Every day has a story. But not every day has a story that changes so much in your life. For ten years I haven’t told my story because it’s not special or unique compared to anyone else’s, especially on that day. But I now realize that it’s an important story not compared to anyone else’s but because of the impact it had on me. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I can look back now and realize just how impactful it was on me and the path it helped send me down. This is the story of my Tuesday, September 11, 2001 and what followed.
My alarm probably went off at 6:30am. I was still getting used to getting up that early. I had graduated from my theatre degree at the University of Calgary only a few months before, where I often had rehearsal until at least midnight. I had split my last “year” into two years so I could do as many shows as possible. (What can I say, I was in no hurry to join the working world, and university shows allowed by to add more to my resume. Plus, yes, I was having fun.) As a result I didn’t have many actual classes in my final semester in 2001 so it wasn’t uncommon for me to not wake up until 9 or 10 am. I also didn’t have a summer job that year – celebrating my final slice of freedom before joining the “real world”.
About two or three weeks earlier, in late August, I had begun my first post-university job: as an intern at Alberta Theatre Projects. The first show of the season was set to open one week later on September 18. We were in the final stretch of preparing for the Happy by Ronnie Burkett and I was loving every second of learning so much about the administrative side of the professional theatre world (having previously only worked on the technical, behind the scenes side in university and high school). I was doing a rotation in the marketing department, something I had more than a keen interest in and had tried to take classes in in university but could never get registered in because there were too many marketing majors in the business faculty. I was doing theatre AND marketing at the same time and soaking up all the knowledge I could. Life was good.
Because I was a couple weeks in already I had already learned the best way for me to wake up was to put the alarm on “radio” and let that wake me up over the course of up to an hour. I’d get up at 7:30 and be at work by 9am. A nice, easy morning with lots of time to have breakfast and catch the C-Train downtown.
So that morning the alarm went off at 6:30 and I dozed on to the sounds of Vibe 98.5′s music and their hosts The Pog, Fuzzy and JBo.
As 7 am approached I thought I was listening to them present the news, but it was too early. They told me a small plane had hit the World Trade Centre in New York City and it was on fire. Knowing how bizarre, unique and dangerous a thing this was, was up, out of bed – not in a rush, but in a quickened pace – putting on shorts and a t-shirt and out to the tv in our apartment to turn on CNN.
I was captivated. How does something like this happen? What a horrible tragedy. Not for the people in the building, but for the pilot of the small plane and for the people on the street where the debris must have fallen. But how could a small plane cause such a big hole and so much damage? Where did the plane go? Was it inside the World Trade Centre? I starred at CNN starting somewhere around 6:55am. Then I went down the hall to my roomate bedroom, knocked on the door and told an even more sleepy that me best friend that a plane had hit the World Trade Centre in New York. He too dressed, not quickly, but in at a hurried pace and joined me in front of the television, wondering what could have happened.
Then, 7:03 am.
CNN was interviewing a witness to the plane crash on the phone on the street a few blocks away. As they discussed and guessed what might have happened and what people on the street were doing, a large passenger jet appeared on the right hand side of the screen. It disappeared behind the burning tower. Then: a large fireball blows out the other side of the tower. I knew what had happened immediately: a second plane, this time clearly a large passenger jet, had hit the other tower. The host on CNN was thinking it was an explosion. Then he thought it was another small plane. Was I the only one who saw that? It wasn’t a small plane. It was clearly a full size passenger jet. It took them 3 minutes to catch up with what I had already witnessed.
“What are the odds?!” I thought. “How could this conceivably happen?!” Was something wrong with their navigation equipment and we were accidentally pathing planes directly into the World Trade Centre?! I didn’t really know what terrorism was – most of us didn’t, I don’t think, until later that day. And at any rate, terrorists blew up bombs or were suicide bombers. They did not cause this kind of damage. Two of the worlds tallest buildings on fire at the same time. Hit by two different passenger jets. It was litterally inconceivable what I was watching.
I continued to watch for a while longer. A new “eyewitness” thought it might have been a missile. We just kept watching CNN loop the second plane hitting in between shots of the smoke billowing out of both buildings. Eventually there were no new ideas. No one knew what had happened. There were lots of questions, but so far, no answers. It was time to go to work. I left the apartment still unaware that anything nefarious had happened, just something very very unfortunate.
The artistic director at Alberta Theatre Projects had a television in his office. We all had cubicles just outside his office on the second floor of the EPCOR CENTRE for the Performing Arts, pretty much right above the stage door and the loading dock. That plus everyone hitting “refresh” on CNN.com all morning gave us a constant flow updates. As the morning progressed the World Trade Centre was all anyone could talk about. By the time I got to work The White House and just about every other major government building in DC was evacuated and there was a fire in Washington, DC. It was believed another plane had hit that building too. One of the twin towers had even collapsed. What was going on?! Two cities? Three planes?! A building was entirely gone?! I was baffled.
I don’t remember what time I got to work. I don’t remember if both buildings had collapsed by the time I got there, but I do remember watching the video replay of the collapses in the Artistic Director’s office trying to make sense of it all. I couldn’t, and so work just went on. All without answers, but with newly founded thoughts of international hostilities fresh in our minds contrasted with concern for New Yorkers. I had never been to New York at the time, so as far as I knew, everyone in New York was in danger.
Around 11:45 I did what anyone else would have done on any normal day. I went for lunch.
Not knowing what to do on such a day, and with no one really “working”, earlier in the day I called my dad and asked him if he wanted to go for lunch. He agreed. I met him, probably at noon, at the Bear and Kilt Freehouse. We sat at the back – the northeast corner – next to a small television set against the north wall and talked about what was going on. He was just as confused as I was and I took both comfort in that and was a little more freaked out by it. We both had fish and chips, which were, and still are, exceptionally good at the Bear and Kilt. Lots of malt vinegar for both of us.
About half way through lunch I realized why my dad so readily accepted my offer to go for lunch. The CNN hosts were talking about “September 11th” being a day we wouldn’t soon forget. Ironically enough I had forgotten that date already that day. It was my dad’s birthday. It had totally slipped my mind with everything going on that morning. Although, to be honest, I had probably forgotten long before I got up that morning. I didn’t have a present for him, but I knew I would never forget his birthday ever again.
As I went back to the office, I had another new experience. I was handed the afternoon edition of the Calgary Herald with photos of the second plane hitting and the collapses. I had already seen all of this on TV, but I was amazed by the fact this event was important enough to warrant a second edition of a daily newspaper. I had heard of afternoon editions of the newspaper, but they had long since disappeared. As far as I knew, there hadn’t been an afternoon edition of a newspaper in over 100 years. It was old time-y stuff that just never happened any more. A part of living in the future, I guess. But there the afternoon edition was in my hand, and it stuck with me and helped solidify that this day was truly not like anything I had even heard of before. That small paper edition was how I knew life had changed – and not in the way we now think of when we talk about how September 11, 2001 changed us: airport security, American patriotism, racism and suspicion toward Muslims and “Arab-looking” people in general etc. No, it had changed things I knew to be true. Things in Calgary, thousands of miles from New York City. It may sound small to almost everyone, but it was profound to me in that moment.
At work we got the four major news papers at the time: Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun, Globe and Mail, and the National Post. Part of my job as an intern in the marketing department was go through each newspaper and clip any stories mentioning Alberta Theatre Projects or other arts companies with unique marketing ideas we could draw inspiration from (or just plain copy I guess).
The next day, September 12, 2001, I believe it was the National Post, had a two page spread showing a photo at the top of the page and a photo on the bottom half of the page. As I flipped through the paper I remember stopping at that photo spread and being captivated by it. Two identical pictures taken from the same spot on the other side of the river staring at the south end of Manhattan.
The photo at the top was the skyline we had all witnessed in dozens of movies – complete with the “twin towers” of the World Trade Centre slightly off from the centre of the picture. The second photo could have been a photocopy – with the same orange-y/yellow glow of a setting sun reflecting off the buildings – except the biggest reflectors of that sunset were missing. It was a striking reminder of what had actually changed and how quickly it had changed. In less than a couple of hours it was as if we had Photoshopped two of the largest structures in the world from that skyline. It was, in every way, surreal.
I pulled the photo spread from the paper and posted it on the wall of my cubicle as a reminder. I’m not sure a reminder of what, but I knew whatever it was, it was important to remember. How right I turned out to be.
Throughout the day and the months to come various coworkers and visitors would have similar reactions to the photo when they stopped by my desk. We’d talk about the strangeness of the photos; we’d talk about their eeriness; we’d have a shared, albeit fleeting, moment and then we’d get on with whatever the work at hand was, knowing that we really did live in a changed world. Everything was the same, but everything was different.
I moved desks several times during my time at Alberta Theatre Projects. I eventually was hired on permanently as the Marketing & Communications Coordinator – I had thought I’d be a state manager, but after finding out in January 2002 that that wasn’t the life for me I had gone back full circle in May 2002 and applied for, and accepted, a job in that first department I did a rotation in. The department I was working with in September 2001.
That photo spread from the newspaper hung on the wall of every cubicle I had during my time at Alberta Theatre Projects. I still have it, in a storage box somewhere, I’m sure. (Another sign of how we move on, but never really leave the past behind.)
It was okay to enjoy yourself, but not for others. Sporting events and comedy immediately became passe.
Baseball cancelled all games that week. I am, and was, a huge fan so this was a noticeable change for me and my daily ritual of watching the game on tv, probably in the background, when I got home.
The late-night comedy shows all cancelled their airings that week too. My roommate and I were avid watchers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a program recorded in New York City. When they went silent, again, my life was impacted in a small, seemingly unimportant, way that resonated. One half hour of my day, that was unintentionally scheduled weeks in advance now was suddenly free. Empty, really. I didn’t actually know what to do with myself during that “time slot”. I had been left to my own devices. Not that I wasn’t capable of filling the time, but the fact remained I had to do something else at 12:30am now. Life really had changed even though New York seemed far away. It wasn’t. I was on the same continent and it turned out the people there did have daily influence on me.
There nothing like the absence of something, to make you realize what it meant to have it when you did.
I was abandoned by two of the things I enjoyed most: baseball and smart comedy; as they took the personal time to try and make sense of what had happened too. They were inventions made up of people, just like me. And they were lost too. They didn’t have their “regularity” either.
After a week or so, you could tell everyone was starting to feel not just the sting from the attacks of September the 11th themselves, but the ripple effect caused by the shut down of some of our previously unknowingly important institutions. President Bush summed up the next steps perfectly when he asked Americans to go shopping again. I assume he was more concerned about the state of the economy – you don’t shut down air travel, tourism and offices all over the country without serious financial side-effects – but what I heard in his words was, “it’s time to get back to normal and get on with our lives.” And that’s what everyone slowly began to do.
The Blue Jays, my favourite team, played their first game following the tragedies on Tuesday, September 18 – only one week later. It was a win against the Baltimore Orioles, but that could have mattered less. What mattered was just the fact teams were playing and people could go to the games and watch them on tv. It took a while longer, but things really started to feel “normal” for me when the New York Yankees returned home and played their first game at the historic Yankee Stadium.
Yankee Stadium – the “House that Ruth Built” – opened in 1923. This I knew because the Blue Jays played in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, two of the teams with the oldest stadiums in all of sports. Their venerability I often found at odds with my favourite team which was founded in the year I was born. That’s perspective for you.
For Derek Jeter, Bernie Wiliams and the seemingly perpetual World Champion New York Yankees to return to a New York building that had stood for longer than all but a few of the most ancient of us have been alive, a building that had effected so many millions of people, I somehow felt comforted. Not every building was destroyed. The World Trade Center was imposing and appeared to be as solid a thing as humans could create. But if it was so easily wiped from the face of earth what does that say about our ability to be present, to make a home, to do important things? On Tuesday, September 25 when the Yankees hosted the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Yankee Stadium, another of New York’s most famous buildings, a building that had stood for so much longer than the World Trade Center, I knew that history was not gone. We could still do important things. We could still have a home. We could still be present and occupy a space. Yankee Stadium still stood and had for generations, and would continue to.
(It was because of this I perhaps was hit harder than I should have been in 2008 when the Yankee’s played their last game at that stadium. It’s sheer existence had provided me so much comfort six years earlier and now it was to be demolished. Fortunately the blow was lessened by the new Yankee Stadium, looking much like the original, built right next door.)
Slowly our institutions returned to normal – but with a resolve that carried more gravitas for me than perhaps it deserved. Jon Stewart is a funny guy. It’s observance however that had me hooked starting with The Daily Show’s “InDecision 2000″ a little more than a year or so earlier. (It was their “InDecision 2004″ that most people remember The Daily Show for, but what they did in the first incarnation of this ongoing series is what began my relationship with the series. Don’t get me wrong, Craig Kilborn was funny, but when Stewart took over in 1998 and politics became more of a feature, I became a much more regular viewer.)
In a short period of time I had gotten used to Jon Stewart’s ability to look at a piece of news and dissect the crazy out of it. I had come to appreciate the insight this created for me. I would have really appreciated that lens as applied to the events of September 11, but it was nowhere to be found. Then, on September 20 The Daily Show went back on the air; one of the last, if not the last, late night comedy programs to do so. His opening monologue, sitting behind a desk, was exactly what I needed to hear.
“It’s the difference between closed and open; it’s the difference between free and burdened. And we don’t take that for granted here. Our show has changed, I don’t doubt that. What it has become I don’t know.”
That’s how I felt.
“I want to tell you why I grieve, but why I don’t despair.”
And he did. And I took solace. And I began to think I could laugh and it was okay to do so; I began to see how the recovery would make us – make me – stronger.
I had been watching Saturday Night Live for years. Some off and on, but regularly none-the-less. In my mind, they were my link to New York City. They were New York and New York was them as far as I was concerned. I, and almost everyone, knew their response following the attacks would be important. But how would they come back from that? The Daily Show was a faux news program, so they could sit behind a desk thus ease back into it because we had all gotten very used to seeing anchors talking about the recent events. SNL however didn’t have that luxury; they did sketches that had nothing to do with anything.
In the days following September 11, 2001 many took to following their President. I found nothing useful for me there however. I didn’t see how “punishing those who were responsible” would heal the wounds that I saw, and personally had developed. I had found a lead to follow in that of New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani however. He didn’t focus on the external, he focused on the internal, he focused on helping New Yorkers clean up and put the pieces of their lives back together. That seemed to me to be the right thing to do. The thing that needed our attention.
When the season of Saturday Night Live began with Rudy Guiliani standing in front members of the New York Fire Department and Police Department I listened. Following Paul Simon’s stirring musical tribute the camera returned to Guiliani who was standing with Lorne Michaels, SNL’s long time producer:
Lorne Michaels: On behalf of everyone here, I just want to thank you all for being here tonight, especially you, sir.
Mayor Rudolph Guiliani: Thank you, Lorne. Thank you very much. Having our city’s institutions up and running sends a message that New York City is open for business. “Saturday Night Live” is one of our great New York City institutions, and that’s why it’s important for you to do your show tonight.
Lorne Michaels: Can we be funny?
Mayor Rudolph Guiliani: Why start now? “Live, from New York! It’s Saturday Night!”
And with that, the first joke had been cast. And by the very person I felt to be most at the centre of the recovery. If he felt it was okay to poke fun, it was okay. And life began again.
With ten years experience to review, I can now draw a much more vivid portrait of how September 11, 2001 affected me.
I learned that what we do elsewhere in the world can effect us at home. I learned what happens elsewhere in the world can affect us at home. I learned what happens or what we do elsewhere in the world can have effects on people you never would have intended it to.
I learned more about community and strength of character and actions speaking louder than words in the response of New York City’s citizens and especially their first responders. I had never experienced war, that was something that happened far away. On that day however I saw what someone stepping up, not questioning what needed to be done, instead just knowing, and doing it, looked like. I learned what “finest” and “bravest” actually meant. I learned unwavering dedication to that which needs to be done.
From Major League Baseball, The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live and the individuals involved in each of those groups at the time, I learned what resolve is. I learned moving on doesn’t mean forgetting. I learned what strength actually is and discipline.
I learned I don’t have all the answers and never will. And no one else will either. And that that is okay; it’s not a bad thing. It’s just the way it is; and there is a beauty in that.
Most importantly, I learned that I can play a role in shaping the world. So can everyone. The world can change at the drop of a hat – or something more sinister. Vigilance is not about living in fear, it’s about being aware of where the change points are and setting us up for more good outcomes than bad.
I also learned that there are people – although not many of them – that will try to work in the opposite direction, sometimes even when they think they are doing the right thing. No one thinks they’re evil; we all think we’re doing the right thing. Sometimes we’re wrong about that though. I learned things can get distorted if you lose sight of the big picture and focus on the here and now. I learned we can spend years of time and energy on things that make us feel better, when the answer could have been simple and easy.
I learned I shape my own path and it is my interpretation of events that defines that path.
These were my events and this is my path.
As I said, what happened to me on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 wasn’t unique or special, except that it was unique and special to me. So that’s my story.
Thanks for taking the time to read. I hope there aren’t too many grammatical or spelling errors here. I wrote this post in one stream of thought starting at 10:30 last night and starting again at 8am or so today and did not go back to edit except in some minor spots. Perhaps someday I will and I’ll edit to make it flow better, but for now, it’s a beautiful September the 11th outside, very similar to the one we had 10 years ago strangely enough. Today I’m going to go outside and enjoy it. I hope you do the same too.
Moving on doesn’t mean you have to forget.