Long ago and far away: Sept. 11, 2001

How can I not write about 9/11? My New Yorker magazine arrived in the mail yesterday with its solemn but lovely cover commemorating the tragedy. More security is evident in NYC than any time in the past 10 years. I’m going to spend Thanksgiving with Brook and Gianmarco across the river from NYC, and I’ll probably venture into the city to see the new memorial with its hundred of live oak trees, and one pear tree in the center that was saved from the inferno (sort of like Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree,” which I always disliked).

How can I forget that morning? Here’s my little story for posterity: I was teaching journalism at Mt. Desert Island High School in Maine. I sent a student to do some xeroxing in the library, where the TV was on verifying the recording of a high school basketball game. Ron came running back to class, telling us “there’s been an accident, a plane flew into the World Trade Center!”

“That’s no accident,” I said. “Let’s go.” The 12 of us were the first ones to descend on the library. We stood frozen in front of the television screen. The second plane had just hit, and the commentator was talking about an all-out attack on the White House, the Capital, and who knew where else.

Other students and teachers streamed into the library for what turned out to be an all-day vigil. Then it hit me. Is Brook okay? She worked in Manhattan. It took her around three hours to get to a pay phone (cell phones weren’t working) after standing in a long line. “I’m alright mom, I’m alright,” she gushed.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani got on TV to exhort everyone to leave the city. Brook and her boyfriend walked the 10 miles or so to Astoria, Queens. Across bridges out of the city, others joined the throng leaving the city. Many were covered with dust, or ashes I guess, from the explosion.

Brook told me about shoe stores making sneakers available to women walking in heels, shop owner not letting her pay for coffee. If I recall correctly, her subway was just coming above ground as the second plane hit, and a preacher in her car became hysterical, along with others.

Today, 10 years later less a day, we passed about 150 bikers decked out in American flags getting ready to parade around Tucson. We were on our way back from sharing a humungous cinnamon roll at Gus Balon’s (although I’ve lived in Tucson for nine years I’d never been there, which I can’t believe).

It’s a third-generation-run Tucson establishment. Besides the prompt and friendly service, cleanliness of the place, eggs that tasted like they were just hatched in the backyard, I was impressed by how the owners treat their employees. They get a three-day weekend every six weeks, the month of July off and two weeks at Christmas, four days at Thanksgiving as well as all the major holidays, plus the restaurant is closed on Sundays. No milking every last ounce out of people. A wonderful example of sharing the business’s success.

I’ll never forget seeing the giant abyss in NYC in October 2001, which was once the World Trade Center. The fearful aftermath of that horrendous event shaped the next decade in this country. Fear, unnecessary wars, fear, economic disaster, and more fear.

But today, I chose to eat a giant cinnamon roll, appreciate biker guys who held the door open for us at Gus Balon’s, chat with the cheerful wait staff who kept filling our coffee cups. Now that’s an American story that needs to be retold.

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2 Responses to Long ago and far away: Sept. 11, 2001

  1. Dominique says:

    Dear Sheila,
    Thank you so much for reading my story; and thank you so much for writing yours. Beautifully done. I can only imagine how your heart stopped as you waited for your daughter’s phone call. How lovely to have a cinnamon roll in Tucson, and lift a coffee cup to those short order cooks who took care of you a decade ago….Many thanks. d

  2. sheilawill says:

    Thank you, D! I love your blog. I debated whether to add my link to your post today but we seemed to writing parallel pieces. I suppose everyone who loves words will try to wrap theirs around this 10th anniversary weekend. You’re right, I salute all short order cooks, those who helped my daughter, Brook, and all the others walking from Manhattan 10 years ago, and those who still offer us coffee today — no matter what their politics. If only we could cross the coffee/tea divide…

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