I awoke on September 11th like any other day. Wow it was 2001, I thought. We made it past the New Year, no y2k, mum was still here but very sick. I had ten minutes to shower and dress and walk 5 blocks with Ella to Fordham Rd in The Bronx, from there we would catch the 12 bus ten minutes to the D train then the subway 35 minutes to Grand Central then catch the 7 train to Flushing and walk 7 blocks from the Main St station to Sanford Avenue. Ella left me every day still in Manhattan and walked 6 blocks to work. We had been doing this since the restaurant I worked in was sold because momma was really sick and needed help. Some said Lupus, some said it might even be cancer, but either way she needed a cook, a person to lift her in and out of bed then into her chair. This day seemed no different. We were underground between 7am and 9am. As I got to Flushing I had to walk past a half way house for the mentally ill called Sanford House. This day as I got above ground and a normally busy neighborhood was in eerie silent. Suddenly a large bearded man grabbed my collar and pointed to a gap in the buildings (you used to be able to see the twin towers down Sanford Avenue in the distance) and cried out loud “god has punished Manhattan, it burns in hellfire, everybody dead burning in hellfire.” At the time I passed him off as one of the tenants of Sanford House.
I looked and Manhattan was one long cloud. I sprinted the last three blocks to mommas house and as the door opened to their second floor apartment the wall at the other end of the apartment suddenly showed a jumbo hitting the twin towers. I stopped, my mouth fell open, momma was watching silently, poppa was screaming in a mixture of Russian and broken English “my girls, my girls.” I grabbed the phone and rang Ella. She was at work on the thirteenth floor of an office building close to the twin towers. I screamed, come home the twin towers are burning, the TV said there are other planes maybe a dozen and they are saying all are going to crash. She replied “no they said a charter plane, a small one hit it was an accident. “ I screamed back that no it was deliberate and it was a couple of 737’s. I told her to get the hell out. She suddenly said “the boss told us all to leave the office is closing.”
I thought my problems were over. She would be on her way home. The TV was updating, people were in the towers, thousands maybe. Possibly ten thousand. Fireman and police were running in. They were going in as people ran out. Then Ella spoke with her father in Russian and she told me “I have to find Diane. I have to go to Penn station. We will find a way home together.” Then the phone went dead. The TV was showing the twin towers burning. Someone said the people had been jumping out of the building Then suddenly the first tower fell .The phone rang Ella was on a public phone she had found her sister, they had to walk home to Flushing because the trains were out, the busses were out and there were police with machine guns and they had dogs. They couldn’t use cell phones because the towers where the cell phone antennas were on them.
For two hours I sat holding my head in my hands. The TV showed the second tower falling. They said thousands were in the towers, police man, and firemen and god knows who else. The news showed people covered in white dust screaming and running. Momma was tearing up, poppa was wailing, they were speaking quietly in Russian for hours. We heard nothing. We had no idea. The woman I married 2 years ago, the love of my life was lost. The city I called home was burning we were under attack. I was in hell and losing my mind. The phone rang and it was Ella. They had jumped on the last flat top truck crossing the Queensboro Bridge. They said dozens were on the truck. They said the pay phones were free but 1 minute each. They were walking once the flatbed truck dropped them on the Queens side. They were in Astoria. They had to get off the phone but they were together. The day was turning into hell. Some group called al-Qaida claimed responsibility. The phone rang again and the girls had found a friend in Queens who was driving them the rest of the way home. They would be home, but traffic was bad so every hour we got another call. At three in the afternoon the girls made it back. Momma and poppa cried and held each other. I screamed and raced down stairs to the one I loved and her sister. We thanked the man. He offered to drive us home if we could get out before that day I was an Aussie living in a foreign land but that day everyone in the city became a New Yorker.
Over the coming weeks back in Manhattan there were thousands of “have you seen this person notices.” Parents and loved ones stopped you on corners and pleaded for information. My old restaurant had many catering contracts in the towers and over the following years I found out almost none of my clients and friend survived. In the eleven years since I know I lost almost 3 dozen friends from the gay community who worked in finance in the towers. The world that day changed. Our president seemed good for a while but then he lied. He lied and we bought it and we went to war. The longest war in the history of the United States and we never should have been in Iraq. Thousands have died since and many still will. We have a new president, a new decade but we still have a war and people are still dying. And on that day parts of all of us died. The country died a little and again this Tuesday we will honor them. We will remember them. The world will stop again and people will cry again and they will gather at the place we now call ground zero. Ground Zero is a mausoleum, a tomb. The very ground has the remains of those who died that day. If we only get one thing from 9/11 it must be that we as a globe, a world, a people, a global community and we must stop the hate. Until we learn from the hate, stop the lying, stop the wars, we are destined to repeat the crimes of the past. This Tuesday, the people will gather and stand side by side – Muslim shoulder to shoulder with Christians, all sharing one thing the loss of someone who will never come through the door ever again.
If you are reading this I ask you to stop and reflect and remember. If you loved someone who didn’t come home the 11th of September, 2001 it will never get any easier and the pain will never go away, but you can only respect them and honor them by going forward in life with joy. I will hug Ella a little closer remember momma who is no longer with us and I will stop for a second for the friends for whom life stopped. But my life will go on remembering them all forever and I hope yours does too.