new your skyline 2012

A September 11 story: On a day like any other, all things become imaginable

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable

“IIt’s Quiet Uptown,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton; An American Musical

On September 11, 2001, some things became less unimaginable. And even when we can push them away, we can’t keep them away for long.

A day like any other…a day like no other

September 11, 2001 started out a day like any other.The calendar said that fall was still officially a couple of weeks away, but the air was beginning to cool down and lose its summer stickiness. I was working a Tuesday-Saturday schedule that year, returning from my weekend on this clear, sunny morning.

I looked for a parking space in the Memphis Zoo lot, catching a little more of Morning Edition on WKNO before I went into my office, when a special news bulletin announced that a plane had just crashed into one of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in New York. Assuming that a small plane had somehow gone terribly off course, I reflected briefly on the sadness of such an accident and headed through the front gate. I settled into my office and switched on the radio as I got ready for the workday, sorting through the reports from Sunday and Monday’s business.

The radio said that another plane had hit the second tower. I thought that one plane crashing into a building like that might well be an accident. Two were…something else. I set the reports aside and started looking online for news.

I learned that yet another plane had crashed into the Pentagon in Washington DC, and a fourth had gone down in a field somewhere in Pennsylvania.

My boss called me. “Are you seeing this?” she said. “I’ll be in later, I can’t stop watching the news. I bet it’s Osama bin Laden,” she added. We had a meeting with a vendor scheduled that morning, and I didn’t realize until hours later that she’d never shown up. She probably couldn’t stop watching the news either. (And I honestly can’t remember if my boss ever did come in that day.)

Someone wheeled a television into the conference room and we all watched the news. We watched the towers collapse. We talked about what we were seeing, what we didn’t know, what it could possibly mean. And since all news is local even when it isn’t, we wondered: if this was a terrorist attack on American targets, what if it happened in Memphis? We didn’t have landmarks like New York or Washingon, but our city was “America’s Distribution Center” and the hub of much domestic freight traffic.

The attacks did disrupt that traffic, and more, at least indirectly–the FAA grounded all planes early that afternoon. All over the country, travelers would be stuck at airports for who knew how long.

We wondered if we should close the Zoo. Tuesday afternoons were our free-admission day and usually busy, but why would anyone come on a day like this? And how could anyone be at work on a day like this? I think I went home early. I don’t remember whether the Zoo stayed open.

september 11 2016After two years of splintering our marriage, my first husband and I were weeks away from filing for divorce. Our biggest remaining common concern was for our son, a high-school senior. That evening, back at the home we all still shared, we shared concerns that were bigger than the three of us.

Air travel resumed on September 14, but with rules and restrictions that hadn’t existed on September 10. I flew to Los Angeles that day on a ticket I had bought weeks earlier, hunting for the place I would make my home after the divorce and the school year were over.

Six years later, my son moved to Washington DC. He’s still there, a couple of miles north of the White House.

I am the child of New Yorkers. My extended family is New Yorkers. I was born in New York, but haven’t lived there since I was three years old, and I was over a thousand miles from there on September 11, 2011. I’m even further away now. And yet, on every September 11 since, I am a New Yorker.

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is a grace too powerful to name
We push away what we can never understand
We push away the unimaginable

Maybe we really can’t ever understand, but some things are more imaginable now.

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  1. As a news gatherer at the time, I watched in horror online as it was broadcast live. A co-worker and I were huddled together in my cubicle watching in disbelief. News spread through the whole office. One of our major clients, Marsh, was in that building. They lost many of their employees that day. People I didn’t work with, but people I knew by name. It was so devastating.