Sunday, September 11, 2011

10 Years Later

Today is similar to any other day. The weather is perfect outside on a relaxing Sunday morning. And like with most Sunday's, I'm listening to the same radio programs I've been listening to for the past 12-13 years. Only today, both shows are replaying the audio of their broadcasts from September 11, 2001. Not that I needed that audio to trigger any memories, but it was enough of a push to get me to write something for myself since you never know how long memory will last.

With every incident anyone faces in life, there are two parts: the memories of an incident and the memories of how an individual, community or society copes with an incident.

So first, the memories.

My story really isn't much different than thousands of others of people in New York City on 9/11/01. Like I did each weekday, I woke up in my Hoboken, NJ apartment and headed outside to catch the bus to Port Authority on 40th St/8th Ave in New York. Each day, I would walk from Port Authority to my office on 54th St/Park Ave. During the summer, it was a bit of a long walk in the heat while wearing a suit and tie everyday. And in the freezing winter, it was often a painfully cold experience. But while I was compensated nicely at my job, I always did the daily walk to and from my office since some days it would be the only exercise I would get. So for a September day, it was as perfect as a Tuesday morning could be. But that was around 7:50AM.

During my walk, I saw the first plane hit the tower while just a few blocks away from my office. Like most, my instinct was that it was an accident of some sort. Upon getting into the office, the incident was the obvious topic of conversation. But just a few minutes later, the second plane came in, and everyone knew that it was no longer just an accident. 

Like everyone else in New York, the first move was to then get on the phone to call people working at the World Trade Center and in the area. But with all the call volume, the phone lines were more or less down. So I couldn't even call people to check in on them. But since my career was entirely in the online space, I just turned to email as my primary means of communication. Funny how that remained the case for me 10 years later, where even with a cell phone, virtually all my communication is done via email or texting and very rarely a traditional phone call.

An old email response I sent that morning
I was fortunate enough to be able to answer people from outside New York and let them know I was alright. And luckily, I was able to connect quickly with the majority of people I was close with who worked near the World Trade Center. The word "luckily" doesn't do enough justice...because so many people I was close with at the time didn't have that luxury. 

For the next few hours, I used my office as my base. With phone connection abilities getting worst as the minutes went by, the internet (email and instant messaging...this was pre-Twitter/Facebook, etc) was the only means of communication. So I did my best to step in and out of the office to help others check in on people they were trying to contact by physically going to the office locations to pass along messages to people who did not have working internet connections. 

By mid/early afternoon, it was time to try to get out of New York. I had done everything I could to help the people I know who needed assistance. I still had a close friend I had been unable to get in touch with, who worked in the WTC area and some other acquaintances of mine I knew were in the area that I wanted to check on. For most of the day, I had been trying to distract myself from everything by disconnecting my own relationships from the day and instead focusing on helping others...that was my trend in life up until that point. 

So mid-afternoon, I grabbed my bag and headed out the office for the last time that day. I then did what everyone is New York was asked to do, to donate blood (location just around the corner from my office). Now it was time to head home.

It would be much more difficult than I would expect.

I had seen the fall of a tower from a distance and as the building hell, the dust and debris had covered much of the area like a mushroom cloud coming down upon a area of the city. And with more buildings set to fall, the problem was getting worse.

For the most part, New York City was closed...but my home was across the river in Hoboken, NJ. I lived just at the top of the hill, overlooking Hoboken. It was a great location because I was able to have a spacious two bedroom apartment in a safe neighborhood with a view of the entire city skyline. But by the time I was ready to go home, that skyline view was no longer as majestic as it had been, devoid of the two towering buildings that balanced out the view of Manhattan.

I did my usual return walk to Port Authority, a path that would take me everyday through Little Brazil, past the Diamond District and eventually through Times Square. That walk to this day was how I explain "New York" to people who never spent much time in that city. Each day I would hear about 13 different languages spoken as I walked through each area on my 18 block walk...with even more than 13 cultures when you factor in the different variations of languages such as Spanish where you'd have Cuban, Puerto Rican, and other Central American neighborhoods or groups each day. That is what makes New York, New York. It's a diversity you don't see in many many different groups of people on one small island of Manhattan. In other cities, you'll find the same cultural clustering. But not in such a tight and confined space.

As I continued my walk, I got to Times Square, just a few blocks away from my regular transit point of Port Authority. The news tickets were in full effect in the neon capital of the world, with the same updates you'd be getting via the radio.

Radio had been an important part of my life, and still is. Each day on my commute, I'd have my small, 3 inch by 2 inch Aiwa AM/FM radio on. In the mornings, I would just between "Sports Guys" on WNEW 102.7 FM, WSNR 620AM Sporting News Radio, and Imus on 660 WFAN. Then middays, I'd switch over to WNEW and it would be on for the rest of the day for me. When I started my walk home, WNEW would have the Don & Mike radio program on with updates by the WNEW sister station 1010 WINS, a New York news station. At this point in the day, it was 3pm and the Opie & Anthony show had started. Both hosts liven in Long Island at the time and were not able to get into the city. But they were able to get to a Long Island station and broadcast through WNEW from that location. And on the other side of the glass, in the same Long Island broadcasting location, News Talk 770AM show host Sean Hannity was broadcasting his New York based show remotely. It was an unlikely union of personalities: Opie & Anthony were the popular afternoon drive show that revolutionized the Comedy/Talk radio genre by adding a more relevant comedic take to the format originated by aging radio pioneers such as Steve Dahl, Howard Stern and Don Imus, dominating the 18-34 male demo. Sean Hannity had the reputation as being the a staunch conservative. But that union of radio personalities was telling for what would come to be for the city and the country; two very different mindsets, with different takes on the world, having a common bond. And 10 years later, that union of Sean Hannity and the Opie & Anthony Show remains. Hannity is an occasional call-in guest on the Opie & Anthony Show and Anthony Cumia is a frequent guest on Sean Hannity's Fox News television program. 

So as I walked through a city in chaos, I altered my routine with a small but important change: I took one ear phone out, with one earphone in. It's what I would do when at a Yankees game, where I could relay points made for the broadcast to friends and fellow Yankees fans as I sat in the then Section 39 of the Yankee Stadium Bleachers. But when walking through New York, I would often have both earphones in to block out the sounds of traffic, honking horns, etc. But on this day, in the chaotic nature of the environment, one needed all the sounds to know what was happening, to know what was safe. Because if 4 planes had been used as weapons, 2 just a mile away, you don't know what will come next.

The most important part though is that in having this "radio-walking" routine, I was able to do something that would help others. It was very minor assistance in comparison to what so many thousands of people were doing, but it was all I could do. 

What many people outside New York that day don't understand is that when there is something going on of the magnitude of 9/11, when a city is under attack, there is so much more going on than what they see happening at a specific "battle ground". So as I and many would walk through the city with our destination being a transit point to return home, it was these same transit points...the locations that were part of our daily routines, where we could just block out thinking and rely on muscle memory to walk from Point A to Point B...these train stations and bus terminals became moving targets for us all. You would walk to your regular train station or bus terminal only to get there and have the police say it was closed. So you'd walk to another, unknown location, hoping there would be an open means of transportation. But once you got there, that too would be closed. So when all you want to do is get home, albeit to see your family or just to get away from the chaos, you had to just keep walking, keep hoping. 

So with the radio on in one ear, I would get transit updates provided by Opie & Anthony and 1010WINS. And with these updates, a destination location and time-frame would be given. The radio and television news stations were plugged into the mayors office with timely info. And at times, due to the more important work needed by the cities police officers, the radio updates were the lifeforce to determine how to get out of the city. So when strangers would be asking the police at locations like Port Authority where to go to get to Point B, those of us plugged in via the radio updates would relay to people where to go. So when I would hear on the radio about trains to Long Island, I'd relay that to those asking how to go that way. For those looking to get to Westchester County, north of New York City, I'd relay that. 

Meanwhile, I personally was waiting for information as to how to get back to New Jersey, to Hoboken. Port Authority was no longer an option. The path trains were closed as well, since the primary PATH train line ran underneath had a station at what was the World Trade Center, the station now being part of the toxic rubble. And the ferries weren't running on a regular schedule since the priority was to free the waterways as protection from any threats and free the for military vehicles.

Things had gotten to the point where the only options I could see in my mind was to just say "fuck it" and swim across the river to get home. At this point in the day, all I wanted to do was get home. Logic was no longer a factor. I could have just as easily found a way to head north, meet up with a friend in Yonkers, or head further north and find someone to pick me up near Nyack, NY. 

There were no more radio updates that were helpful in people in my situation, looking to get back to New Jersey. So I checked in with a friend of mine in the FBI, someone who I was assisted in the past with finding missing people through computer and banking tracking while I was a college student in the late 1990's. He directed me to goto a specific PATH station at a specific time where they would be running an emergency train primarily to New York to bring more officers and support into New York City. But since the train would be going back and forth, he told me I could just as easily sneak onto the train to get home. So after 10 hours of being in New York, I was finally on a train headed home to Hoboken.

My walking route from  9-11-2001 

When I got out of the PATH station in Hoboken, it gave off a much eerier feeling than normal. It was quiet, so quiet that you could hear sounds and sirens in New York. A normally bustling neighborhood was silent (more on that later). I walked the two miles or so to get home, relieved that my physical trek was over.

The rest of the day and the evening was spent getting in touch with people I had not been able to. For most, I had to rely on leaving voicemails on peoples home and cell phones, now that I had a phone connection unlike when I was in New York during the day. But I had one close friend, Rob, who lived not far from me. Since I had no luck reaching him by phone, I walked 8 long blocks to his apartment. I buzzes his apartment, but had no response. Rob worked on Wall St. and was normally working on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange with his office near the World Trade Center. As I had my cell phone in hand, it chose to just sit on his stoop and make my calls to other people from there. I sat for hours and it was now 10pm and he hadn't come home. At that point, with a cell phone battery out of energy, I opted to go home and call it a day.

It took another 48 hours, but I did hear from Rob and he was safe. It was a relief. While over that time, I had received news that many acquaintances from the World Trade Center had perished, I, like many, were in the position where we have those ugly human thoughts, the same thoughts that make us human: to be thankful that the one or few people you care about the most are safe, while thousands of others had perished. 

I had gone through something similar in my youth when I received news one night when I was 16 that one of two people I knew had died. There had been an accident, but the person calling me did not know which of the two had passed. And the instinct then as it is any time one is in the position, is "I hope it's not Person A". It might be ugly, it might seem immoral. But it's human. And when I spoke with my friend Rob on 9/13/01, that relief made up the loss of people I was less close with. 

At that point, on 9/13/01, I was very far from New York. I woke up on 9/12/01 and the first thing I did was pack my bags and head to where my father lived in northwest New Jersey to get away from everything across the river. With my earphones in, I did what I often did in West Milford, and I went hiking. I had grown up exploring the woods near where I lived and an equal amount hiking in another area of the town, near Cedar Pond.

When I'd go hiking at Cedar Pond, I'd also head up the hills to the top where there was a fire tower. Local rangers would use these towers to locate any potential fire threats in the area, with towers spread out in the mountains over the area. But as a hiker, you could climb the stairs to the top of the tower and have a view of New York city, many miles in the distance. So upon reaching the top, the view of New York was mostly smoke, even days later. It would be a telling mental image for time to come.

I spent the rest of the week and weekend with friends in West Milford, the same as most people did after 9/11/01, spending time with family and friends. We talked about those we knew that had been lost. We talked about our former priest, Mychal Judge, who had served at my former church, St. Joesph's in West Milford, who at the time was serving as a New York City firefighter chaplain and had died in the tower collapse. We talked about Jeremy Glick, a fellow West Milford resident who had perished on the crash of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania and believed to be one of the men responsible for taking control of the plane away from the hijackers. For many of us, the conversion was luckiyl more general. But for those who lost friends and loved ones, it was much more work. It meant having to deal with the grief of that loss while also trying to grasp what exactly had happened.

For fire fighters and the police, it meant the start of what would be months of funeral services for their fallen brothers. But it went beyond that. I had friends from high school that had worked in the finance sector for Cantor Fitzgerald at the World Trade Center. Both of them had just left for other opportunities just weeks before 9/11/01. Many know the story about how Cantor Fitzgerald Vice Chairman, Stuart Fraser had been late to the office that day, a delay that saved his life while 658 of his 900 employees died in the tragedy. My friends were lucky and had left the company. But they still maintained friendships with there former co-workers. And like the firefighters and police who had to endure day after day with another funeral, so did those with friends and loved ones lost from companies like Cantor Fitzgerald.

Once Sunday, September 16th came, it was time to go home to my apartment and prepare to return to work on Monday, 9/17/01.

I went to work the next day, Monday, and back to my regular routines. The news stories were of course still all about 9/11. But when returning home to Hoboken, it gave me a more realistic glimpse. It was empty. The streets still quiet. And while the day of and immediate days after 9/11/01, there was a general malaise in the public, Hoboken was different. It was quiet because there were not as many people. Hoboken is a small 1x1 square mile city with a very young demographic. Many of the residents worked in the finance sector due to the quick commute into New York each day via the PATH. But when walking through Hoboken that next week, one visual stuck out even more than the more quiet sounds and less people on the streets: all the "For Rent" signs on the apartment buildings for the coming weeks. That's when you realize that the majority of these apartment listings weren't because of scared people wanting to leave the New York area. Instead, these were new apartment vacancies due to the fact that the tenants had been lost in the WTC attacks.

It wasn't long before I was planning myself to move from the New York area. 9/11 was an eye opener for me. I had realized that due to my own growth as a person over the years, I had outgrown many people I had known most of my life. 9/11 made me realize that I needed to do more to embrace the new connections I had made in my young adult life rather than primarily holding on to the connections of my youth.

So by summer of 2002, I had planned my then relocation to Boston, where I lived for 2 years until moving to Los Angeles in September 2004.

Everyone had their own memories of that 9/11/01 day. Luckily for me, my memories are so simple and innocent compared to so many other peoples. So my steps in coping were much closer to those of people who hadn't lost an immediate loved one, to people who lived far from New York and Washington.

Each person had to cope on their own, to come to grips with that happened. But as a city, New York was unified. And New York would become the focal point for national unity.

And that's how we coped.

In the days, weeks, months, and first year, the United States was unified. And with that, the great majority of the world became unified in it's support of the United States. That's how we, and by "we" I mean "civilized humans around the world", coped.

We all remember that unity.
Those in New York City on 9/11/01, who walked through Times Square, remember the patriotic instinct by some many as we saw the lines of people at the Armed forces Recruiting Station in Times Square, ready to enlist. Their nation was being attacked and the instinct by so many was to enlist.

We remember the USA flags everywhere on 9/12/01.

We remember the actions by so many citizens to help New York by volunteering their time doing important tasks at the time like handing out cold water to weary workers, shoveling debris and rubble.

We remember the donation of blood by individuals from around the country.

We remember all the financial and item donations from individuals and communities and community fundraisers from around the nation.

We remember the firefighters coming to New York from around the United States, to volunteer there time and services, funded by the great citizens in their own communities in Texas, Arizona, California, Mississippi, Georgia and everywhere else.

We remember that the two-party political structure of US politics seemed to disappear, with one party, unified behind the cause.

We remember the support given by so many nations, including some that historically had opposed many US policies.

That's how we coped. We coped as individuals with not just the support of our immediate friends and families. Our families now included strangers. We were all brothers and sisters. We we all Americans. From the person reading this now, to the police, to the politicians, to the diplomats...we coped as individuals through a support system that included everyone.

And how we coped is not unexpected. When we lose a family member, it brings families together. When we lose a common friend, it brings the surviving friends together. When a community suffers a common, loss, it brings that community together.

So it's so easy to look at what happened on 9/11/01, ponder the horrific and painful memories, and know how we all coped. Humans tend to focus on the positive as a coping mechanism...and it's an important part of coping.

But what comes so often with coping with any loss or accident, it the same instinct to forget.

There are accidents every day. There is a loss of some sort. The location is closed down and there is an investigation. There is then cleanup...and then things are re-opened. Call it the "Disney World" example: awful accident where a child is killed on a ride. Disney closes it down, cleans up the mess, and then the happy Disney music is turned back on and the ride resumes. Over time, nobody seems to care what happened except those immediately impacted.

With 9/11, so many have tried to keep the reality in perspective with the "Never Forget" slogan, something adopted from other horrific incidents like the Holocaust in Europe during WWII.

During and after Word War II, the nation and the free world were unified. While new stress factors developed afterwards in the Soviet Union and the Middle East, one can easily look at the horrific nature of WWII and feel that as a nation, the United States progressed. The unity of WWII in America, made the US a better country, a more unified nation.

But with 9/11, it's very easy to look at what happened and ask the question: Is the United States a better country, a more unified country, due to 9/11? Did America take that post-9/11 unity and create a long lasting union to make the US a better place?

When a family member dies, it brings people together. When a common friend passes, it united common friends and brings them closer. But "closeness" is something that needs to be nurtured. It does mean you need to focus on the common loss, but instead hold on to the positive nostalgia that you have from when you were together. An accident or tragedy brings people closer. But if you don't nurture that bond, it will quickly dissolve and things can return to where they were before. And in some cases, "to forget and move on" is what we need. But other times, it's the bond and common courtesy of "what can I do to help" that we need to hold onto.

And when you look back at 9/11, I have no problem in sharing my feeling that we did "forget".

We might have remembered the horrific incidents from the day. And we might remember how we felt that day. But what we have forgotten is the positive that came from such a horrific event.

From 9/11/01 and the months to come, we remembered. But how quickly we forgot.

After the initial military actions in Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power, the group which claimed to be responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the United States planned an incursion into Iraq. This was without the support from the United Nations, and an action that was a slap in the face to the nations that showed so much support for the United States following 9/11. The disrespect went even further with the proclamation the a nation must be "with us" or they would be considered "against us". In the mind of the world community, we had gone outlaw. And all the bridges made internationally between the US and other nations had been doused with gasoline and burnt.

This same Iraq invasion was then proven to be based on bogus information. The whole "Iraq has weapons of mass destruction" argument was disproved and shown to at some level to have been intentionally create fake information to be used as an excuse to invade Iraq.

The war in Iraq was a result of the administration. So the citizens of the United States aren't to blame for a thing. The goodwill, the unity by the citizens was still a part of each persons heart and mind.

But when there was an opportunity for the US citizens to speak their mind, to let the world know that we, as Americans, did not support the actions of a renegade administration, it was the American citizens that were at fault. The way a nations citizens speak their minds to the rest of the world is through elections. And by re-electing George W. Bush, knowing that the war in Iraq should not have ever happened (predicated on false WMD reports), the rest of the world got the message loud and clear: that we had forgotten what we should have about 9/11. On 9/12/01, it was about doing what was right, no matter what we had thought two days before...because then, we had a clear understanding of "right" and "wrong". And for that election, we were wrong, and forgot that sometimes a decision can be as simple as choosing right over wrong, without all the complications.

The unity that once was on 9/12/01, the individual and instinctual need to do what was right, something that dominated each Americans mind following 9/11, was now gone. A strong conservative Christian wing of the republican party had their say, but it took more than that to swing a majority decision. To re-elect an individual that the many around the world questioned might even be a potential war criminal, regardless of what has proven, rather than facilitate a change for the benefit of the world community...that was something few around the world expected to see.

And it didn't stop there.

Quick enough, we had gross misuse of the Patriot Act as a means to violate American civil liberties.

We had the return of the overly politically correct nature, a pre-9/11 aspect of "Americanism" in which individuals and special interest groups showed they could take control of ones livelihood. These groups were responsible for having radio and television personalities fired despite the fact that no FCC laws were broken. Threats of boycotts on the parent companies of the employees and their advertisers forced many to lose their jobs. All of a sudden, America was not about freedom of choice, but about the number of choices being limited by removing that which "YOU" don't like. Because if you don't like something, then it should not be available to others.

Then in November of 2006, there was a sign, a beacon of light to the world community, when the American populous voted in a Democratic majority into Congress, freeing the nation in the world's eyes, of the Bush/Republican negative agenda. I remember being in Europe after the elections, and how happy people were when discussing the American people with the understanding that they had "come to their senses". And what did the Democratic Congress do with that majority? Nothing. Not a thing.

Fast forward a few years, and there was another presidential election. With an outgoing Bush after two terms and a Vice President not seeking the presidency, it was wide open race. You had a moderate Republican in John McCain, heading the Republican side...something that seemed impossible for a party that had for 8 years been so dominated by the Christian Right.

On the Democratic side, you had the field eventually turn into a two person race: 7 year New York Senator and former first lady, Hillary Clinton, and 1 and 1/2 year Illinois Senator, Barack Obama. Obama would eventually "win" the parties nomination and run against John McCain. But it's the path to the Democratic nomination that shows how quickly we forgot about the core values of America like democracy.

Few realize the entire primary election process. Each state has it's own primary elections, set on different days, and many having different formats. Some states use an election others a caucus. Some states allow only registered Democrats to vote, while others are open to a wider group of people. Each state has a given number of electoral votes that are awarded to a candidate using that given states own set of standards. So some states might award all the votes to the winner while other states will split votes based on the total percentage.

But the Democratic party opted to penalize two states, Michigan and Florida for the simple reason that they moved their primary elections to a different day. The result: the Democratic party through away those states from the total tally (eventually, they would split the a limited number of votes between both candidates). Both of these states were won by Hilary Clinton. But because at this point in the election process both states had been disqualified, these winning votes were not included in Clinton's tally. The role of momentum in electoral politics is crucial since later scheduled primary elections tend to end with the existing front-runner winning. It's the American nature of less educated voters wanting to vote for who others think will be the winner. With Clintons large state wins in Florida and Michigan seemingly in the garbage, the Obama momentum built, since he was apparently in the "lead" with those two states thrown away. By the time those states were brought back into the equation (limited), the primary was over with Obama chosen as the nominee.

But the way things played out in the Democratic Party, the way they were handled, seems to go against so much of what makes America, "America". It's difficult to preach an ideal to the rest of the world about "democracy" when the process as a nation you try to use as a model for the rest of the world, does not incorporate every vote (especially such impacting primary states like Florida and Michigan).

As we know, Obama and McCain squared off with Obama winning. His message of "hope" and "change" resonated with the country, a country starved for improvement. And the same message resonated with the rest of the world, as Obama was a favorite nearly everywhere. It was a step in the right direction, to bring America back to where we were from a positive standpoint in the world community back on 9/12/01. Unfortunately, unity is best formed when behind a cause and not an individual person and the Obama presidency is now in danger of being only 1 term.

But the Obama message still holds, with or without him in American politics: change & hope.

But sometimes "change" can be as simple as a return to what was...when that point or ideal you seek is something that should never have been forgotten in the first place.

The "change" and "hope" that won Obama the presidency needs to go beyond blind faith in an individual. On 9/12/01, America was unified. Not primarily behind George W. Bush, not behind just New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Following 9/11, Americans were united behind "America".

Americans were united behind doing what they could as an individual to help.

Americans were united behind their beliefs in freedom and democracy.

Americans were united behind doing what they needed to make the world a better place.

But like most tragic incidents in life, once we had the initial bonding and coped as we all needed, we all forgot the positive that came out of 9/11. And when the flags started falling on the ground, off of peoples cars, and when the flags were no longer being displayed outside everyone's homes, we all forgot what that meant.

So maybe it is as simple as needing to remember our own responsibility in what we need to do to make the world a better place. Maybe we all need to utilize symbolism and try to make mental connections from an item like an American flag and remember that what that flag means is supposed to always be the unity following 9/11/01.

So 10 years later, I write this, so that I always have the memories of 9/11/01 and more importantly 9/11/11 in written form. I haven't forgotten 9/11. The return of the now disappeared "9/12/01 mentality" from America is something I hope for every day. But finding that mentality is now a path for each and every individual. No politician can make that happen. No inspiring quote can trigger that. It requires action. It requires standing up for what you believe in. It requires respecting others with different opinions to yours. It's about being as much of a student in life as you are a teacher. It's about doing something every day, no matter how small, to make the world a better place. Because it adds up.


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