One September

I can’t say how I’ll feel on September 11th, 2011. I cringe anticipating the apoplectic patriotism: red, white, and blue flags, “My country ’tis of thee…,” “God Bless America.” The president on the TV, not a Connecticut cokehead with a Texas oil twang, but rather the man I saw at the Chicago Historical Society in 2004 who sat through a late-azz hip hop event, humbly stood and offered, “My name is Barack Obama. I’m running for U.S. Senate. I need your vote.”

Everything is different, you could say.

I’m no longer a recent college grad, but someone who is careening into mid-career adulthood. I’m no longer sleeping in a creaky wooden loft bed covered in my roommate’s cat hair in Chicago. I no longer go for days without sleep to dance or cry or drink or roam or write endlessly in my journals. I live with my boyfriend. I eat three meals a day. I do yoga at the Y nearly every morning. I own my own home. I write when it feels like time to write. I live in Brooklyn.

Ten years ago, I flew into LaGuardia on September 10th. I went to dinner with friends. I returned to the hotel on Rivington. I went to sleep, and the next morning, I woke up.

It was my first day on my second not-for-profit job after graduating from college. My co-workers and I were there for a training that was supposed to start at 10:00 AM on Wall Street. We were supposed to come early closer to 9:30 AM for coffee and bagels. I was holding up the five of us (Andy, Clint, Eveline, Sheri and me) up, taking “my sweet-azz time” as one of my co-workers liked to say, braiding long strands of my wet hair in the bathroom.

Clint was the one who was flipping through the channels on the television. I remember him saying, “Whoa!” and we all gathered around the television as the first plane went into the side of the skyscraper on the screen. The television blinked out for a second and then the image was shown again and again. We thought it was crazy. We were nervous. We thought it was an accident or something.

From what I remember of it, we called the office, and Rico and DJ, who had been there setting up since early in the morning were eager to get the training started, and said, “Don’t worry. Come on downtown. Everything is fine.” Now, I look back and wonder: What were we STUPID?! We saw the first plane go into the first tower and we went right towards it. We could’ve have turned back so many times, but we didn’t. We kept moving forward.

Everything from there I remember is in pieces. At the subway station, I think the attendant told us that it was a terrorist attack and that there were fires in the White House and the Pentagon. Why didn’t we turn back then? I don’t know. Maybe it was the impulse of catching a train as it just arrives. Maybe it was not believing the subway attendant. Maybe we just couldn’t fathom anything that was happening at all.

When we were on the train, a woman kept crying into her own lap. She had permed dyed blonde hair, and she was crying so hard that she was hyperventilating. Everyone else was in their normal commute mode: no eye contact, mildly disgruntled, cups of coffee in hand. Andy was sitting next to her, and somehow it came out that she was trying to get as far as she could from the financial district. She was trying to get back to Brooklyn. She had already been at the Twin Towers and had seen the bodies jumping from the buildings.

The next thing I remember is Sheri plugging her ears with her techno music. Eveline stared at the floor taking long deep breaths. Andy was trying to comfort the woman next to him. Clint sat erect and flipped through the newspaper, trying to focus on each crappy article. What was I doing? I guess I was watching for a clue, for a sign, for anything to understand what was going on around us. We got that sign when the train stopped underground, our windows facing the dark concrete walls. Smoke started to seep in through the doors. A dude in an orange jumpsuit paced our train car and freaked out. He kicked the doors. He smacked the windows with his hands. Another guy told him to calm down. Someone else said, “Hey will the two of you calm down, we don’t know how much oxygen we have down here.”

What I remember most was in the midst of this chaos, the older Black man sitting next to me turned to me and said, “You know what I love about New York? The summertime. All my kids left New York, but not me. They could drop an atomic bomb on this place, and I still would come crawling back. All the festivals in the summertime?” I can’t remember the rest of what he said, but I do remember the calm pace of his words, like it could be any sunny day in July, like we could be packing a cooler to head to Coney Island, like we had all the time in the world. He extracted me from that moment. It’s as though he could feel my fear and was somehow kind and gentle and strong enough to offer me something else.

The train started to move again, and we finally pulled up to the platform edge. I asked him what his name was. He said, “Robert Johnson.” I thanked him, and I don’t know where he went. I don’t know where any of us went but upstairs to be alive, to be in the open air, to be safe from what was imploding in those underground tunnels. What we didn’t know was that what was imploding in those underground tunnels was the collapse of the Twin Towers.

When we got above ground, the whole world was covered in ash. I clung to Andy, Sheri, Eveline, and Clint. Workers directed us to just walk north, and we did through empty ash-laden streets. Groups of people gathered around radios. A sushi restaurant still had open doors. We kept walking not sure where we would be walking too or for how long. We knew we were supposed to just get away from “it” and hope that wherever we collapsed would be far enough.

We made it back to the hotel on Rivington and watched from the rooftop as the second tower was in a balloon of flames. Eveline took a picture of it on her camera, and the rest of the day we tried to call our families in Chicago on the hotel telephone. Eveline joked that it reminded her of being a kid and calling up radio stations to be on the air. Only busy signals over and over again, but we kept trying to get through. We got a knock on our hotel room door. DJ rushed in. She cried with her head in hands dusted with ash all over her t-shirt and jeans.

Andrew, our boss, was flying in that morning. He turned up at the hotel after walking with his suitcase over his head on the Brooklyn Bridge. No cabs were going to take him into Manhattan, but he came to us anyway. The next thing I remember is going to Debbie, the executive director’s, apartment. We sat on her rooftop and drank from cool glasses. I don’t remember a word of what we said to each other.

That night we left the hotel to scrounge for food. There were police checkpoints on each end of the block. We carried our I.D. and our hotel reservation, which was worn and tattered by now. The only restaurant we found open was an Italian restaurant on 2nd Ave. The waiter took our orders, but all of us were trailing at least one eye towards the television blaring from an upper corner of the restaurant.

A few other patrons ate as we did, exhausted and dazed. Military trucks plowed down the empty streets of the Lower East Side, as the television reports spoke of the subway trains being used to haul dead bodies and debris from out of ground zero. The waiter kept taking orders, but just shoved the dirty dishes to one of the open tables as if there was no point to washing them.

This is where my memory lapses again. How many days was it that we stayed there? How did we eat? Did we get along? I just remember the checkpoints and waiting for phone calls to come through. Andrew rented a minivan for us to drive back to Chicago, since all the flights were grounded. The six of us got in the van and drove out from the weight of the city into the countryside, winding down interstate highways. I remember one of the first real laughs any of us had afterwards was a Weekly World News headline that read, “P’lod, Hillary Clinton’s Alien Lover, Tells All.” Photos inside showed black and white photos of Hillary in her trademark pantsuit embracing her egg-headed lover.

And with that, we drove back to Chicago.

When I got back to Chicago, I was surprised how scared people felt even if they weren’t in New York. My friend in the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) says it could have been us, and they all evacuated the building. My boyfriend said he was driving from the West side, when he heard the news on the car radio, and he couldn’t help but imagine the planes flying over downtown headed towards O’Hare or Midway crashing into the steel, glass, concrete center of the city. Everywhere I heard people say, it could have been us.

We had activist prayer circles. I sent frantic emails to organize. Anthrax jokes abounded everywhere. A South Asian friend of mine had a woman scream to her across the street that it was her fault. A Muslim friend of mine said that a family friend had been taken out of his house in the middle of the night for questioning. An ex-boyfriend of mine joined the Airforce. A student of mine left a full tuition scholarship to college for the Army.

Andy and I went to the protest at Lake Shore Drive after work. He had a yellow flyer in his hand. No one seemed to know exactly where to go, but the march went renegade, off of the prescribed route and landed on Lake Shore Drive snarling thousands of people in rush hour traffic. Some people were pissed. Others opened their car doors and honked in support. We jumped over concrete dividers, the pulsing artery of the city completely stopped. I saw people in the march who I hadn’t seen in years, friends from high school, people I knew around town.

Twenty thousand people came to protest on that day in Chicago. Just as we found our stride, we seemed also to have lost sight of where we had gone. Next, I knew we were perched at the intersection of Michigan Ave. and Lake St. Andy said a woman from above the Marshall Field’s looked down on us drinking a martini. What I remember most are the blocks of cops in riot gear, behind plastic shields, on horses. They took pictures from the side to document the protestors that were sitting on the ground. I stood up and as far as I could see cops stood in dark armored rows like a scene out of a Japanese sci-fi movie (“Casshern”) that I’d just watched. But this was no movie, this was our lives.

After that, the protests grew smaller and smaller. Twenty-one people were crushed to death at a nightclub in Chicago because a security guard sprayed pepper spray to break up a fight, and people thought that it was some kind of chemical bomb. At the same time, more street cameras were put up: blue blinking lights above a white metal box. Everything conflated. Terrorists in Afghanistan. Invade Iraq. Surveil Chicago. Nothing made sense if you looked at the linkages too closely. Everything was action. Everything was a response.

I did have a cop give me a ticket for going under the turn-style when I first moved to Brooklyn (my card wasn’t working). When I balked at him asking for my ID, he said, “A couple of years ago, I could have let this pass, but now we’re under alert. Everything has to be scrutinized very carefully. This is a matter of national security.” He awkwardly got on the train beside me. I tried to make conversation with him. He turned away instead and walked through the doors to the next train car.

I imagine all these gentle turning points. The moment a family takes the crumbling newspaper clippings and American flag from the window pane. The moment when the husband stops photocopying the missing persons signs. The gradual clearing of the chain-link fence around Ground Zero, at first plastered with flowers and teddy bears and photographs and letters and candles. When I went there yesterday, there was a cluster of red carnations with a white wooden cross and a spray of roses woven into the fence itself.

I imagine the moment that all of this becomes normal, commonplace, like the wars themselves. I go to the airport. The alert level is at orange, which means we are at high alert. We are always at high alert or seems as though we have been for the last 20 times that I’ve gone to the airport. I’m used to the fact that a full tube of moisturizer or a pair of manicure scissors will be confiscated from my bag. I plan for the fact that I need to drink all the water in my water bottle before I pass my bag through the x-ray scanner. I was excited that Obama vowed to close Guantanamo Bay on his first day in office, but it doesn’t surprise me that it hasn’t happened yet.

The reversal of initiative runs in the back of my mind at a low thrum.

There has been so much else since September 11th. Katrina. Sarah Palin. Tea Party conservatives. Arizona. Tsunamis and earthquakes in Indonesia, Haiti, Japan, all over the world. The financial crisis. Bernie Madoff. Throughout all of this I know that 3000 lives in New York City, a place that has become my home, has cost the lives of over 3500 American service people in Iraq and over 1500 in and around Afghanistan. Iraqi death tolls are estimated to range from 99,000 to 1 million people. I could ask for someone to remind me who is the winner in war, but I should know well that it is me.

I can say that this country does not fight in my name, but I still use American dollars and have an American passport. I still use American English words. That huge cavity in the center of Manhattan is nothing compared to the devastation in Iraq, Afghanistan, increasingly in Pakistan. There’s nothing unpatriotic about saying it. It is the truth. Young men and women whom I have never met died for me to be able to not think about it. They have lost limbs. They have had their bodies destroyed. They will never be able to live without thinking about it as I do. Men and women whom I have never met died because of a few people’s actions, whether it be the Taliban or the U.S. government. These people had nothing to do with it at all and definitely had less opportunities than me to curtail the path of war. They are dead and there is no returning them.

I have no easy words when it comes to September 11th, no beautiful words. None that I can imagine are profound. I feel as though I am a coward, that I was not strong enough. That given the opportunity to live a life of privilege that means not thinking about others, I took it. But even now, I’m unconvinced that anything I could have done would have made the world stop.

Looking back on these last 10 years since September 11th is synonymous to looking back on these last 10 years of myself. A loss of innocence. A coming of age. Everything is not as you think that it is. It takes courage just to live. It takes a kind of insanity to have a singular focus to not believe in war and commit every single fiber within you to stopping it. It essentially takes you denying a kind of life to yourself.

Every day a bombing occurs. Nearly every day a child dies. In history, we will be remembered as a terrible empire, a hypocritical one, and I will be a part of it. A poet with a heart full of desire and a head full of shame. One who wanted the earthly delights of clothes and shoes and good food, while others died, yes, in my name, but also to satisfy a kind of thirst that has tried to destroy me also. But I survive and if I can make anything of this life, I will think of that man on that train one day in September, come down like an angel from a heaven that none of us may deserve, trying to quiet the fear in a young woman’s heart.


  1. <3

  2. Kelly, this is a great commentary but I would have been dissapointed had it been less. If more people would think and stop playing politrics, maybe this country could be great instead of trying to capture the last resources and work so that the earth could survive our presence. I think though there is a change coming as more and more people wake up to the insanity, but we still have a long way to go. Don’t We

  3. [...] Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai One September [...]

  4. Intelligence and simplicity – easy to undersntad how you think.

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