What I Learned on 9/11

On September 11, 2001, I caught the last train into Manhattan (from Hoboken) and tried to go to work. This was a huge mistake, but I didn’t realize it until the police frantically cleared the PATH station when the train hit 33rd Street. I sat on the stoop of the comic store, waiting in vain for a manager to show up and raise the gate.

Obviously I have nothing to complain about, and no one wants to hear my “I was inconvenienced on 9/11” story. The point is that I completely misunderstood the seriousness of the situation; I thought the smoking World Trade Center, which I saw from across the Hudson, from the Jersey pier, was some sort of terrible accident. People by the river were talking about a plane hitting the towers, but no one knew any more about it. I don’t even remember anyone asserting there were two planes. Many of us paused a moment by the banks to look at the enormous fire, and then many of us hurried to the train, afraid that we’d be late.

Years later I read a bunch of memoirs about life under the Khmer Rouge; in Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father (I’m operating from memory here) as the Khmer Rouge troops approach Phnom Penh, the author’s doomed father explains to his children exactly what is happening, and why. Rationally I understand that this part of the memoir represents the dim memories of a five year old, but as I was reading it I became very annoyed; the scene struck me as implausible and false. And this, I have found, is a problem with many historical accounts: Future knowledge and certainty get projected backwards into the time of crisis. What I learned on 9/11, and what I believe to be true of many such moments of historical import, is that no one knows what’s going on at all.

When it became clear that the comic store wasn’t going to open, but there were no routes open back to Jersey, I decided to walk from Times Square down to the Village, to hang out in a friend’s apartment. A cop stopped me around 20th Street, telling me that a cloud of poison gas was rolling up the island, I should head north, or at least go no further south. I guess he was trying to help. I saw another cop being accosted by a tourist with a British accent; the tourist was begging for the cop to protect him; the cop patted his sidearm and said, “This won’t do much to protect you if the bombs start falling.”

It goes without saying that no bombs started falling that day, and no poison gas had reached Greenwich Village. But no one knew this at the time. Phone lines were jammed, so even people with cell phones (I didn’t have one at the time) had no one to call. All around Midtown crowds clustered around idling cars with open windows, car radios cranked up and broadcasting the only details from the outside world anyone marooned on the street was likely to get. Were we at war? Were we in danger? I had no better idea than anyone else what was going on or what to do, so I sat in Bryant Park and read R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days.

Presumably the Khmer Rouge’s advance was less of a surprise than a sneak attack from a terrorist organization most Americans hadn’t heard of on September 10; perhaps it’s plausible that accurate and succinct news was being passed around Phonm Penh by the time the troops hit. Certainly there was a time in history—most of history—when getting information word of mouth from strangers seemed less novel, less of a last-ditch effort.

But I have still, ever since that day, tended to believe stories of confusion over stories of certitude. After Pearl Harbor people thought the Japanese had invaded California. We now have infrastructures in place that let information flow more smoothly than it did in 1941, but on 9/11 our cell phones failed us, and even now—the initial reports of any breaking news are inevitably wrong.

As I walked around Manhattan that day, on some side street I was passed by a man driving a truck with his knees, not very steadily, while he tried to read one of those oversized adult education course bulletins NYU used to put out. It was a very New York thing to see, I thought, although I’d never seen anything exactly like it before (or since); I took some comfort in the observation that although neither I nor anyone else knew exactly what was going on, some part of the City was still pretty much the same.

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