Just Some Thoughts

This is a post that has nothing to do with film. It’s about something I’ve never written about or really discussed before.

Staten Island Ferry, March 1993. I was four. On this class trip, my teacher told my classmates to wave to my father, who was working in the World Trade Center

Osama bin Laden’s death after nearly long ten years of extensive searching, endless punchlines, and media hype, dredges up mixed emotions for me. I’m not overwhelmed with euphoria. I don’t feel like taking to the streets, shouting “USA,” and waving the American flag. This feeling of excitement, I’m afraid, is going to go away faster than you would like to believe. No I’m not excited at all. I feel like brooding, like keeping to myself but getting something off my chest. Everything associated with 9/11, bin Laden, and what else brings out the worst emotions from me that I try so hard to ignore and leave behind.

Some of my earliest memories are of the World Trade Center. My father worked there for 15 years.

My dad's business card. I found this the other day in the back of a drawer.

The day after Thanksgiving for most of my childhood, I would spend the day with him at work. His office was on the 72nd floor of the south tower. I remember taking the elevator – it was always crammed with people – to the 44th floor sky lobby and switching elevators. I would play with Match Box cars in the hallways. Once in my dad’s office, I would stand on the air conditioner, put my palms against the glass, and count the yellow taxi cabs.

My dad and I at a Christmas party at the WTC, 1994.
This is the only time I remember meeting Santa Claus as a kid - in the sky lobby of the WTC, 1994

But they’re not all good memories.

There is a scar above my left pinky knuckle that I got falling down in a some banquet room that overlooked the harbor. Some fourteen plus years later and I’m the only person who can see the scar now. But every day it is a reminder.

Then there are worse memories.

I remember sitting in the car with mother one day and picking my father up from train station. He was covered in ash and he smelled like smoke after having walked down the emergency stairwells following the 1993 bombing. I watched my dad wash his face off when we got home. I was four.

Then there is 9/11.

Like so many people I remember it clearly. It was three days before my thirteenth birthday and I was anticipating my birthday party, which for once was actually going to be on my birthday. Then my mom unexpectedly pulled me out of school after my first period class (technology). Someone remarked that I was “lucky” to be going home when they saw me leaving. I wasn’t lucky though. While most of my classmates were blissfully unaware of what was going on, I went home to wait with my mom and my sister for my dad to call. My mom had waited until after the second tower – the one where my dad worked – had been hit to pull us out of school. She was barely keeping it together as the phone kept ringing second after second.

Have you ever watched the building where you spent so much time as a child and your parent works collapse on live television? There is no word to describe it as other than surreal. It brings out the worst in people. At one point – and she denies this – my mom said to me, “I think your father is dead.” Upset I went to find my sister; she just told me to leave her alone. My other sister called from her college and asked my mom, “Was Dad in the building that just fell down?”

And then my dad called; he had gotten the last elevator down to the lobby before entering the emergency stairwell, which is where he was when the plane hit hit building. The worst imaginable scenario had ended. I went back to school and acted as if nothing had happened even though kids were being pulled from school left and right (no one was talking about what was happening). Later my mom and I picked my dad up from the train station. My dad didn’t go to workon  September 12 but he had moved to temporary office by the 13th. Just like that we moved on like nothing had really happened.

Throughout our house there are mementos to the WTC. My mom saved every newspaper and there are coffee table books in the living room. My dad received a nice WTC keepsake from his company that sits in a display cabinet. In the room I am sitting in right now there is this framed poster and in another room, a picture of a pre-9/11 New York City skyline. We might not talk too much about 9/11, but it is felt in almost everything my family does together, everywhere in my house, and everywhere in this part of New Jersey.

Even though we rarely speak about the day almost ten years later, I think my family has figured out how to just deal with 9/11 in our own way.  Since his retirement, my dad gives tours at the Tribute WTC Center. I’ve only been back there three times since 2001. I still get chills leaving the PATH station and realizing that the World Trade Center won’t be there when I exit the building. And more than anything I hate how this area has become a glorified tourist attraction.   But going on his tour, for me, has been immensely beneficial.  It was the only way I could guarantee that my dad would recount his story of what happened to him on 9/11 to me.  It was like a free therapy session.

I imagined that people from around here would have similar reactions to Obama’s announcement that I did. That they would be kind of placid and not completely over joyous.  Never in a million years would I think of popping a bottle of champagne at Ground Zero. (Not that is bothers me that hundreds of people did just that.) I’m just too connected to the actual place and to the day itself to ever do something like that.

This is where my many misgivings about what happened tonight (last night now) come into focus. It is great for Americans to get some sort of closure, feel like one nation again, and feel victorious.  But there is a larger picture. Osama bin Laden was an evil man. But on any given day, he was just someone for people to direct their anger, fears, and concerns about terrorism towards. You saw that even tonight when people quickly turned the news of his death into a Tweetable joke. Yeah, it’s great that he’s dead but it doesn’t change anything. 9/11 still happened, thousands of people are still dead, there are still two wars going on, and terrorism is still a very real threat.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this. I guess I’ll just share what happened I called my dad right before Obama’s speech.

I initially wasn’t going to call him. I didn’t want to wake him up and worry him that something may be wrong with the cat. Then minutes before the speech, I decided called him.

“What’s going on?”

“You should turn on the news.”

“What?”

“Turn on the news. Osama bin Laden’s dead. Obama’s going to make a speech. I thought you should know.”

“That’s good. I will. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay, bye.”

He sounded somber, probably because his pestering daughter had just woken him up. I have no idea if my parents turned on the news or just went back to sleep. (Probably the latter.) But at the moment I needed to call my dad because I was getting weirdly emotional. An overwhelming sense of numbness cons umed my body and my brain went into overdrive. (Twitter and its insta-reactions weren’t helping.) Even though I have dealt with 9/11 as best that I can, it still isn’t easy to process. It is a totally surreal moment in my life that I’ll never shake. When I made that phone call to my dad earlier it wasn’t because he needed to see the news right that second.

I just wanted to talk him.

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7 thoughts on “Just Some Thoughts”

  1. Joanna, I had no idea. Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. I, too, am quite ambivalent about these events; have my own personal story re: 9/11; and you have helped me clarify my feelings a bit. xoxo

  2. Wow, it’s definitely eye-opening to read your personal account of that day. So glad your father was okay! :o I was only 6 and on the other side of the country, but I still remember seeing that on the news the morning of 9/11 and how my mom was crying. She had lost some old friends that day.

    Yeah, I don’t get the partying and celebration and jokes going along with Osama Bin Ladens death. Maybe he was a leader but there are tons of other people who were just as evil as him and who will continue what bin Laden has been doing! And the fact that he died can’t just erase history. :(

  3. Hi, Joanna. It’s your cousin Carole in Fair Lawn. Diane sent your blog to me in an email. I’m not skilled with computers in any way; but I am hoping that you will receive this. Your reflections of 9/11 are so moving and very beautiful. No, I don’t believe that any of us will ever forget that day. Bin Laden’s death brought all the horrors of that day right back as if it all happened yesterday, and not nearly ten years ago. This is one of those horrible moments that does not ease with the passage of time.

    For me it was the second day of the new school year, and I was totally alone in the library, writing lesson plans and waiting for the bell to ring for second period. All of a sudden, the media specialist was pushing all of the T.V.’s on their carts into the open space of the main room. At first, I paid no attention; but at some point I gazed in disbelief at the screen–“Oh, God,” I thought. “Another traffic helicopter accident–how awful. . . ” . People began to come into the library, no one speaking, heads shaking, and then the bell rang. Rumors were passing through the hall as faculty and students moved to classes–this was pre-Facebook or Twitter, so no one understood what was going on. I was meeting a class of freshmen–had only met them for ten minutes the Friday before, so I didn’t even know their names. They were all terrified; and as tidbits of news filtered in from the hall, some began to cry.
    Several had parents and other relatives and neighbors at the Trade Center, and none of us really knew what was happening. We had a T.V. in our room, but could not get any stations–it was only for V.C.R. tapes. One little girl had wrapped her arms around me and was shaking. At some point I decided to send a messenger to the principal and ask him to get on the P.A. with news every once in awhile, because not knowing what was happening was simply awful. It’s hard to believe that no one had a cell phone!!!!! We finally learned the horrible truth–also that authorities had closed the George Washington Bridge and Rt. 4 (Our school was right on the highway, only 10 minutes from the bridge). The police had surrounded our building and no one was allowed in or out–not even parents to pick up their children. Officials simply did not know the extent of the attack, so everything was under scrutiny. All I could think of was your father–“Not again,” I thought. “Wasn’t once enough???” And then later in the morning I hoped that Diane had called Ralph to let him know if Joseph was all right. Our school was secured until 4:00 P.M., and the only way I made it through the rest of the day was to be able to teach my classes. In the afternoon I had my dear seniors, young adults now, youngsters that I had taught as freshmen and knew so well. I was so grateful that they allowed me to get through the lesson–to keep going because there was no other option until we knew for sure what had happened. We did pray a lot, and we cried, holding on to one another. When at last we could leave for home, reality simply took over. I was in touch with my children, Bonnie in San Francisco, and Peter in Boston; then Diane (we would be talking through the rest of the night until the news came that your Dad was all right); and with cousin Michael in Albuquerque. Emotions were just totally spastic–the great relief that Joseph was home; the great sorrow that so many were lost forever. I knew that some of my students had lost their parents, uncles and aunts, neighbors and friends. For any of us living in the commuter towns around New York, every day for the months that lay ahead would bring gruesome reminders of the horror of that September morning. The trains would speed by, empty; that parking lots would still have cars, abandoned; candles would burn on front steps and flags would fly through all the months of fall and winter. And none of us would ever, ever be able to forget that tragic day, no matter how many years had passed.

    Thank you, Joanna, for your touching recollections. Memories are strange bedfellows. They remind us too often of all we have lost; and not often enough of all we still have. Be well. Take care, and hope to see you soon.

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