Hard to believe this coming Wednesday marks the 18th anniversary of Sept. 11, and yet here we are, nearly two decades past what is, perhaps, the defining event of my generation.
It’s certainly the worst day in American history I was alive to see. I may lament being born too late for Woodstock, Elvis on Ed Sullivan or the 1927 New York Yankees, but I’m certainly glad I missed the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Great Depression couldn’t have been a picnic, either.
Regardless, 9/11 has left an indelible mark on all of us, especially those who, like me, experienced it in person.
I know this sounds cliché, but I really do remember it like it was yesterday. (Full disclosure: I remember yesterday like it was 18 years ago, thank you very much legal retail cannabis.)
Picture it, New York City, early fall 2001. My girlfriend (now my wife) and I had just moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn. We hadn’t even hooked up our cable or internet. Sadly, the inability to watch the “Sopranos” or pirate music from Napster would prove the least of our problems that sunny Tuesday.
That morning, my girlfriend left for work as usual, one block south of the World Trade Center, while I went to go interview for a teaching job at a nearby high school.
Brooklyn is pretty flat — according to climate change models most of it will wind up underwater, which, for some areas, would be an improvement.
Anyway, Park Slope, as its name indicates, runs up the slope of a hill. It ranks among the borough’s highest points, and at four stories, John Jay High School among its tallest buildings.
This affords breathtaking views of lower Manhattan, less than 10 miles away as the crow flies.
I interviewed strongly — I wore a jacket and tie and everything — and the vice principal decided to show me a class in session.
By then, it was 9 am. We walked in to discover 30 students lining the windows, watching what I quickly discerned was the top of the North Tower — smoking.
It sort of looked like a giant cigarette.
And then the other plane hit the South Tower. It was something out of a movie — a flash, a fireball, the kids “oooing” and “aaaahing” as if they were watching a Michael Bay flick.
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.
With that, the interview was over.
In fact, I exited moments ahead of a citywide schools lockdown. First responders already sped toward Manhattan.
People yelled all sorts of things out open windows (some true, some not): 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 first had disappeared in a cloud of pulverized concrete. I watched the second tower fall, in real time, simultaneously on a bank of TVs and through the shop’s open door.
Honestly, I couldn’t see how any living creature in all of Lower Manhattan would’ve survived, including the future mother of my children.
What would happen to her Ani DiFranco CDs? I couldn’t bear to listen to them, and yet I couldn’t throw them away either…
So I started running — all the way to Flatbush Avenue, where I encountered thousands of pedestrian evacuees, many ash-covered and bloodied, flooding across the Manhattan Bridge.
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.
Okay, that’s exactly not true. I cried the first time I saw the Grand Canyon. And also during the “Lion King” when Mufasa dies. Also, when Ben & Jerry’s discontinued Dastardly Mash (that was 1991, and it still stings). But I digress.
There I was, blubbering away in a jacket and tie, when the door opened — and then 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 spared us TV’s endless loop. Instead, we sat on the roof of our building eating pizza — remarkably, the corner 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 still refuse to discuss them.
One of my girlfriend’s co-workers died (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 — pieces of landing gear turned up on the roof, making it part of a federal crime scene — and when she and her co-workers finally returned, the toxicity of the smoldering rubble forced them to wear surgical masks indoors.
We still get mail from the World Trade Center Health Registry — 18 years later.
Man, has it really been that long? How far have we really come since then, both individually and as a nation? And perhaps most importantly of all, when will they bring back Dastardly Mash?
• Geoff Kirsch is an award-winning Juneau-based writer and humorist. “Slack Tide” appears every second and fourth Sunday in Neighbors.