Reflections on 9/11

Posted: Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Usually, my column showcases a brand of humor some enjoy and others consider worthy of toilet paper. Warning: newsprint will destroy your septic system, so tempted as you may be, don't flush it. And remember, it's more abrasive than Charmin.

Anyway, while I'm the first to admit my attempts at comedy sometimes miss the mark, hopefully the following stab at seriousness won't. With that -

It's hard to believe it's been more than nine years since September 11, 2001. My girlfriend - who's since become my wife - and I had just moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn. We hadn't even hooked up our cable. Sadly, the disruption in access to MTV's "Celebrity Death Match" would prove to be the least of our problems that sunny Tuesday.

She left for work as usual, one block south of the World Trade Center. I met her for lunch frequently that summer; I was "freelancing" (note the quotes). From the little park, we ate our take-out, we could see the tourists lined up for the express elevator to the observation deck, and I remember thinking that I'd never been up there before, and really should while I still had the chance. Of course, I meant before my unemployment ran out, not before the whole place ceased to exist.

That morning, I'd interviewed to teach at a nearby high school. Brooklyn is pretty flat - according to Al Gore, most of it will wind up underwater, which, for certain areas, would be an improvement. Anyway, Park Slope, as its name indicates, runs up the side of a hill. It is one of the borough's highest points, and at four stories, John Jay High School is its tallest building. This affords it breathtaking views of lower Manhattan, less than 10 miles away as the crow flies.

The interview went well - I wore a tie and everything - and the vice principal decided to show me a class. By then, it was 9:00 a.m.; 30 students lined the windows, watching what I realized was the North Tower burning. It sort of looked like a giant cigarette.

And then the other plane hit the South Tower. It was like something out of a movie - a flash, a fireball, the kids "oooing" and "aaaahing" as if they were screening a Michael Bay film. Of course, the sudden blare of sirens from every corner of the city indicated that this was real Armageddon, not the one featuring Bruce Willis and that cheesy Aerosmith song.

At that point, the interview was over.

In fact, I exited mere moments ahead of a citywide schools lockdown. First responders already sped toward Manhattan. People were yelling all sorts of things out open windows: the White House got hit, the State Department exploded, one of the towers collapsed. I stepped into an electronics store to see for myself. Sure enough, the South Tower had disappeared in a cloud of pulverized concrete. I watched the second tower fall, in real time, on that same bank of TVs, while simultaneously hearing it happen through the open door.

Honestly, it looked like no living creature within 10 blocks could've survived, including the future mother of my children. What would happen to her Indigo Girls CDs? I couldn't bear to listen to them, but I couldn't throw them away either.

Then I started running - and I never run - all the way to Flatbush Avenue. There, I encountered thousands upon thousands of pedestrian evacuees, many ash-covered and bloodied, flooding across the Manhattan Bridge. I fought the tide for several blocks, like a salmon headed upstream, but who could think about spawning at a time like that?

When I got home, the answering machine blinked with inquires - all from people I was planning to call to see if they'd heard from my girlfriend - and I did something I hardly ever do. I cried. OK, that's exactly not true. I cried the first time I saw the Grand Canyon. And also at the end of "Steel Magnolias" when Julia Roberts dies. Also, when they discontinued Crystal Pepsi. But I digress.

There I was, blubbering, still wearing a tie, when the door opened - there she was, shaken and dusty, but otherwise unhurt. In a way, she'd come back from the dead.

Her tale was even more harrowing. Standing beneath the towers when the second plane hit, the ensuing chaos swept her onto the Brooklyn Bridge. Halfway across, the first tower fell, causing a quake that rippled the bridge; it, too, groaned and threatened collapse. Thankfully, this didn't happen, but still, doesn't sound like an especially pleasant commute.

Lack of cable service spared us CNN's endless loop. Instead, we sat on the roof of our building eating pizza - remarkably, the corner Italian joint not only stayed open, but delivered, all day - watching the ruins burn.

Turns out, no family or friends were physically injured, although some people I know witnessed things so horrific they refuse to discuss them. One of my girfriend's colleagues died of a heart attack, and her parents' next door neighbor, a FDNY lieutenant with two young children, was never found. The FBI closed her office building for six weeks - bits of landing gear turned up on the roof - and when she and her co-workers finally returned, the toxicity of the smoldering rubble forced them to wear surgical masks even indoors. We still get mail from the World Trade Center Health Registry.

A recurring theme I hear in Alaska, whether the subject is fishing or mining or oil drilling, is that only "real" Alaskans should weigh in on subjects directly pertaining to them. I acquiesce: there's some truth to that.

But the same logic applies to 9/11. Yes, it was a tragedy for the whole nation and an absolute nightmare for the victims and their families. Still, those who really lived through it maintain a special investment in not seeing that day exploited or manipulated.

Those who sought to use this anniversary as an excuse for inciting hate, burning religious texts and/or charging $75-$225 a ticket to their special Anchorage "road show" missed the point entirely.

• Slack Tide appears every other Wednesday. Check out more of Geoff's work at

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