That morning, I was taking attendance in my homeroom, on my second day of a new teaching job. I did not know any of these students yet, but I had a list from which I was dutifully calling out names. The students gazed up from their whispered conversations to say “present” and then sank back into anonymity. This was a Catholic parochial school in Northeastern New Jersey, so that list was full of difficult-to-pronounce surnames from Portugal, South Korea, Eastern Europe, and Africa. I was doing my best, calling out the names, making little check marks, correcting myself where necessary and trying to get through it, hoping I didn’t miss anyone, because the first rule of homeroom is, make sure the list is correct.
I glanced up at the girls in green plaid skirts and the boys wearing ties. I needed to get through this list before the first-period bell rang.
At that moment, the homeroom teacher from the classroom across the hall opened the door, breathless, and commanded me to turn on the television, NOW.
I glanced up at the television, which was a big, cumbersome black box suspended from the ceiling near the door on an ugly black metal brace that jutted intrusively into the room. This contraption had been mostly invisible to me because, until this moment, I had not needed to use it. I didn't even know how to turn it on.
Sensing my helplessness, one of my still-nameless homeroom students—a boy—leaped across the room and switched on the TV.
The Twin Towers had not been around for long—just 28 years—but for my generation, they were the defining landmark of the New York City skyline. They were like two great pillars holding up the firmament over the entire tri-state area, but today, I was watching smoke pour from jagged, gaping holes near the tops of both of them.
I did not know what these students thought about the Twin Towers; I did not know them at all. The World Trade Center was about fifteen miles away, so they had grown up more or less in its shadow. I knew that some of their parents worked in Manhattan. This was a parochial school, but how parochial were they? Was Manhattan another country to them? Did they know how to take the Path train into the city, hail a taxi, find their way to Brooklyn on the subway?
The students watched the screen intently at first, mute, taking in the roiling black smoke slanting up into the blue sky. I could tell that they sensed the awfulness of it, but there was a cautionary disconnect too, as if they were trying to discern its authenticity before they reacted. Was this really happening? Was it a scene from a movie? After a minute of watching in silence, some students turned to each other and began to whisper.
The sound of a girl’s laughter snapped my eyes away from the screen.
“Why are you laughing?”
The room was suddenly silent. All eyes had shifted to me and to the girl in the long brown hair sitting in the front row.
These students did not know me either. They had only ever heard my institutional voice, measured, firm, and in control. They had not yet heard me laugh. They had certainly never heard this voice, sharp and angry and aimed with a purpose at one of them.
She did not answer, and I could tell from her expression that she was afraid of what I would do next.
“There are thousands of people who work in those buildings,” I said, my voice quivering now.
“Thousands of people might die today.”
The silence was awful. I immediately regretted how harsh I had been with her, but it wouldn’t matter much in a few hours. Everything I said was true, and on this day, there was no hiding from hard truths.
The school closed around noon, along with most of the other schools in the area. Early dismissal was inevitable because beginning around 10 a.m., frantic parents began pouring through the front doors to pick up their children. They were lining up to sign out their sons and daughters, and all hell was breaking loose at the front office. This was not rational behavior, but nothing about this day was rational. One well-broadcast moment of savagery had thrown the whole system into chaos. It was like a virus, and it was spreading quickly.
I was driving home afterward, feeling numb, as if I had just been beaten up. I was on Route 78 headed West, watching the highway roll out in front of me. The traffic was heavier than it should have been in the early afternoon because the great horde of daily commuters was headed back to the suburbs five hours earlier than usual today.
The high school is located near the eastern edge of New Jersey, but I lived on the western edge, in Frenchtown, a small town on the Delaware River, so I traversed nearly the entire width of the state to commute to work and back home each day. The traffic was sluggish and halting, but I did not dare glance up at the rearview mirror.
I once overheard two college students on a Path train arguing about whether or not there is such a thing as West Jersey. The gist of the conversation went something like this:
“New Jersey is long and skinny. There’s a NORTH and a SOUTH. It’s like Vietnam. No one ever said, ‘hey, let’s go invade West Vietnam.’”
“I’m telling you, West Jersey is real.
“North and South, dude. End of conversation.
“What about the whole Delaware River and everyone who lives in those towns on the river? That is West Jersey.”
“What the fuck do you know, you’re from Staten Island.”
This conversation occurred in a tunnel under the Hudson Bay while we were barreling towards the Path station beneath the World Trade Center, a journey I had made dozens of times before. Each time, I would walk through the turnstiles at Exchange Place station in Jersey City and within half an hour, I would walk up to the street level in South Manhattan, not thinking about it. Just another night in the city.
My God, what happened to the train station under the World Trade Center?
For the record, I believe West Jersey is real. If you lived near the Delaware River as I did that year, you no doubt have a heightened awareness of your westward orientation in the state relative to Pennsylvania, which lies just across the river. West Jersey, with its rolling hills and horse farms and agricultural and suburban skylines, is a planet apart from the densely packed towns and cities and industrial infrastructure of the East. So often in my life, I have driven east from here on Route 78 on my way to the city, or a job, or the Jersey Shore, and on a clear day, I could see the two towers rising over the horizon, the first sign that I was approaching the great metropolis. They were there that morning on my drive to work, heavy and gray and baked into the hazy sky like enormous pillars of granite, as if they had stood there since ancient times. As long as I could remember, they had always been there, the transcendental signifier for every flat surface and straight edge; every stockbroker and Yale intern at Solomon Brothers; every vaulting fantasy about straddling Manhattan Island with a new idea, or a new book, or a new fortune; every dark, dense, radioactive square inch of capitalism; every upwardly mobile thing drawn in by the city’s irresistible magnetic force; every guy in a gray suit and red tie who has ever stood on the Staten Island Ferry as it approached South Manhattan on his way to work.
This day had begun with the comforting certainty of the Twin Towers, but as I drove home that afternoon, I knew that the world had just been broken. When I passed the exit for Metuchen, I finally summoned the courage to glance up at the rearview mirror to where I knew the Towers should be, but I saw only a grayish column of smoke slanting into the sky. The column was enormous as if a volcano had suddenly erupted in the middle of Manhattan.
The next two days were surreal. There were American flags hanging from every overpass. Flags everywhere, disgorged from all the places flags had been stored for all these years. And new flags too. Flags were being manufactured at an astonishing rate—bumper sticker flags, lapel pin flags, hand-held flags flying from eight-inch-dowels, flags in rear windows.
All flights had been grounded. Even if you happened to be standing in a place that was not bedecked with flags and yellow ribbons, you could feel the unsettling stillness, as if the seizing up of our great machinery of mass transportation could be sensed in every molecule of air. My brain had been grounded as well. I could not work. I could not think. I could not relax. I was watching hours of the same handful of awful video clips replaying in a loop. I felt compelled to watch this—duty-bound even—because there was literally nothing else I could do. We were not collecting cans for the scrap metal drive as our grandparents had. We were not buying war bonds. We were sitting at home watching those planes smash into those buildings over and over again, hoping that disbelief and numb terror would eventually give way to action—something meaningful we could do.
The stories were coming in from friends and family. A friend from high school who worked as a reporter in New Brunswick told me that the police were marking abandoned cars in the parking lot of the train station—cars left behind by commuters who took the train to Manhattan on that awful morning and never returned. Another friend shared the story of how he was on the Staten Island Ferry headed for South Manhattan when the plane hit the North Tower. My brother’s wife was on the last train to ever arrive at the Path station beneath the World Trade Center. The train pulled into the station exactly as the first airplane struck the North Tower. She said that when she stepped out onto the platform, she could smell fuel oil.
The father of one of my former students was killed that day. I know of others who died too. If you lived in the tri-state area on that day, you were probably one or two degrees of separation removed from at least one person who had died in those towers.
A crack was forming. I couldn’t see it yet, but it was there, hairline and crooked and ready to break into a web of minuscule fractures, like the damage that spreads across a windshield when a rock hits it.
When the pillars that hold up the sky fall, everything cracks. Everything is broken afterward. Every little thing.
Two days after the attacks, I was back at my job, standing in the teacher’s lounge listening to two older male teachers talking tough about what America will do to the “towelheads” now. One of these men was a Catholic priest who was supposed to be setting a more Christ-like example, but there he was, red-faced and grinning and hurling slurs against all Arabs. Later that day I would hear one of the religion teachers lecture me about how "the problem is Islam itself...." The collective blood was up, and some men over the age of forty had nowhere else to put their rage but in the old familiar places.
I was standing there with my white styrofoam coffee cup in my hand, frozen in place, feeling my face begin to flush.
I was supposed to be sympathetic to their anger, or at least tolerant of it. I was supposed to give them a wide berth. I was supposed to let it go. They were just blowing off steam. It’s OK, we’re all angry, right? We all have a right to be angry, right? Terrified. Boiling over with rage even. Right?
Sometimes anger is messy.
Who am I to cast stones? Isn't now the time to let the rage out of its cage, to put our delicate sensibilities aside? I am not better than anyone else.
But then again, isn’t that the dumb mantra of American culture—our lame bumper-sticker egalitarianism, only half believed by anyone at any given moment, but still we insist on it, reaching for it instinctively with one hand while we crush it with the other.
I stepped out into the hallway, my heart still beating fast. I looked down to see the crumpled styrofoam coffee cup in my right hand. The lukewarm coffee was spilling down my arm and dripping onto the floor.
Everything was cracked. Every little thing.
A few days later, Saturday arrived, the end to what had felt like the longest week of my life, and I found myself driving east, across Hunterdon County, in the general direction of my hometown. I had awakened at dawn after another restless night. I walked to the corner to buy a cup of coffee. I walked back to my apartment, grabbed my keys, slid into the driver’s seat of my red Honda Civic, and started to drive. My brain crackled with electricity, snapping and snapping and snapping—interruptions, like a skipping record. The roads were dead, and I could feel the mental exhaustion pressing down on every house I passed. We were all exhausted. Three hundred million exhausted people. I was driving without thinking, and soon enough, I found myself on the long driveway of Immaculate Conception, the church I had attended as a child.
There were a dozen people in the church, scattered throughout the pews. I think some of them were there for the same reason I had come; they didn’t know what else to do. Imagine an entire country, everyone waking up and not knowing what to do. Men and women of purpose who paid mortgages and commuted into the city for work. Children with activities already scheduled—tennis, ballet, karate. But no one knew where they should go or if they should go. Was movement itself disrespectful to the thousands of dead Americans? Would we dishonor them if we exerted the energy required to trundle ourselves from here to there, or God forbid, if we went about our lives in a manner that resembled how we had before Tuesday? Wouldn’t it be more respectful to stay indoors, in front of the TV, watching those planes slam into those towers again and again as if we could peer through the veil of time itself to find a loophole, some way to reset the timeline and erase this awful week entirely?
I sat there for a long time. I wasn’t a regular churchgoer, but I had sat in these pews every Sunday as a child, so there was comfort to be found there, surrounded by familiar, sacred things—unchangeable things. Most Catholic churches are designed to draw your gaze up to the crucifixion, but I wasn’t thinking about Jesus or salvation or any of the theologically correct things I had learned as a child. Instead, I was trying to imagine the people who had mourned him, standing nearby the scene of his execution—Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, Salome, and other women and men who knew him, his unnamed followers—all of those people who were removed from his death by one or two degrees of separation.
It is always the survivors who carry the burden forward.