My classmate was the first one to tell me. She said, “Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.” My brain emptied. After what felt like hours, I conjured up the realization that I lived across the street from the Twin Towers, a 30 minute train ride from my Upper West Side school.
The girl was the grade’s know-it-all, the one who our religion teacher would later describe as “18 going on 50.” She always seemed to have information, both good and bad. In a hushed tone, our middle school’s principal said, “Two planes have hit the World Trade Center.”
The message echoed loudly in the chapel in which our teachers had mysteriously gathered us. Already numb from my classmate’s whisper, my mind remained blank.
The principal listed logistics for the rest of the day which, from what I only remember hazily, included plans to cancel classes for the afternoon, to have recreation time instead and to allow parents to pick their kids up early, the ones who could make it. As a lower Manhattan child whose mother, according to the timing of the plane crashes, would have just returned from her half-hour train trek to drop us off at school, and whose father would have been headed to work late because he was handing out fliers for the primary election that day, the question of whether my parents “could make it” loomed largely for me that afternoon.
The other issue was discussing all of this with my brother Gordon, who was only eight years old. When asked by his teacher why I had stopped by his classroom, I said, “I don’t know if my parents are alive or dead.” With a blank look on his face, he said that my brother was not in his classroom and was instead at a special elective class: computer skills. After making my way hurriedly down the three flights of steps to the basement where my brother was learning about patterns and paint tools, his teacher saw me enter the room and cut me off. “We haven’t told the lower school students yet,” he said. I was old enough to keep a secret. I walked over to my brother and said, calmly, “Gordon, if Mommy and Daddy come here, tell them to come get me, too.” He had no clue as to what had happened. The only thing left to do was wait for my parents.
Upon the instruction of one of my teachers, I headed to the gym: to hang around and feign interest in normal things like basketball or jump rope. I spent the majority of those few hours sitting on the bleachers.
After waiting for hours for any word from them, both my parents suddenly appeared in this recreational space, a space that seemed completely normal and safe until this day. With tears rolling down her cheeks (something that I have seen happen only three times in my life), my mother collected me in her arms and told me how the two of them had to walk up the West Side Highway from Battery Park City until they found a bus that shuttled them from Midtown to my 91st street school.
My mother had been in the bottom of the first tower to be hit. I can’t remember if I said goodbye in the morning, if I had been mad at her for God knows what. She can’t remember why, but she was in the now-defunct Tower Records buying a Bruce Springsteen cassette. She literally ran into my father, who said that he was frozen in time upon seeing the planes enter each of the buildings while standing the equivalent of three blocks away from what would become Ground Zero. He was stationed outside our apartment building, handing out political fliers. The fact that they bumped into each other in the chaos and violence of that morning is beyond serendipitous.
When all four of us finally collected ourselves to the best of our ability that afternoon, we went out into the streets of the Upper West Side, which I simultaneously viewed as familiar (since I had been attending school in the area for six years) and distinctly alien (since my home was half an hour away). There was nothing for my mind to settle on. After leaving the school, out in the streets, I asked, “Where will we live now?” and my father told me frankly, “I don’t know.” I had never noticed hotels until this afternoon but these places would soon become my home-away-from-home.
I would come to find out that the windows in our apartment building were completely blown in. My bed was covered in the dust of the World Trade Center: I felt homeless. After all, I had passed through the Twin Towers each day on my way to catching the subway. There was a shopping center my brother and I had visited each weekend as a routine. The idea of routine was thrown out of perspective. All I remember from that first afternoon itself, sitting on the hotel bed, was asking my mother, “Is this going to be on the news again tomorrow?” She looked at me blankly. She told me it would, and she was right.