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VIEWS: Reflecting on 9/11
by Sarah Toce
2011-09-14

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I moved to Manhattan the day before the Twin Towers were attacked—Sept. 10, 2001. I hadn't slept at all the night prior to my first day of classes at the School for Film and Television ( since renamed the New York Conservatory of Dramatic Arts ) . Maybe it was the new school jitters or the fact that I was in a completely new city all alone without another hand to hold, but my eyes were wide awake throughout the night. I may have slept a total of two hours from 9 p.m.-6 a.m. Something just felt … off. The negative energy field in my friend's small apartment was overwhelming. When my alarm chimed to get off the couch and into the shower, I was relieved and, well, exhausted from the restlessness that had overpowered me only hours before.

My life partner and I purchased cell phones prior to my big solo move to the city. I would be staying with a friend for the month of September until she joined me in October when her work contract was completed. My phone rang as I was about to leave the 600-sq. ft. flat. It was my partner. We talked about staying safe, making sure I walked through town like I owned the streets ( she always used to tell me this ) and that we both wished the other would have an outstanding day. She reminded me to pack my camera because she wanted to see what my first day of school was like since she could not physically be there to support me. We were always very kind and sweet to one another. It was in our DNA makeup as human beings first and, as cherished partners second. We hung up the phone as I grabbed my light jacket, backpack with books for the first day of class and headed out the door to the subway towards downtown. When given the option to be late for something or hang up the phone and stop talking to my partner before I was ready, well, I veered in the direction of being late. Sept. 11, 2001 was no exception.

I finally made it to the red line—train numbers 1, 2 and 9—right near Lincoln Center where I was staying. It was 8:30 a.m. The 1 train arrived and I hopped on. As the silver bullet raced deep into the underground tunnel and sliced through the thick darkness, we suddenly stopped. Inching our way up to the platform after what felt like 20 minutes or more ( which feels like an eternity when you're trapped underground in a metal container ) , the doors finally opened and we were told that we could wait on the train until it moved again if we wanted to, but that it would not be continuing to the regularly-scheduled World Trade Center ( WTC ) stop because of an accident there. Somehow the man in front of me in the crowded car was able to get cell phone service when the rest of us surrounding him could not. The doors opened and I contemplated jumping onto the platform to wait it out or walk the rest of the way. That was when I heard him say that "they" didn't think it was an accident because another jet had just flown into the South Tower. It was just after 9:03 a.m. by that point and I was worried about getting to my class on time. I left the subway station and decided to walk the rest of the way.

Feeling frustrated by the inconvenience this suddenly put on me, I emerged onto the sidewalk filled with hapless people and wondered if New Yorkers always lined up this way at this particular intersection of town. Being that I had just moved to the city the evening before, I did not know my direction around town yet or where my school was in relation to where I had exited the station. I looked up and in front of where I was standing saw two very tall buildings with a gaping hole of fire near the top of one and chunks missing out of the other. I went to grab my camera but realized then that I had left it behind that morning in my rush to get out of the apartment on time. I still remember the thought I had when looking up at the building whose top was on fire…."It's going to take them a long time to fix that." That was the thought that ran through my head as innocent people were running for their lives and jumping out of scorching hot windows holding hands with their partners just 30 blocks south of where I stood.

When I arrived for my class on 23rd street and 6th Avenue, I was instantly greeted with panicked staff directing students to different sitting areas. It still did not click for me. It wasn't until I heard the phrase "terrorist attack" on the radio in the tiny room that I realized what was actually happening. Even though it was The School for Film and Television, there were no televisions that day because they had not been set up yet. Therefore, the news was received the old-fashioned way: the radio. I'm not sure which delivery method was worse…watching the buildings fall on television or imagining it all in your mind while listening to the madness on the radio. The students were told that they could not leave until more information was released for safety precautions. When it was confirmed that we were indeed under attack, and when students began an uproar wanting to see their families, we were told that we could leave.

The subways and buses weren't running and I didn't know where to go or who to call so I used pure instinct to find my way back to the apartment. About 50 blocks later, I was there and I was frantic.

I wore heels that day and my feet were blistering. It was reported on the news that Manhattan had been locked down, meaning that no one could come in and no one could go out. The bridges were guarded and the subway, bus and train lines were non-functional. I remember feeling isolated, stuck in a concrete city where there was no escape. There was a short window of opportunity to leave before the lock down, but at that time I had already committed to going to school and had paid my tuition for the quarter, etc. I had decided to stick it out. After a few days had passed and the city was under panic and anxiety, I started to regret that initial idealistic decision. I wanted out and couldn't get out. It would be a month before my partner would be in the city with me. I was on my own.

There were two large cellphone antennas on top of the Twin Towers that were no longer there. Basically what that equaled out to was no cell phone service for about a month. If you were able to receive a signal it was choppy at best. I was not living in my own space yet and was staying with a loose friend—we had only met a few months earlier and she had offered her apartment for the month before my partner would arrive. Although I was grateful to have a roof over my head, there were roaches, nothing was mine, she would not let me use the telephone because her mother was paying for it and she didn't want to get her upset.

It began then; a routine to walk outside to the pay phone near the newsstand and make my calls home to my loved ones to let them know that I was doing okay. It was the brush of human contact I craved the most that went unfulfilled. Even so, there was a sense of humanity on the streets where people would look you in the eye and ask how you were, or make a comment about the attack, etc. It was a common thread in a quilt of city dwellers that otherwise would have never related. It was a unity I had never experienced in New York City before or since.

When the desire returned to take the subway after many, many, many months of reluctance, I noticed that something was new. There were bomb-sniffing dogs and men with bazookas and machine guns standing outside of the train stations. Who knew that going to Barnes & Noble could be so exciting? It stayed that way for quite awhile and became so normal to everyday life that I can't recall the moment when they actually stopped those procedures.

Mailing a package at the post office was also an interesting experience. There was a threat of anthrax in the air, pardon the pun, and every single person walking into the Empire State Building post office location had to be searched and bags were sent through the scanner to look for possible hidden explosives. It was just the way of life at that time. It became normal after a time. See a pattern here? Normal was not the normal normal…not anymore.

I was depressed for years following the attack, but I had no idea the extent. I was surviving one day to the next, but that was about as far as I could project myself out to the Universe for confirmation of anything. I felt as though I was being guided by a power higher than myself because there was no earthly way I was making it otherwise. At least, that was how it felt. I was alone for much of the beginning of the journey post 9/11, but I never felt like I was truly by myself. There was an empathetic energy enveloping me at night when I'd turn in after a long, emotional day. When I'd wake up in the morning, there was a feeling of protection surrounding me. I knew that I was going to be okay. Somehow I knew that—even though everything else felt so temperamental.

For a long time following the attack, I had a tremendous fear of flying and planes in general. When an airplane could be heard overhead, I'd have to look up … just to make sure. If it seemed too close to the ground or to buildings, I was sure something sinister was about to happen. Now I can see that it was paranoia and anxiety ... PTSD. There were fighter jets circling the city on a semi-constant basis and I became familiar with the blaring sounds surrounding them. A walk to the grocery store included jets flying overhead and a fear of the city being attacked in my head and in my heart.

Something I often wonder silently to myself is why I chose to stay in the city when I could have left before being closed inside without release. Would I be the same person I am today without the hours, days, months, and years following the attack? Most definitely not. Maybe that was the inadvertent reason I stayed. At the time, though, all I knew was that I had made a commitment to be there and I wasn't one to go back on my commitments. I had just moved to New York the day before and I wasn't ready to pack up and leave yet. Did I have any idea whatsoever that the next three years would alter the entire course of my life? No way.

As I reflect upon the day that changed America forever, I think about where I have been and where I am headed and know only one thing for sure: I am grateful for my life. I may not always like the circumstances that have entered into it and changed my path of development, but I am thankful for being able to have it and being allowed to survive through it. It's hard to go back to moaning and groaning when something like the impact of 9/11 occurs in your life. It demands one to stand up straighter and fight harder...in essence, to survive...and that is what I did.

Reprinted with permission from an article in The Seattle Lesbian


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