The next year, 2000, my gut was right when my boyfriend at the time was asked to go to New York on a business trip. I lucked out when his office purchased two tickets, one of them for me. Again, from the moment I set foot in the city I was infatuated, despite the pint-size hotel rooms and tricky accommodations that later worked out. That was also the summer of my first and only visit to the World Trade Center. Getting to the top of the Trade Center to see the views was on our tourist to-do list. We bought our tickets, waited in line for the elevator and zipped up to the top as the tour guide explained how the system worked. I can't remember what she said because I was too fascinated at how fast we were traveling...and how high. The doors slide open and out we stepped to the amazing, dizzying views of Manhattan. I will never forget the woozy feeling that erupted in my stomach. A feeling like I had to hold onto something or I would fall. I remember glass windows stretched sky high. You could go outside, too. My boyfriend took some convincing, he was having major vertigo and already looked a little pale. Eventually he succumbed, and I took him by the hand, leading him up an escalator, as I remember it, to an area outside lined with high metal fences. The wind was almost deafening. The feeling like you were floating in space, stronger. My boyfriend clutched the interior walls shaking his head that he wasn't going any farther, no matter what I said. I braved walking as close to the edge as I could, telling myself that I would not fall, I would not fall over. After a couple of minutes, when my boyfriend was looking like he was about to cry, we left. Down in the street, we both breathed a sigh of relief. And I remember how we said the feeling of being up so high was strange, so strange.
One year later, September 8th, 2001, I packed up two suitcases, all the money I had - $800 dollars - and moved to Manhattan where I had no job and knew only one person, my old friend from high school. Newly single for the first time in six years, I was now 23-years-old and ready to take on New York. Storm the fashion industry. Things didn't happen like I planned. The jet lag hit me hard and with the three-hour time difference I slept in late. None of my things had arrived - via UPS from California - and they wouldn't arrive for close to two more weeks. They would remain stuck in New Jersey in a holding warehouse.
The morning of September 11th, 2001, I woke up around 11am, groggy but excited about the day. Still not believing that I actually lived in New York. We didn't have a television yet in our small railroad apartment. So I turned on my roommate's clock radio. A man with a solemn voice was talking about how two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. I thought I was listening to an AM radio station where some writer was reading his twisted short story. It made me feel sick to my stomach. I honestly did not believe that what I was hearing was real. So I tied on my sneakers and went outside. The streets were eerie and filled with sirens, even as high up as East 83rd Street. I walked 1 1/2 blocks to the East River and stuck my head out. There it was. A huge white cloud billowing out of lower Manhattan, blowing east. Other people were lined up along the river. All of us holding tightly onto the black rail that bordered the water. All of our heads were turned south, observing the catastrophic cloud. Who knows what it carried with it.
The phone lines were jammed and I had just ridden myself of the burden and cost of a cell phone one week before I moved. Our house phone wasn't installed yet. The only option was the pay phone on York Avenue. I called home and every number that I could remember. I got nothing but a busy signal. My family and friends in California, being unfamiliar with the size and streets of Manhattan, had no idea where I was in relation to the World Trade Center, which was thankfully, quite far away. I think it was my cousin Hope, who had just moved out of NYC two weeks prior, that I reached first. Later that night, I finally got through to my parents. The sense of relief in my mother's voice was palpable. I wondered what she would say? If she would tell me to move back to California? But she didn't. She told me what our president later told our nation. Don't let terrorists and fear make your decisions for you. She also told me that bad things can happen anywhere. You have to live your life. Don't stop living your life.
Later that day, when I was getting too anxious to be alone, my roommate's friend Melissa, who I had never met before, never even spoken to, came over to keep me company. It's funny how fast you connect with people when something catastrophic happens. Her befriending me then was just a small example of how New Yorkers came together. Melissa and I sat on the stoop outside my apartment building and smoked cigarettes. Cigarettes didn't do anything to calm our nerves. But we needed something. I never knew what "normal" was in a city that size, especially having only lived there for three days. But people were like zombies dragging themselves around. Everyone wearing the same lost, numb expression. Sirens filled the streets. I remember seeing firetrucks covered in dust zipping down the avenues. Sirens and news announcers discussed what had happened. That was what I heard for days and days and days. Big trucks with loads of debris from ground zero drove north past my neighborhood, bringing the wreckage and who knows what else somewhere out of the city. A few days later, the smell finally made its way to the Upper East Side. The smell was a fresh reminder of what had happened. And it was strong. Even in mid-town the smell of burnt metal and paper and bodies was unbearably strong.
If I remember correctly, another three or four weeks passed before they started letting the general public back down into lower Manhattan. I visited once, a first date with a boy I had recently met, actually. Mounds of debris were still there. Fences wrapped around the hole in the ground. The sense of sadness was heartbreaking. Hands holding tissue were pressed to eyes and noses. Sniffles and then silence. Thousands of missing pictures of lost loved ones hung from the fences. And candles burned next to flowers and stuffed animals.
After that, firemen and police officers were revered. Before 9/11, I'd personally never given much thought to the jobs that they did. Now, I will never look at them the same. Every time I passed a fire station, the faces of those lost, hung on the walls, were looking back at me. Just to say thank you will never be enough.
Every year on the anniversary of 9-11, two blue beams of light pierce the sky where the towers stood. The first year I saw them, I imagined the souls of the dead captured in the beams, looking down on everyone, on a city full of people who came together to remember them. We will never forget. I will always remember.