Seventeen Years

I remember the bright fall day, the sky clear and bright and blue. I remember I rode my bike to work from my apartment in Queens, across the 59th Street Bridge, to the YMCA on Manhattan’s upper east side. I swam a mile of laps in the pool, then changed and walked my bike two blocks to work at the university where I managed the non-scientific aspects of a cancer research lab. I’d only been on the job for about 18 months, and so far I was enjoying it immeasurably. I’d met a girl and we’d been dating for about a year. I was writing, and I was getting ready to train for my first marathon. (Swimming was a way to get my lungs and heart in shape for the running.) I grabbed breakfast from the cafeteria — an everything bagel with peanut butter and cream cheese, my favorite — and took the elevator to the 7th floor where my office was located at the back of a rarely used lab space. I woke my computer and readied for another day of ordering supplies, managing money, dealing with computer problems.

I don’t remember when I first heard about the crash. I had no radio in my office, and while the internet had spent the previous decade growing astronomically, the online world wasn’t everything it is today. My search engine of choice was Yahoo, not Google, and I got my news at my kitchen table flipping through the paper copy of the New York Times every morning. Politically we were three years out from the impeachment of a president, and the subsequent election had resulted in a lopsided victory where for the second time in American history a president won the electoral college vote but lost the popular vote. We had learned words like “hanging chad” and caught a passing glimpse at how rancorous and partisan our political system can be (and would become).

My desk looked out over the East River, and I remember seeing several helicopters flying south, along with some NYPD boats speeding downtown. Something had happened downtown, one of my colleagues told me: an airplane crashed into the World Trade Center. News reports were sketchy. No one really knew all the details. We found a radio, turned it on. Reporters were live on the air when the second plane hit. The whole world knew then this was no accident.

I remember there was a blood drive at the university that day, and I went to give. The line was short in the morning. People were still watching the news. But soon the other students, faculty, and staff, along with employees from the two hospitals near by and other members of the community were lining up at the top floor of one of the university owned apartment buildings to give blood. Hospitals were going to fill up with people needing help, and blood was in short supply in New York that year. People wanted to help. My girlfriend, who had recently passed her MCAT and was heading into medical school the following year, joined some other colleagues to volunteer at the emergency room next door. While I stayed on the top floor asking question after question of the hundreds of people who lined up to give blood. “Do you have an autoimmune disorder?” “Have you visited Africa in the last six months?”

I don’t remember how much time passed when I heard panic from the voices on the radio and I looked out the windows towards downtown where I had seen the tall TV antennas on top of 1 WTC rising like a spire into the sky. One moment the antenna was there; the next moment it was gone. In it’s place was that same clear blue sky, and wispy gray dust spreading like mist on a fall morning.

I remember the world changed that day. My world changed that day. In ways that I would only come to fully understand later. New York shut down the subways, sent bus drivers home. I had my bike, sure, but I didn’t want to be alone in my apartment in Queens. Instead, I walked with my girlfriend down a deserted, carless 1st Avenue. We watched the news and slept quietly together on the Murphy bed that pulled down from the wall in her studio apartment. I knew somehow, that night, that this girl would one day be my wife.

Seventeen years have passed since that day. There’s fog outside my window, and my children are dancing because school has an hour delay. My then girlfriend has been my wife for 15 years, and I’m working hard to make sure we stay married for another 15 more. When she got up I put my arms around her and whispered, “I love you.” My kids have no idea what happened 17 years ago. One day they’ll read about it in history books, and maybe they’ll ask us where we were. And I will tell them, because I remember.