This past year has been full of bad and then worse news, and to balance this onslaught, I want to bring back a story of survival: a year after 9-11 in NYC. We survived that. We will make it through this. (Adapted from, vol 26 The OHIO STATE Alumni Magazine, September 2002)
After “the Event”
A New Yorker looks at how his life and his city have changed a year after 9-11-01
I thought of it as “the Event.”
The changes of the year after, the 360-odd days since the Event of Sept. 11, 2001, could not merely be listed. Certainly, one could have pointed to the closed subway stops and the altered skyline. But the changes that matter most happened in the mindscape we all inhabited.
I worked only a six-minute walk from the World Trade Center.
I watched the buildings burn and later, in my office, felt them collapse with a deep, shuddering rumble. I walked over three hours home to Brooklyn, dust clinging to my mouth, nose, and eyes.
For two weeks, my office was closed.
During this time, I holed up in my apartment, smelling the stink of burn, listening to fighter jets over the city, hearing sirens, and wondering if they heralded some new disaster. I was glad to return to my office. It gave me something to think about other than doom, anger, and sorrow.
But living in New York, you cannot miss the Event.
Memorials were everywhere. Police officers wore black Tape over their badges. Fire engines bore the Star and Stripes. On a bus, I saw a woman in a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of her lost husband. I overheard a story of how a co-worker’s husband was on the 91st floor and how she watched, screaming, as the towers collapsed on TV. The owner of the restaurant where I then worked showed me a photo of three brothers from Windows on the World: the one who started his vacation on Sept. 10, the one who had gone back to Ecuador a few months earlier, and the one who showed up for work that day.
Me? I only lost my dot com job the next November.
I took the opportunity to discover what I really wanted to do. After a month, I decided to go back into the restaurant business and become a sommelier.
What is essential is not what l decided but that I could decide at all.
That meant I had a future. And it is our future, this construct of our minds, that the Event most severely damaged. I discovered that the battle is not only in the Mideast, nor merely against the people dedicated to violence as the solution to their misery.
The mêlée in my mind—in everyone’s mind—is equally important.
Life in New York got back to normal—except for one thing: the jarring thoughts of what might happen. I spent three hours a day on a train, traveling to my job as a restaurant manager. I wondered: Will my train be a target for the next attack?
What will the weapon be? Sarin gas? A bomb?
When such thoughts thrust themselves into my mind, I read my book more intently. If the train stopped between stations, alarm gripped me. What had happened now? I looked at the people around me and wondered if they were the last people I would ever see.
For several months, there were times when I would feel dislocated.
It was as if I was watching reality rather than living it as if there were a layer of something between me and the world. At times, panic would strike deep. Other times, I would feel as if l would decompose as I walked down the street†. Other times, I was overwhelmed by a sense of doom, of a future not worth living.
Here, I fought a subtle battle—
a battle to stop such thoughts, to remain calm, to touch reality, to imagine a future not of doom but of possibility. New York was still New York. It’s a rough town of tough people. It’s big, bad, and beautiful, full of energy and life. People walked about, ate, drank, partied, and studied. I saw babies in strollers and families celebrating birthdays.
Yet, low-flying planes sent a chill of dread through me.
I always hesitated, waiting for the sound of an explosion. The rumbling of a truck or train through the ground filled my gut with ice. When that happened, I buried myself in my book, turned the music up a notch, or walked a bit faster. Like all of us, I was merely trying to recapture what I, what we had before I stepped out of the subway the morning of Sept. 11, 2001—the sense that l had a future and that it would be okay.
It’s been over twenty years now.
And yeah, it’s been okay. No. More than okay. I’m still in Brooklyn, but my son is a Freshman at SUNY Binghamton, working with a Nobel Laureate on new battery technology.
†About the feeling I might decompose as I walked down the street? Not PTSD. No, I found out three years after I wrote this that the feeling was physical, not emotional—caused by partial temporal lobe seizures from a medial fossa meningioma. But that is a story for another time.
W Lance Hunt, ’86, ’86 (LM) of New York City, wrote in the November 2001 issue of AM about his experiences on Sept. 11. Find “My Small Story” here.