The first time I ever drank Jack Daniels whiskey was also my last. 18 years ago today in Brooklyn, New York, I found myself drinking it just a couple of hours after the World Trade Center had been attacked and destroyed, just a few miles away. Ian and I had stood on the rooftop of our apartment building looking at the familiar skyline of lower Manhattan and seen with our own eyes a plane flying into the second tower, and then, a few minutes later both towers disappearing into a cloud of smoke. The shock was gradual, slowly taking hold of our reason. This didn’t seem like an accident, and we wanted to find out what was going on.
What else would we do but think of the company of friends, and maybe a strong drink. We had no Whatsapp or smart phones to converge in a virtual space and express our shock, share rumours. Whatever dial-up internet we had at home was either knocked out or just jammed with panicked traffic. We had managed to get an email to my sister out in Long Island to say we were fine and she passed the word around the family. But from that point on, the universe of Brooklyn, that huge but separate part of New York, closed in around us. We had no tv, no radio (our local station had its antenna on top of the towers) and learned quickly that we weren’t meant to travel anywhere. Subways and buses were stopped to stop people moving around. The sky above us went eerily silent as the airspace was closed, while later in the afternoon it ripped with the sounds of fighter jets. I hated that bombastic sound, so un-New York. But Ian reminded me they were there to protect us.
Is it fair to keeping talking about 9/11 when so many other terrible and terrifying things have happened in many places since then, and will continue to happen? When most college students now were born after it happened and it will seem like old history?
But for me and clearly for the majority of Americans (a country that had never before experienced invasion) this was a marker that we were living out history, it was happening to us whether we liked it or not. And things were going to change. I am not an American and I moved away from New York a long time ago after three amazing years but I deeply loved that city and my time there; it’s part of my identity.
Watching it all from our rooftop we were at a loss as to what to do. Looking down we could see people on the street going about their normal business, walking slowly with grocery bags. This wasn’t a movie, the streets were not full of panic. Not yet. What did we know? I called my friend Sarah and she invited us over as she had CNN and it was working. Some others were coming over, also stranded.
On our way to her place we decided to stop at the local hospital off 7th Avenue, to see if we could give blood. Something useful we could offer, feeling useless as we did. We joined a long line of other Brooklynites waiting for the same reason, until a nice nurse came out to tell us that there was no need for donors. There were no reports of injuries coming from the towers. People had died outright and, we would learn, many would never be found.
As we left the hospital with our heads low a couple of old Italian guys sitting on a low wall asked us what the long line was for. “It’s because of what happen at the World Trade Center this morning”, I told them, “we were all trying to give blood. But they don’t want it.” They looked at each other: “What are you talking about?” We told them what happened, the words sounding odd as they came out. They didn’t seem very bothered and stayed sitting on the wall as we walked on, watching their little world moving quietly.
A good friend, and real sweetheart from Tennessee, Sarah brought out the bourbon as soon as we arrived — she had nothing else — and handed us all a glass. We sat on her couch petting her delighted Persian cats and watched CNN for some nuggets of explanation, from New York, then from Washington which was also under attack. And maybe other places too? We didn’t know. The day passed in a haze
Later on, as we walked home, tipsy from JD and stodgy pizza, we saw people coming out of the ground at Grand Army Plaza, their clothes white from still-settling ash of the streets in lower Manhattan. Their faces were also white, from shock and exhaustion, many of them having been stuck on a non-moving subway for hours, out of communication with their loved ones and the bigger picture of what was going on above-ground. I had managed to avoid that situation for myself as I had not yet left for work when the attacks happened, but that would have been the worst that could have happened, with my workplace being near Houston.
Over the coming days we checked in with an ever-widening network of friends, acquaintances and colleagues in the city. One friend who worked in finance in a neighbouring building witnessed bodies falling (or, more likely, jumping) from what had been the tallest building in the US. One of my old work clients had his little startup’s office in the building, and his funeral a week later was devastating; so many people not knowing what to say to each other, feeling this was just one of many many funerals around the region. Another friend revealed that his brother-in-law was one of those who helped force down the Pennsylvania plane, the ramifications of which have stayed with his family.
Later still, back at work, I learned of many other people who died that day, the invisible victims who are rarely mentioned: the cleaners, janitors and window-cleaners who serviced the towers, most of them immigrants in New York. I was working on a website project for the city union that represented these people and their families. It was work that I was more than happy to keep doing as the union struggled to find ways to help the families left behind.
The arrival of the American flags, of charities from around the country, the posters of the missing all over the lampposts of lower Manhattan, the unwelcome rhetoric of the government, the protests — these would all start to appear over the coming weeks.
But on that day, we were in a bubble. Perhaps better off not really knowing what was going on, and what was to come, trusting that we were safe and nothing more would happen.
And we were lucky to share Jack Daniels with friends. I raise a virtual glass to them every September 11.