Sunday, September 11, 2011

The 9-11 Effect

(me and Don at the US Open, about 9 years ago today)

Today is the 10 year Anniversary of 9-11. And as the media becomes saturated with all kinds of coverage and tug at your heart-strings stories, and as NYC faces another "credible threat" from the lovely Al queda douchebags in the form of car and truck bombs to commemorate,I cant help but think back to where I was in my life on that morning. And how things today are so very much different, yet very much the same. It was a Tuesday morning, and I was in my second year of teaching Adjunct at Adelphi. Back then, I used to take the NJ Transit bus into the city, walk down to Penn Station, then jump on the LIRR train out to Long Island. It was a huge pain in the ass and took forever, but I didnt have a car back then, so its all I knew. I was also only teaching one Acting Course at that time; instead of the three classes I now teach each semester. My friend Marina who I went to college with years back was teaching the other session of the same course, so we would ride the train together from the city out to Long Island.

It was a perfectly gorgeous day, the weather was sunny and comfortable. I remember getting onto the bus for the short ride into the city, when suddenly we heard this weird noise. It felt like an earthquake, if I had known what an earthquake felt like. Everyone on the bus looked over to the left at the Manhattan skyline, and we saw what looked like smoke and flames coming out of one of the Towers. The bus turned a corner and went into the Lincoln Tunnel. None of us really knew what was happening, and there was this chaotic, confused feeling as we all got off the bus onto 42nd street. As I started to walk the 8 blocks down to Penn Station, hundreds of people were on their cell phones. I remember a lot of questions and panicked voices to loved ones. The panic slowly grew over time. It was as if the entire city of NY was trying to figure out a mystery or put together a puzzle: "I think there was a plane crash." "Something just hit the World Trade Center building!" " Mom, Robbie just called and said the Tower is on fire!"

If you dont know the layout of NYC, that downtown area where it happened isnt visible from where I was, so all the people walking around in that general area were moving about with baffled expressions on their faces, not knowing yet the full horror of the situation. As I got closer to Penn Station, things got more fast-paced and chaos ensued quickly. Cops began appearing out of nowhere, instructing people to please move onto the trains or out of the way. I found myself running into Penn Station, and practically being pushed onto a train. "Whats going on?" Marina asked me. "I dont know. We saw smoke coming out of the Tower from the bus and this awful noise. I think a plane hit it." Marina looked scared, and I wasnt much help. I will never forget getting onto that train, pulling out of the station, and then watching all of the people simultaneously take out their cell phones, one after another, as we were now above ground and reception had returned. At first, there was a lot of noise and commotion. Everyone was on their phone, calling someone, trying to find out what was going on. Then, finally, a voice yelled out to all of us: "Another plane just hit the other tower!" There was a collective gasp, some crying, and then an eery silence fell over us as the train continued out of NYC and into Long Island. I remember another person telling the person next to them that they think it was a terror attack. That is when I officially became scared. Terror attack? Here? That seemed impossible. I remember panicking and my heart beating faster, thinking: "Holy shit! What if theres a bomb on this train? What if one of them is on this train and they are going to kill us next?" At that point, I was immediately convinced that these people were hitting us from all transportation angles. First planes, then trains, subways, buses, taxis, everything. We were so used to a safe, cushy life here in America. Everything changed in an instant.

Eventually, we got to our stop and arrived in Garden City. Marina and I figured that classes would most likely be cancelled; but we didnt have much choice other than to continue on to our destination. We were on a moving train and it was still going, so what could we do? I recall arriving at campus and going to where my first class was being held; the library. Don't ask me why the hell an Acting class was held inside of a quiet classroom inside of a library. Thats another story for another time. Basically; the University puts my classes wherever they happen to have space for us. Sometimes its a theatre, other times its the Science Lab or a library. I walked in, and the huge projector was pulled down and everyone was watching the TV on it. The news. There must have been 60 people in this tiny room, all gathered together, watching to see what would happen next. Some were my students, others were employees, other students, faculty.

I think it was about five minutes after we arrived that the first tower started crumbling, falling. It just started disappearing in a grey cloud right before our eyes. I couldnt believe what I was seeing. Im pretty sure I started crying. A female student of mine put her hand over her face as she said: "My dad is a firefighter! Oh My God, I think he's in there." Another student cried as he tried to call the same number over and over without getting through; to his uncle who worked in one of the Towers. It was mass hysteria and calm all at once in that room. People were almost paralyzed, not familiar with how to react to something like this. I dont even think there was any sort of announcement that classes would be cancelled; everyone just sort of began scattering in different directions. Marina and I both tried to call our families, but none of the phones were working. A few minutes passed, then the second tower fell down. This cannot be happening. This cannot be happening. This isnt happening. It was the same thing I continued to say out loud to noone and the universe on the morning of July 13; when the hospital called and said simply: "You need to get here right away. We have your husband." And in both cases, I dont remember the specific details of the next few hours; only vague moments and feelings.

One thing I remember is that some of us ended up in some administrators office on campus. It had one of the only working phones; and there was a line of people waiting to use it. I think it was sometime after 1pm when I was finally able to reach my parents. "Im okay", I remember saying, "Im on campus and none of the phones are working so I cant talk, but Im okay." I think my mom said "Thank God!" and begged me to please call again as soon as I was able. Phones went back and forth from working to not working, and then eventually, not working. All transporation into and out of the city was shut down, so I was stuck on Long Island until further notice. Marina's mother-in-law Susan; Dave's mom, worked at Adelphi (and still does), and she graciously invited me and Marina to spend a night or two with their family, which I did. I will always be so grateful to Susan and the rest of Dave's family for taking me in and giving me a place to feel safe in a time where I felt so incredibly scared. We ate dinner that night, and sat by the TV as if our lives depended on it. I cant recall how long it was before I could actually use my cell phone to call my close friends. I just remember checking my messages and having something like 27 of them. At least 4 of them were from my friend Kevin, who I had just recently become close with after ending up in the same comedy class at Caroline's Comedy Club. We hit it off right away, and we both had killer sets at our debut show only the week before this hell day. He just kept calling and saying: "Please please get back to me and let me know youre okay." There were several from other friends, family, everyone.

At that time, Don and I were still in the long-distance phase of our relationship. We hadn't met in person yet, but we had been talking online and on the phone for a very long time at that point, we cared about each other a lot, and we were both very ready to take it to the next level and see what would come of things. Don was on his EMS shift in Florida when 9-11 went down, and I dont think he had a cell phone yet, so I had to leave a message on his answering machine at his apartment. Later that night, I did finally talk to him, and he told me he had tried to reach me over and over again that day from work, but none of the calls went through. Never having been to NYC, he didnt know the layout or how close I was to the World Trade Center, how I got to work, and whether or not I would be in the direct line of fire, so to speak. I remember his voice being shaky and filled with relief as he kept saying: "I was very worried Boo. Its just such a helpless feeling being all the way down here. I cant DO anything and I didnt know if you were okay. We need to meet soon. You must be terrified. This is crazy." The events of 9-11 and the horror of what could have happened to me, to any of us, are what pushed our relationship forward, and made us both want to take a risk on each other, because life is short, and you never know if someone is going to go to work one day at their office job inside Tower One and never come out, or if they are going to appear perfectly healthy and go to work at their part-time job and end up in cardiac arrest. You just dont know.

There is something I have noticed in relation to both 9-11 and Don's death. I refer to it as "the 9-11 Effect." Remember right after 9-11, how NYC became a totally different place, and people changed overnight from bitter, hurried grumps who didnt have a second to spare to patriotic, beautiful, generous, patient souls? Remember how in the wake of that awful horror, our city came together as one; with the mission of helping one another however we possibly could? Suddenly strangers talked to each other, held doors for one another, gave each other a smile or a hello. There was an instant chemistry and bonding between everyone who lived here; as if every person you saw looked at you with their eyes and said: "I get it. I understand your pain." You saw American flags on the outside of every home, people lit candles in the streets and prayed for humankind, for peace. Everyone put aside their differences and their attitudes and really came together. It was a thing of beauty. And then it was over. After awhile, the newness of the fear of that day went away, and with it, so did the unity. The flags started to come down, doors were slammed in your face once again, and people began to move on with their lives, and NY became moody NY again.

The same exact thing happened when Don died. Within minutes of hearing about his sudden death, I was overwhelmed by people. People came out of the woodwork for me. People I literally havent heard from in years, sometimes decades, were offering their support and love to me, reaching out in various different ways. My voicemail flooded with messages within hours. I think there were 56 messages on that first day. The texts were coming at me like wildfire. I thought maybe I had become famous and just forgot. I couldnt keep up. The first three days and nights after it happened, there were a total of probably 16 people inside our tiny apartment. They came in shifts; sometimes overlapping. They brought food, and fruit baskets, and flowers, and love. My friend Matt was on crutches and hobbled his way from upstate NY just to be there for me. He could barely walk and looked like he was about to topple over, but he was there. My friend Shawn, who I havent seen in years, buzzed my apartment door at 11:30pm on the second or third night after Don's death. I was here with my mom, and the second shift of friends had just left, when suddenly, Shawn appears. "I didnt know what to do, so I just came over."

My mom and I sat there and watched him eat a turkey sandwich, and watching him eat one made me hungry for the first time in three days, so I ate a few bites of one too. He sat with me and talked; and kept me occupied. He distracted me when I needed a distraction. On the day of the funeral, I was so overwhelmed and moved by the various people that showed their faces there, and the things people did to show they loved us. Sarah and Julio making gourmet dishes from their restaurant to serve up to guests after the services; all the many people who agreed to speak and write eulogies about Don. My family, who loved Don like a son, grieving with me, and my brother rubbing my back in support as I sobbed looking at my future in that casket. My old college friend Nicole showing up at a funeral, the very same week of her own wedding. The irony of that was not lost on me, and I was touched by her presence. So many old college friends that I hadnt been in touch with for awhile, or not at all. A comedy Facebook friend of mine whom I had only met once before, Mindi, showed up and told me she was there to acknowledge our love, because it was obvious that it was a special one. So nice. Friends from the comedy community stopping by to pay their respects. Feeling the connection, the brotherhood that comes with being the wife of an EMT. So many acquaintences, people that worked with Don only a few times, the super of our apartment building and his wife, unexpected people. The Air Force presenting me with that American flag on behalf of The President of the United States; "we thank you for your service." The honor and the pride of it all. It was beautiful, and I felt like I was a part of something special.

The love and the comfort and the people continued to come days after that service, weeks even. Friends took me to lunch over and over. People dont know what else to do, so they take you to lunch. I had 67 lunches in a two week period. And then , slowly, the lunches diminished. The people went away. The responses to my Facebook status updates werent as many. And that Air Force thing? Sure, it was beautiful, and they really did love Don, but that was a standard military service. They do it for all their men. When you try and receive some kind of survivors benefits because your husband served his country and died so young, they are suddenly nowhere to be found. Suddenly the President doesnt care quite so much about Don's time in the service; because apparrently it wasnt enough time to qualify for any sort of help. The honor, the pride, the flag ... its all part of the show. Just like people and their patriotism after 9-11. Unless you personally lost someone on that day or were personally affected, you begin to recover from it. You go back to the way you were before. Maybe on a day like today, you acknowledge it, because you are supposed to. Because its an "anniversary" and thats what you do. But in the end, when it comes down to it, what have you really changed?

And the thing is, I knew in my heart that would happen. I knew it and I felt it. because it happened on 9-11. All that patriotism and love, it was just temporary. It was real for some people, of course, but with others, it disappeared when the tragedy was no longer in their face. Days after this happened, I remember telling my friend Jessica that I wasnt afraid of the right now, because I am surrounded by friends. I couldnt knock people off with a stick at that time. I was afraid of what would happen 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, even a year down the road. I knew even then, that I would need my friends more than ever, months from now. Jessica assured me that well after everyone else has stopped calling and stopped checking on me, "we will be here for you, for the long haul." And she has been. A lot of my friends have been; and a lot of support has continued to come from unexpected places. However; some people have fallen by the wayside, and that doenst really surprise me. Its disappointing, but it doesnt surprise me. Not everyone will step up to the plate when its time. Some dont know what to do, so they do nothing. Its just human nature. It didnt happen to them, so they eventually move on.

Its the 9-11 Effect. When the wound is fresh, ,and the fear and pain are immediate, the people will come. It is only now, almost two months later, that I am starting to figure out who my real friends will turn out to be; and who will simply fold up their American flag and throw it away.

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