September 11 is a generational marker in my house; The Wife and I remember it vividly, but The Boy was only three months old at the time, and The Girl was just a twinkle in someone’s eye. They have a vague sense of it, but nothing visceral. For us, it’s visceral.
I lived in Somerville, New Jersey at the time, and worked at DeVry, in North Brunswick. It was a gorgeous day. I remember having a 9:00 meeting that got off to a late start, and someone mentioning that a plane had hit a tower of the World Trade Center. I imagined a drunken millionaire in a Cessna. We had the meeting. When the meeting broke up and I walked back to the main office area, one of the secretaries was telling someone that one tower was down.
I thought, that can’t be right. That doesn’t happen.
For all the retellings of 9/11, it’s easy to forget the sense of disorientation. We turned on tv’s in some classroom and saw the coverage; by that point, nobody was teaching anything.
North Brunswick isn’t terribly far from New York City; we had faculty and staff who lived in the city, and others whose spouses worked there. I remember the look on the face of one colleague whose husband worked in one of the towers. I can still tell you where she was standing and what she was wearing. It’s not an easy sight to forget.
Information started trickling in, some of it accurate, some not. First we heard there were 8 planes hijacked, then four. I remember hearing that one plane went down in Somerset County, but didn’t hear the qualifier “Pennsylvania.” Somerville is in Somerset County, NJ. I called home and told TW to turn on the tv, any channel. Eventually I heard that one of the planes went down in Pennsylvania, and was actually a little relieved. At least it wasn’t an immediate danger.
We canceled classes for the rest of day, which was pretty much redundant at that point. Students, faculty, staff, everyone stood in classrooms watching coverage, and trying to make some sort of sense of it.
We started hearing about travel restrictions. Nobody could get into Manhattan. Some colleagues were at a conference in Chicago, and were suddenly unable to fly back. I remember being struck the next day by how clear the sky was from my backyard. We usually had multiple planes per hour flying over (from Newark), and there were almost always vapor trails from planes in the sky during the day. For a few days, there wasn’t a single one. I wasn’t aware of how normal they had become until they weren’t there.
My friend Peter, who taught history, lived in Manhattan, so he couldn’t go home. We hosted him that night, since he had an early class the next day and I always drove in early anyway. This was before cell phones were ubiquitous. I remember him trying to reach his fiance on our phone, and the look of relief on his face when he got through to her. She was fine, though scared. Peter is always the coolest guy in the room, but the facade of cool showed some cracks that night. I couldn’t blame him.
Little things stick out. I remember TW being glued to the tv for a couple of weeks after that, trying in vain to find some way to make sense of it all. I stopped watching altogether for a while, just to avoid making myself crazy. It was the first time in my adult life that I made a conscious decision to ration my exposure to news, just for the sake of mental health. It helped.
This may sound strange, but it’s true. For the next couple of weeks, I remember people driving more considerately. Just a mile or two up Route One from DeVry is Satan’s Own Intersection where routes one and eighteen sort of intersect. “Intersect” doesn’t really capture the complexity of what happens there; it’s more like a plate of spaghetti rendered in asphalt. New Jersey drivers aren’t shrinking violets, as a breed, and navigating those ramps and merges was usually a battle of skill and will. But for a couple of weeks, people slowed down and even made room for others to merge. I had never seen that before, and haven’t since. For part of one month, they did. The sheer shock forced perspective.
For a couple of weeks, there was a vague sense that reality had been suspended. We started hearing about who had been lost, and how it was discovered. I heard about cars parked near the New Brunswick train station that went unclaimed for a while, until someone finally did. My colleague’s husband survived. The folks in Chicago rented cars and drove back. Life slowly returned to normal, if slightly off center.
I remember, too, people looking to each other for emotional cues. I’m a fan of level-headed people generally, but in the aftermath of that, level-headedness mattered more than it usually does. Nationally, it was in short supply for a while, but locally I saw it everywhere. That stuck with me.
The kids have heard about the towers, and they’ve seen the attack used to make various political points. But the intense sense of vertigo in the moment is harder to convey. Some people learned from that moment the importance of bluster and revenge. I hope to pass along the importance of an even keel. Fifteen years later, I don’t remember every conspiracy theory or excited call for revenge. I remember the people who took deep breaths, did what needed to be done, and kept perspective. That’s what I choose to remember.