, buildings, lives can all be erased and relegated to memory in an instant and for no discernible reason. Enjoy it all and appreciate and learn what you can while you can. That’s all that I know. One day, perhaps I’ll even take fully to heart. If I could get tattooed, I’d have “carpe diem” written somewhere on me to remind myself to actually seize the damn day.

It’s hard to believe it’s been seventeen years. My view here at the airport is so different. The skies are grey and hazy. A light rain is falling steadily. The air is cool. Perhaps that’s fitting. Nobody wants the sun today anyway.

Anywho, that’s my tale of foolishness and stupidity that will forever mark my memory of this day.

-The Retail Explorer